24 Ways to Spend Nothing on Gift Wrap, and 4 Ways to Spend Very Little

If you plan to buy gift bags, wrapping paper, boxes, or bows this holiday season, you’re wasting your money. You can impress for much less – just by listening to what my mom says.

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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 We used outdated maps, the Sunday funnies, pages torn from National Geographic, and even leftover pieces of wallpaper.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

  • Don’t forget about 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 if not after the new year.
  • Think like a minimalist: Sure, that wrapping paper with those adorably plump penguins ice-skating in festive scarves and mittens elicits “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 – you may have seen extreme couponers do it on TV, but scavenging is illegal in some cities (like Vancouver, Wash.) and counties (like Los Angeles County).
  • 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 unique wrapping paper.
  • Old book pages: Do you own books that collect dust in a corner because you never read or need them anymore but never got around to donating or selling them? 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 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 it 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.
  • Gift bags: If you don’t have any of the above wrapping paper materials lying around, use a gift bag.

Free gift bags…

  • Used gift bags: Most gift bags can be reused several times before they show any wear or tear, so save every bag you receive in decent condition.
  • Shopping bags: Certain paper shopping bags, especially holiday-themed ones, are nice enough to save and reuse as gift bags.
  • Used tissue paper: Tissue paper naturally wrinkles when stuffed in gift bags. So unless it’s torn, save and reuse the tissue paper that comes in gift bags you receive. No one will be the wiser, and it stores easily if you fold it up or gently stuff it into a rigid container like a shoebox.
  • Tissue paper alternatives: Use one of the free wrapping paper options as tissue paper.

Free boxes…

  • Used boxes: Every time I receive a box in the mail or purchase something that comes in a box, I stop and think before tossing it: Would this size box be useful for a gift (or for mailing anything, for that matter)? If the answer is yes, I stash it in a spare dresser that now houses a few dozen boxes ranging from small jewelry boxes to large shoe boxes.
  • Warehouse boxes: Wholesale warehouses like Costco and Sam’s Club give boxes away. So, instead of picking boxes that fit your groceries, take boxes that would work best for gifts.
  • Household boxes: Check your closets or kitchen cupboards if you need a box in a pinch. Many people stick empty electronics boxes on the top shelf of a closet, and even a cracker or cereal box would work.

Free trimmings…

  • Used bows: When you receive a gift that has a bow in decent condition, save and reuse the bow. If it has lost its stickiness, use a piece of double-stick tape.
  • Homemade bows: Make your own bows with a no-cost material. How About Orange, the blog of an Illinois-based designer, has the best step-by-step tutorial I’ve seen for making bows from magazine pages.
  • Used ribbon: Ribbons are often cut when a gift is unwrapped, but if you open gifts carefully, you can sometimes salvage a long enough piece to reuse.
  • Ribbon alternatives: Save longer scraps of string or yarn that you happen across. Even spare shoelaces make a sturdy, if funky, ribbon.
  • Used greeting cards as accents: Save the nicest holiday cards you receive every year. Ones with colorful images or creative designs on the front can be cut in half so you can tape (use double-stick) the front half to gifts wrapped in drab materials like brown paper bags or black-and-white newspaper.
  • Used greeting cards as tags: The front half of fancy cards can also serve as gift tags. Write the “To:” and “From:” on the black backside, punch a hole in one corner, and attach it with a ribbon.

Karla Bowsher runs our Deals page, writes “Today’s Deals” posts every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday; and covers consumer and retail issues. If you have a comment, suggestion, or question, leave a comment or contact her at karla@moneytalksnews.com.

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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?

    • http://twitter.com/KarlaBowsher Karla Bowsher

      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.


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