For Corps Members: Free or Low-Cost Gift Ideas for People You Love

homemade soap, wrapped in cloth

Giving gifts when you are a corps member.

Last year I wrote about how people can show love to the corps member in their life through their holiday gift-giving. This year I wanted to offer some ideas about how corps members themselves can give gifts when their incomes are often incredibly limited.

I asked The New Service contributors and currently serving corps participants Marissa Pherson of AmeriCorps VISTA and Leslie Dolland of Health Corps to share their thoughts, too. Here are the ideas we’ve collectively come up with.

Setting the Stage for Frugal Gift Exchange

If you are gathering many other corps members, extended family, or among a group of old friends, consider throwing a White Elephant party swapping gifts doesn’t have to be expensive when you’re swapping things you already own.

If you are exchanging gifts individually with others — your partner, close friends, family members, and/or fellow corps members — consider setting some ground rules such as:

  • Set a price limit, say $10
  • Stick to a specific low-cost gift category, like used books.
  • Instead of spending money, agree to do something together—invest in time together rather than in material things.
  • Come up with other specific ground rules that work for you. My husband and I — both former corps members — exchange one gift during the holidays each year, and the gift’s got to be either homemade, from a thrift store, or something we already own that we’ve forgotten about. Last year he found a gorgeous frame at Goodwill, and used it to frame a portrait I took of a little boy in China years ago, that had been hidden inside a coffee table book collecting dust on a shelf.

Gift Ideas that are Free:

Send a letter to the people you love, in lieu of a gift — Leslie’s written letters she’s called “Why You’re a Gift to Me.” Talk about specific actions they’ve taken, or comments they’ve made, that have had an impact on your life.

If you are gifted with music, consider writing a song for your favorite people, and either recording it, or sharing the sheet music and lyrics — or offer a live performance in person, on the phone, or on Skype.

Using scrap paper and supplies, put together personalized coupon books. Marissa offers these ideas for coupons:

  • Good for one Back / Foot massage
  • Good for one Girls / Guys Night Out
  • Good for one Movie Night / Board Game Night
  • Good for one night of babysitting / one weekend of pet-sitting / one week of house-sitting

Create a Flickr or Picasa photo album for the person you love, chock full of photos you’ve taken that document your times together.

Create an email account and online calendar for someone without their own email account. (If they are a kid, get permission from their parents first.) If you create a Google account, consider also adding to the associated Google calendar: family or friends’s birthdays, anniversaries, and significant dates in your friendship.

Pass along a book, CD, poster, article of clothing, blanket or photo you love. If it’s a book, remember to inscribe it.

If you happen to already have a blank CD, burn a copy of a free podcast episode you’ve really liked listening to. This is especially good for friends and family members who have a daily commute or otherwise have time to listen to longer shows. Re-use an old jewel case and create your own CD cover.

Borrow a DVD from the library and spend time with your loved ones making dinner and watching the movie.

Research the free events going on in your community to celebrate the holidays and make a gift out of your time together — or better yet sign up to volunteer together.

Make a bird house, dollhouse, painting, sketch, or blanket out of materials you have on hand or have found.

Make and illustrate a cookbook with traditional family recipes, or recipes from past travels. When I came home from Peace Corps a Chinese friend and I worked together on a simple step-by-step illustrated Chinese cookbook featuring my favorite vegetarian dishes from Sichuan. My aunt photocopied the book and distributed it to the whole family.

Low-cost Gift Ideas:

Cookie ingredients in a jar makes a colorful gift and, if you are offering one to another corps member, makes it possible for them to make cookies from scratch without investing in a whole bag of flour, a whole box of baking soda, etc. Check out directions for making the jar and the label here.

Similarly, you can hardly go wrong with baked goods like a pie or loaf of bread; a pot of soup or chili; or a quiche or casserole they can freeze and bring out as necessary.

Personalized picture frames — buy blank (unfinished) frames from Ikea or a craft store, paint them, and personalize with various details (you can use super glue to glue any number of things to the frame – be creative!). Marissa says you can choose to include a photo — digital prints are inexpensive — or leave it for the recipient to add a photo. You can make the frame based on a photo or create a frame without a picture in mind.

Personalized photo album or book — making the pages yourself out of presentation sleeves you have lying around, or photo albums from the local dollar store or thrift store. When creating personalized items picture frames or cards, Marissa recommends checking out this quotations website for great quotations (if you can’t think of a tag line or something to say). Chances are you’ll find something that fits!

Discounted restaurant gift certificates. Check out the website where you can pay $10 for each $25 restaurant gift certificate, or even $4 for a gift certificate worth $10.

Gift basket — pick a theme, buy items in bulk, find some baskets (thrift stores are great for this), and fill. Marissa offers these ideas for themes:

  • Hot Cocoa Lover: marshmallows, gourmet packets of hot cocoa, a mug)
  • Movie Lover: bags of popcorn, boxes of movie theatre candy, a DVD from the used section of your local music store/pawn shop, passes to a movie or for movie rentals — unless you know they have Netflix
  • Pamper Me: face mask packet(s), pumice stone, bags of tea, bath bombs, a loofah, sample-size lotion, ideas for homemade items. (Also see Leslie’s bath salts recipe below).

Gift card to Charity Navigator — you choose the amount, your recipient chooses the nonprofit that gets the donation.

Make a socially conscious loan or gift in your loved one’s name: a microloan through (you’re not even donating the money — you are lending it!); a share of an animal through Heifer International ($10 will buy a share of a sheep, a goat, a pig, a stand of trees, OR a trio of rabbits); and ways to help women in developing countries through — $7 will buy textbooks for a girl, $10 psych counseling for a girl whose been rescued from the sex slave trade, and $10 will also buy HIV testing for five rape survivors.

Gift card for a local coffee shop favorite ($5) with a personalized coupon (see above) for a trip to that coffee shop.

Homemade bath salts — a project you can undertake with other corps members in your program, or kids you work with as part of your service project. Here is a recipe for bath salts that Leslie shares:

Relax Your Mind Bath Salts

For bath, foot, or muscle soak.


  • ½ cup Epsom Salt
  • ¼ cup Sea Salt
  • 2 tablespoons Baking Soda
  • 1 drops of peppermint essential oil
  • 1 drops of rosemary essential oil
  • 2 drops of lavender essential oil


  1. Measure out salts and mix into a large mixing bowl.
  2. Add baking soda to bowl.  Make sure to break up any lumps.
  3. Add each oil and mix VERY WELL.
  4. Spoon mixture into plastic bag or glass jar and seal well.

To Use

Add (1/2 to 1 cup) salts to running bath water.  To keep oils from evaporating quickly, you can add the bath salts just before entering the tub.  But make sure they’re well dissolved before entering as chunky salts can be uncomfortable. Makes 2.

Wrapping Your Gift (if it’s a Material Thing)

If you (or your loved one) prefers the traditional paper-wrapping, you are sure to find inexpensive options at thrift and dollar stores, including tissue paper, gift bags, and ribbons that can be re-used. Savvy holiday shoppers often stock up on dirt-cheap paper in the days after Christmas when box stores put the stuff on sale. Inexpensive version of gift wrapping paper include the Sunday newspaper comics, or inside-out paper bags (consider decorating the brown paper).

If you (or your loved ones) are open to alternatives, consider wrapping gifts in cloth: Large cloth napkins work well. I collect cloth scraps year-round for all sorts of projects, and always have some on hand to wrap gifts — I tie up each bundle with twine, reusable ribbon, or narrow scarves, and if possible tuck in a real or paper flower or some other little decoration. I make gift tags out of index cards or cards cut up from last year and a hole punch. You also may own — or be able to find — decorative boxes that don’t need any wrapping at all!

Need more ideas? Check out Idealist’s blog post about free gift ideas from 2008, and also this post, and this post about being a wise giver from the Points of Light blog.

Got ideas? We want to hear them! Please leave a comment below!

2 thoughts on “For Corps Members: Free or Low-Cost Gift Ideas for People You Love

  1. Hi from Wexford, very good post, deserves a Digg.

  2. Nice, informative post… very well explained, keep it up, subscribing to this site 🙂

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