The Almost-Free Gift I Made for Everyone When We Were Broke

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(Image credit: Dulin/Getty Images)

Holiday gift-giving can be stressful even when money’s not an issue. How do you pick the right gift for each person? How do you find something for everyone, (including your in-law’s partner who you see exactly once a year) — something they’ll actually like and not something that just checks the box?

Throw a tricky financial situation into the mix and you’d expect it to get a whole lot worse. But, as I discovered a couple of years ago, having zero cash to spare can actually simplify things.

The DIY Gift I Made for Everyone When We Were Broke

My husband had been laid off and was back to school full-time, and we were in the midst of a gut-job renovation of our third floor to make it an Airbnb (with the goal to get some extra income so that a Major Crisis like this would never be quite as catastrophic again). Meanwhile my freelance writing job wasn’t the most lucrative or consistent of incomes.

I’m sure nobody expected us to go out and spend money we didn’t have buying Christmas presents, but there’s just something so fun about wrapping up a little something and watching the person’s eyes light up when they open it. Plus I was in definite need of some holiday cheer right about then.

I decided to go the DIY route — and the key to getting this kind of present right and making it feel special is picking a theme that really resonates with you. For me that meant something to do with Old Fashioneds, our house drink (not to mention Louisville’s official cocktail). Pricey bourbon (or even cheap, but good bourbon) was out of the question, so I decided to make some bitters and simple syrup for a giftable Old Fashioned mix.

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How to Make a Classic Old-Fashioned(Image credit: Lauren Volo)

How to Make Homemade Old Fashioned Mix

It took a bit of planning, since homemade bitters have to sit for a while, but there’s not much actual work involved. It’s basically a pure grain spirit plus bitter-tasting roots, barks, or leaves and other botanicals. (You can do a deep dive on how to make bitters if you want to go all out, but we kept things pretty simple.)

We bought a jug of the cheapest vodka at the liquor store, a bag of organic oranges (since you’re using the peel this is a worthwhile splurge), and demerara sugar like this one. Then we raided our spice cabinet for things like whole cloves, cinnamon sticks, and whatever else we could rummage up.

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The spices and orange peels (which you can dry first, but we didn’t get that advanced) went into the booze in a few Mason jars, and we stashed them in the pantry for a few weeks, giving them a gentle shake once in a while. Come time to make the mix, we strained the liquid using coffee filters and voila! Homemade bitters!

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For the simple syrup, we used the demerara, and went a little heavier on sugar than water to make it thicker and richer. We had a few lidded glass bottles, and some cute brown glass tincture bottles waiting to be repurposed, so we filled them with the syrup and the bitters.

All that was left was to hand-write a label. We called this the Old Saint Catherine, a riff on our street name, and provided instructions: #JustAddBourbon, serve on the rocks.

All in, we spent less than $40 on EVERYONE on our list and, judging by how quickly I saw some of these bottle disappear, the gift was a smash hit.

Do you have a go-to holiday gift when you’re trying to save money?

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