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Heartfelt gifts: Just invest thought, not a lot of money

I rarely pay more than $10 for any friend's birthday present. In fact, I usually spend about $5.

Yet somehow I'm not known as a terrible gift giver.

I manage to give inexpensive presents that go over well for three reasons: I buy clearance items, I buy ahead of time and I buy something that's personal.

Sometimes I don't even buy a present and just give my time.

Here are some ways you can save big but still recognize a friend's special day.

Match deals with personalities

I always check the clearance shelves at T.J. Maxx. Once I found a plate featuring a colorful map of France for $5. I tucked it away for six months until the birthday of a friend who had spent a year living there and speaks the language fluently.

Another time I found a $5 plastic model of the human anatomy at a rummage sale. I bought that for a friend who was suffering through an anatomy class for her occupational therapy degree. She loved it.

When the Talbots in St. Petersburg recently closed, I bought the iconic "red phone" that has been a direct line from stores to the catalog for decades. I gave that to a friend whose mom, a lifelong Talbots devotee, died last summer. It was a $5 gift that made her cry and laugh at the same time.

I don't buy something that's a great price just to buy it. First I decide if it would have special or humorous meaning for someone.

Time is cheap

A few years ago a friend and I decided to ditch the gifts and meet each other for a glass of wine instead. This type of gift often requires a lot more thought and effort than buying something — but it's a lot more fun.

If you still feel you want to wrap something up, give someone a $5 gift card to a coffee shop with a list of a few time windows when you are available to redeem it together. Or save money and calories and just set up a time to go for a walk or run together.

Pass along something of your own

I don't mean your threadbare sweater or that Lean Mean Grilling Machine you never use. Wrap up something that someone will appreciate even more because it was yours.

I gave a coffee-table book about horses that belonged to my late sister to our cousin who rides. A friend of mine wrapped up her Bruce Springsteen Born to Run album and gave it to me for my birthday in 2009. That was the year we volunteered to dance on the field when the Boss played the Super Bowl halftime show in Tampa. I don't own a record player, but it's one of the best gifts I ever received.

Nothin' says lovin' like something from oven

You can usually make a batch of cookies, a key lime pie or loaf of banana bread for less than $5.

Who wouldn't appreciate an unexpected dessert or breakfast treat?

I make an easy beer bread and sometimes throw in a 2-ounce bottle of Tuscan Herb olive oil from Kalamazoo Olive Co. on Central Avenue in St. Petersburg.

They cost $7 each, or four for $21, and the oil is perfect for bread dipping.

Skip the card

If I'm only paying $5 for gifts, it's no surprise that I don't pay $2.99 for a card. I just don't do cards. I may add a gift tag or a Post-it Note if I drop the present off and don't give it in person.

Remember what it's all about

Unless you are giving something that someone truly needs, the point of a gift is to let someone know you are thinking of him or her. It's not to show how much your friendship matters by spending a lot of money.

If you worry that someone may feel slighted by receiving a bargain present with no card, maybe she isn't the friend you think she is.

Remember the Dr. Seuss quotation: "Those who matter don't mind. Those who mind don't matter."

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