Image: Jar of change with holiday ribbon © Yoko Inoue, Getty Images

The average U.S. consumer will spend $515.94 on gifts for the 2011 holiday season, according to the National Retail Federation.

What amateurs. Erin Huffstetler spends $100 or less on gifts for a husband, two kids and a couple of dozen other people.

The Tennessee resident hits yard sales and thrift shops, cashes in reward-program points, watches for coupons and other special deals, and scours the Internet for freebies.

Understand: She's not giving out tattered T-shirts and dime-store bath salts for Christmas. Here are a few of her frugal finds:

  • A new men's watch (still in the box), $3 at a yard sale
  • Godiva chocolate, free with Hallmark store coupons.
  • A complete set of Nancy Drew books (in hardcover), $2 at a book sale.

"It's all about patience with Christmas gifts: looking all year and being creative about finding them," says Huffstetler, who writes the Frugal Living Guide for About.com.

Image: Donna Freedman

Donna Freedman

Even if you can't afford to spend much (or at all) this year, it's still possible to give. Like Huffstetler, you just have to get creative about how you do it.

The following frugal hacks are not one size fits all. For example, you might not have time to treasure-hunt in thrift stores. Do what works for you.

And yes, it's a little late in the season for some of these ideas. But you can start now for next year.

Why pay retail?

Stop thinking that "thrift store" equals "you cheap so-and-so." I've seen some beautiful items still in the shrink-wrap and garments bearing original department-store tags. Ask your local stores which days the new stock is set out, and watch for sales and special promotions.

Secondhand stores are a greener way to shop. But they're also a way to find unique items, according to Kelly Hancock, the author of "Saving Savvy: Smart and Easy Ways to Cut Your Spending in Half and Raise Your Standard of Living . . . and Giving!"

"Look for nostalgia from your mom and dad's era, or retro decorative pieces for friends," says Hancock, who blogs at Faithful Provisions.

Yard sales may also feature plenty of retro items. Think "empty-nesters cleaning out the attic before downsizing." That season is long past in many parts of the country, but there's always the yard sale's indoor cousin, the rummage sale.

The more organized sales weed out the antiques and other valuable items, so truly super deals are less common. But a steal is in the eye of the beholder, and you never know what you're going to find. One of my favorite gifts to myself came from a rummage sale: the same kind of aluminum cookie press that my mother used. Seeing that familiar green box brought me to tears. The press still works beautifully and brings back many fond memories. Not bad for $3.

Why pay at all?

Kids outgrow toys and clothes fairly quickly. Instead of shopping, try swapping.

Is your kid is just discovering "The Cat in the Hat" while the child next door is so over Dr. Seuss? Maybe you've got items that his mom covets. Propose a trade.

Some parents' groups organize swap sessions regularly. If none exist in your area, create your own, informally with a few friends or by putting up a note at your child's school or your place of worship.

Or go online. Established swap sites such as Swapmamas and thredUP let you trade with people all over the country. You can also look for specific items, as opposed to roaming from thrift store to rummage sale to consignment shop.

Each swap site has its own way of doing things, so allow yourself time to learn the ropes. You may strike gold. An American Girl doll and a PlayStation game system were both traded last year at thredUP, according to spokeswoman Karen Fein.

Since grown-ups need thrifty threads, too, why not set up a BFF trading session? Think of it as "consignment store comes to my living room." This is also a great way to find deserving homes for scented candles, stationery, vases and other well-intentioned gifts that never got used.

Note: Since someone attending the swap may have given you one of those items in the first place, suggest a "no offense" policy. No offense, but I've developed an allergy to fragrances. No offense, but I no longer collect unicorns.