I come from a large extended family, and every year, in order to prevent ourselves from going broke buying holiday presents for three dozen relatives, each of us draws three or four names from a hat to buy family gifts for, with a suggested cap of $30 per gift.
Needless to say, we exchange a lot of gift cards. Like a lottttttt of gift cards.
But here's the thing: I love these people, my aunts and uncles and cousins. I really, truly love them. And this year has been, shall we say, not so great. So even if in 2021 I revert to my old habits of buying everybody gift cards again, this year I want to level up my family gifts. I want to give something thoughtful—something they probably wouldn't have bought for themselves, but which will improve their lives in some small but appreciable way.
So I started researching thoughtful, affordable family presents, and here's what I've found so far. If any of these can be helpful for your own family gift search, it is my humble hope that this list means a little less gift-carding and a little more "oooh, I love this!"
Here are 18 thoughtful family gifts under $30
With all my pandemic stress-baking, movie-binging and online puzzle-playing, my tablet and I have gotten unexpectedly close...in a way that's probably not great for my posture or my neck. That's why this sleek and stylish tablet stand is a perfect gift for anyone else in your family who's been having a lot of quality time with their iPad: It's got eleventy thousand everyday applications but it still feels luxurious enough to give as a present.
Hand cream is going to be the hottest gift of 2020. We're all feeling the effects of nine months of obsessive hand washing and sanitizing, which makes a creamy, soothing, gorgeous-smelling hand cream the kindest present you can give this year. This whipped hand butter from Mongolia is made from natural ingredients and absorbs super quickly.
Edible gifts are always fun to give and to get, and this sweet, super-charged superfood in a jar has tons of tasty uses and promises a natural energy boost. The honey can be drizzled into tea or yogurt, over apples or toast, or even applied as a face mask. A little bit of sunshine in a jar goes a long way during a pandemic winter.
If there's a bright side to this pandemic year it's that all of our desktops and pantry shelves are a bit more organized, but there's always room for aesthetic improvement. These darling bamboo and cork storage jars, sold in sets of three and available in two equally-pretty colorways, help corral earbuds, charge cords, bobby pins, hair ties...definitely a gift-worthy upgrade on empty jelly jars.
Delectable bite-sized "tea cookies" from a small, woman-owned Brooklyn bake shop have been my go-to gift for years. Each cookie in the One Girl Cookies Classic Tea Cookie Collection is named for a long-ago relative (or at least, they sound like they are) and is absolutely delicious, from the hazelnut with cinnamon chocolate ganache to the oat cookie with crystallized ginger.
You love edible gifts. You have no baking or candy-making skills. You also do not have the PhD in Pinterest required to make "cookie dough mixes" or "hot chocolate mixes" look like anything other than what they are, which is a bunch of powder in a plastic baggie. Here is your solution: a beautifully packaged set of toothsome chocolates made by a small confectioner in Philadelphia. Special, affordable, tasty. Done.
I love old-school, vintage-y holiday decorations, and The Vermont Country Store always comes through with holiday knick knacks I could swear I saw last at my grandmother's house. This charming hand-painted ceramic pair makes a cute present: all the festive flair, none of the guilt of buying yet more festive flair for yourself.
A little ugly, a little chunky, a little cozy...like your favorite sweater, or your elementary school art teacher, and destined to be just as beloved. Picture your gift recipient on a wintry morning cupping a hot bevvie in this handmade handwarmer mug, and you already feel a little bit like a benevolent elf, right? And for us left-handed coffee addicts, there's basically nothing more exciting than a left-handed mug designed just for us.
I might as well admit these sweet-smelling, adorably chonky bird-shaped hand sani dispensers are on this list because I really want one myself. And also because 2020. But at $15 for a pack of three with hydrating hand sanitizer included, this is one of those practical holiday presents that still feels thoughtful, and that your gift recipient will get a ton of use from.
Each library card-inspired tote bag purchased helps support literacy programs for communities in need, so this gift will please the book lovers in your family while also giving back. And if you or your intended recipient aren't old enough to remember actual library cards, consider this one a throwback gift, like, you know, concert or movie tickets. Or a dinner party.
I admit that even when I (finally) became a grownup, with non-IKEA furniture I actually wanted to protect from damage, I never really "got" coasters...until someone gave me a set of coasters that I like a lot, and now I use them all the time. Listen, we're all home a lot more than usual, and goodness knows we're all drinking a lot more than usual—so if there's a more useful and thoughtful gift than a set of beautifully designed coasters, I'd really like to know what it is. Oh wait, I know: A vaccine.
A practically-indestructible plant in an irresistible mini planter from The Sill makes a charming gift idea, even for that relative who's a plant-killer wanted in 50 states. The Hoya kerrii heart plant, which is a juicy little heart-shaped leaf, needs nothing more than sunlight and the occasional watering when the soil feels dry.
Give this one to your college-student cousin and watch as their instinctive panic at being handed a living thing to take care of slowly metamorphoses into helpless adoration at how flippin' cute this thing is. Kinda like that time when you were handed a newborn.
As plastic bags have fallen out of favor, reusable totes that pack up small and light have proliferated, and Loqi makes some of the very best. Sturdy, machine-washable and designed to hold over 40 pounds of stuff—while still lightweight enough to pack up into a small 4-inch-by-4-inch zipped square—they come in a variety of cool modern designs. This is the very definition of a practical, helpful, affordable gift that will be used and reused until it literally disintegrates.
No matter what state your family calls home, Homesick candles capture a scent for your state (or your city or region) that feels comfortably familiar and yet unexpectedly cool. And with all respect, if these candles can manage to make Long Island smell lovely (and they do), they can do just about anything. While regularly priced Homesick candles cost $34 each, their mini candles and special editions often go for less, including their popular USA candle, on sale for $25.
Letterboards are kinda 2018, you say? Tell that to literally any pregnant woman or mother on Instagram (or us, for that matter!). In all seriousness, if you've got a funny teenage cousin or an aunt who's always sharing memes on social, a letterboard is a fun and thoughtful present that says "Because I love you, I am here for your self-expression content."
In most states, movie theaters won't be open at full capacity this winter, but with this cute little cardboard smartphone projector and a bowl of popcorn there's no need to dread dark, boring Sunday afternoons. While the image quality probably isn't high enough to satisfy your hardcore cinephile relatives, this is a fun family gift for almost anyone else on your list.
Monikers is often listed among the best pandemic party games by those in the know who've played it. The game is super easy to learn, and can be played with couples, co-workers or family members—pretty much anyone with a sense of humor, since it gets very silly, very fast. And I'm all for more games and laughter in 2021—and fewer gift cards.
Want more gift guide inspiration? We've got you covered. Check out all of our 2020 Gift Guides here.
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