Image: Gift © RubberBall, SuperStock

Many gifts that will be exchanged this holiday season will be forgotten before the ornaments have been packed away for another year.

But there are some gifts you can give that will have a lasting impact.

Although there are no guarantees, any of the following can potentially change someone's life for the better.

1. An engagement ring

Getting married is a big deal, and not just because you have to learn to refer to your squeeze as "my husband" or "my wife."

Marriage can be good for your financial health. People who get and stay married build up twice the wealth of those who remain single, according to one study. But be warned: Those who divorce wind up with far less wealth than comparable single folks.

The lesson is clear: Choose your spouse well.

Also, don't buy the diamond industry's propaganda that you have to spend a certain number of paychecks on the ring. Buy what you can afford, which means what you can pay for in cash. If you have to go into debt to buy a ring, you're paying too much.

The same goes for the wedding, by the way. Starting out your new life in debt is a bad precedent.

2. A pet

Pets can be good for our health and our psyches, improving blood pressure and reducing loneliness. Pets offer particular benefits to children, increasing their ability to empathize and get along with others.

Liz Weston

Liz Weston

Pets also can be messy, expensive and time-consuming, so make sure you're ready for the commitment. You can get a good idea of the first-year costs of various animals from this chart from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Talk to owners of the type of pet you want in order to get an idea of the time commitment involved, and consider buying pet health insurance.

Stephanie Harding-Rink of Battle Ground, Wash., got her first dog at age 10. It was the Christmas after her father, who refused to let her get a dog, left the family. She had the pooch for 12 years.

"It is amazing what a dog can do for you in the middle of a very emotional time," Harding-Rink said. "Especially when your voice is not heard, the dog will always be there to listen."

Paula Hodge Chadick of Puyallup, Wash., agreed.

"When I was going through a very difficult separation, my mom, who is not a dog lover, went to the pound and found my son and I a standard poodle," Chadick wrote. "Both her thoughtfulness and his unending affection brought us through a very difficult time."

3. An organ donation

Mike Rappaport of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., had three daughters, a marketing business that employed 50 people -- and end-stage liver disease. A transplant in September 2009 saved his life.

"It sounds like a cliché, but I learned to appreciate every day," said Rappaport, 50, who is a single father of girls aged 12, 17 and 18. "I'm happy to have the opportunity to have problems. (Otherwise) I wouldn't be here to deal with the fact that my daughter wants to stay out until midnight."

Every single day, 19 people die waiting for organ transplants. Though you can't exactly put a bodily organ under someone's Christmas tree, you may be able to save or improve a life by:

  • Signing up as an organ donor with your state's donor registry.
  • Designating your decision when you apply for or renew your driver's license.
  • Talking to your family about your decision so that they can be prepared to follow your wishes.

4. An inspiring book

Several readers mentioned books that, given at the right time, had a big impact on their lives. Some were religious or spiritual in nature, and some were in my bailiwick: finance.

A good money book can help make the baffling world of finance suddenly graspable. If your recipient is ready, he or she can put the lessons learned to work immediately and build a richer, more stable financial life.

In particular, I recommend two money books that have been changing people's lives for years: "The Wealthy Barber" by David Chilton and "The Richest Man in Babylon" by George S. Clayson.

Clayson uses short stories or parables, and Chilton's book is structured as a novel, and each communicates sound financial planning principles in an entertaining, easy-to-read form.

5. A goat

Or a sheep. Or a water buffalo. Or even a flock of chicks. Donations to charities such as Heifer International and World Vision will buy farm animals that can help impoverished families become self-sufficient. Heifer International recipients agree to "pass on the gift" by sharing the offspring of gift animals with others in need. If you're donating on behalf of a child, consider buying the book "Beatrice's Goat," which tells the true story of how a Ugandan girl's life changed, allowing her to attend school for the first time, after her family received a goat from Heifer International.

6. A college education

The spiraling cost of higher education -- and the huge debts some people take on to get their degrees -- has led some to question the value of a college education.

They shouldn't. The median weekly wage for a college-educated worker in 2009 was $1,025 -- or 64% more than the $626 earned by someone with only a high school diploma.

Furthermore, the college graduate is more likely to keep that job. The November 2010 unemployment rate for people with at least a bachelor's degree was 5.1%. The rate for those with only a high school diploma was nearly twice that: 10%.

Although Americans' incomes have been eroding for years, those who don't have college educations have suffered more than those who do. Inflation-adjusted earnings for men with no more than a high school education slid 31% over the past 20 years, from $53,395 to $37,107.

The situation is only going to get worse as the last remaining manufacturing jobs get shipped overseas. A college education these days is a chance at economic survival.

The key is to get an affordable education -- one that is paid for out of pocket or with federal student loans, which are more flexible and have more consumer protections than private student loans.

Though you may not be able to give future grads a four-year ride, a contribution to a 529 college savings plan may help them get the education they need and reduce their future debt.

7. An unexpected act of kindness

An anonymous donor gave one reader $20,000 for a down payment on her first home. ToniAnn Mannino Frothingham of Atlanta paid the bill of a complete stranger whom she saw pleading for an extension at the local utility office. A former boyfriend paid for Rebecca Brenon Carden's college education, using money inherited from his father, after she was forced to drop out because she didn't have the money.

"Sadly, he never got to see me graduate -- he succumbed to cancer at age 24, but I live my life every day knowing that I wouldn't be where I am today if he hadn't given me that gift," Carden wrote. "Hopefully, one day I will be in a position where I can pass his gift on to someone who could not otherwise afford college."

Giving to charities is great and something I think should be part of everyone's financial plan. But if you can swing it, a generous, unexpected gift to another person can really turn a life around -- or at least restore someone's faith in humanity.

It feels pretty good, too.

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"I can't explain the feeling I had the rest of the day, (but) it truly is better to give than receive," said Frothingham, who paid off the stranger's utility bill. "My husband and I watch every penny, but this was so worth it! I am so glad I did it."

Liz Weston is the Web's most-read personal-finance writer. She is the author of several books, most recently "The 10 Commandments of Money: Survive and Thrive in the New Economy" (find it on Bing). Weston's award-winning columns appear every Monday and Thursday, exclusively on MSN Money. Join the conversation and send in your financial questions on Liz Weston's Facebook fan page.