Gift-giving has always been one of my favorite things to do. I enjoy the challenge of curating the perfect care package for a friend or creating a memorable night out for someone’s birthday, and there was a time that I spared no expense to show my affection. Before the pandemic, I was working a corporate job, and gift-giving was easy, financially speaking. But like many people, I found myself unemployed and pushed to reevaluate my spending habits in 2020. Letting go of some expenses — such as several subscription services, fast fashion, and the regularity with which I dined out — was easy, but I struggled with others. 

I wasn’t ready to nix my gift budget altogether, but I was willing to get creative when it came to spending time and effort on my loved ones. A little over a year later, and I’ve received more smiles and shocked faces than I ever have before. Here are the three homemade gifts that prove it’s truly the thought that counts.

My husband enjoys two things: Cooking and nostalgia. In the past, I’ve gifted him with cookbooks on his wishlist, but for his birthday, I decided to tie in his love for the past and get his friends and family involved. Instead of a cookbook written by a favorite chef, I presented a food blog with entries written by his friends and family. The catch? Each recipe was tied to a memory the author shared with my husband. And pictures were encouraged! 

His mother wrote about the first vegetarian dish she made for him when he gave up meat. One of his best friends submitted a black bean enchiladas recipe related to a longstanding inside joke. And because I know how cookbooks have a way of collecting dust, I created a private website to house the recipes for easy reference. You can also set up an Instagram account for a similar feel, or even print out the recipes if your recipient is old-school that way.

When it came time to celebrate my best friend’s birthday this year, I knew it had to be sentimental. This was her second pandemic birthday, and she hadn’t seen most of her friends and family for close to two years. So I thought about how I could bring friends and family to her. I worked with her sister to collect nearly 20 videos from friends and family who wished her a happy birthday and shared memories from previous birthday parties. She isn’t typically a crier, but she shed plenty of tears and said it was the best present she had ever gotten because “I can keep this forever.” 

Bringing Little Italy to Us 

Plenty of married people refer to their wedding day as the best day of their lives, but for me, that superlative currently goes to the shared birthday celebration I had with my partner this year after we cancelled a vacation to Naples and Florence in Italy, as well as Madrid and Barcelona in Spain, due to the pandemic. The update to our plans was painful, especially given that traveling somewhere new is a birthday tradition for us. That’s when my husband had the idea to bring Italy to us. 

A few simple and inexpensive touches turned our dining room in Dallas into our approximation of an Italian-style pizzeria. We covered the table with a checkered tablecloth and streamed a free playlist filled with Italian restaurant music. We curated a menu of Italian wine and pizza from a local Italian shop in town. And to create ambiance, we lit candles that we had in the house. It was romantic, simple, and involved all of our favorite things: Pizza, wine, music… and each other.