Things are so tough this holiday season that some of us can't even afford to give a lump of coal - we need it to heat the house.
Well, it's not quite that bad yet. But in the spirit of economic doom, here's an under-$50 gift guide that should suit even the most restricted budgets.
BudFits for iPod/iPhone earbuds ($8.99, budfits.com): Love the iPod/iPhone, hate the earbuds? Next time those 'buds start falling out of your ears - particularly at the health club - don't think your only option is a new set of earbuds. The BudFits adapter, attached to the Apple earbuds, wraps around each ear for a secure fit that doesn't look too goofy.
Monster iClean ($9.95, monstercable.com): Never use Windex or any cleaning solvent on an iPhone, Touch or BlackBerry touchscreen. Water and a lint-free cloth work in most cases, but iClean removes grimy fingerprints, doesn't streak and comes with an antimicrobial cloth that removes bacteria.
FiiO E3 headphone amplifier for iPod (under $8.50, dealextreme.com): When I tested it in the fall, I called the Fiio the cheapo accessory of the year. Now I'm ready to drop the cheapo. This tiny, battery-powered (one AA) amplifier fits between your iPod (or any digital music player) and earphones. With most earphones, it makes everything sound better, richer and more detailed. It also extends the iPod's battery life. It's shipped (free) from China, so order early.
Pogo Stylus for iPhone/Touch ($19.95, tenonedesign.com): Being all-thumbs used to be an insult. Now it's a lifestyle, typing messages on a touch screen. But what if you're not all-thumbs, like me? (Hey, I can take an insult.) The Pogo Stylus, an aluminum shaft with an electrostatic tip and plastic travel clip, has been a savior.
Agent 18 protective case for second-generation iPod Touch ($24.95, agent18.com): Agent 18 has the first cases I've seen for the second-generation Touch. For the Greenie, the EcoShield 2G is made from recycled plastic bottles (the ClearShield 2G is standard plastic). The soft-silicone FlowerVest 2G comes in purple or blue, each with a floral design.
Duracell Mobile Charger (about $20, duracell.com/precharged): A new generation of rechargeable Nickel Metal Hydride batteries comes charged - it's about time - but also holds that charge up to a year, far longer than conventional NiMH batteries. This mobile charger that comes with two AA batteries also replenishes any USB-enabled device like a BlackBerry or iPod.
Under $50 (with asterisk)
SkipDr Premier Disc Repair System ($45, digitalinnovations.com): This device repairs scratches and other surface blemishes that cause a CD to skip. It's especially valuable for people transferring CDs to their computer. If a computer has trouble reading a lot of your discs, it might be the tiny scratches that somehow didn't bother your DVD player. Digital Innovations also has repair systems for DVDs and video-game discs. At the Web site, look under support for some cleaning-repairing FAQs.
RadioShack Analog Sound-Level Meter ($45, radioshack.com): If your technically inclined guy has a hot home theater, surprise him with one of these and tell him it's time to calibrate his surround-sound system's audio. He'll love you for it, even if he doesn't know what you're talking about. Tell him it's the best way to make sure the output of each speaker is properly matched for optimum surround sound. (Use the calibration tones from an audio-video receiver or a test disc.) Get the model with the analog meter, not the digital.
And the asterisk ...
"Band of Brothers" (six-disc Blu-ray set): The HBO series that follows Easy Company through World War II has been preserved in this immaculate set, packaged in a full-metal-jacket tin, with the highest-resolution video (1080p).
The set retails for $100 but is available for $55 at Amazon.com, close enough to our $50 limit. Note that the person receiving this should own a Blu-ray player.
Another HBO series that follows the first 40 days of the Iraq war, Generation Kill, comes out Dec. 16 on a three-disc DVD set ($42 at Amazon.com).
Samsung YP-S2 digital music player ($40, samsungusa.com): This cute little 1-gigabyte player, better known as the Pebble, beats Apple at its own game - it's cooler, 20 percent less expensive and more stylish than the Shuffle. It glows when it's awake, too. Any kid with a Pebble is making a statement: Apple is not the boss of me!
Coosh earbuds ($20, coosh.com): It's tough to resist earbuds named Coosh packaged in a round plastic pillbox. These aren't ordinary earbuds, either, because silicone hoops that extend behind the ears keep the 'buds comfortably in place - unlike some other 'buds we know (hello, Apple). Coosh, from the pen-lighter-shaver people at Bic, are available in white, black and pink. They're not just for kids, either. Coosh sounds surprisingly good for $20 earbuds.
"Hannah Montana DVD Game" and "High School Musical DVD Game" ($30 each, disneydvd.disney.go.com): Can't afford a Wii this year but don't want to break little Emma's heart? These interactive games are playable on a DVD player, using the remote control as the faux joystick. Among the activities in Hannah Montana, players take over for their on-screen favorites at a virtual concert, audition for Hannah's band and participate in sing-alongs. Likewise, High School Musical has 11 activities.
Make your own book of memories (Blurb.com, $12.95 and higher): Young parents or anyone wishing to preserve holiday memories can become do-it-yourself book publishers by downloading the Blurb.com software, arranging photos and text, then ordering the final product in book form. The softcovers start at $12.95, the hard-bound books at $22.95. While you're at it, how about gathering Grandma's recipes and making your own family cookbook?