Last-Minute Holiday Gift Ideas

Even though I've seen countless holiday shopping deals cross my desk in the past few months, as in past years, I'm down to my one- to two-week shopping window again. If you're like me, don't panic. There are still some easy ways to save money and get practical, useful gifts for your loved ones in a reasonable amount of time. And Jan. 1, you can resolve to get started earlier next year.

Gift cards and gift certificates are popular items, with about 54 percent of people reporting that they like receiving gift cards, according to the National Retail Federation. However, this group also reported that roughly 20 to 25 percent of gift cards given last year still haven't been redeemed, which amounts to about $8 billion unused.

That is a shocking figure, but I'm not sure that it's a reason to stop giving gift cards. How many gift items have you received in the past that you haven't used? I still have the tags on a few clothing items I've received as gifts. And I have plenty of boring books, massagers, candles and kitchen gadgets taking up space and gathering dust in my cabinets. Perhaps we just have to do a better job giving people gift cards for items they really want.

One key is to get gift cards or gift certificates that are easy to redeem. If they can be redeemed online, and you know the recipient is an Internet shopper, online gift cards may be ideal. Some of my favorite gift card ideas include:

Discounted restaurant gift certificates sold online at Restaurant.com. More than 8,000 restaurants participate in the program. So your gift recipients can redeem their certificates at a restaurant they like in their area. You'll pay $10 for a $25 certificate, or about $5 to $6 per certificate using online coupon codes available at sites like www.couponmom.com.

Discounted magazine subscription gift certificates. You can buy discounted magazine subscriptions to many popular magazines at sites like www.bestdealsmagazines.com.

You will pay as little as $3.99 for an annual magazine subscription, and you can find coupon codes on coupon sites for further discounts (such as 15 percent off). If you do not know the type of magazine your recipients would like, you can buy a gift certificate with a face value of $10 or so to allow them to select a couple of magazines to get all year. Because there are no shipping costs or tax, and they are easily ordered online; you can be sure these certificates will be redeemed.

Buy an e-certificate to an online retailer. One of my favorite gifts is to give an e-certificate to Amazon.com or Target.com. Most people can find something they like at large retailers, and they can order online.

It isn't hard to find items with free shipping and no tax at Amazon.com, and that makes it easy and inexpensive for anyone to redeem easily. And if you are really down to the wire on time, the e-certificate option delivers the coupon to anyone's e-mail box immediately.

Prepaid phone cards. Long distance phone cards are frequently available as "buy one, get one free" offers at drugstores, and they sell for a low price at wholesale clubs, some dollar stores and discount stores. You can pay as little as a few cents a minute and give a practical gift to a student or friend on a tight budget. You are actually giving them the gift of being able to stay in touch with loved ones all year.

To really stretch your gift budget, you can be creative about getting gift cards at virtually no cost. My favorite bargain ideas include:

Coinstar Gift Certificates: Gather up the change in your house and car. Look everywhere -- in purses, pockets, drawers, the car, and don't forget the couch cushions. Make it a family game to collect every available coin, and then take the change to your nearest retailer's Coinstar machine. The machine counts the change and typically charges a 9 percent fee if you redeem your change for cash. However, if you redeem your change for a participating retailer's gift card, you pay no fee at all, and you get a gift without touching your bank account. Read more details at www.coinstar.com.

Use free mileage to get $25 Restaurant Gift Certificates: If you have United Airlines mileage that may expire on Dec.31, you can also get $25 Restaurant.com gift certificates with only 1,000 miles. Please note: to receive certificates in time for Christmas, you would need to place your redemption request by December 14, although this offer is available all year long. You can find the redemption link in the Restaurant Coupons section at www.couponmom.com or you can go to this link on United's site.

Earn rewards points when you buy gift cards: For example, Marriott Rewards members can earn rewards points when they purchase Marriott gift cards for hotel stays, spa services, restaurant meals and more. Members earn 10 points for every dollar spent, and the promotion expires Dec. 31, 2007.

Buy gift cards at the grocery store to earn rewards: Many grocery stores now offer a full array of retailer gift cards. If your grocery store offers a fuel rewards program or if you get cash rebates on your grocery spending with a store credit card, you can earn rewards when you buy retailers' gift cards at the grocery store. For example, Giant Eagle stores offer a Fuelperks program that gives shoppers 10 cents off per gallon of gas for every $50 purchase, which translates to roughly a 4 percent rebate on a gift card purchase if you have a 20-gallon tank of gas.

Upromise $25 bonus sweetens your gift's value. Upromise is a program that gives members a percentage of their online spending as rebates in an account that can either be directed to a college savings plan or redeemed as cash all year long. However, you can make sure your gift recipient uses your gift card by telling them about the Upromise holiday promotion of $25 for new members, available through December 31.

So, if you were to give people gift cards to any Upromise retailer in any amount, if they join Upromise (free) and use the gift card you gave them for shopping online, they would get the standard percentage rebate as well as the $25 cash bonus. They can also use any available online coupon codes to save more on their purchases, and I wouldn't be surprised if retailers offer great clearance prices beginning Dec. 26. Just be sure to explain the savings strategies when you give the gift card. You can read more about the promotion at Upromise.com.

Stephanie Nelson shares her savings tips as a regular contributor on ABCNEWS.com. You can find more of her savings tips in her book "The Greatest Secrets of the Coupon Mom" and on her website at www.couponmom.com.