Hey, you. Yeah, you with the empty wallet and the zero bank balance. I'm talking to you.
The holidays are here, and I can see it in your face. You're drenched in flop sweat. You reek of anxiety.
Faced with the specter of the gift-giving season, you're wondering how to make that happen without spending too much of your precious, non-existent money. That's what I'm here to help you figure out.
The good news is that this year, I'm going to give you some credit. I'm not going to suggest you create a book of homemade coupons good for back rubs and breakfasts in bed. I'm not going to tell you that even when an adult makes a pasta necklace, it's charming (because it's not). And I'm definitely not going to recommend the gifting of original songs, epic poems or adorable tree-shaped sugar cookies.
The bad news is that once you finish reading this list, a book of foot-massage tickets and a rigatoni choker might sound like a great idea.
1. Swap it like it's hot.
If you think the bum economy hurt the mortgage bankers and stock traders, think about all the poor Richmond artists who already knew how to stretch a brick of Top Ramen for three meals. The recession not only poked them in the eye, it kicked them in the groin and pushed them down the stairs. But their literal hunger combined with your hunger for a great gift can make for a win-win encounter. You may not have any cash, but it's likely you do have something that a local artist might take in exchange for an original work of art. (A mountain bike? Flat-screen TV? Turkey sandwich?) Use social-media tools like Facebook or Twitter to solicit an art-for-goods exchange or just show up to the next First Friday with a van full of valuables and your best Monty Hall sport coat.
2. Food is love.
Unless your name is Jean-Jacques and your cookies trigger an out-of-body experience, turn your oven off. The world doesn't need another not-so-famous Amos crowding the world with mediocre sweets. Besides, five minutes after they feed your gift to the dog, nobody will remember your cookies anyway. Why not distinguish yourself as a gift-giver with real taste? Mexican food is even cheaper than cookie dough, so use your kitchen skills to crank out a platter of holiday burritos. Decorate them with red and green hot sauces. Garnish with jalapeno peppers cut into holiday shapes. If you'd like to get serious with spice, head to any of the Latino specialty markets on Broad Street and look for the jars with exploding cacti or crying donkeys on the label. I promise, if you use enough refried beans and habanero, it will be the gift they talk about for days!
3. Think outside the box with an Un-Gift.
What is a "gift" anyway? Can anybody really "own" anything? Or are we here for such a short time that the concept of ownership is really just an illusion? Make sure to drop some heavy thoughts like that before you hand someone an Un-Gift. What's an Un-Gift? It's a gift without a box, and even if it had a box, that box would be empty. Need some examples? Give them a certificate that says you named a boulder in the James River after them. Show them a picture of a Church Hill possum that you "adopted" in their name. Present a glass bottle sealed with a cork and tell them you filled it with "focused thoughts of kindness and good fortune." Urge them to "open it only in case of an emergency." Be sure to enclose a card — blank, of course — that you "signed with your mind." They'll either laugh in your face or declare you a genius. Either way, you come out OK.
4. Make gifting a team sport.
Clarence the Angel said it best: "No man is a failure who has friends." If you're broke and you have friends, then you aren't really broke! Why not rally the troops and compel them to serve in defense of the holiday spirit? You want an incredible gift that friends can manage but money cannot? Start a minor-league baseball team named after your friend, loved one or family member. Can you see it? The Manchester Mike Smiths! The Short Pump Susan Connors! The Ginter Park Grandpa Walters! Design the uniforms, recruit a spunky mascot and then stage an impromptu exhibition game in honor of the lucky recipient. It doesn't matter if people laugh at you, or if your friends are any good at baseball. Just find an old field that nobody's using and play ball. Sure, it's ridiculous and kind of embarrassing, but if it worked for the Richmond Flying Squirrels, it can work for you!
5. Give wholeheartedly of yourself.
You don't have money, but you've got plenty of time. How do you spend it? Well, the sitcom has shown us that there is no gift more special than the gift of becoming someone's butler. Voluntary personal butlery is quickly becoming the hottest gift of the year, much hotter than blankets with sleeves. A word of advice: When giving the gift of personal butlery, choosing the duration of service is key. Don't make the rookie mistake of trying to top everyone else's gift by committing to be someone's butler for life. Go with something more manageable like a week or two. The worst you'll have to do is follow behind them in Carytown with an armful of shopping bags. Maybe walk their dog around the Fan at the crack of dawn. Greet the pizza man. Buff the hardwood floors. Draw a warm bath. Remember that setting boundaries is important. Make it clear that a real butler would never carry his employer (and his employer's work friends) through Shockoe Slip for something called the Piggyback Pub Crawl.