BACK TO THE PRESENT
You know the feeling: There's another birthday party coming up -- tomorrow -- and little time or energy to hit the stores. Or perhaps you don't want to spend a lot on the holiday grab bag, need something quick for the mail carrier, or are daunted by how many gifts you "owe" teachers, scout leaders, office assistants, and others you don't know very well. Instead of overspending on something you obviously ran out to grab at the last minute, stock up on some of these generic but nonetheless welcome gifts when you spot them at a discount and stash them away until needed. (Just remember to check expiration dates on anything edible or perishable, to ensure there's not only time for giving but ample time for the recipient to enjoy.)
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MUGS AND MORE
Upgrade a themed mug from thoughtless gift to thoughtful gesture by presenting it with something inside. Some people might like to indulge in a cup of flavored coffee in the middle of a harried day. A fanciful, floral teacup from a discount store can hold a handful of elegant tea bags. For students in dorms or workers often outdoors in chilly weather, fill a sturdy mug with instant soup or a couple of hot cocoa packets. Stock up on these affordable luxuries when they're on sale.
Scented candles can create or change a mood in an instant. For a safe choice, select a floral scent such as rose, jasmine, or gardenia. For something a little more fun, try food-scented candles, which these days include everything from fruit to French toast. For a more contemporary or masculine gift, look for a woodsy, spicy, or even leathery scent in a hefty jar.
Scarves are "one size fits all," and many recipients will be happy to have one in a pinch, even if it's not precisely to their taste. It can be used as a spare to keep in a desk, glove compartment, or tote bag, ready for when the wind whips up. Lightweight designs for spring or summer can range from decorative to protective.
Everyone loses gloves -- including, no doubt, many people on your gift list. It's easy to stock up on nondescript selections in solid colors, but bold designs are more likely to be found in the clearance bin. A recipient may just end up loving how those dazzling purple gloves liven up a morning walk, or how that silvery pair puts the finishing touch on an evening look.
People who live in climates where it snows often will never underestimate the usefulness of a quality ice scraper. Keep an eye out for discounts on sturdy models. Anyone who has been toiling with a flimsy scraper will be grateful on the next stormy day, when they can chip away at iced-over windows and get back on the road (and out of the cold) in less time.
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Car keys. House keys. Office keys ... so many to keep track of. With a themed keychain, a recipient can hook locker keys inside a gym bag or easily detach a valet key on an evening out. This is one of those things no one wants to buy for themselves but is useful and appreciated as a gift.
This is a classic way to bring a little indulgence into someone's life. Pick up a sampling of luxurious body lotions at the local bath shop. It might introduce friends to a new favorite product, or simply lift their spirits on an otherwise rough day.
Everyone needs a pick-me-up now and again. Spend some time in the clearance section at the bookstore in search of inspirational books. Buy a couple with "words of wisdom" that resonate and share them with friends when the time is right.
From the gym to the office, book club to night class, we seem to have a lot to carry wherever we go. Inexpensive totes come in plain versions and fancy, quilted and vinyl, mesh and standard-issue cotton. They can all come in handy.
Vases can be collected at so many places, from expanded floral departments in grocery stores to garage sales, flea markets, and craft stores. Keep a selection on hand and, when someone needs a special pick-me-up, buy a couple of stems to create a custom floral display. Add a ribbon or tie on a little bonus for a memorable gift from the heart.
SPORTS TEAM GEAR
If there are sports fans on your gift list, you probably know which teams they root for, whether you've seen the logos on T-shirts or heard mention of someone going to a specific game. Look for the favorites at big-box stores, which often localize sporting goods by region. When a sale hits, stock up.
Many restaurants offer incentives for buying multiple gift cards, especially at the holidays, so consider buying in bulk. Warehouse clubs such as Costco and Sam's Club sell gift cards at a discount off their face value, as do online marketplaces such as Gift Card Granny. Coffee shops, supermarkets, and even gourmet grocery stores sell gift cards for nominal amounts.
Anyone who enjoys hosting parties, cooking for crowds, or just trying out recipes at home will appreciate a serving platter as a gift, and they often go on sale in kitchen and department stores. Keep an eye out when souvenir shopping on vacation, too.
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Although many people put most every purchase on plastic, there are times when coins come in handy -- for parking meters, tolls, or exact change at a mom-and-pop bakery that only accepts cash. A coin purse can be quaintly retro or whimsical and still serve a practical purpose.
DIPS AND CRACKERS
For a quick little snack or a small party, buy a box of gourmet crackers and an exotic dip or spread. Gourmet grocery stores offer many options that can make a delicious pairing for less than $10.
Many gardeners seem to have a plenty of tools and accessories, but you'll never hear a complaint about a few extra. Think hand tools, gloves, watering cans, kneeling pads, and more, perhaps along with a seed packet or two.
Even in the age of digital cameras and electronic displays, there's something lovely about a grouping of frames displaying memorable moments on a mantel, desk, or bedside table. Look to craft stores for quality frames in most every style, from shabby chic to colorful themes (such as birthday, vacation, holiday, or graduation). Stick with popular sizes such as 4 x 6 or 5 x 7 inches.
CLASSIC COSTUME JEWELRY
Many jewelry styles have enduring appeal and are always available, including during department store sales. Look for sterling silver or gold-plated hoops and studs, chains, simple pendants, and bracelets, and parcel them out to friends based on your sense of their style.
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Sweets go on sale both before and after holidays. Just keep an eye on expiration dates and make sure the packaging has no obvious holiday tie-in.
CLASSIC BOARD GAMES
Some families or couples host board game nights. Others pull out old favorites around the holidays. Introduce a new generation to the joys (and bickering!) of a good board game battle by perusing garage sales and secondhand stores for unopened games and seeking out reissues or remainders at game, toy, book, or big-box stores.
Look for on-sale sporting equipment such as footballs or soccer balls, cans of tennis balls, or even badminton kits. All can be scooped up at a discount and stowed indefinitely until the right gift-giving opportunity comes along.
So many children like to play dress-up or preen in front of a mirror. Watch the eyes of a niece, godchild, or child's friend light up when getting an array of hair accessories. (Not every parent or guardian allows makeup, but few would find fault in barrettes or headbands.) Accumulate a themed selection (such as pink, animal print, or fairy) in an inexpensive zippered travel bag or tiny tote. Pick up a comb-and-brush set and a small mirror to complete the gift.
For those who don't have the time or the funds to visit a nail salon regularly, at-home manicures are the norm -- but salon-brand prices are inching upward. Staying on the lookout for gift sets of themed nail polishes (blushing pinks or daring shades) and throwing in a tool or indulgence (decorative nail files or luxe cuticle oil) could easily make someone's day.
A throw makes a welcome gift for cozying up on a couch and binge-watching TV. In the summer, it's that little bit of warmth when someone else in the house prefers super-powered air conditioning. In the winter, it can allow the thermostat to stay a bit lower to save a few pennies. Blankets are also handy for older folks prone to chills and kids on long road trips. A few picked up on sale can make thoughtful and thrifty gifts.
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