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Capitalize on Meaningful--and Affordable--Gifts It's the thought that counts, so you might as well save a few bucks.

By Karin Price Mueller

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Small businesses want their clients and employees to know they're appreciated, and the holidays provide an ideal opportunity to say thank you. Most businesses don't have extra money to throw around, so you have to be practical and--dare we say?--sometimes even cheap.

Here are some creative and inexpensive holiday gift ideas that speak volumes without breaking the bank.

Employees know times are tough. They're struggling to make ends meet just like you are. They probably don't need a company mug or a new keychain, so give them something they'll really appreciate and remember, all without spending a bundle.

  • Pick up the tab.As concerns about the cost of health care continue to mount, you can help ease the price tag. Offer to pay one week or one month of premiums for employee health or dental insurance, life insurance or other employee benefits.
  • Offer them an education.Give your employees tickets to a free financial planning seminar. Contact a local financial advisor and see if he would give a class to your employees for free. In exchange, the advisor would get exposure to potential clients. To find advisors in your area, visit the Financial Planning Associationand the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors.
  • Feed them.Forget about a tin of nuts or popcorn tubs. Instead, promise to bring in a weekly Friday afternoon snack. Or, for a change of pace and a chance to blow off some steam, sponsor a few wine tastings. Your employees will be appreciative each time the event rolls around, and you can spread the cost over the whole year.
  • Give the gift of choice.If you're planning to buy new equipment, office furniture or other necessities in the coming months, allow employees to decide what items they want or need. For example, ask employees to pick out new chairs for their desks or other office necessities. Just remember to include a spending cap based on your budget.
  • Offer a day off.Time is a valuable commodity to your employees. Offer each member of your staff a bonus paid day off sometime in the next year. Employees can stagger their time off so your business won't suffer. If you can't lose employees for a full day, a half-day is good too, or give a "coupon" that allows employees to come in late or leave work early.
  • Give a gym membership.You may not be able to afford a full year, but you could probably swing a trial month or two. If you're buying memberships en masse, the local gym will probably give you a significant discount. Remind the gym that you're bringing in new clients and the gym will benefit from long-term membership fees if your employees decide to keep the membership. And talk to your health insurance company; it may offer discounted premiums for employees who maintain certain activity levels.
  • Establish an Employee Appreciation Day.In lieu of a traditional and costly catered holiday party, create an experience for your employees and their families. Take them to a family-friendly film at the local theater. Or take employees and their families to a bowling alley and pick up the tab for rental shoes and snacks. Here's another option--have the entire office join you for a roller or ice skating party, skates and munchies included.

Branded coffee mugs may remind your client about your business, but they don't offer what professionals need most these days: new markets, exposure for their business and money-saving ideas. Follow these suggestions and your clients will remember your resourcefulness, thoughtfulness and creativity in tough times.

  • Host a potluck networking holiday dinner.Networking is one of the most valuable gifts anyone can give in this economic environment. Ask each client to bring a dish, or even just a dessert, and let the festivities begin. Have clients put their business cards in a hat, and like speed-dating, mix and match partners for one-on-one time at your party.
  • Carry out a cross-promotion "Secret Santa."Ask each client to donate something from their own business, such as services or products, and hold a "Secret Santa" for your customers. When you distribute the giveaways among your clients, try to match potential business partners. This gives your clients an opportunity to both promote their businesses and get exposure to new services their company may need.
  • Give a coupon or gift certificate from your business.If a client is already using your products or services, he's sure to appreciate the savings. Plus, it gives your current clients added incentive to stay with you.
  • Make a donation.In your holiday cards, offer to make a donation in your client's name to his favorite charity. Add a postage-paid return envelope for your client to "place his order." When you make the donation, give based on what your business can afford.
  • Give a marketing opportunity.Ask your clients to allow you to promote their business in a special one-shot mailing to your customers, or create a monthly "Businesses We Like" mailing. Design a special flyer, including business cards or small ad boxes, and send them to your customers at the beginning of the new year. It will give your clients a little free publicity and help them build their businesses.
  • Give information.Magazine subscriptions are dirt cheap these days. Choose titles that revolve around your clients' businesses, or choose titles that will help your clients gain an advertising or marketing edge.
  • Give the gift of history.Search for a book that relates to the history of your clients' businesses. Or, if a client's industry has some local historical ties, plot out a day trip, complete with maps and directions to hit the high points, and offer to take your client on a tour. This could give you valuable face time to strengthen your relationship with that client.

Karin Price Mueller is an award-winning personal finance and consumer writer, based in New Jersey. Read more of her work at .

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