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1 big thing: Gifts that cost nothing

Illustration of an opened gift box with a glowing light bulb inside.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Inflation is driving up the cost of holiday gifts and stressing out shoppers, but gift-giving isn't about price tags.

  • Why it matters: Most of us care more about thought than monetary value. And there are a slew of gifts that cost little or nothing.

🧮 By the numbers: The average U.S. consumer plans to spend a whopping $998 on gifts this season, per the National Retail Federation.

  • The price of gifts has been rising sharply, up 6.9% between 2020 and 2021, and projected to rise another 3.4% this year, according to the St. Louis Fed.
  • The cost of gift wrap is up 12% from 2021.

The thought of holiday shopping is worrying people from coast to coast.

  • Here's how one Washington Post reader put it in a note to the paper's advice column: "I am 62 and still working, but this year I have no real disposable income. I mentioned to my mother that I kind of wanted to opt out of the gift-giving this year due to finances.... The thing is, I am embarrassed to do that."

💡 Reality check: What most gift-givers don't realize is that it really is the thought that counts.

  • In a recent paper, researchers looked at a range of studies on gift-giving and found that gift-givers tend to overestimate how much recipients care about the relative value of a gift and underestimate how much they consider thoughtfulness.

In that spirit, here's our list of great gifts you can give that rank high in thoughtfulness and low in price.

  • Write a handwritten letter. Fill it with cherished memories and qualities you admire about the person, and decorate the note. As we've reported, a short note goes a long way.
  • Gift a favor. Acts of service can be free and impactful. You could offer to be a sitter for the recipient's kids or pets so they can take a break, or step up to shovel show or mow the lawn.
  • Cook something delicious. If you're talented in the kitchen, use that! You might bake an irresistible holiday dessert or wrap up a homemade jam or pickles.
  • Give the gift of music. Maybe there is a musician, genre or album that reminds you of the recipient. Lean into that and build them a custom playlist either on a streaming platform or burned onto a CD.
  • Make it yourself. Many of us picked up artistic hobbies during the pandemic. Maybe you paint or knit or garden and could gift your art or a warm scarf or handpicked flowers.

Got suggestions for holiday gifts that are cheap or free? Send them to [email protected], and we'll feature ideas throughout the season.

🐈 Kitty du jour

Photo courtesy of Gail C.

Meet Pax. He was rescued by Finish Liner Gail C. from southeast Wisconsin.

  • "He lives to love and is still fighting for his life due to the conditions he came from. Please send prayers his way," she writes.