The holidays are coming, and that’s not cheap. A lot of people have taken major financial hits this year, and more are set to — one in ten U.S. companies are planning more layoffs before 2021. Even if you do have money, spending a shitload on the holidays just feels irresponsible this year.
The holidays are important, though, and arguably all the more so if your year has been a hellscape. They’re complex occasions psychologically, even in years without, y’know, global pandemics, but opting out of key parts like gift-giving would feel too, too fucked. But gifts cost money, and the thing with not having a job is, you don’t have any. So what can you do if you’re broke but still want to give the people you love something nice?
Kick the Can Down the Road
If you want to hide the fact that you’re broke from your loved ones, you can simply defer payment by presenting people with post-pandemic promises. It’s the payday-loan approach, and will absolutely come back and bite you in the ass, but not until after the holidays, so you’re fine. Present your loved ones with a brilliant plan for a wonderful time that, darn it all, there’s just no point in booking yet, what with (and wave your arms wildly at this point, like you’re really frustrated) everything that’s going on.
“Dad, I’d planned ages ago for us to go out and have a steak, a bunch of beers and see the new James Bond film together, all on me, but the release date has been pushed back so we’ll have to do it when it comes out.” That kind of vibe. On the one hand, that’s a really nice thought, an evening tailored to your dad’s tastes that lets the pair of you spend some quality time together. On the other, it’s not going to cost you a fucking cent until at least April, and by then you’ll either have a job — in which case it’ll all be fine — or you’ll be unable to continue the charade of not being broke, in which case he probably won’t be a dick about it. And if he is, at least it won’t ruin Christmas.
Be the Gift That Keeps on Giving
If you’re out of work, one thing you do have is time. Can you give the gift… of labor? The idea of “dirty coupons” is quite popular, despite inevitably leading to situations where one person is essentially contractually obligated to do something they aren’t really in the mood for, and activities that should theoretically be enjoyed by all parties involved instead get reframed as chores. It’s odd.
But there seems to be no good reason not to expand the basic idea of it — tokens with specific tasks on them that can be redeemed at any time — to people you have non-sexual relationships with. A voucher that says “I will help you fix your iPad and not give you any shit about how half your passwords are the same and you’ve forgotten the other half; I’ll just patiently fix your nonsense and we’ll all move on” might not be as flashy as a big shiny gift, but it might save your parents’ sanity and bank balance in the long run. Plus, as they see your reddening face and twitching eyeball the ninth time they mention losing the Word doc with their passwords in it, and realize just how much you want to yell about how stupid that is, they’ll know you love them.
Your pockets might be figuratively empty, but they’ve probably actually got a phone in them, and you can do a hell of a lot with that thing.
Is there a more powerful phrase in the English language than “I wrote you a song”? It’s impossible not to be flattered and/or turned on by the sheer sincerity involved. Even if you’re hideously untalented, with an iPhone with GarageBand on it, the RhymeZone online rhyming dictionary and a chord sequence lifted from a song someone else wrote (you’re not going to commercially release it, you can infringe whatever copyright you want) you can cobble something together in a couple of hours. Will the vocals sound like warmed-through shit? Almost certainly, especially if you’re recording them in secret due to being trapped at home. Will playing it back make you wish you were dead? Oh, entirely. But how will the person you’ve made it for feel? Probably pretty good, and they needn’t know how much of it was done on the toilet.
“Layering is great,” advises Ed Stockham, who recently made an album on his phone. “I’ve found if I add lots of vocals on top of each other, not even harmonizing or anything, it sounds better, like how a stadium of people all singing at once sounds great whatever they all sound like individually. The other thing I do a lot of is listening to the initial recording and finding the weak spots — times when the volume dips or you mess up a word or your voice cracks — and adding in a low level organ note or some laser sound effects to round it off or distract people. The best thing is not to really care. If you’re making a song for someone, that’s pretty cool, and they’ll probably love it however weird it sounds. Just pump it full of in-jokes and love and stuff and it’s a winner!”
Or there’s video. Get a bunch of people who know and love the person in question to record little messages and put them together into an emotionally devastating montage on iMovie. That sort of stuff always goes down well at weddings and milestone birthdays, and with everything going on at the moment there’ll be notable absences and emotions running high — thus, there won’t be a dry eye in the house.
Old people in particular are frequently dazzled by incredibly pedestrian digital accomplishments, and something as basic as a nicely put together slideshow might really mean a lot. Or, the app Stop Motion Studio is incredibly easy to use — if you have refrigerator magnets in the shape of letters, point it at your fridge and in 20 minutes you can produce a charmingly homemade personalized message.
If even that feels like a bit too twee or nakedly sincere, do the modern equivalent of a mixtape — a Spotify playlist. Pick tunes that have genuine significance for your relationship with the recipient, or do that thing where the titles spell out an obscene message, thereby giving the gift of laughter.
Make It All a Trip
Experiences make the best gifts. A 2015 Stamford paper published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology concluded that buying someone an experience rather than a physical object was more likely to strengthen your relationship with them. But if, as it concludes, “experiential investments” provide “a greater hedonic return,” how can you jump on that with no money? You could do a lot worse than turning the moment of gift-giving into an occasion itself.
Hide a bunch of clues around your house and make the exchange of a gift that cost you zero dollars into a needlessly involved process. Go hog-wild with both high and low tech — a card with a (shortened) url in it that leads to an unlisted YouTube video saying to look behind the couch, where there’s another note delivering the next clue, and so on and so on. There’s all this free stupid-ass technology we have endless access to, you know? If your gift to someone is a silly video, it can take 30 seconds to watch or it can involve following a treasure map into the woods and digging up a box with a (free-to-generate) QR code inside that then leads to the video playing, or some similarly silly shit, and one of those things will linger in the memory a lot longer than the other.
Use Your Fingers
Handmade items have a sentimental power to them that can’t be dismissed, and the idea of someone spending hours working away to craft you a one-of-a-kind item has so much more meaning to it than, “This was the cheapest one on Amazon.”
“I learned to crochet when lockdown started,” says Fran. “That turned into me making Christmas presents for my nan and parents. It’s definitely cheaper than buying presents — I spent about 10 bucks on yarn and it’s making a hat and a big scarf thing. I felt a bit bad at first about how cheap it was going to be, but thinking about all the hours of thought and work, they’re worth more than the value of the composite parts. It’s also good to know exactly what I’m going to be giving people instead of wandering around the shops winging it, which obviously I’m not doing — as much as I love a shopping center, I like being alive a lot more.” (Fran suggests cross-stitch as a starting point for crafting novices.)
Anything handcrafted feels like it means something. Like, if someone buys you a PS5, and in return you hand them a wooden flute painstakingly whittled from a branch, or a big fuck-off Easter Island-style moa’i you’ve chainsawed out of a stump, while a big part of their brain will be doing the math and screaming, “What the hell is this?” it’ll be silenced by the part going, “This is magical,” probably.
Or, put that unemployed time to use and make someone a gift by taking some hey-if-only-this-pandemic-had-been-handled-better rage out on a big-ass log and fashioning them a kayak.