10 thoughtful last-minute Christmas gift ideas (that are simple, cheap or free)

Bonnie Evie Gifford
By Bonnie Evie Gifford,
updated on Dec 20, 2022

10 thoughtful last-minute Christmas gift ideas (that are simple, cheap or free)

Worried about your gifts not turning up in the post or left your shopping a little late this year? We share 10 thoughtful last-minute gifts you can make, arrange, or easily buy locally, without spending too much time or money

While some of us worry about the Christmas creep, for others, it’s like the holidays suddenly arrive with a shock of panic and a sense of overwhelm. Despite being the same time and date every year, figures show that around one in five of us still try to cram in some last-minute shopping come Christmas Eve. And thanks to our late spending habits, two in five spend more than we mean to.

According to the latest research from the Gift Card & Voucher Association (GCVA), nearly 7 million Brits leave their Christmas shopping until the last minute, increasing their risk of overspending and adding to their seasonal stress.

We all know the best advice: save early, plan ahead, and spread the cost - it’s the thought (not the price tag) that counts. But that doesn’t feel very helpful when you’ve missed the cut-off for gifts to arrive in time in the post, and you’ve still not got everything.

We share 10 simple, affordable (or free) gift ideas you can make or easily buy without waiting for shipping, to help take the last-minute stress out of the holiday season.

Why is Christmas shopping so stressful?

The reasons why many of us find shopping at Christmas to be stressful can vary greatly from person to person. Common causes for our procrastination and feelings of overwhelm can include unrealistic or high expectations (set by ourselves or others), a need to make everything ‘perfect’ or fear of ‘ruining’ Christmas for others if things don’t go exactly as planned.

The overall cost of the holidays (food, travel expenses, gifts, decorations) can also be a significant contributor. Others can feel a growing sense of anxiety, worry or fear that they won’t choose the ‘right’ gift. This emotional insecurity can lead to further procrastination, making us feel worse and worse as time draws on.

While tackling things before they can get out of hand and make us feel worse is often the best course of action, it’s important to remember, it’s never too late to show someone you care.

Psychotherapist and Counselling Directory member, Lisa Ume PGDip (Accredited), B.Sc(hons), explains how you can prepare for the reality of Christmas.

10 last-minute Christmas gifts to show you care (without breaking the bank)

1. Share something you love
Think back over the past year. Has there been a book (physical or audiobook) that has really stuck with you? Easy (and often affordable) to pick up, gifting a book can also give you the time and space to add a personal message explaining why you wanted to share this gift with them, how it made you think about the person you’re gifting it to, or how it made you feel (and hope it will make them feel, too).

Books aren’t your only option. If you’re a podcast fan, why not gift a notebook or a curated digital list of your top podcasts, filled with particular episodes you think your loved one will enjoy? Listening to podcasts can be a great way of cutting back on screen time, learning about new topics directly from the experts, enriching our understanding of the wider world, and hearing the other side of the story.

Here are a few inspirational and motivational podcasts that could help you get started – or check out Happiful’s own I am. I have to find out more about making positive changes in your life.

You are enough with Marisa Peer | Happiful's Podcast - I am. I have. 

2. Make a holiday activity jar
What better way to show someone you care than to do something with them? A holiday activity jar can be as personalised or as simple as you want. All you need is a jar or container of some kind, some paper, and a pen. Write down holiday activities you want to do together on separate strips of paper, fold, and place them in the jar.

These activities could be just about anything: watch a Christmas movie together, go on a winter walk, bake or make hot chocolate, play a board game, sing carols together – get as creative as you like. Decorate your jar if you’re feeling adventurous, or if you’re not too confident in your artistic abilities, stick to wrapping paper and ribbons.

3. Gift a digital class
First rising to popularity during the pandemic, online classes are still a popular alternative to the traditional experience day gift – but with some big differences. Digital classes are often cheaper run as participants take part remotely, making them cheaper for you to buy. This can also cut out hidden costs for the giftee (such as travel expenses or having to take time off to fit around specific dates) which can inadvertently make experience gifts more stressful than they are successful.

4. Give a donation in their name
We all have that relative who already ‘has everything’ or feels difficult to buy for. Why not share that wealth and feeling of security by making a donation on behalf of a loved one? This could be a monetary or physical donation. Foodbanks need donations year-round to help support those struggling. Charities of all types welcome one-off or year-round donations or sponsorships of children, animals, or money towards research.

Find out more about how you can give back over the holidays and beyond, or visit your selected charity’s website directly to find out more about how you can donate in someone else’s name.

5. Commit to volunteering (together or individually)
Giving back means so much more than donating money. Your time can be just as (if not more) valuable to many local and national good causes that may receive generous seasonal donations, but struggle to have enough volunteers to help physically run at times. Local good causes like food banks and soup kitchens often look for volunteers who can help on a set day or time each week or month.

6. Buy something they need
Gifts don’t have to be exciting, wacky or unique to be just as thoughtful and appreciated. Consider (or ask) what your friend or family member really needs that they might not be splurging on themselves. That could mean picking up some particularly nice socks instead of a regular multipack, making a homemade hamper of their favourite everyday toiletries or pantry staples, or even picking up a replacement for a much-used necessity like a lunchbox or travel mug. It's the little things that mean more than we might realise.

7. Bake up a storm
Waiting until the last minute can actually be a huge benefit if you’re looking to make some edible treats to share. While it’s probably too late to consider making a Christmas pudding, there are still tasty (and healthy) treats you can make to give to loved ones.

Why not try and make homemade pick-n-mix, batch-bake some healthy flapjacks, or make your own tasty trail mix? Or for something a little more indulgent (yet simple and elegant), make some nutty dark chocolate buttons with these free recipes from Nutritionist Resource.

8. Give a mindful, mood-boosting subscription
Subscription gifts can cost less than you might think - and there’s something for everyone. From mystery monthly dates with a book to unique aromatherapy blends and cookie deliveries, the sky is the limit. Happiful’s own magazine subscription delivers regular bursts of mood-boosting stories, expert advice, and life-changing tips to support better mental health and wellbeing.

Find out more about our six and 12-month Happiful gift subscriptions, starting from £29.95.

9. Preserve memories
Making a scrapbook can be both a mindful activity for you, and creates a beautiful, unique gift that shows just how much you care. Share memories, photos, and little mementoes you have collected together over the years. There are plenty of great, free online resources to help you get started – plus picking up the materials can be cheap and easy from many local supermarkets and craft stores.

10. Consider cash
Giving money can feel like a cop-out, but it really isn’t! Research has shown that many people actually appreciate cash gifts more than physical gifts. Gifting money (or gift cards, if you’re really uncomfortable with cash - something 80% of us are happy to receive as a gift over Christmas, according to the GCVA) can avoid accidental duplication of gifts and awkward conversations around returns if something isn’t the right size or is damaged. It can also give your loved one the chance to pick up something they really want – or put that money towards what they really need, but didn’t feel comfortable asking for help with.

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