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30 ways to spend $0 on gift wrap

Gift wrap becomes trash the moment a present is opened, so spending money for it is senseless. Here are 30 ways to never pay for gift wrap again. 

By Karla BowsherContributor / December 8, 2012

This product image released by One Kings Lane shows gift-wrapped boxes with paper designed by stylist-designer Rachel Zoe. With some creative thinking, you can wrap attractive gifts without paying a penny, Bowsher says.

One Kings Lane/AP/File

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I don’t believe in gift wrap – at least not the kind that costs money.

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I learned as a kid that gift wrap becomes trash the moment a present is opened, so paying for it is senseless.

So I’ve gathered all the tricks that my mother taught me and that I’ve picked up along the way.

Free wrapping paper

  • Maps: Outdated maps – which is pretty much all maps nowadays – make novel wrapping paper, as do the map inserts that often come in National Geographic magazines.
  • Magazines: Colorful magazine pages make unique wrapping paper for small gifts. Don’t subscribe to any magazines? Ask friends, family, or the local recycling center for their already-read issues. Just don’t steal from your neighbor’s recycling bin: Scavenging is illegal in some cities and counties.
  • Old calendars: The big images on hanging monthly calendars work just like magazine pages.
  • Comics: The funnies section of the Sunday newspaper makes great wrapping paper for kids’ gifts. Again, ask around for leftover newspapers.
  • Newsprint: Other sections of the paper – from sports to classifieds – work too. Weekend issues often offer especially colorful images and fancy designs.
  • Wallpaper: If you have leftover wallpaper lying around the house, it makes unique wrapping paper.
  • Book pages: Do you own books that just collect dust because you no longer read or need them? If it’s too much trouble to sell or donate them, reincarnate their pages as wrapping paper. This is an especially great option for textbooks, which often become useless and valueless once a new edition comes out. Plus textbook pages tend to be more colorful.
  • Phonebook pages: Online phonebooks like AnyWho.com have rendered their paper predecessors obsolete for anyone with Internet access, yet publishers still drop them on doorsteps for free each year.
  • Old sheet music: If your children (or anyone else you know) went through a musical instrument-playing phase that didn’t last, their old sheet music makes unusual wrapping paper.
  • Food wrappers: If you buy any foods that are individually wrapped and come in a bag (think Starburst candies, for example), save the bag, cut square or rectangular pieces out of it, and use them as wrapping paper. A bag that held foods like pasta or beans would also work – as long as the bag didn’t hold anything that would attract bugs (like brown sugar or potato chips).
  • Brown bags: Cut-up brown grocery bags make sturdy wrapping paper.
  • Shopping bags: Cut-up paper shopping bags (often used by mall-based stores) also work. If the outside of the bag is colorful, use it. If the outside has a logo or store name, use the inside.
  • Used wrapping paper: Unless it’s torn to pieces when a gift is opened, wrapping paper is often left intact and unwrinkled enough to reuse.
  • Homemade wrapping paper: Certain types of free wrapping paper materials, like brown bags, make drab gift wrap. But you can jazz it up with paint, crayons, stickers, stamps, or whatever arts and crafts supplies you have on hand. This is also a great way to involve the kids, especially if they aren’t yet coordinated enough to help wrap gifts.
  • Fabric: Spare fabric and fabric pieces cut from old clothes can work as gift wrap if you fold it right. Google furoshiki, a Japanese folding cloth, and you should find directions for how to wrap just about any shape of object with fabric.
  • Gift bags: If you don’t have any of the above wrapping paper materials lying around, use a gift bag.

Free gift bags

  • Used gift bags: Gift bags can generally be reused several times before they show any wear or tear.
  • Shopping bags: Certain paper shopping bags, especially holiday-themed ones, are nice enough to reuse as gift bags.
  • Used tissue paper: Tissue paper naturally wrinkles when stuffed in gift bags. So unless it gets torn, it’s reusable.
  • Tissue paper alternatives: Some of the free wrapping paper materials above also work as tissue paper.

Free boxes

  • Used boxes: When you get a box in the mail or purchase something that comes in a box, save it if it’s a good size for gifts.
  • Warehouse boxes: Wholesale warehouses like Costco and Sam’s Club give boxes away to customers. So, instead of picking boxes that fit your groceries, take boxes that would work best for gifts.
  • Household boxes: Check your closets or kitchen cupboards if you need a box in a pinch. Many people stick empty electronics boxes in a closet, and even a cracker or cereal box would work. If you don’t like the shape of those boxes, you can resize them: I recently discovered a great blog post that includes step-by-step directions for resizing cereal boxes into more useful shapes.
  • Used bows: When you receive a gift that has a bow in decent condition, save and reuse it. If it has lost its stickiness, use a piece of double-stick tape.
  • Homemade bows: Make your own bows with free wrapping paper materials. How About Orange, the blog of a Chicago-based designer, has the best step-by-step tutorial I’ve seen for making bows.
  • Used ribbon: Ribbons are often cut when a gift is unwrapped, but if you open gifts carefully, you can sometimes salvage a long enough piece to reuse.
  • Ribbon alternatives: Save longer scraps of string or yarn that you happen across. Even make funky ribbons too.
  • Flora as accents: I recently stumbled across a blog post by someone who fashioned tiny evergreen branches into a mini wreath to decorate a gift wrapped in brown paper.
  • Used greeting cards as accents: Save the nicest holiday cards you receive every year. Ones with colorful images or creative designs on the front can be cut in half so you can tape (use double-stick) the front half to gifts wrapped in drab materials.
  • Used greeting cards as tags: The front half of fancy cards can also serve as gift tags. Write the “To:” and “From:” on the black backside, punch a hole in one corner, and attach it with a ribbon.

Karla Bowsher covers consumer, retail, and health issues for Money Talks News, a consumer/personal finance TV news feature that airs in about 80 cities as well as around the Web. This column first appeared in Money Talks News.

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