Christmastime thrift was once a challenge; this year, more than ever, it's a necessity.

So store your credit cards and use imagination instead of plastic.

STEAL A CHEF'S SECRETS: Keep an eye out for that favorite dish your friend orders out. Many restaurants will give you an approximate recipe, but you may have to call and plead an allergic reaction to get a list of the ingredients. Then recreate the meal or just furnish the utensils and ingredients. On a smaller scale: antique or formal chopsticks in a pocket carrying case.

SHARE YOUR GOODIES: Often between friends, there's a piece of jewelry or clothing that is -- let's admit it -- coveted. Clear away some of your clutter and part with one of those rarely used treasures that could delight someone close.

TOGETHERNESS: Tickets to a game or the theater can send you and your friend off to celebrate together.

YOUR OWN WAVELENGTH: Especially with the advent of the Walkman, you can do a tape of a friend's favorite songs, with a few of your own jokes.

A TOKEN GESTURE: Vidiots will be more than satisfied with a handful of tokens, and maybe some of your more straitlaced friends can relax a bit over the video games near their home or office. Remember, buying the tokens at off times cuts the cost.

THIS-IS-YOUR-LIFE COLLAGE: Mat or frame a special picture, memos, a restaurant menu, a cartoon, or some humorous reminder of your year together.

NOT READY FOR PRIME TIME: What to give a relatively new someone you might not mind spending New Year's with? A card won't quite do, but you want a non-committal, simple, cheap brainstorm, personal but not too intimate. If you don't come up with something that relates to the way you met, try a kite -- no strings attached -- or tub toys -- can the relationship float?

FARAWAY PLACES: For overseas friends, send things with a kitschy American feel, anything that looks artful, silly or exotic, and provides a bit of nostalgia abroad. Like an Eddie Bauer freeze-dried, typical American meal, or December issues of several magazines or newspapers they can't get. Again, personalized tapes are always a delight, and photos of changes around the or neighborhood, or pictures from some of your memories together, are a treat.

NOT SO FAR AWAY: For out-of-towners, try tickets to events in that area, membership at a museum or film society, or subscriptions to hometown rags; or wild, stamped postcards, or a special meal at a place they may have taken you when you last visited.

THE PRACTICAL SIDE: For a close friend or relative, be a sneak and arrange to have a wounded appliance fixed.

THE FREE IN SPIRIT: A magic wand -- in plastic, for about $2 at most toy stores.

WE NEVER LEFT THE FIFTIES: For an intimate male friend-who-has-everything -- some actual blue suede shoes. They're really there to be found.

STAR STRUCK: The National Star Registry (in Northfield, Illinois) will name a star after your favorite person, for a fee that includes documentation of where it is, and a certificate. And you can pack the certificate with a star for the Christmas tree.