Image: Gift © Brian Hagiwara, Brand X, Corbis

2. Gift wrap

My husband had an aunt who carped, every year, about the big pile of torn, colorful gift wrap the family accumulated on Christmas morning. She saw it as an egregious offense against the environment, plus a big waste of money. Everybody rolled their eyes, but you know what? She was right.

Wrapping paper isn't always recyclable -- it can be too thin, contain dyes or laminates and sport sticky ends of tape, all of which makes it tough to process. Then there's the cost: Even cheap paper can be pretty expensive when it's used only one time.

The good news is that you can make presents look lovely or charming without the commercial wrap -- and using the Sunday newspaper comics isn't your only option. Here are just a few alternatives:

  • Gift bags. My sister-in-law bought a sturdy set of these from Costco several years ago, and we're still circulating them (although she complains that she's never gotten one back). Dollar stores have gift bags for a buck apiece. They may not be recyclable either, but you'll get a heck of a lot more use out of them than you will with a comparable roll of gift wrap.
  • Fabric gift bags. If you have a sewing machine, these are pretty simple to make. Or you can simply gather a leftover bit of fabric around a present, knot the ends and be done with it.
  • Reusable shopping bags. I like this set of six you can buy at Amazon.com for about $20. Ikea has colorful Lingo bags made of polypropylene for $1 to $2. Many retailers offer reusable bags for similar prices, and some even have holiday designs.
  • Children's artwork. If you have kids, you have piles of paintings and drawings that can adorn their gifts to grandparents and other indulgent relatives. Creating wrapping paper is also a great activity to keep the tykes busy during the long winter break.
  • Plain paper. You used to be able to get the unused ends of newsprint rolls from your local newspaper for free or cheap, but newer printing technologies have eliminated those in many areas. Instead, check out the 100-foot rolls of drawing paper you can get for $5 from Ikea or the 1,000-foot rolls of craft paper you can order from Amazon.com and other suppliers for less than $40. You can draw or stamp designs on the paper, or simply tie it with a raffia bow and a sprig of holly as adornment.