10 Ideas for Filling a Christmas Gift Basket on a Budget

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A-TISKET, A-TASKET

Prepackaged gift sets are popular at holiday time. By bundling several related products, retailers supply shoppers with convenient gift options -- and maybe sell a few more items than they otherwise would have. DIY gift baskets, however, are more personal and often cheaper than store-bought varieties, especially compared with online offerings. There's no shipping fee, and you choose the contents. Careful sleuthing through clearance racks and discount bins can turn up bargains, and the dollar store is a likely source for attractive containers, from boxes to tins to pails. (Tip: In a basket of consumables, include at least one item that's not disposable -- the container counts -- so the recipient will think of you long after the holiday.) The beauty of a gift basket is that even small or mundane items become gift-worthy when combined under a common theme. Here are 10 ideas.

CANDY AND COKE BASKET

Filling a holiday gift box or basket with assorted candies and sweets is probably the easiest route to take. A highly rated Coca-Cola gift pack selling for $27 at Overstock would be easy to DIY for a fraction of the price: Just pick up a six-pack of glass-bottled Coca-Cola Classic (about $5 at Walmart, Publix, and other outlets), some convenience-store candy, and a red bow. Chocolate coins wrapped in shiny foil are holiday staples, as are peppermint bark and candy canes.

CHEESE BASKET

A basic basket assembled around the theme of "cheese" could include a cutting board, a cheese knife or slicer, a package of crackers, and, of course, cheese. Colorful plastic cutting boards and utensils are easy to find at Dollar Tree and other discount outlets, and individually wrapped blocks or wedges of popular cheeses, such as cheddar, Swiss, and Monterey Jack, are supermarket staples. More exotic flavors might require a trip to a specialty shop and would raise the total cost. Look for cheeses that can be stored without refrigeration.

ICE CREAM SUNDAE KIT

Giving frozen ice cream as a gift is a non-starter, but a good selection of toppings is another matter. Grocery store dessert aisles stock a wide selection of hot fudge, caramel, butterscotch, and fruit-flavored toppings. Browse the aisles of Costco or Sam's Club and you might find a different assortment at lower prices. Add to the basket a couple of decorative bowls, such as the parlor ice cream dish from Crate and Barrel ($3), and a jar of chocolate or rainbow sprinkles to sweeten the treat.

TEATIME BASKET

In Victorian days, tea was so valuable that people stored it in lockable tea caddies. Tea is vastly more affordable today and increasingly the brew of choice. Stroll the aisles of a grocery or specialty store and you'll spot plenty of affordable choices, many sold in reusable decorative tins. Add a bit of whimsy to the basket with unusual cup-and-saucer combinations from the local thrift store; garage sales and flea markets are likewise worth checking. To tie everything together, choose tea tins that match the colors on the cups.

DRAWING AND COLORING BASKET

An artfully displayed collection of art supplies will get the recipient's creative juices flowing. To assemble a drawing kit, start with blank sketch pads available at art and office supply stores. Add a box of No. 2 pencils or black sketching pencils plus a box of colored pencils or markers. For additional inspiration, include a coloring book for grown-ups that contains intricately detailed line drawings (starting at about $5 on Amazon).

BATH SPA BASKET

A home bathroom can become an aromatherapy day spa with fancy soaps and a few luxury bath items. Every department store stocks such merchandise, but clearance bins at specialty stores often contain a wider array. Stick with the fancy stuff for this DIY holiday gift basket. Several bars of floral, glycerine, or milled-oat soap make a pleasing gift; a bar of deodorant soap from the drugstore may be taken as an insult. Include scented body lotion and an accessory, such as a loofah or shower sponge ($3.50 at Bath and Body Works). An alternative assortment could include a few soaps in different scents or colors, shower gel or a bottle of bath oil beads, and a scented candle.

WINDOW HERB GARDEN KIT

Traditional gardening requires a plot of land, but apartment dwellers can grow a small herb garden on a windowsill. A standard-size garden pail is the right size for a gift basket, large enough to hold a bag of potting soil, a few inexpensive planters, and packages of seeds. Home Depot sells hanging glass capsule terrariums starting at $10. Of course, not all plants are suitable for growing indoors. Some herbs known to thrive include basil, chives, oregano, rosemary, thyme, and parsley.

CANDLE BASKET

A gift set with a candle theme can be assembled in several ways. The basic candle garden calls for free-standing pillar candles and a flat, fire-resistant surface or "foundation" on which to burn them. A dinner plate or wall mirror from a secondhand store serves the purpose. For candles, check dollar stores and overstock outlets, or head to Ikea for an inexpensive selection of block candles (starting at $2), scented candles in glass (79 cents), and votive candleholders (99 cents for a four-pack). Assuage concerns about safety with an old-fashioned metal candle snuffer ($3).

HOT COCOA BASKET

Who doesn't love a mug of steaming cocoa on a cold winter night? The simplest and smallest gift set comprises a couple of hot cocoa mix packets inside a decorative mug. Individual packets of Swiss Miss Classics milk chocolate flavor, which finished tops in a Cheapism.com taste test of hot chocolate mix, start at just 12 cents. Although Ghirardelli's double chocolate premium hot cocoa is slightly more expensive (starting at 42 cents a serving), the packaging seems more gift-worthy than the usual white paper wrappings of grocery store cocoa. For a more elaborate gift, put two mugs inside a larger container, along with multiple hot cocoa packets and a bag of marshmallows. A few individually wrapped peppermint sticks or candy canes for stirring are a sweet flourish.

WRITING BASKET

Even in today's electronic era there's room for old-fashioned pen-on-paper writing supplies. Start with several attractive pens in a variety of ink types, including ballpoint, fiber tip, and gel. Add a couple of blank-book journals or standard notebooks with pretty covers to complete a basic diary-writing kit. A three-pack of Field Notes portable memo books costs $10. For a stationery set, pick up a tablet of writing paper with matching envelopes and a few sheets of "forever" postage stamps. Present the gift in a basket or large decorative folder.