People meet their spiritual needs in all sorts of ways. Some go to church. Others like to meditate. I go to the dollar store.

The dollar store is my sanctuary. A trip down the off-brand body wash aisle is a pilgrimage. I take my communion in the food section with a near-expired Nilla wafer. Aisles of cheap junk sustain me. When I enter a dollar store, my heart swells with the hope of finding something awesome for the low price of four quarters plus tax.

When I leave the dollar store, though, I usually feel deflated, guilty, used. When I look at my haul, I think things like, Why did I buy this 10 pack of pastel colored loofahs? or What am I even going to do with this unlicensed Precious Moments angel figurine? Buying tons of crappy plastic things from the dollar store without reasons makes me feel wasteful. Buying gifts for my friends, however, makes me feel awesome! I’m not hoarding—I’m generous. Some of the coolest gifts I’ve ever made/thought of have started with a single dollar. Here some things to keep in mind when you go spelunking in the crap cave for gifts:

1. Not all dollar stores are created equal. Where you should go depends on what you are looking for. Small, independently owned dollar stores are my favorite type. Not only does sourcing my mass-produced crap from a local business makes me feel less gross about buying mass-produced crap, but these shops often have the best stuff. Crowded, messy shelves increase your odds of finding something weird or old. The weirdness factor is also heightened by the fact that a regular person orders inventory, not some branding-minded corporate type. An independent shop is much more likely to stock a goofy tchotchke simply because the owner found it neat. These weird finds can be the basis for a great gift.

That said, larger chain dollar stores, like Dollar General or Dollar Tree, are good for some kinds of things, like craft supplies and food. On my shopping trip for this post, I hit up three shops—two independents and one big guy.

Me in church, aka the dollar store.

2. It’d be nice to be able to make a list of items that you need before hitting the stores, but one of the best parts of dollar-store livin’ is never knowing what kinds of things are going to be in stock. A shopping list is futile when inventory is mysterious and ever changing, but this doesn’t mean that you can’t focus your mission. Print out some pictures of things you find visually exciting and bring them with you to the store. Fashion collections, works of art, and photos of cool places all make excellent sources of inspiration. As you comb the aisles, look for items that capture the spirit, mood, and aesthetic of your photographs. This dog tether

Pulitzer Prize–winning photojournalism

reminded me of the sporty rope used in Proenza Schouler’s Spring/Summer 2011 collection, so I used it to make a bracelet.

Proenza Schoulder bracelet. Source: Lacing Up.

My creation.

The bracelet needed a home, so I made this jewelry tray/catch-all out of a plastic basket, some fake flowers, and a lot of hot glue.

The colors reminded me of the Mexican food carts I always see parked around Little Village in Chicago.

Source: Carinderia

3. A semi-sad truth of dollar-store gift buying is that you are almost never going to walk into a store and find tasteful, well-made items presented in an attractive display. If you want craftsmanship on the cheap, a thrift store is where you should be looking. Where dollar stores reign is in the kingdom of tacky. Flimsy plastic, garish colors, and kooky novelties are always in abundance. Don’t fight it—embrace it. A gift can be thoughtful and interesting without being substantial in size. Look for little trinkets that remind you of the people you are shopping for. I picked up this Earth nightlight for my geography major roommate. It’s offbeat enough that it’s interesting, but not so out there that he won’t use it.

4. Finding an awesome piece of kitsch is a dream come true, but if you aren’t so fortunate, don’t fret. Almost all dollar stores are champs when it comes to stocking basics. Solid-colored headbands, empty boxes, tote bags, and mugs all make awesome canvases. One dollar, a printer, and a jar of Mod Podge can be the ingredients for the most awesome gifts—it’s just a matter of coming up with a cool idea. Decorate a tin with photos of you and your friends and fill it with baked goods. Glue some pretty things to a headband and put it in a nice gift bag. I turned these boring candles from the floral section of my dollar store into a unique gift for about $4. With a little creativity, and probably even less money, you can do the same. (Um, obviously this particular version isn’t for, like, your old-school grandparents or your Sunday School teacher.)

Aaaand a closeup.

Gift giving, at least with my friends, isn’t really about getting things—it’s about hanging out and laughing and feeling great because everyone took the time to think of you. At the low price of one dollar plus time, your new dollar-store prowess will let you think of lots of people this holiday. ♦