Sunday, January 27, 2013

Holiday Giving on a Budget

Is it too late to still talk about Christmas?  Where did January go???

Despite my misgivings about holiday shopping, Mike and I still keep gift giving at the heart of our Christmas activities.  I may not love the thrill of bargain hunting or the crowds on Black Friday, but I do love the look on someone's face when they receive something truly meaningful.

Due to misplaced receipts on my part, I'm not sure exactly how much we spent on gifts this year.  I'd put it at under $200, which accounts for things we bought, supplies purchased for homemade items, and several mailed packages. 

This year, we implemented a few new rules to keep spending in check:
  • No gifts for people who don't give back.  This allowed us to cross off most of our siblings and several friends from our list.  It's not a punishment thing, like we're offended others haven't given to us.  It's just recognizing that there's no pressure to give to those who don't feel obligated to return the same favor, you know? 
  • Local gifts for everyone else.  We have three sets of parents, so we decided to find them each a local, handmade gift for around $15.  Something that came from an artist, a local business, or from within the state. 
  • Put our skills to good use.  Between my love of cooking and Mike's superb photography, we wanted to continue our tradition of making something as part of our gifts.  Mike was able to order prints online at really good discounts and we skipped finding frames so each recipient could decide how they wanted to display their photos.
In the past, I've turned our kitchen into a complete disaster zone to create edible presents.  In 2010, we turned cheap flour and sugar into batches of cookies, chocolate-covered cherries, and breads.  Last year, several varieties of biscotti were the featured gift.  This year, I only had time for two simple recipes.

It all started because my dad, like most guys, is really hard to buy for.  His birthday is right after Christmas so we always need to double up his gifts. Luckily, he requested bird feeder accessories this year.  Not being the kind of person satisfied with buying a bag of bird feed and calling it good, I got creative.

I had seen these bird seed eggs in a Food Network magazine issue and thought surely one could make these at home (and for a hellavu lot cheaper!).  So I found this recipe and tried it out.  It's so simple!  Plain gelatin, water, bird seeds, some stirring, and voila!  A very cute gift for any bird lover.

It's way too early in the stores to find plastic Easter eggs, so I used muffin tins instead (with a bit of cooking spray so they would pop out easily).  I tied twine into little loops so these "cakes" could be hung.  They chilled in the fridge for two hours and then I dried them out in the oven overnight (no heat, just stashed away from our curious cats). 

I had only two minor surprises with this recipe.  First of all, plain gelatin stinks!  It's like sour stomach acid and glue paste.  Sensitive noses beware, but if you were boiling down real suet (rendered animal fat), it would be far worse.

Secondly, this made a HUGE batch.  I had three dozen cakes, which turned out to be a boom because then we had extra for the other parents (luckily they all love feathered friends!).

I packaged these up in plastic pans with lids that I had sitting around.  By all accounts, the cakes are going, well, like hot cakes!  And because there isn't any fat in these, they should have a long shelf life.

I definitely recommend this project.  It's easy, would be great for young kids, and you can customize the shapes beyond eggs or muffins.  Do note that the gelatin starts to set up quickly.  It really does become like a glue when it's that concentrated, so have your molds and any string ready to go beforehand.  

I bought a small bag of bird seeds for $3.50, the gelatin was around $3 (note - 1/3 cup = 8 individual packages, cheaper if you buy in bulk, which I did not).  Water is virtually free and prep time is maybe 20 minutes tops.  So much for so little - WINNING! 

The other recipe was for an Orange Creamsicle Drink Mix, a recipe that I got out of a Better Homes & Garden Food Gifts magazine and I can't find online anywhere for the life of me.  It involves vanilla instant pudding, orange drink mix, and lemonade mix.  Combine all into a form of instant crack and avoid gifting to any diabetic friends.  I found one of those glass Christmas tree jars on sale at Walmart for 40 cents and presented the mix with a little flair.

For our local purchases, we successfully found a bottle of wine, a flask of olive oil, a jar of honey, and a piece of pottery to satisfy our requirements.  It felt super awesome to hit our budget, find items that people would love, and contribute to the local economy.  To be fair, we found some gifts in Galena, IL, but they were all made there, so that's still pretty close.  

We were thrilled to receive more than a few homemade gifts ourselves.  Two of our moms are avid canners and we are armed with a beautiful array of relishes, preserves, chutneys, sauces, and pickled goodies that should last us a good while.        

 We weren't perfect this year.  Because I hosted a jewelry party earlier this summer, I scored some baubles for my mom and sister at some very enticing prices.  I participated in a work gift exchange that was $15.  We also bought books for our nieces and nephew, but I have no qualms with spending money on kids, especially when they ask for books!

Mike and I skipped gift giving this year, though I suppose Jamaica should count (details forthcoming, I promise!).  But I won't, because that blasts away any semblance of budget, lol.

Did you make or receive any DYI gifts this year?

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