10 Gift Ideas When There's No Ethical Consumption Under Capitalism

No matter how much money you have, the current social matrix of Black Friday and "Black Mirror" will ensure you never feel you’ve done quite enough. Push back against this idea.
toilet paper money
Photo by Urs Siedentop & Co via Stocksy.

At this point, the holiday season basically goes from November 1 until the first day you see Halloween decorations out at the drug store, and it is exhausting bullshit every step of the way, thanks to all the customary social hoops we’re stuck jumping through. The act of gift-giving can be an absolute nuke to your self-esteem. Year after year, we make ourselves sick, repressing our financial anxieties under a candied veneer of season’s greetings, obsessing over everything we’re going to have to buy: planes, trains, and automobiles home with armfuls of gifts for family and, before that, holiday parties with friends, coworkers, lovers, and nights out before everybody splits until New Year’s.


We wish we could get gifts for everyone we know; we feel like shit because we can’t. On the flip side, we’re also adults who can usually get ourselves the things we need, within reason. We’d like to pay our rent and bills; asking for gifts can feel weird and disingenuous when nobody has money, ever, and giving gifts when everybody’s broke can make people uncomfortable. (It’s almost like you can’t win and should go buy yourself something to feel better. Thanks, capitalism! Anyway.)

For the broke, disinterested, bored by everything in chain stores, people with more time and/or creativity than money, people who want to give everybody presents but hate the fuckin’ system, people who want to display more meaning than money can buy, who want to try something new this year, who’d like to make it through the holidays without mountains of debt (time or money), whatever your reason may be—maybe try some of the below.

1. Weird Garbage rules, okay?

Weird Garbage occupies the sweet spot on the axis of arbitrary value and pricelessness: Weird Garbage arrives at the right place, right time, as if the Dark Lord herself placed it there in front of you. Weird Garbage exists in the universe as an icon of the person to whom it will eventually be given.

Weird Garbage points to emotional and not necessarily monetary value. It’s the closest you can get to the Obscure Object of Desire in material form. It reveals itself to you upon your digging through a scary flea market bin of mismatched wooden blocks to spell out the name of your best friend’s new baby, or needing a gift for your boss and finding a weird warped Bulgarian disco nightmare record on the free rack outside the library with a guy on the cover who looks exactly like your boss. Its genius is sneaky in a monetary way, too: Who could possibly know how much this cost, because who the hell has ever seen this before?


It costs time, because you’ll become possessed by every church thrift and used bookstore you happen to pass by in your quest. (It also costs space—you sometimes find Weird Garbage in June that is so good, you save it until December.) The magic of Weird Garbage is amplified the harder you go looking for it. It expands your sense of the possible and inspires creativity: You’re going to more far-out places in your quest for the sickest possible thing, making whole new things out of the parts required to achieve the perfect gift, or falling down rabbit holes learning about all sorts of new stuff you’ve never encountered before, thus learning more about whoever inspired it.

(Note: Etsy and Ebay are occasional sources of Weird Garbage if you’ve got money—while I’m no longer purist scum on that issue, I do maintain that part of the magic of this technique involves trying to discover Pure Source Fountains of Weird Garbage in your area, as patronizing them is what keeps them alive.)

2. Give away the thing you do that is expensive.

Everybody does something cool and expensive or impossible. You may just have to think hard for a second about what that is before you can identify it as a gift, because it’s probably very normal to you—possibly (but not necessarily), it is even your day job. What’s your area of absolute expertise—the main service you provide, your best work, the piece you could put into someone else’s puzzle? Do that thing, with joy in your heart, for free.

This is easier said than done, because for a lot of us—especially freelancers, artists, and the self-employed—life gets wasted in the everyday explaining to people why we can not possibly do that work for free. Whether you’re a music critic or a daycare owner, “friend price” isn’t real and “exposure” is a biohazard, not a form of payment, and anybody who asks outright is not your friend. Make sure the work part is covered so that when a true friend comes around with a need, or when you’re stable enough to take on gratis work as a gift, you can jump right in unconcerned, because you’ll have covered your ass elsewhere.


Especially think about what you can provide during the rest of the year: a promise to help your friend plant the garden of her dreams this spring tucked into the (free!) Baker Creek Seed catalog, senior portraits for your boyfriend’s kid brother, hair and makeup or gown alterations for a fall wedding.

3. Give the thing you do that is beautiful.

For those amongst us who haven’t yet monetized everything they love, or who do something way cooler than the thing they do that is expensive: What is your craft, and what about it could be a gift to the people who love you?

Could you finally teach your best friend Dungeons & Dragons after promising for 10 years? Read someone’s tarot cards for the year ahead? If there’s something you do for love instead of money and you have the bandwidth, offer it as a gift to those who’ll appreciate its specialness.

4. Throw one party for everyone.

Take the total budget you’d end up splitting between gifts for however many people, and put it toward the holiday itself. While quite labor-intensive, this was my preferred method until fairly recently!

Time, safety, creativity, love, commitment—all things we’re seeking, consciously or otherwise, around the holidays, and all priceless. You may not have a grand to drop on everyone you’ve ever met, but maybe you have a great big kitchen or an extra vacation day to grocery shop and cook, or $40 left over on a gift card from last year that you could use on cheese. It certainly doesn’t have to be complicated, but one considerate gathering is a huge gift for everyone.


Level up by talking it over with your trustworthy food homies in advance: “Catering” (however serious or non-serious) a holiday party for your group could be your collective gift to each other. If you’ve got money, lucky you—handle some of the fancier ready-made stuff or order Halal for everyone; some of us will bake homemade bread or make Christmas cookies, or bring cartons of that wonderfully gross vegan Soy Nog I love so much.

5. Give gifts of patronage.

handmade gifts

Try to buy beautiful stuff from great people whenever possible. From left: The Luminous Void tarot deck; Turn From The Light banner by Dylan Garrett Smith; Toi et Moi ring by Goldengrove Jewelry.

We know excellent people who deserve gifts; we know, or admire from afar, excellent makers and purveyors of stuff. If you have any budget to work with, buying gifts for friends from friends is a pretty pure way of going about the holidays.

If you also make stuff, herein also lies another potential opportunity for collaboration, sharing-of-burden, and amplifying the quality of your work. Consciously partnering with someone to make gifts together allows for sharing resources and skills. You could provide a batch of beautiful holiday cards in exchange for her candles; now, both your gifts are done, and look cooler and more involved, too. If you’ve got hot dog fingers and can’t draw for shit, help with the brolic holiday mail order in exchange for beautiful gifts for your mom and aunts.

6. Offer gifts for the here and now, aka Holiday Help.

I’d bet that most people in your intimate life would rather have help with the holidays than get stuff for the holidays. Gifts are for people you’re still trying to impress—your real friends are on deadline writing End of the Year listicles until the moment they leave for the million-hour drive home in the snow, so they’re going to love a pie you’ve wrapped up for them to bring, or a plate of restorative beheaded gingerbread men, so much more than like…slippers.

If you’re already baking a pie, is it a stretch to bake two? Four? Can you wrap presents, watch kids, walk somebody’s dog, cover somebody’s shift, help cook or clean? Can you, through your job, facilitate somebody getting a present for somebody else? The favor is worth so much more than the cost. Be the elf you wish to see in the world.


7. Give useful hand-me-downs to those who could use them.

Sometimes the best, most meaningful gifts are literally found in stuff you already have—in the level of consideration it takes to know that somebody else could benefit from something they might not even know they need.

Recently, after our dogs became instant, inseparable best friends, a new coworker gave me her dog’s old Star Wars shirt from when he was much smaller. I was thinking how kind it was for practical reasons—my dog is a little guy from Texas who’s never seen snow, let alone a Brooklyn winter, and I hadn’t considered how psyched he might be to have something on him that smells like a friend. Now, he refuses to take it off, even though it’s two sizes too big and he steps on it. I’ve done that with clothes people have given me before, too! I get it completely! It’s the best gift I’ve received in recent memory, and said coworker is my new favorite person.

This type of present is another gift that could be several steps removed—as in, that sewing machine you’ve been about to put on Craigslist for the last year and a half may be the perfect gift for the friend who won’t shut up about his super-huge crush on someone who wants to learn to sew. Facilitating a gift is a very excellent gift in itself.

8. Try any one of the following gift ideas and idea-starters that can be accomplished for cheap or free.

Draw their portrait. Draw their portrait as a stick figure in paint marker on top of a thrift store landscape painting. Tighten all their loose doorknobs. Finally find that book of theirs you thought you lost and return it with another book for them to borrow. Pay off their library fines. Call in and dedicate a song to them on the radio. Buy them whatever little thing they ask you for the most—aspirin, hair ties, gum, pens. Shovel their sidewalk or driveway. Send a heartfelt letter. Send an email full of links to 80s New Wave bands performing Christmas songs on YouTube. Call them with a good memory to discuss. Name your baby after them. Name your baby after their favorite Metallica album. If they’re far away, write a message with a stick in the snow and text them a picture. Thank them in the endnotes.

9. Give yourself the gift of the following reminder.

You actually don’t have to buy shit for anybody. Seriously. It might feel terrible, but there is no law on the books saying you have to go out and buy gifts for people just because it’s the season, or whatever holiday you or whoever might celebrate. Sometimes (and maybe even more often than not), that ideal is totally unachievable. It’s also fundamentally unimportant, as your ability to buy things for others is in no way a measure of your actual worth as a person, no matter how much you’re told otherwise.

No matter how much money you have, the current social matrix of Black Friday and Black Mirror will ensure you never feel you’ve done quite enough. Push back against this idea. Call it a redistribution of holidays, if you must—the state will not sanction which days are for celebration, when we feast and bestow gifts upon each other, blah blah blah—and, of course, give all the gifts you actually want to give within that metric. Basically, do whatever you want all the time.


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Don’t let anyone make you feel like shit for not buying presents, though. Less than a hundred years ago, people were delighted to get an orange in a sock. We’re doing great.

10. Give someone a priceless gift they never need to know about.

Forgive them. It’s free, and now, so are you.

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