Posted Online: Dec. 07, 2012, 10:09 am

Count down to holidays, not to your last dollar

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By Julie Stroebel Barichello, jbarichello@qconline.com

'Tis the season of giving.

Not to mention the season of turning pockets inside-out looking for quarters and ending up with a handful of lint.

Unfortunately, lint doesn't jingle quite as merrily as a handful of quarters. It also doesn't get you far in the checkout line when you're trying to pay for Christmas gifts.

Believe me. I've been the person digging to the bottom of purses, wallets and pockets looking for that one last nickel. Cashiers and currency exchanges give nothing more than scowls when you deposit lint on their countertops.

Other young — and quite likely older — individuals probably are in the same boat ... or sleigh.

Three years post-graduation, many former Eureka College classmates earn (cough ... just barely) enough to meet monthly financial obligations. Eleven months of the year, that's not a problem.

Once December rolls around, though, we start to seek creative ways to give gifts without watching our net worth dip into negative numbers.

Angela Barry, a fellow 2009 E.C. graduate, happens to be the reigning queen of holiday inspiration when it comes to thrifty, but valuable, gift-giving.

This year, she set up an advent calendar with an online journal. She instructed friends to sign up for a day between Dec. 1 and Dec. 31 to receive a gift.

Recipients can request one of several homemade projects. Angela set the guidelines, giving friends the option of fanmixes, or themed CDs, with her selections of music to accompany a book, film or television series; fan fiction short stories; graphics and Photoshop art; or "picspams," a blog highlighting a series of photos and commentary that serve as a fan tribute to a band, actor, television show or other element of pop culture.

The wish list is short — friends are asked to stick with one of those four selections — but has infinite possibilities for personalized flair.

The gifts are distinct and one-of-a-kind. Where money lacks, the presents (or "prezzies!" as Angela enthusiastically dubs them) burst the seams of Santa's gift bag with the time and personalization she invests.

The only expense is the cost of a CD, its case and postage, unless she sends music mixes electronically. All other gifts are transferable online.

A highlight to Angela's advent calendar is it requires her to know her friends. If they want a fan mix CD with a "Doctor Who" TV show theme, she not only has to find songs to correspond with the show but also know her gift-receiver's taste in music.

Few experiences are more satisfying than the realization someone cares enough to know you well.

There are no limits to the advent calendar. Gift-givers can capitalize on their talents and set the wish list boundaries based upon flexible income and spare time.

Have a knack for cooking and enough cash for ingredients? Offer people a list of goodies from which to choose. Friends can sign up by week: cookies in week one, cupcakes in week two, truffles in week three and fudge in week four.

Or perhaps you have skills in high demand. Handy with a camera? Let friends sign up for a family photo. Good at home repairs? Make a list of odd jobs and services you're willing to offer, then let people sign up for a day and time.

Limit the advent calendar however you wish. You can give gifts daily, weekly or weekends only.

The highlights of the project? It requires thought and time. It also maintains the momentum of the Christmas season by allowing you to give gifts all month.
Julie Stroebel Barichello is a former staff writer for The Times, in Ottawa, and works The Moline Dispatch, The Times' sister newspaper. She continues to contribute her column, and can be reached at jbarichello@qconline.com.