If you haven't been paying attention to our five—count 'em, FIVE—gift guides, let me fill you in: It isn't hard to find the perfect present for everyone on your list. But staying within your budget, that's hard. So to help you out—'tis the season, after all—I've come up with the following cheap gift ideas. They can fit into any budget, and can be cobbled together at the last minute. (Note: Some require tape.)
Before I begin, I'd like to underscore one thing: The package makes the present. Many a shabby gift can be shined up nicely by a box or bag swiped from some spendy venue. Tiffany's, for example, or Saks. Or Nordstrom, if you want that hometown vibe. So imagine the following gifts in a nice, shiny box from the store of your dreams.
Iodex 2000 Executive Salt: Take an ordinary can of salt, and cover the outside with classy-looking contact paper. This will make them think you got it at Sharper Image, and not at the local QFC. Salt is necessary to sustain life, and it also contains "iodine, an essential element." Lack of iodine causes goiters, a huge, gross swelling of your neck. (I think your eyes also bug out like crazy, but don't quote me on that part.) If you suspect that the recipient does not appreciate your gift as much as he/she should, clip out a photo of one of these poor goiterians—available in any medical textbook—and write, "Without your Iodex 2000 Executive Salt, this would be YOU."
A Half-Finished Roll of Antacids: Okay, this one's a little tougher. Although, like salt, antacids confer some definite benefits to the gift receiver, they won't suppress any terrifying things like goiters. Plus, the package has been opened, so the contact paper thing won't work. The trick to this is making the HFROA special: Convince your giftee that it was purchased and half-used by a CELEBRITY. Make up some plausible backstory about how you went to Balthazar on your last business trip to New York and spied it on X's table after he/she left. Here are some choices:
Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay (joint)
Tony Hawk (Tony Hawk Pro Skateboarder for PlayStation)
Robert Johnson (famous doomed blues guitarist)
Alfred Kinsey (sex researcher)
A Letter from Alan Alda (actual item): I have this. The story is too long to go into here, but it's totally authentic, and if one of your friends loves M*A*S*H, it would be perfect. And the only guy who paid anything was Alan, and he can totally afford 33 cents. This item doesn't really help you find a last-minute gift, unless you'd be willing to pony up a little cash for a Xerox. Contact me via Seattle Weekly. Serious inquiries only; Alan and I are both men of substance with no time to waste on trifles.
Pipe Cleaners: A great gift for a child under 7 or a nearly brain-dead adult, a few pipe cleaners can be fashioned into a jaunty, furry stick figure, not unlike the mascot of Office Depot. God knows how much that campaign cost; they could've done it all in Super 8 and some pipe cleaners. (FYI: In Boston, they are called "pipe cleansers.")
A Jar of Pennies: This would actually be fun to get, because there always looks like there must be a jillion dollars worth in there! Don't give this gift to someone with genuine cash-flow problems, but a rich friend will probably take it ironically, as good-natured commentary on his/her success. Ironic or not, you'd get rid of all your useless pennies and be able to cross someone who has everything off your list. Write "To Mr. Moneybags" on masking tape on the jar top. (Perfect for Microsoft millionaires.)
Gris-Gris Bag: As any student of voodoo knows, the gris-gris bag is a packet of mysterious items carried around the neck or in the pocket, designed to attract love, money, or good health or ward off their opposites. However—and this is the beauty part—if you open the G-G B, all its power is gone. So . . . buy a little pouch from the hobby store; then head to the spice rack and empty spices in randomly. (Don't use anything too expensive.) Add a bay leaf and a twig or two for "body," and tie the top, tight. Then go to Kinko's, get a scrap of cardstock from the paper-cutter, and write what your G-G B is good for, along with some New Orleans-flavored malarkey: "Mistress Simone Boudreaux's MAGICKAL MONEY MAGNET!!! Keep on your person at all times for full effect. Do not open, or else!!!"
Slinky bracelets: Buy a Slinky. Then take a pair of wire-cutters and, depending on how many people there are on your list, cut the Slinky into equal portions. This gambit can create five, 10, 15 presents at a throw. Combine it with a box from the right store, and this is a present that will actually win you more points than if you cared—and that's the best kind of last-minute cheapo of all!
Mike Gerber is a humorist living in New York City.