12 Meaningful DIY Gifts That Cost Less Than $3 to Make

A recipe box sits on a table with recipes on index cards sitting outside the box with spices and measuring spoons. This is a cheap DIY gift you can give someone for Christmas.
A simple but meaningful gift is to put together a recipe box. Write your family's favorite recipes on index cards and wrap them in ribbon or put them in a recipe box. Chris Zuppa/The Penny Hoarder

You don’t have to spend a lot of money to show someone how much they mean to you.

We put together a list of 12 easy DIY gifts you can make for $3 or less that will make someone smile, show them you appreciate them and make them feel special.

And you can make the gift even more personal by packaging it in DIY gift wrap that’s fancy but still frugal.

1. Instagram Photo Album

If your friend or relative has an Instagram account, you can take screenshots of several photos off of their feed and print them at Walmart. If you use the Walmart Photo app, you can print them at an in-store kiosk for about 10 cents each. Put them in a $1 photo album from a dollar store.

This could be a great gift for teens or college students who may want to have actual photos — and not just digital ones — years down the road.

This photo shows a photo album of children's art work on a brown table next to a succulent and other photo albums. This is a cheap, DIY present you can make this Halloween for grandparents.
You can create an album full of your kids’ artwork that can be given to grandparents. Use the Walmart app to print 4×6 prints and buy an album at a dollar store for $1. Chris Zuppa/The Penny Hoarder

2. Kids’ Art Photo Album

Take photos of your kids’ art — whether it’s art they recently created in school or pieces you’ve saved over the years — and use the Walmart Photo app to print them at a cost of about 10 cents each. Put them in a $1 photo album from the dollar store. It’s a perfect gift for grandparents.

3. Personalized Directional Signs 

A fun, personalized gift is to create a set of directional signs pointing to the person’s favorite destinations. Identify the towns, cities, beaches, colleges or other locations that are important to the person, and then look up how many miles away it is from the person’s home.

Buy a bundle of 25 narrow, pointed wooden stakes from a place like Walmart. The stakes cost about $9.50, so if you make four sets of six signs, it’ll cost about $2.37 a set. Use paint or paint pens to write the names and distance of the landmarks on the stakes. They can then be individually fastened to an interior wall or nailed to a deck railing, a post that holds a hammock, or fence post.

4. Zen Sand Box 

These usually sell for $10 to $30, but you can create a Zen sand box ready for meditative raking at little cost. Here’s what you need to make up to 10 Zen gardens:

  • A bag of smooth aquarium sand: $5
  • Wooden forks for natural-looking “rakes”: $4.39 for 100
  • An smallish, empty box (like ones used for jewelry or tea bags): Free
  • Popsicle sticks: 100 for $1.79 at Target
  • Rocks or shells found in your yard, the park or the beach: Free

Here’s how to turn these materials into a Zen sand box:

  • Cut the popsicle sticks down to fit the four sides of the box, and glue them to the outside of the box.
  • Add sand, rake, rocks and/or shells.
  • Tape the lid on very tightly so you can wrap the box.  Put the sealed box into a plastic bag, and then wrap it.

5. DIY Snow Globe

You can make a snow globe using small trinkets. A small ornament can be used for a holiday-themed snow globe, or you can make a personalized one using favorite Lego characters, Polly Pocket dolls, or vintage figurines or tchotchkes found at a thrift store or yard sale.

You’ll also need to get some glycerin, which is what makes glitter fall slowly in the snow glove. Glycerin is a non-toxic, odorless and colorless alcoholic liquid usually found in animal fats and vegetable oils. It’s used as a skin conditioner and can be found at drugstores for around $3 for a small bottle.

Here’s how to make one:

  • Clean out an empty pickle jar, jelly jar or another jar that’s similar in size.
  • Glue the decorative piece or pieces to the lid of the jar, and make sure they’re dried and secure before moving on to the next step.
  • Fill the jar almost full of water. Make sure to measure how much water you’re putting in the jar because you’ll need to know for the next step.
  • Add two to three teaspoons of glycerin per cup of water.
  • Add about a tablespoon of glitter.
  • Put superglue on the lid, then screw it on tightly.
  • Shake and enjoy!
A recipe box sits on a table with recipes on index cards sitting outside the box with spices and measuring spoons. This is a cheap DIY gift you can give someone for Christmas.
This Pioneer Woman Baking Recipe Box was purchased from Walmart for $2.97 plus tax. Chris Zuppa / The Penny Hoarder

6. Family Recipe Box

You can do this digitally or you can do this the old-fashioned way. If you’re opting for a digital version, create a file of favorite recipes, then write the name of the file on a card. If you’d like to have a physical recipe box, you can print out the recipes on cards or paper, and wrap up the collection. Add some measuring spoons from the dollar store, which you can get for about $1. You can even personalize the spoons with paint pens.

7. Late Curfew

If you have a teenager, they’ll be thrilled to get a homemade “gift card” for an extended curfew on New Year’s Eve or the night of their choosing. This gift won’t cost you anything but maybe a few gray hairs.

8. Late Bedtime

The same goes for offering an elementary-aged son or daughter the chance to stay up an hour or two past bedtime.

9. Make Your Own Wreck This Journal

A series of clever journals called Wreck This Journal is perfect for kids aged 5 to 10. Each page has a prompt: leave a mark on the page, rub dirt on it, write your name with your eyes closed, paint with coffee, or color outside the lines.

You can make you own by buying a spiral notebook at the dollar store and writing instructions on each page. Here are some prompts you can start with that aren’t in Wreck This Journal:

  • Write your name as big as you can.
  • Write your name as small as you can.
  • Crumple this page up into a ball and toss it into your trash can from at least 10 feet away.
  • Draw a picture of your house during a snowstorm, rainstorm and heatwave.
  • Draw a picture of a turkey with your hand, tear it into eight pieces then tape it back together.
  • Paint on this page with a paintbrush dipped in your dog’s water bowl.

You can even come up with some prompts of your own!

10. Custom Spotify Playlist

A custom playlist full of songs is loaded on an iPad on a Spotify playlist with ear buds on top of the playlist. This is a free gift you can give music lovers on Christmas.
You can create a custom Spotify playlist full of songs as a free present for music lovers. Chris Zuppa/The Penny Hoarder

Create a custom Spotify playlist for music lovers or sentimental relatives on your list.

For the sentimental touch, include songs from movies or plays you saw together, songs you danced to, songs you listened to a lot in the car on a certain road trip or songs with meaningful lyrics.

For the music buff, do some research and assemble songs they’ve never heard but will enjoy based on their preferred artists. Write the song list on a piece of paper and wrap. After they open their gift, ask if you can use their phone for a few minutes so you can create the playlist on their Spotify account for them.

11. Pick-Up Sticks

Collect 20 chopsticks over the next month from Asian restaurants to make your own set of pickup sticks. Use Sharpies or paint pens to decorate them with patterns, words or names.

12. Scratch-Off Lottery Tickets 

OK, this isn’t exactly a DIY gift, but it’s an easy one that doesn’t cost a lot. Three $1 tickets could end up being worth a lot more, but even if they aren’t, it’s fun to scratch and dream.

Katherine Snow Smith is a contributor to The Penny Hoarder.