10 Simple, Budget-Friendly Gifts You Can Give That Aren’t Lame

red geraniums


A reader wrote during last month’s January Money Diet and said that she was trying to be frugal but had several birthdays to celebrate. “How do you balance wanting to give generous presents while still sticking to a budget?” she wrote.

Good question! I suspect many of us are similarly challenged. We want to bless our friends and family and show them that we love them. At the same time, we are trying to be thoughtful about finances and not over-spend.

Here are some ideas, beginning with the very toughest group:  teenagers. Some teens really only want one of two things — gift cards or cash.

How in the world do we apply frugality and creativity to cash or gift cards? For either of these options, it pays to plan ahead.

Cash. Try the $5 Bill Savings Plan for a couple months. Or throw your change in a jar, and cash it in for currency at the bank. You could also give your favorite teen the whole jar of coins.

Gift cards. Buy a discounted gift card on eBay. (Look for a seller with a feedback score of at least 100 and a good rating.) Or check out one of the online gift card exchanges like CardHub, CardCash, or GiftCards.com. Costco and Sam’s Club often sell gift cards for less than face value. If you’re patient, you can also earn gift cards by using a site like SwagBucks for searching.

An outing. Make a memory instead of giving a physical gift. Visit the art museum, or the zoo, or a historic home, or take a factory tour. For the past several years, my parents and I have celebrated their anniversary by doing something fun. Last week we spent a relaxing afternoon at the Denver Botanic Gardens, and had such a good time.

A special book. My friend Mindy bought her entire family’s Christmas presents at her library’s used book sale. As an author I may be a little prejudiced, but most people love receiving a book — especially if you find one aligned to your friend’s interests.

Consumables. My sister once gave me a huge, extravagant bag of Ghiradelli chocolate chips for my birthday, and I made treats all year. Anything that’s a splurge-y version of something your friend uses on a regular basis will be appreciated,  from a good bottle of olive oil to a generous bag of Arborio rice or a box of citronella candles or some new art supplies or organic potting soil and flower seeds.

Artisan food. I love receiving homemade food gifts, don’t you? Use the produce from your garden to make homemade preserves or pesto. Cook up a batch of roasted almondscheese crackers or homemade honey graham crackers. Bake an apple cake or butterscotch brownies.

Something growing. Grow herbs from seed and give a potted herb garden. Force spring bulbs in a pot. Root a cutting from a plant you already have. Look for cool pots at thrift stores and garage sales, and give a potted flowering plant like geraniums or pansies. My friend Gail gave me seeds that she gathered from the lupine growing in her mountain garden, and I think of her each year when the pretty flowers come up.

A photo or family memory. Have a vintage family photo copied and put it in a simple frame. Make a scrapbook. Take your loved one’s portrait. Print out the family genealogy.

A donation. For the person who has everything, give a gift to a worthy charity like Heifer International, Water.org or Mercy Corps.

A party. Invite your loved one’s friends over, make a birthday cake, and celebrate. When people offer to bring something, let them!

How About You?

We’d love to hear your gift-giving ideas and suggestions in the Comments section of this page.


The signature for Eliza Cross

P.S. Don’t forget to enter to win a copy of my new cookbook Berries: Sweet and Savory Recipes, published by Gibbs Smith. You can win a special signed advance copy. Just visit this post from last week for full details. Enter between now and midnight MST on Friday, February 24.

Sweet Strawberry Surprise Cupcakes

Strawberry Surprise Cupcakes


Perfect for strawberry lovers, these light and airy cupcakes are frosted with a dreamy pink strawberry whipped cream.

Take a bite and you’ll discover true berry bliss—a fresh, juicy ripe strawberry tucked inside.

Berries cookbookThis recipe appears in my new cookbook Berries: Sweet and Savory Recipes, published by Gibbs Smith and due to be released on March 7, 2017. You can win a special signed advance copy. Just visit this post from last week for full details.

The full recipe appears below, and I’ll show you some of the easy steps to make these pretty cupcakes.

One of the most fun aspects of this recipe is that we get to do some real-life math equations! Yippee!

That’s because the recipe includes a box of white cake mix. When I developed the recipe just a year ago, most cake mixes were 18.25 ounces. Since then, manufacturers have been rapidly dropping the sizes. At my store, most standard cake mixes are now 15.25 ounces.

(I used a Duncan Hines white cake mix for this recipe, but this is not a promotion for Duncan Hines at all. In fact, I’m kind of miffed at Duncan Hines because they were one of the last holdouts but they, too, reduced the volume of their cake mix. #firstworldproblems, right?) If you use a 15.25 ounce cake mix, you’ll need to add 3 ounces or 11 level tablespoons of flour to the mix. If your box of cake mix is a different size, the formula is in the recipe below.


cake mix


Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F and line 18 muffin cups with paper liners. Whisk together the cake mix and extra flour, if needed. Add the water, egg whites, butter, 1 teaspoon of the vanilla, and almond extract in a large bowl; beat with an electric mixer on high speed until well blended, about 2 minutes. Spoon the batter into the prepared muffin cups. An ice cream scoop works wonderfully for this.


Scoop cupcake batter


Smooth the tops lightly. They don’t need to be perfect.


Bake cupcakes


Bake the cupcakes until lightly browned and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, 15 to 20 minutes.


Cool cupcakes


Cool the cupcakes in the pan for 2 minutes. Remove from pan, transfer to a wire rack, and finish cooling to room temperature.

Using a sharp knife, cut a 1-inch-round by 1-inch-long core from each cupcake; reserve cores.


Fill cupcake


Quarter 1 strawberry lengthwise, which will make it easier to bite once it’s hidden in the cupcake. Reassemble it, and push it into the center of a cupcake.


Strawberry filled cupcake


Repeat with remaining strawberries and cupcakes. Trim the cupcake cores to fit over the strawberries.


Strawberry filled cupcake


Replace on top of cupcakes, covering the strawberries.


Strawberry stuffed cupcake


Put the remaining 6 strawberries in a blender and purée; reserve. In a large bowl, combine the whipping cream and powdered sugar and beat with an electric mixer until stiff peaks form. When it’s the right consistency, the whipped cream will cling to the beaters and not drop off.


stiff whipped cream


Gently fold in the puréed strawberries.


strawberry puree

strawberry cream


Frost the cupcakes with the strawberry cream and serve. (When my son tasted the topping, which is made from fresh strawberry puree and lightly sweetened whipped cream, he said, “This is a hundred times better than frosting on cupcakes.” If you are a parent trying to help a child develop a taste for real food, you’ll appreciate the joyous victory I felt from his words.)


Strawberry filled cupcake

Strawberry Surprise Cupcakes

From Berries: Sweet and Savory Recipes (Gibbs Smith, Publisher)

Makes 18 cupcakes

  • 1 (18.25-ounce*) box white cake mix
  • 1 1/3 cups water
  • 3 large egg whites
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract, divided
  • 1 teaspoon almond extract
  • 24 medium-sized fresh strawberries, divided
  • 1 cup heavy whipping cream
  • 1/3 cup powdered sugar

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F and line 18 muffin cups with paper liners.

*If your mix contains less than 18.25 ounces, you’ll need to add additional all-purpose flour to make up for the difference. If you have a kitchen scale, simply weigh out the difference between your mix and 18.25 ounces. No scale? No problem. In volume, 1 ounce of flour equals about 3.63 tablespoons, or a scant 1 tablespoon per .25 ounce. Measure the difference, add the flour to the bowl when you add the cake mix, whisk to combine, and proceed.

Combine the cake mix, water, egg whites, butter, 1 teaspoon of the vanilla, and almond extract in a large bowl; beat with an electric mixer on high speed until well blended, about 2 minutes. Spoon the batter into the prepared muffin cups.

Bake the cupcakes until lightly browned and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, 15 to 20 minutes. Cool the cupcakes in the pan for 2 minutes. Remove from pan, transfer to a wire rack, and finish cooling to room temperature. Using a sharp knife, cut a 1-inch-round by 1-inch-long core from each cupcake; reserve cores. Quarter 1 strawberry lengthwise, reassemble it, and carefully insert it into the center of a cupcake. Repeat with remaining strawberries and cupcakes. Trim the cupcake cores to fit over the strawberries and replace on top of cupcakes, covering the strawberries.

Put the remaining 6 strawberries in a blender and purée; reserve. In a large bowl, combine the whipping cream and powdered sugar and beat with an electric mixer until stiff peaks form. Fold in the puréed strawberries. Frost the cupcakes with the strawberry cream (add sprinkles if you like!) and serve immediately. Frosted, filled cupcakes are best served within 4 hours.


strawberry cupcake

Hugs and have a berry sweet Valentine’s Day!

The signature for Eliza Cross


Win a Copy of My New Berries Cookbook

Berries Cookbook


My newest cookbook, Berries: Sweet and Savory Recipes, will be released on March 7, 2017 — but I have a special advance copy to share with you!

I had so much fun developing and testing this collection of recipes highlighting sweet, juicy blueberries, raspberries, cranberries, strawberries, blackberries and boysenberries for my wonderful publisher, Gibbs Smith. The result is a 128 page, four-color book that retails for $19.99. This month I’m giving away a free signed copy to one berry lucky reader.

Let’s peek at the pages, shall we? This book has dozens of recipes that feature tangy, irresistible berries, like these refreshing Raspberry-Lime Sparklers:


raspberry lemonade


Breakfast treats like Strawberry Sweet Rolls with Cream Cheese Frosting:


strawberry sweet rolls


Salads like Blueberry and Butter Lettuce Salad with Oranges and Avocado:


blueberry butter lettuce salad


Dinner recipes, like Sticky Raspberry Barbecued Spare Ribs:


raspberry spare ribs


Luscious desserts like C.J.’s Two-Berry Double Cream Parfaits:


raspberry strawberry parfaits


Pies, like Golden and Red Raspberry Tart:

raspberry tart


…and updated classics like Strawberry Chocolate Chip Shortcakes:


Strawberry chocolate chip shortcake


To enter the drawing to win your own signed copy of Berries, just answer this question in the Comments section at the bottom of this post:

What’s your very favorite berry?

I can’t wait to read your answers. Be sure to include your e-mail address on the form when you post your comment (it won’t show to anyone but me). The giveaway is open to anyone with a shipping address in the U.S. and Canada, and you can enter between now and midnight MST on Friday, February 24.


The signature for Eliza Cross

P.S. The dazzling photos shown in Berries were shot by the incredibly talented Stacey Cramp, and the lick-the-pages food styling is by Vanessa Seder.

Why I Needed a Facebook Detox

Facebook detox | Happy Simple Living


“I look at my Facebook feed first thing in the morning, and it gets me so riled up,” a friend confessed recently.

Me, too. That morning I had scrolled Facebook at 6 a.m., even though I know better. Reaching for my cell phone first thing is never a good way to start the day.

My best mornings begin with quiet time to read, think, drink coffee, meditate and pray. But ever since the election, I’d been spending a lot more time reading Facebook posts and comments and links and stories and commentaries and news sites.

Every detail of the current political climate is dissected every day on Facebook. For me, the addiction comes from the fact that I can always find a kindred soul who shares my perspective. That feels so good!

Relationships vs. Politics

A sentence I read recently in an essay by Laura Kipnis made me squirm:  “We choose leaders who make themselves legible to us as a collective mirror.” Her words resonated, because one truth I’ve witnessed when I venture into the Facebook minefield is how the new administration has revealed us to one another.

Facebook used to be a place where we posted about our very best and most interesting selves. The election changed that, don’t you agree?

Friendships are strained.

Acquaintances are wary.

The ‘Unfollow’ button is getting a workout.

Boy, have I been surprised by some of the posts I’ve read — and I bet you have been, too. I’ve learned more about my Facebook friends and acquaintances in the last few months than I ever knew before.

Or have I?

Who Benefits from our Division?

Are you a Red? Or a Blue? 42% of Americans, according to Gallup’s most recent analysis, identify as independent. The same poll found record lows for the number of Americans identifying strongly as Republican (26%) or Democrat (29%).

If we were all forced to choose a color, I bet many of us would feel most aligned to a shade of purple, or reddish-purple, or bluish-purple.

Here in America, our two major parties have created an atmosphere of extreme partisanship.

Who benefits if we become staunch, polarized party supporters?

  • The two major political parties.
  • The politicians.
  • But not us.

So we have a choice:

The collective mirror that this administration reflects about America can divide us into two warring camps.

Or not.

It can hurt our family relationships.

Or not.

It can destroy the community feeling of a neighborhood.

Or not.

It can crush old friendships.

Or not.

My Self-Imposed Facebook Cleanse

I recently became aware of how anxious I felt after popping over to Facebook throughout the day.

That still, small voice inside suggested I take a 24-hour break.

So I decided to try.

I felt tempted several times, but stayed away from Facebook. The day went by so pleasantly, and I felt noticeably calmer. I also had more time.

My Facebook detox had such a positive effect on my mental health, I decided to take another 24 hours off. And then another. Days turned into weeks.

I receive “breaking news” e-mails from The Denver Post, so I’m not completely in the dark about the issues. Sometimes I check AP Mobile, a news app I like because its articles tend to be dry and factual…like Melba toast, which is what I need right now.

How About You?

Has your social media use increased or slowed in recent months? If you’re on Facebook, how do you feel after browsing your feed?

In 2018, all the seats in the House of Representatives will be up for reelection as well as at least 33 seats in the Senate — and the landscape may shift again.

I don’t know what role Facebook will play in our ongoing dialogue, but I suspect many of us will grow weary of the divisive commentary. Perhaps over time our conversations on Facebook and other social media will help us better understand each other.

I would love to hear your experiences and thoughts.


The signature for Eliza Cross

2017 January Money Diet Winner Announcement

Logs in heart shape

Dear friends,

I spent a most enjoyable day re-reading all of the wonderful comments you left on each post throughout the January Money Diet.

This year’s community of dieters was truly our best ever! So many of you participated wholeheartedly, and generously wrote about your honest struggles and challenges. You encouraged others and shared your own ideas and money-saving strategies. Your participation made this endeavor better and richer for everyone. Thank you.

I wasn’t expecting the difficulty of choosing the winner of this year’s prize, but so many of you completed the challenges and stayed true to the money diet throughout January that we had lots of qualifying candidates.

It was difficult, but I eventually narrowed the field to a small group of twelve people who were really, really involved this year: Susan T., Colette, Judy, Annie, Sara, Annette, Lyn, Melissa, Nancy, Catherine G., Maggi, and Betty.

From those twelve I did a random drawing for the gift box, and the lucky winner is: COLETTE!

Here’s what Colette wrote on the last day of the money diet:

“In general, I have come away after this second January Money Diet with better habits and an even stronger resolve than ever before! Thank you Eliza, and all who left comments, for your ideas and encouragement! It has been a great success for me!”

Throughout January, many of you entrusted us with your personal stories of struggles and difficulties. I think most of us can relate to having financial worries or having to dig out from unwanted bills, and it was good to put our heads together and strategize.

I was also deeply touched by your response to Challenge #1 to give 31 gifts, and amazed at all of the many acts of kindness you performed and things you gave away.

My hope and prayer for each one of us in the months and years ahead is that we can do EXTRAORDINARY things with money. May we take the necessary steps to simplify and live within our means, so that we never have to be slaves to debt or experience financial fear.

Thank you for sharing this journey, and I look forward to having many more conversations with you in the days ahead.

Hugs and gratitude,

The signature for Eliza Cross

100 Little Things

January Money Diet

Dear friends,

As this no-spending month winds down, I want to thank each one of you who participated in this journey. Thank you for showing up, and sharing your creative ideas and thoughts, and trying new things. It’s been so good to be with you during the January Money Diet.

As we each continue our journey in 2017 with a desire to be good stewards and accomplish extraordinary things with money, the best approach might incorporate a lot of little steps practiced faithfully over time.

Maybe we cook a few more meals at home, grow a little more produce in our gardens, get creative with leftovers, use up things we already have in our freezers and pantries, and the net result is that we save $100 on our monthly food bills.

Perhaps we fix some drafty places in our homes, conserve water by retrofitting our toilets, switch a few more incandescent lightbulbs to CFLs, and save $25 on utilities every month.

Maybe we continue decluttering and creating space, and sell a few unused items each month to net an extra $25.

Perhaps we put our credit cards away in a safe place so we’re not tempted to use them for impulse buys, and faithfully apply the extra $150 to our balances each month, so that our interest payments drop, too, until on day we have the glorious feeling of being debt-free.

The beautiful thing is that none of these steps will affect our quality of life in a negative way. The upside is less worry about money and more financial freedom to focus on the things that matter.

Some of the steps we take to steward our money wisely will produce bigger results than others, but together they form the basis for a better financial foundation. This month we explored many strategies:

  • Whittling down monthly expenses
  • Saving energy and water to reduce utility bills
  • Eliminating wastefulness
  • Cooking good food at home
  • Fixing and maintaining the things we have
  • Giving generously to others
  • Growing our own food in a garden
  • Setting up an emergency savings account
  • Using things we already have at home
  • Paying off debt
  • Figuring our net worth
  • Making things with our own hands
  • Nurturing our health
  • Creating peaceful, uncluttered spaces at home
  • Earning extra money
  • Finishing projects
  • Saving for the future
  • Being mindful about every dollar spent

Future Shopping Strategies

Many of us will continue to stay on a modified version of the money diet in the coming days. As needs arise, we will inevitably shop again. Perhaps we might ask ourselves these questions before handing over our hard-earned money:

Do I love it?

This is now my mantra for every single clothing purchase. Do I love this? Do I feel great when I wear it? Is it well made? Will I want to wear it for years to come? Do I need it? I no longer buy something just because it’s a good deal. I have to love it. Consequently, my wardrobe has shrunk quite a bit. I don’t shop that often, and when I do, I don’t often find clothing that I truly adore. But interestingly, my smaller cache of clothes is evolving into a better selection of nice pieces that I truly love to wear.

Can I plan for the purchase?

If your old hot water heater suddenly breaks, you’ll have to raid your emergency savings account and make a fast buying decision based on what’s in stock locally.

On the other hand, if you know your water heater needs to be replaced and you have the luxury of a little time, you can research the best quality models with the help of Consumer Reports (at the library, of course). You can figure out the exact size you need for your family, and choose whether you want a tank or an on-demand heater. You can comparison shop, and watch for sales. Best of all, you can save up the money for the water heater, and replace it before your old one breaks and causes damage and stress.

Can I wait?

I once wanted a particular energy-efficient ceiling fan for the kitchen that was out of my budget. I created a custom search on eBay, and several times a month I received e-mail notices about auctions featuring my fan. I bid several times unsuccessfully, stuck to my budget, and finally got lucky.

By being willing to wait, I finally upgraded the fixture and got the fan I really wanted; you can see the old and new fixture here.

If you know what you want and can be patient, you can often find the item of your dreams on sale or at a greatly reduced price. It’s when we want something NOW that we usually pay top dollar.

Will this purchase lower our overhead?

Certain purchases might quickly pay for themselves in future savings — a rechargeable lawnmower that you use instead of paying a lawn service, or canning supplies to preserve food from your garden, or quality scissors that you use for kids’ haircuts.

Other things might be worth investing in for long-term savings: rechargeable batteries, an antenna that brings in free television, solar lights, perennial food plants like berries and asparagus, fruit trees, window film, insulation, and energy-efficient or hand-powered appliances. These are decisions we will have to weigh carefully and research thoroughly.

Can I innovate instead of spending money?

Figuring out a solution for little or no money is not only fiscally rewarding, but personally satisfying. I love the Budget Living section of Apartment Therapy, where readers show their amazing hacks to transform spaces for little or no money.

Young House Love is a fun blog with tons of DIY home projects, and LifeHack has numerous articles for saving money and repurposing.

Let’s continue what we started

I am so proud of everything we’ve accomplished together this month. You have been the most engaged, generous group of money dieters yet, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed getting to know you.

Some efforts produced big results and others are small, but financial stability comes as a result of many efforts and thoughtful decisions, practiced faithfully over time. If we continue what we started together in this first month of 2017, I promise that these steps will add up and produce real, lasting change in our finances.

How about you?

I did the math this morning, and we saved $600 as a result of practicing the January Money Diet this month. It’s going straight into savings.

What specific results did you achieve as a result of your participation in the January Money Diet? I invite you to share your experiences in the Comments section of this page.

If you have excess cash left over as a result of saving all month, I challenge you to go stash it immediately in an inconvenient savings account, pay off debt, or invest the money before it drifts into the slush fund.

Prize Giveaway Tomorrow!

If you have completed the 5 January Money Diet Challenges, be sure to leave a comment on each of the challenge pages (see links below). Tomorrow I’ll choose one lucky winner who will receive a January Money Diet gift box with a $35 Amazon gift card, cookbooks, and an assortment of fun household goodies.

Here are links to each of the Challenge pages:

Challenge #1 – Give 31 things away.

Challenge #2 – Figure your net worth.

Challenge #3 Do something to earn an extra $25 or more this month

Challenge #4 – Reduce one monthly expense

Challenge #5 – Open a savings account

Although our month-long experiment is coming to an end, I look forward to continuing this journey with you in the year ahead. I’ll be sharing ideas and posting about my money-saving strategies in the coming months, and I encourage you to do the same.

If you have any ideas about how to improve next year’s January Money Diet, I’d love to hear from you at elizagcross (at) gmail (dot) com.

Enjoy this last day on the January Money Diet, and you’ll hear from me again tomorrow.


The signature for Eliza Cross