When I was growing up, my parents encouraged my sister and I to give thoughtful gifts. We made most of the gifts by hand to add a personal touch, but also to save money. Since I was a kid, I’ve been in love with gift giving. I take a lot of pride in coming up with gift ideas that are simple, useful and personal.

You don’t need a ton of money or energy to show someone that you care. I was so inspired by my love of gifting that I created Simply Gifted, a blog dedicated to creative gift ideas, greeting card roundups and gift wrapping ideas. Though I no longer update the blog, I curated eight ideas from my time running Simply Gifted and adapted them for Lily readers.

These gifts range from a free playlist (with free, downloadable album art) to a box of happiness to a homemade vanilla extract.

(Photos by Linda Wang for The Lily)
(Photos by Linda Wang for The Lily)

A box of happiness

Cost:Under $30 with shipping*

Clear Box: $18.95 (Amazon)

• “We Should All Be Feminists” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: $7.95

• Two mini Harper Macaw chocolate bars (bought at a local store): $10

• Stickers from BeNice.Shop: $10

A few years ago, I was living in Phoenix and going through a hard time. My friend Danielle sent me a "happy box.” It was a decorated shoe box filled with thoughtful gifts. Ever since, I have been using the box to keep cards, trinkets and ephemera. Over the years, my happy box has multiplied into several boxes that I have since whittled down to one. Although I no longer have the original “happy box,” the idea still lives on.

*This can be altered to be as high or low cost as you’d like.

This is a feminist-themed “happy box.” This clear, plastic box is the perfect size to hold 5-by-7 cards and a book, such as “We Should All Be Feminists” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. We also included a "Votes for Women” pin by Kate Gabrielle, stickers from BeNice.Shop that benefit the National Girls Collaborative Project and locally made chocolate bars from Harper Macaw in Washington, D.C.

Alternative ideas: Create a box filled with memories for a friend that lives far away, fill a box with small toys and trinkets from the dollar store, or decorate a shoe box and fill it with different types of candy and chocolate.

(The Lily is part of The Washington Post, which is owned by Amazon chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos.)

Photo strips, without the photo booth

Cost: Ninephoto strips for $10, plus $6 shipping (less than $2 per photo strip)

Remember photo booths? I don’t see them too often anymore, but when I do, I always have to hop in. With these custom photo strips from Social Print Studio, you can easily recreate this look. One year, I bought the set of nine photo strips with photos of me with different friends and family to send in the mail as gifts. These photo strips can easily be taped to your desk at work, hung on the fridge with a magnet or used as a bookmark.

You can upload photos using your computer or by linking to your Instagram.

Cost:$15 each, plus free domestic shipping; $20 for custom key tags; $25 each for custom double-sided option. You can customize with your own saying or choose from their selection.

With this gift, the most difficult part is making decisions. There are so many colors, styles and phrases to choose from. Various Projects also collaborates with artists like Baron Von Fancy and Jason Polan.

Two books to help build a friend’s library

Cost:Anything is Possible” (hardcover) by Elizabeth Strout, $18.36; “Homegoing" by Yaa Gyasi: $11.03 (paperback)

This was inspired by a gift that my friend Scott gave me for my birthday. At the time, I was trying to build up a library of books. He knew this and thoughtfully picked out three books he thought I’d enjoy and wrote a letter explaining why. I adapted this idea for our gift guide to include two books:

  1. Your favorite book that you consider a must-read:We chose “Homegoing” by Yaa Gyasi.
  2. A book that you think the person you’re buying the gift for would enjoy:We chose “Anything is Possible” by Elizabeth Strout.

Alternative ideas:If your friend wants to get into a new kind of genre, buy a few different books from that genre or your three favorite books. You could also purchase a few “classics” or a couple of audiobooks to enjoy on their commute.

A modern day mixtape


I’ve exchanged playlists with friends, boyfriends and siblings for as long as I can remember. They’ve taken many shapes over the years, from mix tapes to CDs and now Spotify playlists. Spotify recently added a feature where you can upload your own album artwork, making the playlist even more personal.

Click any of the above album covers and save. They are free for you to use. To upload the album art, create a new playlist and click “choose image.”

This gift may seem like it doesn’t cost any money, but it takes time and energy to put together a thoughtfully-curated playlist that takes into account song choice and overall flow.

A framed postcard turned into wall art

Cost: Ivory and Ash card: $10. The frame is one I had around the house. (Find a similar one here for $9.99.)

I’m an avid collector of postcards. I buy them at museums, on vacation or from shops online. I saw these Ivory and Ash cards and knew they would make a beautiful framed piece of art.

The best part about this gift is how budget-friendly it is. You can easily buy a frame from a thrift store or Goodwill, then combine it with a $1 postcard.

Alternative ideas:Use a postcard from a trip with a friend, a postcard from a museum exhibit a friend loved or a postcard from an artist you both love.

Cost:Under $30, including shipping

This was inspired by the editor in chief of The Lily, Amy King. She has a tradition of making her mom a custom calendar with photos from trips that year. I decided to make one for The Lily team from memories of this year. One of my favorite things about making this calendar is the ability to completely customize by changing the fonts and adding text. I made sure to add each of our team members’ birthdays and the anniversary of our launch.


  • Minimum size for photo resolution: 2,375 pixels by 1,836 pixels
  • Best quality photo resolution: 3,938 pixels by 3,044 pixels

I used the minimum size to print this one. A couple of the images were lower quality and turned out blurry. If you would like more information on the size of photos, here are photo guidelines from Apple. This calendar was created with the Photos application on Mac computers.

Alternative idea: Shutterfly has plenty of personalized calendars and templates to choose from.

Homemade vanilla bean extract

(Or any batch item, such as candles, spice mix, cocktail mix, etc.)

Cost:Depends on the item and quantity: $105 for 20 bottles of homemade vanilla extract, which breaks down to $5.25 per bottle.

Bottles: $20 for 20, 12-ounce fluted sauce bottles (Speciality Glass Co.)

Vanilla Beans: $60 for 20 vanilla beans (Amazon)• Alcohol/vodka: $20

• Labels: $5 for printing (use tape to attach to the bottle)

This was inspired by my coworker Dave and his wife, Meredith. They made a batch of homemade vanilla bean extract to give us as gifts last year. Meredith comes from a close-knit family and enjoys coming up with gifts that are thoughtful, useful and won’t end up in Goodwill. They referenced this article from The Kitchn when making the extract.

The process of making the extract took a couple of hours over the span of two afternoons. Each 12-ounce bottle will have four to five vanilla beans. A rule of thumb is three to five vanilla beans per eight ounces. Here is the step-by-step process:

  1. Split the vanilla beans down the center and place in each bottle.
  2. Fill each bottle with your preference of alcohol. You don’t need a top-shelf liquor for this project. An inexpensive 80-proof liquor will work just fine. Vodka has a pretty neutral flavor. Bourbon, brandy or rum will create a more unique flavor.
  3. Infuse for at least one month. The longer you infuse the beans, the stronger the vanilla flavor will be. They started this project in October so the extract could be extra strong. You can always gift the extract while it’s being infused — just make sure to include a note that indicates when it’ll be ready to use.

You can design your own labels, find a template or commission a designer depending on what you would like your project to cost. Here is the label I designed, available as a free download. Just right click and hit “save.” It measures 8 inches by 2.75 inches.

Alternative ideas: Homemade candles, a custom spice mix or a cocktail mixer.

Typography by Simi Mahtani for The Lily.

Photos by Linda Wang for The Lily.

Hand-drawn elements by Rachel Orr.

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