Where to Find the Cheapest Holiday Gifts

Lori Bowen of North Augusta does some holiday shopping at the Salvation Army Thrift Store in Augusta, Ga. on Friday, December 10
By Geoff Williams

'Tis the season for shopping and great deals -- unless, of course, you don't have a lot of money. In that case, the holiday displays, brightly colored wrapping paper and catalogs arriving in the mail can be unpleasant reminders of how broke you are.

But even if you're experiencing a cash crunch, you can still complete your gift list. Here are some places to find affordable gifts off the beaten shopping path -- and some way off the path.

Flea markets. Flea markets are known for housing a cornucopia of treasures, from antiques to new products, and from expensive to cheap. There's probably one near you: According to the National Flea Market Association, there are more than 1,100 flea markets throughout the country. And, of course, don't discount the flea market's close cousin: the garage sale.

Libraries. Nobody's suggesting you check out a book and give it to a family member or friend with the warning that it must be returned in two weeks. Some libraries, however, have seasonal book sales to drum up income, and others have stores that sell books year-round.

"My local library has a store that sells books for a dollar apiece to raise money for the library. Most of them are in very good shape, and there are books of all kinds," says Tracy Bagatelle-Black, a public relations executive in Los Angeles.

Barter. If you have something to barter -- a skill, for instance -- you might be able to find gifts that way. There are numerous bartering organizations (including u-exchange.com, tradeaway.com and barterquest.com) that you can generally join for free, although there are usually bartering fees and shipping costs involved. So your mileage may vary as to whether you find this route practical or not.

Dollar stores. If you don't have much money, these stores are famous for offering inexpensive household items and gifts. Five Below (FIVE) is a chain of stores in which everything is $5 or less. The company's spokesperson suggests checking its collection of "Hottest teen gifts for $5 or less" on the website Pinterest.

Consignment shops and thrift stores. Each features inexpensive merchandise, but there is a difference between the two. "A consignment shop implies higher-end, quality clothing that has been carefully selected for sale, rather than a thrift store where you'll find a wide range of donated merchandise," says Farrell Klein, a spokesperson for thredup.com, which is more or less a consignment store, but technically a fashion resale site because it pays sellers upfront for their clothing.

In any case, consignment shops, thrift stores and fashion resale stores can all yield inexpensive, appealing gifts.

Your local church, temple or mosque.
Reaching out for help may not be the easiest thing to do, but if you belong to a church, temple, mosque or have some other religious affiliation and are broke, and especially if you have children, this is the time to contact the office and ask if it has any programs or charities collecting holiday gifts for the needy -- and then get yourself on the list.

A charity. Other organizations to consider approaching include Toys for Toys, which has a nationwide network of programs through which it gives wrapped, new gifts to children up to age 12, although sometimes up to 16. The Salvation Army recommends making contact as early as October, so begin looking into its gift-giving program as quickly as possible.

Also check with your local food bank and see if it can connect you with other charities, or the food bank may have its own. For instance, in Central Ohio, a charity called Wagons Ho Ho Ho supports the Mid-Ohio Food Bank and donates 400 wagons filled with food to needy families. Receiving free food might allow you a little extra money for gifts -- and, if nothing else, ensure that nobody's hungry over the holidays.

"The families that receive these wagons many times have to choose between foods and utilities. Oftentimes, food dollars are the first to be cut," says Donn Ditzhazy, board president of Wagons Ho Ho Ho.

Dumpster shopping. It may sound like an act of desperation that only someone hitting rock bottom would try, but plenty of well-off, environmentally minded people do it. It's a form of holiday shopping that has something to offer those with few funds as well as those who simply want to try something different.

Jeff Ferrell never hesitates to do his holiday shopping in Dumpsters. Ferrell is a sociology professor at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas, and author of the book, "Empire of Scrounge: Inside the Urban Underground of Dumpster Diving, Trash Picking, and Street Scavenging."

He says the best items he has pulled from the trash over the years include a diamond bracelet, vintage watches, designer women's wear and expensive writing pens.

But actually searching through Dumpsters for things to give away as Christmas gifts? Yep, Ferrell says he does it all the time -- and people return the favor. "Given that much of what is thrown away is new or like new -- or classic and vintage -- my finds and subsequent gifts over the past few years have included new coats, high-end jewelry, watches, cut glass, artwork and the like," Ferrell says.

True, rooting through trash may not be the most conventional way to shop or the safest way, so if you're intrigued, take common-sense precautions. It also may not exactly be a pleasure cruise for your five senses, particularly your nostrils. But, hey, you can't argue with the price.

More from U.S. News:

Increase your money and finance knowledge from home

Goal Setting

Want to succeed? Then you need goals!

View Course »

Intro to Retirement

Get started early planning for your long term future.

View Course »