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Smart Buying

Give the Perfect Last-Minute Gift

Where to shop and what to buy to make every minute and dollar count.

While you're rushing around to find that last holiday gift, or if you're just starting to shop, remember this simple truth of giving:

Haste makes waste.

Sure, it's better to give than to receive, and it truly is the thought that counts, but when you're in a hurry you can make some serious gift-giving mistakes. So with that in mind, here are five simple ways to make the most of every shopping minute -- and dollar. Plus, we've included plenty of specific last-minute gift ideas to make your task even easier.

1. Use the Web the right way

Forget about shopping online to avoid the rush at the mall. Most sites have stopped guaranteeing on-time Christmas delivery -- even for pricey express shipping.

Even if there is no time to ship a gift, the Internet can save you time and money by helping you research products, gather reviews and locate retailers. (Here are some great sites to help.) Use it also to find out what is included in the package. For example, does it come with all the cables, connections and accessories you'll need?


And for the truly last-minute shopper, there are gifts online that you can purchase and deliver, even on Christmas morn:

E-mail delivered gift certificates such as from, iTunes, Netflix and Southwest Airlines. Or let the recipient decide with the SuperCertificate from, an electronic gift card good at hundreds of partner merchants.

Software downloads. Many major software sellers offer download versions on their Web sites. Some fine choices are practical personal finance software, such as Quicken, TurboTax or Nolo's WillMaker Plus. Or you can spring for something fun such as e-books and computer games.

2. Seek out diamonds in the rough

Supermarkets, drug stores and gas stations are a last-minute shopper's paradise because many are open 24 hours. The trick is to get a classy gift that doesn't trade value for convenience. One way to avoid that just-thrown-together look is to focus on presentation. Put it in a decorative box or basket, or top it with a beautiful fabric bow. Tying your gift into a theme is another way to look thoughtful. We've uncovered some convenience-store gems to help:


Food. You can find a nice box of chocolates, bottle of wine or smoked ham at nearly any grocery store.

Tech gear or accessories. Many major drug stores such as Walgreens, Rite Aid and CVS carry electronics such as digital cameras, MP3 players and prepaid cell phones. Or consider accessories such as memory sticks and USB drives, laptop bags or headphones.

Make your own gift basket. Pick up a basket in the floral department and stuff it with the recipient's favorite goodies. It'll look more personal than a pre-shrink-wrapped basket. Or make a theme basket. For example, a DVD teamed with boxes of microwave popcorn and Junior Mints for the movie lover on your list. A car-care basket, home-office supply kit or children's craft box are other readily available ideas.

Magazine subscription. Find one for the recipient's hobbies or interests. Tear out the subscription card and mail it in. For Christmas morning, wrap the newsstand issue.


Lottery tickets. These make fun and inexpensive stocking stuffers. Or stick them in a coffee mug for a quick and easy co-worker gift.

Greeting card stock-up. Anyone from busy moms to lazy bachelors will appreciate this gift. Hit the greeting card aisle to select a dozen or so cards for birthdays, anniversaries, thank yous and more.

3. Give of yourself

You don't have to spend a lot of money to give a great gift. Remember when you were young and your mom said all she wanted was something homemade? You can still get away with it if you do it right. Homemade and from-the-heart gifts don't have to be cheesy -- or a dead giveaway that you waited to the last minute. (Coupon for a free foot rub, anyone?) Get creative and a tad sentimental and your gift will be a sure-fire hit:

Photo DVD. If your computer has a DVD burner, use it to create a slide show of your digital photos set to music.


Homemade treats. Who wouldn't love a box of home-made cookies or candies?

Feelings. Write down your feelings and favorite memories of another person, a life-changing experience or your life's philosophy. Put it in an envelope, tie a ribbon around it and hang it on the tree for a priceless gift today and for generations to come.

4. Cash is always the right size and color

Green is an official color of the holiday season, and the ATM is always open. You can get around the problem of looking thoughtless and rushed by personalizing a monetary gift. Include a little note saying what the money is for. For example, "Here's a little something for your cruise this summer." Or, for longer term goals, consider a CD or savings bond. "I know you dream of your new baby going to college." For more money-minded gift ideas, see Give the Gift of Financial Well-Being.

If stuffing a few $20 bills in a card is not your thing, consider a gift card. (Don't feel guilty -- etiquette experts tell us they're not a cop-out.) You can usually find a variety of gift cards from several merchants on display at supermarkets and drug stores. Safeway, for example, sells about 300 different gift cards for everyone on your list.

Still worried a gift card will look too impersonal? Give an experience instead (many of these can be bought at 24-hour online ticket offices, no matter how late you're shopping):

Season tickets. Kids from 1 to 92 would love a year pass to the local zoo, museum, art gallery or aquarium.

Performance tickets. Send the recipient to the theatre, ballet or a concert. Sweeten the pot by tossing in dinner before the performance.

Activity tickets. Ski passes, spa treatments, sporting events, movie tickets and travel vouchers also make great gifts.

5. For the person who has everything: Make a donation

Everybody has at least one on his or her list: a father, brother or associate who is impossible to buy for. So don't. Give for them instead. Make a donation in their name to a favorite charity or a cause that they admire. Double bonus: you get to keep the tax deduction.

As always, be sure to research the organization. Several Web sites make it easy to check out charities' legitimacy and financial information. Before giving money, look up the charity at the Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Alliance or at Charity Navigator. (See Five Ways to Check a Charity to learn more.)

Stumped for a cause? Here are a couple to get your ideas flowing:

Remember the troops. A $25 gift to the USO's Operation Care Package program will pay for one care package to a soldier, Marine, sailor or airman serving overseas. Other alternatives: Red Cross Military Services or Disabled American Veterans.

Support a local charitable effort. Buy dog food for the local animal shelter, pack a box of food for the food bank or participate in a Toys for Tots drive on someone else's behalf. For a nice touch, take a picture of the gift before donating it, and put that under the tree.