Smart Buying


15 Gift Ideas That Keep on Giving

According to a survey from online pollster SodaHead.com, money and gift cards are topping this year's holiday wish lists.

To give the gift of greater spending power with something more thoughtful than a stocking full of cash, consider our annual list of personal gifts that will save the recipients money in the long run -- either by eliminating some of their recurring expenses or boosting their earning power. They’ll be sure to remember your sentiment all year long as the savings keep rolling in.

SEE ALSO: Our Slide Show of These 15 Gifts That Keep Giving

1. Farm Shares

Forget Farmville -- give your friends and family a taste of the real thing with a farm share. This foodie-friendly gift subscribes the recipient to a serving of their local harvest. For example, Avalon Farms Homegrown, of Climax, Mich., offers gift certificates for their Share of the Farm program, starting at $56 for four weeks of small packages for pick-up and $88 for delivery and ranging up to $440 for 20 weeks of full packages for pick up and $640 for delivery. Each package contains eight to ten locally grown fruits and veggies of the season, including tomatoes and salad greens (various lettuces, arugula, mizuna and more) year-round. You can search near you for a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program at www.LocalHarvest.org.

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Cost: varies by location and package choice.

2. Water Purifier and Bottler

The eggnog won't last forever. For the friends or family members on your list who have an expensive bottled-water addiction, a water purifier will help them save at the grocery store. The Filtrete Water Station, for example, filters the water into reusable bottles to preserve the convenience of bottled water. Filters, which cost $11 each on Amazon.com, only have to be replaced every three months or every 100 gallons.

Cost: $37 on Amazon.com, as of mid November.

3. A Charitable Donation in Their Name

Charitable giving is so hot right now. Individuals made 2.7% more donations to charitable organizations in 2010 than they did in 2009. Help fuel this philanthropic trend by making a donation in your loved ones’ names. Not only might your donation save them money in contributions, you’ll also show that you care about their values.

Don’t know their favorite charities? At CharityGiftCertificates.org, you can choose the donation amount and let the recipient pick which of more than 250 organizations to give it to.

And remember to keep the receipt -- this gift comes with a tax deduction as long as you itemize your taxes.

Cost: entirely up to you, minus the tax deduction.

4. Programmable Thermostat

Give your friends and family warm wishes for the holiday season (and cool tidings for summer) with lower energy costs. A programmable thermostat can save your recipient about $180 on heating and cooling bills throughout the year by allowing him or her to preset temperatures and reduce energy usage when no one’s home.

Consumer Reports ranks the Lux Smart TX1500E highest for models that can be programmed with different schedules for the weekends and weekdays. It’s available for $30 on Amazon.com. For seven-day models, the top-ranking Lux Smart TX9000TS goes for $50 on Amazon.com.

Bonus gift: Hire a contractor to install the thermostat for $75 to $150. Or do it yourself with guidance from Home Depot’s YouTube video.

Cost: $30 to $50.

5. Community-College Gift Card

Many community colleges offer gift cards that can be used for books, merchandise and -- here's the potential for payback -- credit hours. If your friend or loved one is looking to dust off her professional skills, or to brush up on her French before a trip to Paris, a community-college course can be fun and functional.

Mesa Community College in Arizona, for example, offers gift cards in denominations of $50, $100 and $250 -- and courses cost $76 per credit hour for in-county students and $300 for out-of-county students. Contact your local institution for a course catalog to include with your gift.

Another idea for the gift of education? Computer software, such as a course from Rosetta Stone, can offer similar benefits.

Cost: at your discretion, and based on the college’s cost per credit hour.

6. Reusable Shopping Bags

Many retailers offer incentives, albeit small ones, for customers to haul their groceries in their own reusable bags. Whole Foods Market, for instance, offers at least five cents off per reusable bag presented at checkout (the exact discount varies by location). CVS has rolled out a program called GreenBagTag, which lets CVS ExtraCare members (there are more than 62 million in the U.S.) save $1 for every four times they present their GreenBagTag card along with their reusable bags at checkout (cards are available in stores for 99 cents).

The most user-friendly variety of reusable bags can be compacted into a small pouch and carried easily.

Cost: $19 for six bags from Waste-Less Bags (found on Amazon).

7. Beverage Carbonator

If New Year’s Eve isn’t the only time your friends enjoy a fizzy drink, a carbonator can help them save by allowing them to make their own. Appliances such as the SodaStream carbonate water with CO2 in less than one minute. Flavors and juices can be added to the carbonated water to replace soft drinks. CO2 canisters come in different sizes that last for about 60 or 130 liters of water. Used CO2 canisters can be traded in for full ones for about $30 for either the 130-liter model or two canisters of the 60-liter model.

Cost: $80 to $200 for the appliance, which should come with reusable bottles and one or two CO2 canisters – depending on the model you choose.

8. AAA Membership

In addition to offering a little extra peace of mind on the roads over the river and through the woods, a AAA membership offers countless savings. On the road, a member is entitled to free tire changes and free delivery of gasoline if they are on empty (paying only the price of the fuel). The AAA member card can be presented for discounts off the road, too -- deals such as 10% to 20% off car rentals at Hertz, 5% off at Marriott hotels and 10% off select items at Barnes & Noble.

Cost: Between $60 and $70 a year for basic primary membership, depending on the recipient’s location.

9. A Savings or Investment Account

If you want to help somebody sock away some cash for the future, do the dirty work of opening an account on his behalf. For a youngster, a 529 college-savings plan is a good choice. Or, for a recent graduate, a Roth IRA can provide a jump-start on tax-free retirement savings. For someone who is saving up for a new house or a new car, consider seeding an online savings account with low fees and a relatively high interest rate.

For our picks of the best 529 plan and Roth IRA, see Kiplinger’s Best of Everything 2011.

Cost: entirely up to you.

10. PC Protection

Identity theft cost each victim $631, on average, last year, according to Javelin Strategy and Research. You can help protect your friends and family from that loss with a good antivirus program or security suite for their computers.

PC Magazine’s Best Products of 2011 list includes Webroot SecureAnywhere Antivirus as the editor’s choice antivirus software and Norton Internet Security 2012 as the gold pick for security suite. The former’s list price is $40, and the latter’s is $70 for three licenses.

Cost: $40 to $70.

11. Cooking Classes

Cooking classes or seminars can be a great way to cut your recipient’s restaurant costs. Check community calendars for seminars or look to chains, such as Williams-Sonoma and Sur la Table, for a schedule of seminars.

In Boulder, Colo., for example, Sur la Table has a $69 Saveur magazine class scheduled for January to teach “Italian Family Favorites.” The class menu includes saffron risotto, chicken cacciatore, Sicilian fennel salad with oranges and arugula, and tiramisu.

Cost: various prices.

12. Carry-On Travel Bag

Save your frequent-flier friends and family the heavy costs of checked-baggage fees. A single checked bag can cost $10 to $45 per one-way flight -- one round-trip a month with one checked bag can add up to $1,080 for a year.

Doug Dyment, travel bag expert and founder of OneBag.com, recommends an industrial nylon bag with soft sides, sans storage-space-sucking wheels and curves. He likes the $225 Red Oxx Air Boss for the business traveler and, for the leisurely nomad, the $136 MEI Voyageur. For a business-leisure flip-flopper, try the small dual-purpose Western Flyer bag from Tom Bihn for $210.

Cost: You have a wide range of options to suit your and your recipient’s tastes. A Google Shopping search came up with bags costing from $26 to $1,438.

13. Appointment with a Career Coach

Connect a family member with a career coach, and pay for the program or at least the first session. For the unemployed or a recent grad, the session could be a way to create or polish a résumé and land a job. Or, for those mired in a professional rut, the sessions could help them win a promotion (and the raise that comes with it). In the 2009 International Coach Federation (ICF) Global Coaching Client Study, which surveyed more than 2,100 coaching consumers, more than 80% of respondents reported a positive change in their goal areas. You can find a coach through the ICF’s referral service.

Cost: several hundred dollars in most cases, depending on the coach and the level of services. Seek a free consultation at the outset.

14. Receipt Scanner

Soon after the joyous holiday season comes the torturous tax season. Give your loved ones a technological jump on filing with this nifty little device. The small, portable scanners are sized just right for creating electronic files of your gift recipient’s receipts. For $200, the Neat Company’s NeatReceipts includes NeatWorks software (for Macs or PCs) that can pull key information from scanned receipts and organize it into reports. Scanned data can even be exported to Quicken, QuickBooks or TurboTax, and all the records will be accepted by the IRS.

Cost: At OfficeDepot.com, you can find such scanners for $100 to $300.

15. Kiplinger’s Personal Finance Magazine

Personal-finance wisdom, actionable advice and clear explanations -- these are a few of our favorite things. And, hey, we’re proud of what we do. A year’s subscription to Kiplinger’s for your friends and family members of any age will give them both money-saving and money-making strategies.

Cost: $12 a year for 12 issues.
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