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25 money-minded gift ideas

Improve the bottom line for everyone on your list

Published: December 2013
Illustration: Sally Vitsky

As a gift, cash is king, especially during the holidays. Nothing trumpets its value more clearly than a crisp Andrew Jackson $20 bill or a smirking Ben Franklin C-note. Indeed, when we surveyed Americans last holiday season, 37 percent were considering giving cash as gifts. Another 46 percent were contemplating cash equivalents: gift cards or gift certificates. Only clothing and toys ranked as high. But if you don’t feel comfortable giving cash—or you prefer something with more panache—think about the money-related gifts that follow. Each has some relation to the green stuff, whether it’s helping recipients to manage their current stash better, bone up on good money practices, or accumulate more dough. And many are quite affordable!

Illustration: Sally Vitsky

Grammar-school kids

1. Starter coin collection: Kids love building collections, and what sneakier way to teach them the value of saving than by associating collecting with cold, hard cash? Give your youngsters a one-year basic membership to the American Numismatic Association ($14). They can explore its website, Money.org, and join the “Coins for A’s” program, which lets them earn coins for good grades. “Those Amazing Coins: A Kid’s Guide to Collecting” by Kevin Flynn, R. Volpe, and Kelsey Flynn (about $7.50) and “The Instant Coin Collector” by Arlyn G. Sieber (about $11.25) are good primers. Find those books, coin albums, and other storage solutions at wizardcoinsupply.com.

2. Framed stock certificate. Oneshare.com lets you buy a single share in a company that strikes your child’s fancy, including Disney, DreamWorks Animation, and Nintendo. Your budding capitalist can then follow the stock’s rise and fall, and potentially attend shareholder meetings and receive dividends. Prices are based on the share’s market value; the transaction costs $39; you’ll also pay more for framing. (We’d like one share of Berkshire Hathaway, please.)

3. Direct stock ownership. Alternatively, invest through companies themselves. The Walt Disney Co.’s direct stock purchase plan, for instance, lets you buy stock directly from Disney for an initial minimum of $250, or monthly deductions of $50 from a qualified bank account. Other direct plans with kid appeal include Domino’s Pizza, Harley-Davidson, Hershey’s, Mattel, McDonald’s, Nike, and Starbucks. (Go to the plan administrator Computershare for a complete list of companies.)

Shopaholic teen

4. Fund-matching account: Motivate a teenager to put off trips to the mall by offering to match funds that she leaves alone in savings. Set up a regular savings account; she can deposit money she has saved or earned and you can deposit, say, 50 cents to the dollar, or dollar for dollar, depending on how long she leaves the money untouched.

Techno-savvy college student

5. Bitcoin server: Bitcoins—the virtual currency that’s created from having your computer solve math problems all day—aren’t especially practical. You can’t buy your morning venti at Starbucks with them, though a few walk-in businesses are beginning to accept them. Online, bitcoin values fluctuate—recently they were trading above $1,000—a heavy metal indeed. But to “mine” bitcoins, you first need the hardware and software to do it. At products.butterflylabs.com, hardware ranges from a $300 USB device to servers—hot enough to double as space heaters—costing thousands.

Bitcoins can be used online to make charitable donations or buy software or real items. (They also can be used for nefarious purposes, so be careful to whom you bestow this gift.)

Recent college grad living in your basement

6. Career counseling: Dustin Hoffman’s character in “The Graduate” was asked to consider a future in plastics. In today’s uncertain economy, your young grad may need more guidance. A career counselor can give tests that match his interests and aptitude with appropriate careers; aid him with job hunting, networking, and interviewing; and help him explore grad-school options, among other services. Search for one through the National Career Development Association; look for someone who is a certified career counselor. Depending on where you live, the charge can be $40 an hour to more than $200.

7. “What Color Is Your Parachute?” 2014 Edition: This classic is subtitled “A Practical Manual for Job-Hunters and Career-Changers.” The author, Richard N. Bolles, includes many workbook exercises to help confused job-seekers determine what interests and motivates them, and how to get employers to take notice and hire them. And it gives plenty of practical advice on resumes, interviews, networking, and even starting your own business. Barnes & Noble offers it in paperback.

Illustration: Sally Vitsky

Environmentalist

8. Carbon offsets: The theory: You may not be able to reduce your carbon footprint from yeti- to mouse-sized, but you can cancel out some of that energy consumption by investing in green projects such as wind farms and hydropower. Numerous enterprises offer carbon-offset options, starting at $5.95 at the for-profit TerraPass.com and $15 at the not-for-profit Nature Conservancy. And Carbon Fund lets you calculate your yearly carbon consumption and pay to offset it.

Climate-change denier

9. Timber exchange-traded fund: Timber is considered by some to be a great diversifying investment because its returns aren’t correlated with other major asset classes. While most foresters consider themselves environmentally responsible, global-warming naysayers may appreciate that the trees are ultimately harvested. The expense ratio for the iShares S&P Global Timber & Forestry Index ETF (WOOD) is somewhat cheaper than for the Guggenheim Timber ETF (CUT), but the latter fund has had a better return in 2013.

Worrywart

10. Shares in the Vice Fund (VICEX): For those convinced that a financial doomsday is nigh, this mutual fund focuses on stocks in the tobacco, alcohol, gaming, and weapons/defense industries, which tend to thrive regardless of the economy as a whole, according to the fund’s managers. Those holdings also have the potential to perform better when times are uncertain. You can make an automatic investment of $100 a month for a couple of months, then let your cousin take over (providing the world is still around). The fund has a three-year average annual total return of 20.26 vs. the S&P 500’s 15.72 percent. On the downside, though, expenses are relatively high: 1.64 percent of assets.

11. Gold: It can be a great portfolio diversifier and could prove to be useful should financial Armageddon hit. But there are downsides to keeping physical gold. It earns no interest, it’s taxed as a collectible (not at the lower 15 percent long-term capital-gains rate), and you have to put it somewhere. To invest, buy American Eagle or Buffalo bullion coins through a dealer, not the U.S. Mint. (The mint maintains a list of gold dealers.) Or buy shares in the exchange- traded fund SPDR Gold Trust (GLD), which stores gold at HSBC Bank’s vault in London, so you won’t worry about the bullion getting lost in your underwear drawer.

Newlywed nest-egg builders

12. Pro financial advice: Financial advisers aren’t just for those close to retirement. They can help younger people set financial goals, save more, and select and allocate investments, among other things. Find an adviser through Garrett Planning Network or the Financial Planning Association. Hourly rates average from $150 to $250, depending on the adviser’s certification. That lofty price is worth it if it helps set the right course.

Security seeker

13. Home safe: Sentry offers a wide variety, including the X055 Security Safe with an electronic lock (around $70 at major retailers) and the SFW123CS, a combination safe described as fire, water, and impact resistant (from $135 at major retailers).

14. Paper shredder. Check out our paper shredder buying guide and Ratings [subscription only].  

Illustration: Sally Vitsky

Know-it-all investor

15. Gurus’ plainspoken wisdom: The “Berkshire Hathaway Letters to Shareholders,” by Warren Buffett and Max Olson (Berkshire Hathaway, 2012), contains all the annual letters of the celebrated investor, including pithy quotes (the paperback is about $20 on Amazon.com). From John C. Bogle, founder of Vanguard and the first index mutual fund, try “Common Sense on Mutual Funds” (John Wiley & Sons, 2009)—for about $20 in hardcover from Barnes & Noble. In an update of the classic “A Random Walk Down Wall Street,” (W.W. Norton, 2012), the Princeton economist Burton Malkiel outlines a time-tested investment strategy (a paperback version, new, is about $15 on Amazon.com).

Wine connoisseur

16. Membership in Cellar-Watch.com: Help her monitor her investment for about $30 a month for a pro subscription or $10 for a premium plan (prices are in pounds on the site). Cellar Watch is run by the same company that manages the wine equivalent of the S&P 500, the Liv-ex 100, which represents the price movement of 100 of the most sought-after fine wines for which there is a strong secondary market. Membership includes an unlimited number of price searches and the ability to monitor live trading activity on the Liv-ex Fine Wine Exchange.

Penny-wise saver

17. Coin sorter: We found a variety of them by searching the Web, including the MagNif Accu-Wrapper motorized coin sorter (about $28 at Kmart, not including two C batteries) and the industrial-strength digital Uline Coin Sorter/Counter for $235. Don’t forget to purchase extra paper tubes.

Illustration: Sally Vitsky

Do-gooder

18. Donation through Kiva: This not-for-profit allows individuals to lend money to small businesses worldwide, many run by underprivileged families. Recent sample loans have included help for a family coffee business in Bolivia and for a man in Uganda who needed $175 to grow tomatoes. You can invest in your aunt’s name for as little as $25 through kiva.org. It boasts a repayment rate of 99 percent— usually repaid within a year—so your aunt might even make a new loan. And the good karma you’ll both share will be priceless.

Out-of-work buddy

19. Anonymous bank check: Cashier’s checks don’t include your name on them. Slip one in your friend’s mailbox in a card that simply says: “Happy holidays! 2014 is your year!”

20. Gift or prepaid cards: They’re a way to help without saying outright, “I know you’re hurting.” Bank-issued cards (from American Express, MasterCard, and Visa, for instance) can be used anywhere. They can include hefty fees, but carry a bit less risk than store-issued gift cards; in the past, when stores went under, the cards became worthless. Cards specifically marketed as gift cards fall under federal consumer protection laws. Include the receipt with your gift, in case it goes missing. Three reloadable prepaid cards—Bluebird with direct deposit (American Express), H&R Block Emerald Prepaid MasterCard, and Green Dot Card—were tops among 26 cards we recently rated.

Stocking stuffers

21. Chocolate coins. Find them online at nuts.com and other sites. You may also be able to find chocolate “gelt,” the Jewish version of a stocking stuffer, at Bed Bath & Beyond and some supermarkets.

22. Piggy bank. Go as upscale as the $1,900 sterling silver bank from Tiffany & Co., or as plain as the plastic porker (about $2.50) from Windy City Novelties.


23. Coupon organizer. The occasional clipper as well as the obsessive-compulsive will appreciate a three-ring-binder filing system like the Deluxe Coupon Organizer II, about $35 at Amazon.


24. Lottery tickets. Tucked in a holiday card, they’re a cute and cheap way to wish someone good luck in the New Year. The odds are infinitesimal, and giving this gift goes against all of our principles of smart saving and investing. But once a year, what the heck.


25. Subscription to Consumer Reports Money AdviserPlease forgive the shameless plug, but 12 months of insightful, razor-sharp advice and money-saving tips? It’s the gift that keeps on giving. 


Editor's Note: This article appeared in the December 2013 issue of Consumer Reports Money Adviser.
   

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