The best cheap gifts for nerds

Smart ideas that cost less than $20

We all know that one nerd. The friend who brings a book everywhere she goes. The sibling who can solve a Rubik’s cube in minutes. The cousin with a subscription to Popular Science.

When you start brainstorming gift ideas for these fact-loving folks, expensive tech gadgets might be the first idea to leap into your head. But you don’t need to shell out a ton of cash to please a nerd. Try these thrifty recommendations instead.

Giant plush microbe

Why cuddle up with a teddy bear when you can hug a stuffed water bear — or a virus, bacterium, or cell? For biology nerds out there, a giant plush microbe is more than just a reminder of all the germs your Christmas party exposed them to. They also make for some pretty cuddly friends. This neuron is a good choice for brainiacs, although you can’t go wrong with a tardigrade or even the common cold virus. $9.80 on Amazon.

Science-themed coloring books

Adults (nerds and non-nerds alike) have officially co-opted coloring books. Even the National Archives has produced one. To steer clear of the mainstream, customize your gift and choose a science-themed book. There’s general science ($12.95 on Amazon), the natural world ($9.99 on Amazon), mathematical patterns ($9.34 on Amazon), and human anatomy ($17.36 and up on Amazon). And don’t forget a set of pencils to go with it! $5.90 and up on Amazon

Fact-rich posters

A nerd is always eager to learn new things. So why not hang some of that valuable knowledge on the wall? Bonus: Educational posters run on the cheap side. Try gifting your favorite nerd an antique ($5.20 on Amazon) or modern ($2.01 on Amazon) map of the world, a periodic table ($1.93 on Amazon), or even an imaginative look at exoplanets (free from NASA JPL).

A plasma orb

Desk decorations can help your friends assert their nerdy personalities within a sterile office environment. And plasma globes aren’t just fun to look at – there’s some cool science behind their eerie glow. A true nerd will love explaining how they work to jealous (or indifferent) coworkers. This version of the toy is small enough to fit on a desk — and to cost less than $20. $15.98 on Amazon

Paper and pen

If your friend likes to jot down his eureka moments throughout the day, a portable notebook and pen will be invaluable. To make it easier for him to digitize his notes, try a pocket-size Whitelines Link. It comes with an app that automatically cleans up the photographs you take of your notebook pages. $17.50 on Amazon. For his writing utensil, that nerd will appreciate a write-on-anything-anywhere space pen. $11.50 on Amazon.

A gravity-checking tote bag

Everyone needs to carry their possessions. But a nerd will remind you that, in doing so, she’s fighting the force of gravity: It pulls down with a force equal to the mass of the object multiplied by the gravitational constant g, which is 32.2 feet per second squared on Earth. Duh. Remind her that she’s not the only one who likes equations with a tote bag that name-checks gravity. $9.95 on Cafe Press.


The gyroscope — a top so well-balanced that it keeps spinning long after it should have fallen — is a classic nerd toy. It might not be as flashy as a plasma ball, but it’s even more fun to play with. Buy it for that fidgety friend who’s always twirling a pen. $10.35 on Amazon.

Jigsaw puzzle

Jigsaw puzzles let you decorate your tabletop and exercise your brainpower at the same time. The ideal puzzle is one that features a nerdy picture and requires some actual brain power to solve. This shot of an astronaut on the moon fits the bill. With 1,000 pieces (and a huge area of uniform-looking lunar terrain) it will stretch the limits of even a true nerd’s brainpower. $14.04 on Amazon.
Caffeinated mug
A nerd’s tote bag should reference physics, but her mug has got to pay lip service to chemistry. A classic caffeine molecule decoration will show that this friend knows exactly what’s in her morning (or mid-morning or afternoon or evening or late-night) cup of joe. $10.99 on Amazon. Amazon

Books, books, and more books

If you’re still hunting for the perfect gift, you can’t go wrong with a paper book or two. Or three. Not sure which author your friend’s currently obsessed with? Pick up a gift card to your local bookstore or the nearest Barnes and Noble or Books-A-Million — nerds know that browsing for a literary purchase in person is half the fun.
See Maker Faire up close and personal by peering through a paper Foldscope.