BRING A PRESENT IF...
...You're spending the night. Even if you two are close enough to share a toothbrush, your host still has an extra bed to make -- and a welcoming attitude to maintain before morning coffee kicks in. Since you're not paying for a hotel, get something more generous than a dinner-party gift.
...The party is in your honor. The event may be about you, but you should be all about the person who made it happen. Make a thank-you toast during the party, but also give a gift and card -- either before the party begins or after, when you can relive the event's highlights together.
...It's a sit-down dinner. At small affairs, the host has decided to share her efforts with a limited guest list. As one of the privileged few attendees, arrive with a token of appreciation. The cost or size of the item doesn't matter -- here, it really is the thought that counts.
...You have been cleared to bring extra people. Even if you've asked for, and received, the okay, bringing extra guests requires the host to provide more food, beverages and space. Offset the imposition by arriving with a gift from your group.
You're off the host-gift hook for: Large events (like open houses or cocktail parties), casual gatherings (like impromptu happy hours or brunches) or parties you can't attend. (For the latter, it is nice to send a handwritten thank-you for the invite.)
GIFTS FOR THE VARIOUS HOSTS IN YOUR LIFE
The Boss or Co-Worker Whether she's high up enough to sign your checks or chummy enough for watercooler gossip, business is still business. Your choice should reflect professionalism: Go with a tasteful gift that celebrates the season or workplace. For a small occasion bring a bottle of red wine or fun desk decor. For a large occasion bring monogrammed stationery or a bar set.
The Neighbor A little gift goes a long way in maintaining goodwill the next time you play your music too loud or need someone to water the plants when you travel. For a small occasion bring a collection of coasters or a box of candy. For a large occasion bring a gourmet basket or set of wineglasses.
The Friend The better the friendship, the more you know what the recipient will truly appreciate. For a small occasion, when all else fails, you can always reach for a bottle of ever-festive and indulgent bubbly. For a large occasion entertaining items that he or she may be lacking, like a cute juice squeezer, place-card holders or a party game are good ideas.
The In-Laws Your intentions might be heartfelt or strategic (we won't tell). Either way, an extra-thoughtful present will bolster your popularity among your brood. For a small occasion bring a tea-brewing set or low-maintenance plant in a decorative pot. For a large occasion bring a pair of tea towels (in colors that complement their kitchen) or a stylish cutting board.
AFFORDABLE HOMEMADE GIFTS
Personalized Holiday Garland Print photos of some of the recipient's favorite people. Laminate them and cut into shapes like circles, stars or icicles. Punch a hole in the top of each, then attach to garland with ornament hooks.
Collage Picture Frame Glue memorabilia your giftee will love -- cropped photos, ticket stubs from events you've attended together, quotes and patterned paper are a good start -- onto a basic black frame. Varnish with Mod Podge.
Host's Helper If you know your host would appreciate a hand with cleanup at the end of the event, fill a bucket with new sponges, a dish towel, cute rubber gloves and a card offering your assistance.
Emergency Cookie Kit In a lidded jar, layer the dry ingredients of your favorite cookie recipe. Write the name and description of the cookies -- including necessary additional ingredients and baking instructions -- on a card and tie it around the jar with ribbon.