Free or Low-Cost Gifts
By Rayni Joan

On my birthday this year, I received one of my all-time favorite gifts from a friend on the other side of the country who I knew was struggling to make ends meet on a meager Social Security income. Sylvia e-mailed me her gift of a poem she had written just for me, recounting the story of our friendship. As poetry, it wouldn't win any prizes. She's not a poet. But it was way more than "Roses are red," and both the sentiment and the effort moved me. That gift means more than any sweater or pair of gloves would.

My very best friend from the East Coast, Laura, and I have a tradition of sending each other a box of beautifully wrapped birthday gifts we collect all year long from thrift shops, yard sales, auctions, and sundry other sources - like our own jewelry boxes or "junk" drawers. Our hobby of treasure hunting has yielded all kinds of fun books, tapes, and unusual tchochkes. This year I'm sending her a heart-shaped tea strainer (new, $2.95), a divining 8-Ball that answers yes/no questions, in great shape (Goodwill $2.69), a bobblehead doll (extra from my son's wedding she was invited to but couldn't make), a new pair of pink silk long johns, tags on, I got on sale out of season (, reduced from $44 to $10), a beautiful hand-painted Navaho ceramic box (Salvation Army boutique, $5), an oversized ring with Tibetan writing (my jewelry box) and a colorful, hand-painted Mexican vase ($13 at It's A Wrap, used once in a TV show set.) Seven gifts for about thirty bucks. Figure another few for postage. You'd be surprised at how many brand new gift items you can find in thrift shops - probably donated to charity in lieu of regifting.

Last year's gift box included a set of handmade cat family rag dolls ( e-bay $4) an embroidered vest (Goodwill $3) and a like-new coffee table book about cats (Salvation Army boutique $5).

If I were a craftier person, I'd pick up some raw materials at one of the craft shops like Michael's and make gifts. Jewelry. Needlework. Decoupage. Tie dye. Each aisle brims with interesting gift possibilities.

But I prefer to hit the thrift shops for gifts. Maybe it's my leftover hunter-gatherer instincts. The way I see it, not only are Laura and I delighting in bargains, we're also helping charities and recycling.