Designer gifts you can afford

So you want to give a designer gift, but you're afraid you can't afford it? Never fear -- we found the cheapest thing in each of these top high-end stores.

The one-word names are the very epitome of luxury. Retail palaces filled with lust-worthy delights.

Gucci, Cartier, Tiffany, Vuitton, Chanel.

Strolling along Boul Mich, we pass their windows and gaze wistfully at objets that seem almost familiar, since we've seen them on impossibly beautiful women in the pages of the most exclusive style magazines.

We yearn to enter these glorious, hushed shops and surround ourselves with the abundance that the wealthy and famous can take for granted.

But actually walking into these stores? There's something that holds us back. Could it be the absence of cold cash?

If you're like me, you've been afraid to go inside — knowing that you can't afford what they're selling, compounded with the worry that snooty salespeople will treat us like we don't belong there.

Fear no more.

Wearing my serviceable parka over a $20 Walmart dress, I took the plunge into the highest end of the shopping world.

My mission was to see if I was intimidated or otherwise made to feel unwelcome. And, equally important, to see how little I could spend and walk out with a gift emblazoned with a prestige logo, beautifully wrapped in signature style, then carefully placed in a status shopping bag.

Mission accomplished.

In every store, I was well-treated — even after I announced I was looking for the cheapest logo thing they could sell me (except perfume, which seemed way too predictable.) I scored finds for $150 or less at all of the shops.

My favorite store was Louis Vuitton because a lovely French saleswoman with a musical accent offered me a glass of champagne while my $150 mini-scarf was being wrapped. The wrapping, by the way, was intensely divine. The box itself slid open with a little leather tab. And luscious strips of dark leather enveloped the gift — in place of ribbon.

Even a mere key chain at Vuitton can run $300 so I was thrilled to learn that the store sells leather luggage tags for only $44 which they'll stamp right there with initials for free. Tragically, they were sold out when I went shopping. What a delightfully-classy-but-frugal gift that would be, with the attendant fancy wrapping in a signature Louis Vuitton bag. Fantastique.

Tiffany personnel didn't blink when I asked for the "cheapest piece of jewelry in the store." It had to be immediately wearable (ruling out a charm without a chain to wear it on). I was about to cave in to the sterling $150 Tiffany lock on a chain when the cheery sales associate rose to the challenge. "I can get you lower!" she enthused, suggesting a smaller model with chain for $100. Sold!

Placed in a Tiffany blue pouch inside a Tiffany blue box within a mini Tiffany blue shopping bag, the whole thing made my heart pound. Tiffany's second floor has more well-priced items than any luxury store in town. And oh, oh, oh. You can't go wrong with those blue boxes.

Chanel was my toughest assignment since everything in the store is pricey. Even Coco Chanel's smallest signature pin-on silk camellia — not much bigger than a 50-cent piece — cost $200. But then I spotted the cosmetics area. For only $23 I bought a bottle of Chanel nail polish in "Vendetta." (Love the name).

"I can make it look very pretty," promised the Chanel man. "I'll put it in a Chanel bag and put a camellia on it." Wow!

The cases at Cartier are not exactly overflowing with cheap choices. Aside from fragrances (boring) the least expensive thing in the store was a brown leather key fob for $125. But the gold leather one was so much prettier, I caved and bought it for $10 more.

As the sales associate went behind closed doors to wrap my package with origami skill and red Cartier ribbon, she offered me a water. The gift came with its own credit-card size certificate of authenticity and arrived in a crimson bag marked Cartier in gilded letters. Yum.

My last stop was Gucci where the cheapest choices were ho-hum key chains ($130). I already had acquired one of those from Cartier so I opted for a small, zippered cosmetic case ($150) that came in its own logo'd, soft drawstring protective dust bag. That, in turn, was tucked into a box stamped Gucci Firenze 1921" placed into a large Gucci shopping bag.

Since I can't afford a real Gucci leather tote bag, I've been using the shopping bag to carry my Walgreens and Forever 21 purchases around for weeks now. And you know what? I feel like an Italian princess. Bellissima.

Tips on luxe for less:

+Even if you're buying something for yourself, the packaging is part of the luxury so insist on the full gift wrap treatment.

+Always ask for a gift card. They're beautiful, elegant — and free.

+Insist on the most elaborate wrapping available (also complimentary).

+Be sure the package is placed in a logo shopping bag. Swinging a status bag is a piece of the high-end experience.

+Understand the return policy; some stores offer only store credit or a limited time for returns.