Alice-Azania Jarvis: The vintage gift is just as risky

In the Red: Sorry, Mum, you're going to have to put up with a cheap present this year

For many, August means school holidays, scattered showers, the arrival of autumn fashions. For me, it means birthdays. Not mine, unfortunately, but others. The most important is my mother's – especially this year, because not only will she be reaching something of a landmark age, but I managed to forget about Mothers' Day. Yes, I completely forget. Which, really, means only one thing: time to pull out all the stops.

The trouble is that I've no idea how. After furnishing my new flat, I'm all but broke. Anything I do get her is going to have to be cheap; I simply can't afford a luxury gift or slap-up-meal. The idea, I suppose, is to combine minimum financial input with maximum glee-on-the-day results.

"Make her something," suggests Rose, my 17-year-old sister. Like that's going to happen. What could I possibly make that my mother would want? I know she's my mum and all that – but even maternal adoration wouldn't be able to disguise the fact that anything I make is bound to be a) held together with sticky tape and b) utter rubbish. It's not that I'm entirely without creativity. In fact, I've had my fair share of artistic moments. I knitted a scarf (once). And I can cook (sort of). And for years I've made my own greetings cards.

But really, a home-made birthday present – what exactly would that be? A tin-can candle holder? A magazine rack made out of cereal boxes? A CD? No. I'll have to buy something.

There are, it seems, three obvious solutions when looking for something on the cheap. One, buy it in bulk. Two, buy it second-hand or three... well, just hope for a bargain.

The first isn't an option, for a number of reasons. Do I really want to give my mother the same set of candles that I gave to my next-door neighbour? The point of birthdays, surely, is to make someone feel special; an identikit gift certainly won't do that.

The vintage gift is just as risky. Sometimes a second-hand gift can prove delightful – I still treasure a 1940s bag given to me three years ago – but vintage won't wash with my mother; ironically, for an ex-actress, she can't stand wearing others' clothes. Which, really, leaves me only one option: to find something affordable, but meaningful.

Regardless of expense, meaningful presents – those which reference some shared joke or happy memory – are always the most treasured and, thankfully, don't have to break the bank. If I can't spoil her with luxury, then at least I can spoil her with effort. Oh Lord, I sound like a girl scout. Of course, I don't only want the present to be meaningful. It needs to be practical too. Not practical as in functional, practical as in something she actually wants. Practicality, however, is by no means my strong point. All too often I've been seduced by some "comedy" book, or obscure CD, becoming convinced that if its soon-to-be-owner doesn't want it now, she will when she sees it.

I have, in truth, faced a similar dilemma every year for at least a decade. A schmaltzy framed photo was fine the first time around – passable, even, the second – but by the third it's just embarrassing. Ditto that selection of pot plants, and those subscriptions to Town & Country. This year I need to come up with something better. Something a little cool. Something she's going to love.

Or, of course, I could just get her what she wants: a £10 copy of Simon Gray's Smoking Diaries. But then that would be boring wouldn't it?