Consider any container you find for a gift "basket": buckets, large bowls, plastic storage containers, wash tubs, cooler chests and insulated bags (you can give items that need to be refrigerated), cookie jars, pitchers, trays, etc.
Save money by knowing where to shop - thrift stores, garage sales, discount/closeout stores and after holiday sales. You can usually find the best prices and filler items at garage sales and thrift stores and nice "center stage" items at places like T.J. Max or at store sales.
Most thrift stores have more baskets than they know what to do with and you can pick them up for a couple of dollars. A can of spray paint can give a basket a whole new life! You can also find a wide variety of dishes, buckets, and other unconventional "basket" substitutes--think "outside the box" ;-)
Some gift baskets are built from the middle out and some are one sided where you put tall items in the back and short items in the front. Either way, start with your largest or tallest item and secure that, then begin propping the other items around it.
When you make your own gift basket, don't be afraid of having to make things stick where you want them. You can use invisible scotch tape, double-sided tape, rubber bands, twist ties, hot glue gun, florist's foam, chunks of soft foam, newspaper balls, long thin sticks, and thin wire or a combination of all of these!
Its easy to come up with your own gift basket filler. If you own or have access to a paper shredder, you will have packing material in no time. You can mix red and green paper for Christmas or red, white and blue for July 4th. You can get a whole different look if you fold the paper into a fan before shredding or cutting it into strips.
If you don't have a paper shredder, you can use crumpled paper balls for most of the fill and only cut a little to go on top. Other possibilities are: packing peanuts or peanut shells (the real kind), tissue paper, comics, saw dust, fabric, blankets or scarves, and raffia.
USE ENOUGH FILLER!
Most people who are learning how to make a gift basket only put a little filler in the bottom of the container and then the finished basket ends up small and limp. Go ahead and fill the basket 3/4 full at least...sometimes the pros fill the basket completely before adding the gift items on top. Do not be afraid to pack it in there a bit.
Find cellophane you like to work with and learn how to use it well. It is cheap and makes homemade gift baskets look great. Regular cellophane can be taped with invisible tape. When you make your own gift basket, don't be afraid to use lots of little pieces to pleat and tighten everything.
Shrinkable cellophane is really easy to use and you can shrink it with a hair dryer. Just be sure you know which parts you want to shrink and which to leave "fluffy" like the part that sticks out above the ribbon.
The best place to get either of these is online. You can find a wide selection of sizes and colors and all for pennies per basket.
Save money by taking prepackaged foods and making them "gourmet" with your own special touches. A bag of popcorn at the store can be quickly repackaged in a cellophane bag and tied with a little ribbon. Print -or draw- your own label for a candy bar to customize it for the occasion. Break up bulk amounts of coffee or tea into smaller packages when you need multiple gifts. Here are more gourmet food gift ideas.