Let's face it: there are plenty of temptations to overspend and overbuy when it comes to finding gifts. This year, with an uncertain economy, there's never been more reason to step back and take a serious look at how we approach gift shopping.

Instead of loading up that charge card at the mall, why not take a greener approach and try handmade gifts this season? While it takes a bit more planning, making gifts at home is a guaranteed way to save money and resources. And there's no better way to express your love and creativity.

We've rounded up 10 sure-fire handmade gift ideas to get you started. Most can be done for under $20. Many of these easy projects can be adapted for Valentine's Day, Mother's Day, or anytime a a thoughtful handmade gift is appropriate. Try a few — and put some warmth and personality back into your holiday gift-giving!

Food gifts

1. Home-canned fruits and vegetables. With farmers markets still brimming with seasonal produce, it's a great time to be doing this. Home canning is an easy-to-learn skill that makes thoughtful gifts — and can really stretch your household budget.

2. Holiday baked goods. It's really hard to go wrong with this: pumpkin, nut and banana breads are synonymous with the holidays, are easy to make, and can even be frozen. So are regular breads, cookies and cakes. You can dress up baking by being creative about their containers. This also gives you an opportunity to put recycling to work. As an example, try nutbread in an old coffee can. Grease the sides, but substitute sugar for flour along the can walls. Your bread will emerge with a crisp caramel glaze. Decorate the can with wrapping paper scraps, replace the bread, add a ribbon — and you're in business.

3. Heat-and-serve frozen casseroles and entrees. Freeze-ahead meals take some planning to put together, but they can be as ornate as you want them to be and are a wonderful convenience for whoever receives them. Freeze them in recyclable aluminum warming pans — or buy some quality oven glassware for gifts that will be used many years into the future.

4. Cookies in a jar. Not the cookies themselves, but all the dry ingredients. Layer them in a Mason jar for an attractive presentation. Decorate the jar with fabric and ribbon, attaching the recipe with a bit of string (bonus points if you reuse the front half of old Christmas cards for this). These make great teacher gifts, or can be combined with other items in a gift basket. You'll find plenty of variations at All Recipes.

5. For the coffee lover: homemade biscotti or chocolate spoons in a handmade mug. This is quite elegant, and has a long after-holiday life. Hit the holiday craft fairs and find a large hand-thrown coffee mug. You're after something colorful and substantial. Fill it with individually wrapped biscotti or chocolate spoons. They're both simple to prepare. The spoons are commonly done with plastic disposables. Shop around and find an inexpensive metal teaspoon set, instead. It helps to refrigerate them beforehand.

Craft gifts

1. Jars of homemade bath salts. As luxurious as they are inexpensive. Typical recipes are epsom or sea salt, baking soda, food coloring (use natural varieties), glycerin (vegetable-based) and your favorite aromatic poils. Once gain, it's all about presentation. Decorate the jars — and be sure to list the essential oils used, to prevent possible allergy issues.

2. Homemade holiday wreaths. Living wreaths are an impressive and welcome holiday gift. They're not difficult to make — all you need is some evergreen boughs, assorted greenery and wire. In a couple hours, you'll have several wreaths that would easily retail between $70 and $100 if you bought them from a commercial florist. The beautiful Heavy Petal has excellent step-by-step, illustrated directions to get you underway.

3. Buy vintage floral pattern teacups at secondhand stores and plant ornamental bulbs in them. Great for small gifts or holiday party favors. Here's a fun variation: find old mugs with herbal print designs and plant chives, oregano, rosemary or basil. Decorate with a bit of ribbon and a card describing how to care for the plant.

4. Gift baskets. These are a wonderful catch-all for the holiday season: a real expression of your creativity and the personality of the recipient. Start with a quality Fair Trade basket, some handmade ribbon — and set your imagination free. This is a great way to bundle handmade soaps and herbal cachets, potpourri, jellies, organic candies and treats and small craft items.

5. Reusable fabric shopping bags. With attention to the millions of disposable plastic shopping bags which end up in landfills and the environment each year, reusable bags have never been hotter. All you need are basic sewing skills and some repurposed or recycled fabric. The folks at Morsbags have patterns and easy directions for making roomy shopping bags that will last for years. You can easily make a dozen unique gifts in the course of an evening — and it's more fun with friends!

Have a favorite handmade gift idea to add to this list? Please share your suggestions in our comments section.

Copyright Lighter Footstep 2008

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