27 Ways to Spend Little or Nothing on Gift Wrap

Buying gift bags, wrapping paper, boxes or bows this holiday season is a waste of money. Here are more than two dozen ways to impress for much less.

I grew up helping my mother wrap gifts — in anything but wrapping paper. We used outdated maps, the Sunday funnies, pages torn from National Geographic, and even leftover pieces of wallpaper.

With rare exception, Mom refused to spend money on gift wrap. “It goes right in the trash,” she always said.

And she’s right. When a gift is opened, the decorative material called “wrapping paper” is instantaneously redefined as “trash.” Paying for gift wrap is like using dollar bills as wrapping paper.

So if you wouldn’t cloak gifts in banknotes, why are you still paying for gift wrap? I haven’t spent a dime on anything but tape in years. In fact, thanks to the tricks I learned from my mother, I estimate I’ve saved a few hundred dollars over the years. Here’s how you can too:

Spend very little

  • Check the dollar store: It may not be the first store that comes to mind when you head out for gift wrap, but every single dollar store I’ve set foot in has had a decent, if not downright impressive, gift wrap section.
  • Buy in bulk: Before I was born, my mom splurged on three 500-yard rolls of ribbon: red, green, and white. A few decades later, those same three rolls are still in her gift wrap cabinet — and will probably last her a lifetime. To add color to Christmas gifts wrapped in free paper, she uses red or green. If the gift or recipient is extra-special, she uses two or three of the colors together. The rest of the year, she picks whichever color best fits the free wrapping paper used and the gift-giving occasion.
  • Take advantage of after-the-holidays price cuts: Just as stores mark down leftover bags of Halloween candy every Nov. 1, they move winter holiday-themed gift wrap supplies to the clearance section by Jan. 2. So if you must have specialty gift wrap, stock up on it after Christmas.
  • Think like a minimalist: Sure, that wrapping paper with those adorably plump penguins ice-skating in festive scarves and mittens elicits an “awwww” every December. But is building a collection of specialized gift wrap for every major holiday really worth the money and storage space? If you insist on paying for store-bought gift wrap, try a versatile color scheme.

Spend nothing

Free wrapping paper

  • Maps: Outdated maps — which, in the technology age, is pretty much all maps — make novel wrapping paper, as do the map inserts that often come in National Geographic magazines.
  • Magazines: Colorful magazine pages make unique wrapping paper for small boxed gifts. If you don’t subscribe to any magazines, ask friends or family for their old issues, or stop by your local recycling center’s magazine bin. Just don’t steal from your neighbor’s curbside recycling bin — it’s actually illegal to do so in some places.
  • Comics: The funnies section of the Sunday newspaper makes great wrapping paper for kids’ gifts. Again, ask friends or family for their old newspapers or visit a recycling center.
  • Newsprint: Other sections of the newspaper — from sports to classifieds — work too. Special weekend sections of national newspapers offer especially fancy images and designs. (I often steal my father’s old weekend Wall Street Journals for this reason.)
  • Wallpaper: If you happen to have leftover wallpaper in the garage, it makes for unique wrapping paper.
  • Old book pages: Do you own books that collect dust in a corner because you never read or need them anymore? If so, find the largest or most interesting of those books, remove the binding (paperbacks cooperate better than hardcovers), and use the pages as wrapping paper.
  • Brown bags: The inside of cut-up brown grocery bags makes for sturdy — if plain — wrapping paper.
  • Shopping bags: The inside of cut-up paper shopping bags (often used by mall-based stores) and the outside of colorful ones also work.
  • Used wrapping paper: Sometimes wrapping paper is torn to pieces when a gift is opened, but it’s often left intact and unwrinkled enough to reuse.
  • Homemade wrapping paper: Certain types of free wrapping paper materials make drab gift wrap. But you can jazz them up with paint, crayons, stickers, stamps, or whatever arts and crafts supplies you have on hand. Your plain wrap will become a personalized conversation-starter. This is also a great way to involve the kids, especially if they aren’t yet coordinated enough to help you wrap gifts.

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  • Anonymous

    My grandmother used to wrap our gifts in dollar bills–no trash and very careful unwrapping! 

  • Anonymous

    My grandmother used to wrap our gifts in dollar bills–no trash and very careful unwrapping! 

  • Anonymous

    I love to use a towel set for shower gifts & wedding gifts.  You can tape it or loosly do a quick stitch to cover the gift make a quick “bow” by scrunching the middle of the wash cloth & hand towel.  Works graet for baby showers to with blanket or if have bigger gift to wrap use a sheet set!  @ gifts in one, the receiver is very happy & other guest love the look when you take your time!  This “wrapping paper” is definitly not put in the trash. 

  • Anonymous

    I have a roll of plain brown (postal) paper and have collected throughout the years, stamps for all occasions. Christmas, green and red bows with a santa, snowman, or wreath stamp here and there makes the gift more personal. For birthdays I use a hemp string, stamp some ferns on the paper and add a bow of evergreen under the hemp bow. People save these wrappings and I save a bundle.

  • Anonymous

    Books!? OLD BOOKS? Are you illiterate?

    • Hi Scherzo,

      It’d be awfully hard to write — or to have studied literature in college — if I were illiterate.

      Like I wrote, I don’t mean old as in old enough to be of any kind of value, monetary, historical, or otherwise. I mean old as in sitting around collecting dust because the owner will never again read or otherwise use them.

      I don’t personally wrap with books because every book I own is on my shelves for a reason, but I’ve seen it done. Add a monochrome ribbon and it’s pretty darn cool.

      There’s no harm in disassembling a book so worthless that it wouldn’t even fetch you a quarter at a used book store. As the prices on sites like Half.com will prove, certain paperbacks have become a dime a dozen, so you may as well put them to good use. If you still find that horrifying, you must have money to burn or a good view from where you sit.


  • Lorilu

    Costco sells giant rolls of reversible wrapping paper (366 sq. ft.) for about $10. I don’t think you can do much better than that.

  • Janet

    For a smaller gift I have used aluminum foil, and used double sided tape to tape on things that fit the occasion like tootsie rolls or individually wrapped candy on birthday presents, or candy canes on Christmas presents.

  • IBikeNYC

    I used to buy a giant roll of decent-quality silver wrapping paper and then get creative with the decorations: Paint markers; stickers; rubber stamps; stencils; etc. Silver works for pretty much any age, gender, or occasion. You could always “cheat” by cutting out shapes from cardboard and wrapping just the shapes with regular foil, then sticking them on with tape on the back.

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