It just makes cents

By Kat Kinsman
Updated November 30, 2018
Credit: Photo by KRW14 via Getty Images

Holidays are tough when you're broke. Granted, everything is harder when you're scraping by, but it's exponentially cruddier during the time of year when everything's darker, colder, slushier, and you're expected to spend cash you don’t have, and feign cheer that may also be in short supply. Huzzah for the dollar store!

OK, the discount store. Though some chains faithfully cleave to the price point, even retailers with "dollar" in their name aren't immune to inflation. Still, they’re an absolute godsend when you have presents to buy. Maybe there’s an obligatory office gift swap occasion, or your extended family breeds a lot, or your child or pet has a whole host of coaches and teachers, or you're just extremely popular, thrifty, and generous. Bang for the buck is key, and while there's no shame AT ALL in shopping at a dollar store (it's actually the smart option for a lot of items), you may not wish to bestow a gift that shrieks "I came from the dollar store!" at the top of its lungs.

The best way to avoid that (other than not buying a dollar-store candle—candles can be great and dollar stores can be great, but dollar-store candles are the nexus of the worst of each and no, of course a mean girl didn't give me one for my birthday while she gave my co-host a really nice present right in front of me) is to transform the items you buy in some meaningful way. Any dollar store worth its salt will have very inexpensive lidded glass or plastic jars, containers with shaker tops, or cheerfully cheap holiday mugs. Pick the one that best suits your needs, and grab a spool or two of ribbon while you're at it. The point of these homemade food gifts is to show off the contents, so skip the time, cost, and annoyance of wrapping paper and tape. Just fuss over the bow a little extra. Then pick your filling.


No one will turn their nose up at a signature snack mix (and if they do, they don't even deserve your snacks), so nab a few crunchy elements like cereal, pretzels, nuts (if you know they're safe for the recipient), potato chips, and anything that strikes your fancy, toss them in melted butter, and season with whatever you find on the shelves. Salt is a must, but mix in a little sugar or soy sauce or garlic powder or dry ranch powder or seasoned salt (there is always seasoned salt) if you're feeling it. Bake it in a 250°F oven, flipping occasionally, until everything seems toasty.

You can stop there and divvy it into jars, or you can wind back time, skip a few of the savory seasonings and hit it with some salt and sugar so you can toast that all up, then take it out of the oven and add some M&Ms, Goobers, caramels, crushed-up butterscotch, chocolate chips, or broken-up chocolate chip cookies into the mix while it's still warm. Cheese balls are clutch, just trust me. Put that in lidded jars or mugs (covered on top by foil or plastic wrap, of course), tie a bow, and you're done, Snackmaster.


There's always cocoa, or some manner of warm, chocolaty beverage mix at the dollar store. All it needs it a little spicing up to make it into a bespoke beverage mix. Pour the powder into a bowl and figure out a few additions. Pound or grind in instant coffee crystals for an easy mocha, or peruse a few of the omnipresent dollar store spices. Add a few pinches of cinnamon, a whisper of cayenne, or cumin or cardamom if you're so blessed. Or skew sweet and throw in mini marshmallows or crushed-up peppermint. Jar, ribbon, maybe a cute hand-drawn tag explaining to just add hot water, tie a mini candy cane or cinnamon stick to it and you're done.


The same principles apply to spices. For every ½ cup of brown sugar, add a tablespoon each of salt and black pepper, and then get wacky with the paprika, ground spices, dried herbs, garlic and onion powders, and however much chile powder or flakes you think is appropriate. Blend it thoroughly, place in jars, and your lucky recipients will think of you every time they season their potatoes or whatever they're sizzling on the grill.


Honey bears are a dollar store staple, but the stuff inside isn't necessarily the real deal. That's no problem for you because you're in it for the sweetness and the cute container. Squeeze out the contents and heat it gently in the microwave or in a pan on the stove, adding butter, hot sauce, red chile flakes, and salt to taste. Maybe even a little cider vinegar and dried rosemary, oregano, or thyme if your tastes skew that way. Stir it until it's evenly mixed, funnel it back into the bears (soak off the labels), and tag them with a cute name for your soon-to-be world famous custom condiment.


If you're handy with a needle and thread, all a dollar store kitchen towel, napkin, mitt, or apron needs is a little love from you. Stitch ribbons, initials, patches, or a cute border onto the kitchen linen, and it becomes a super personalized (and pretty cost effective) gift that only you could give. Same goes for little stick-on jewels. You could cook with a spatula (there are always a bazillion spatulas at dollar stores, and they work perfectly well), but how much more fun would that be with a bedazzled spatula sporting your name or initials? That kind of thoughtfulness is priceless.