The Complete Guide to Beautiful, Frugal Gift Wrap

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Wrapping paper and supplies have always seemed expensive to me. The paper is enjoyed and then trashed in a matter of seconds, so why did I pay so much money for it?

On the flip side, I have always been an artist and aesthetics are very important to me. I love beautiful gift wrap, sometimes as much as the gift inside. I love making a gift beautiful. I love receiving a beautiful gift.

After more than five years of research, here’s my guide to frugal gift wrap.

Wrapping Paper

Why are all the hipsters wrapping their gifts in brown paper? Because it is cheap.

A quick survey of gift wrap paper on Amazon shows 49.5 square feet for $16.97 or $0.34 per square foot, 120 square feet for $17.97 or $0.15 per square foot, and 150 square feet for $17.99 or $0.12 per square foot.

And then, there is brown wrapping paper like the Pacon 5850 Kraft Wrapping Paper which is 4 feet by 200 feet. For $23.72, you get 800 square feet of wrapping paper. That is $0.03 per square foot, a price which cannot be beat. My husband and I bought our roll January 21, 2013 for $20.88. For the past five years, we have used it exclusively as our wrapping paper and still have half a roll left.

You can also find the same roll in many other colors for between $30 and $40 or between $0.04 and $0.05 per square foot.

Regular tape is $15.00 for 10 rolls of 1000 inches or 833 feet or $0.02 per foot. Packing tape is $11.23 for 6 rolls of 800 inches or 400 feet or $0.03 per foot. When you consider the width of packing tape (1.88 inches vs. regular tape’s 0.75 inches), the two are near equivalent.

The brown wrapping paper is thick. If you tape your packages with packing tape, the paper is thick enough you can decorate the wrapping, write the address, and mail the package as is.

To decorate the brown paper you have several options. You can color, draw, or paint right on the wrapping. Crayons and sharpie both show up very well. A stamp and ink pad can make a nice pattern. Ribbon is an affordable way to decorate. At $10.98 for 360 feet, that is $0.03 per foot. You can use printed photos, cut paper, or doilies for around the same price. Sprigs of pine make a good cheap Christmas accent.

My favorite decor is even cheaper: Maya Road Baker’s Twine which is 100 yards (300 feet) for $4.73 or $0.02 per foot. When wrapped and tied in this manner, the completed presents often make the recipient sing “…brown paper packages tied up with string. These are a few of my favorite things!” as they open the gift.

In total, wrapping a standard paperback book with the brown paper and twine costs around 5¢. The same book in cheap wrapping paper with no decor is 12¢. That makes 7¢ of savings by selecting a large paper roll.

Bags & Boxes

The main alternative to wrapping paper is either gift bags or gift boxes.

Gift bags are really ideal for bridal and baby shower presents. While other gift-giving events like birthdays or Christmas can afford the time it takes to open wrapped presents, bridal and baby showers do not have this luxury. With only three or so hours to eat, visit with everyone, and open the mound of presents, gift bags are ideal.

Gift bags range in price. You can get 1 bag for $3.49, $5.99, or more. On the cheaper end, here are 12 for $8.99 ($0.75 per bag). The cheap ones look cheap. The expensive ones look expensive.

In favor of gift bags, you never wear out a gift bag after one use. If you save the gift bag, you can stretch its value. The record my mom and I hold is using one soccer-themed birthday gift bag for almost 10 years, trading it back and forth from birthday to birthday. However, to rival the brown paper in cost effectiveness, you have to use each gift bag 37 – 174 times. Even at 10 years of 2 birthdays, that is only 20 uses before the bag was falling apart. Also, unless you are using the gift bag within your nuclear family, the extra uses of the bag are for your recipient, not you. Even our record gift bag was actually originally purchased by someone else (Thanks, Ashley!) before it was used up by my family.

That being said, if you are the recipient of the gift bag, you get the best deal of all. I have never purchased a gift bag or tissue paper, for example, yet I have a sizeable collection. Wrapping in reused gift bags costs $0, which is awesome. Most of my bags came from my bridal or baby shower. Now, I dole them back out to the next generation of future brides or mothers-to-be at their showers.

The only problem with this plan is storing the gift bags waiting for another shower invite. I have mine packed into a large box in the closet.

As for gift boxes, I enjoy interesting cardboard packaging from products (which is free) and then wrapping them in wrapping paper or construction paper to hide the packaging. In these cases, there are two options for sourcing the wrapping paper. Sometimes I splurge and buy nice wrapping paper. Other times, I open my wrapped presents carefully to save particularly beautiful wrapping paper from a birthday or Christmas to use on the boxes. After wrapping the interesting packaging boxes though, I can then reuse them multiple times each year for gifts to family.

My mother is also a bit craftier than me. With her sewing machine in the basement, she has also been known to make cloth bags by sewing a three-sided pouch and then adding a ribbon to the open end so that it can be tied closed. Cloth is fairly expensive, but if you make these early enough in your gift giving career, they can last and be reused for decades inside your nuclear family.


The easiest place to locate large selections of cards is at the grocery store, but the prices aren’t awesome for a one-shot item. Normally, the cheapest ones are around $2.

Cards are also in Dollar-Store-like locations, often 2 for $1 ($0.50 per card), which is a better price, but many of the cards themselves are not awesome.

Online offers some bulk savings with large greeting card packs like 36 cards for $10.99 or $0.31 per card, but you are stuck with their preset selection.

Among my father’s brothers, they have been known to just add a note to the bottom of a card they’ve already received to reuse a good one. They’ve traded some of those cards around for several years. Although affordable, it is not a gag that most recipients appreciate.

Stepping outside of the realm of greeting cards shows more savings. If you get note card packs instead, the price is a bit lower, like 48 cards for $12.99 ($0.27 per card) or 50 cards for $9.99 ($0.20 per card), but it requires that you be more clever in your writing.

Luckily, places like Hallmark offer amazing guides for what to write on the inside of a card. For example, here is “what to write in a Christmas card ” and “what to write in a birthday card .”

Free Wrapping?

There are also several free wrapping options. Sometimes stores offers free gift wrap for store purchases if you ask. My father used to wrap all our presents from him in the Sunday Comics section. My mother-in-law works for a maritime shipping company that retired a whole stack of outdated maps which she used as beautiful wrapping paper for several years. One of my best friends from high school just totes the presents in an attractive bag and presents them to you out of the bag unwrapped.

Frugal and beautiful intersect in gift wrap quite often, but it requires intentionality and creativity to avoid the hidden budget busters of gift wrap.

Photo by Kari Shea on Unsplash
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Chief Operating Officer, CFP®, APMA®

Megan Russell has worked with Marotta Wealth Management most of her life. She loves to find ways to make the complexities of financial planning accessible to everyone. She is the author of over 800 financial articles and is known for her expertise on tax planning.