The Anti-Stuff Holiday Gift Guide

For the past couple of years, my husband and I have not exchanged traditional, wrapped-and-Christmas-bowed gifts. Instead, we plan an experience.

We started our anti-Stuff celebrations because neither of us could think of a gift we truly wanted. Then we'd each be scrambling to think of something, anything, since not giving a box with a bow was unacceptable. This way, the pressure is off, and we create memories of fabulous meals and trips to vineyards, instead of piling up Stuff to fulfill a gift requirement.

I'm not against traditional gifts, especially if you know it's something the recipient will use or enjoy. But if you are at a loss for the hard-to-buy-for loved ones on your list, consider an anti-Stuff gift of consumables or experiences. Why?

  • No risk that your gift will turn into someone else's Stuff (quite likely for the hard-to-buy-for recipients)
  • People are likely to remember a positive experience, but will probably forget about yet another shower gel gift set
  • Easier than picking something that comes down to personal taste, such as perfumes, sweaters, knickknacks, etc.

Meaningful, personal gifts
Anti-Stuff gifts aren't necessarily gift cards, which often feel a bit impersonal. Think about what would be meaningful to the recipient. If your sister is a busy mom, give her a couple of hours of babysitting and an appointment with a masseuse. Consider the following to generate anti-Stuff gift ideas unique to each loved one:

  • Hobbies
  • Lifestyle (parent, student, on-the-go, homebody…)
  • Anything he or she has “always wanted to do”

Word of warning: make sure the gift is something the recipient would enjoy or something in which he or she has expressed interest, not something you like or think he or she should like! That holds true with any sort of gift-giving.

The anti-Stuff gift guide
Need some inspiration to get the creative gift-giving juices flowing? Consider the following suggestions, organized by interest:

The foodie

  • Basket of consumables from the farmers' market. I've made baskets filled with locally-made items such as jam, jelly, biscotti, granola, chocolate, honey, coffee, salsa, vinegar, and olive oil.
  • Cooking classes. There are classes on everything from knife skills to sushi rolling to creating Tuscan feasts.
  • Wine and cheese pairing class. Bonus points if it's held at a gorgeous vineyard.

Photo by Matthew Oliphant.

The outdoorsy gal or guy

  • Zip-line tour. Send the adrenaline junkie on your list flying through the trees.
  • Kayaking lessons. Paddling is a great way to enjoy the local lakes and rivers.
  • Cave tour. Give the gift of a tour or a special event. Some caves host dinner and a concert, all underground.
  • Horseback riding. A day on a dude ranch is a nice way to get back to nature.

Photo by Shareski.

The arts lover

  • Gift certificates to the local “artsy” movie theater. They'll get to see the indie flicks without having to wait for the DVD release.
  • A museum membership. Members typically receive perks such as unlimited admission, invitations to previews of exhibitions, a discount at the museum's store, and invitations to special events.
  • Dance lessons. Just make sure you know if your recipient is a belly dancer at heart or more of the foxtrot-type.
  • Tickets to a performance. If it's a date-specific event, you'll need to be sneaky to make sure the recipient will be available, but tickets to concerts, plays, and other performances are memorable gifts.
  • Music lessons. If your brother has always wanted to channel his inner Jimi Hendrix, indulge the fantasy with a few guitar lessons.

Photo by zabara_tango.

The sports enthusiast

  • A round of golf. If their sport costs money, buy them some time on the green, at the batting cages, or wherever the sport is enjoyed.
  • Tickets to a sporting event. One year I bought my husband tickets to a Dallas Cowboys football game for his birthday. I was living in an apartment complex owned by Jerry Jones, owner of the Dallas Cowboys. Tenants could purchase tickets to the game, including seats on a chartered bus to drive us the three hours to the stadium.
  • Lessons in their preferred activity. Find out what they like to do and where they do it. Inquire about lessons.

The crafty type

  • Art lessons. Sewing, knitting, sculpture, painting, drawing, photography, stained glass…there's no end to types of art classes.
  • Gardening gifts. Seeds, herbs, perennials, saplings, and bushes make great gifts for loved ones with green thumbs.

For anyone

  • Spa services. Massages are appreciated by most people, especially if they are hunched over a computer or on their feet all day. Foot massages and pedicures are good options for those who aren't comfortable with full-body massages.
  • A night at a nearby bed and breakfast. Only for those who have been very good this year!

Not that there's anything wrong with gifts and bows…
This approach isn't for everyone. I think children should get to enjoy tearing open a gift and having a few things to play with right away, rather than being told it's a gift that will be a blast…later.

But I'd venture to say there are probably a few people on your list who would prefer a thoughtful, anti-Stuff gift that reflects their interests and doesn't have to be stored, dusted, or worse, guiltily tossed in a Goodwill bin.

What do you think about anti-Stuff gifts? What types of consumable or experiential gifts are on your wish list?

J.D.'s note: For those concerned about the cost of these suggestions, be sure to check out last year's list of homemade Christmas gifts.

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Adam
Adam
10 years ago

Great article April! We are currently trying to pay off debt and have talked about this type of Christmas this year. We want to do something special together that we will remember for a lifetime vs. something that will just fill up our closet. Thanks for the great ideas!

Jason
Jason
10 years ago

For parents, often the gift of time is the most precious. A day off from the kids, alone, to do whatever you want to do can be a great gift!

Cara
Cara
10 years ago

I would love to do this, but my family (both on my side and my SO’s side) is all about the “stuff” during the holidays. The habit to give lots of “stuff” is so ingrained in my SO (he prefers quantity to quality on top of that, like his own family) that his feelings get hurt when I tell him that I don’t want “stuff.” I try not to give too much “stuff” either, but that hasn’t always been successful because apparently everyone wants “stuff” and likes to give “stuff,” so I try to oblige and be graceful on both… Read more »

Hannah
Hannah
10 years ago

Nice post! I completely agree. Unless there is something specific I know to buy, I love getting my family tickets to sporting events, concerts, or the ballet (depending on the person). I have been told that this is a good gift because it’s like telling someone you love that you want to spend another whole day with them in the future.

Debi
Debi
10 years ago

I’ve been trying to come up with ideas for anit-stuff gift exchanges for the adults in the extended family. We live in a fairly small town, and some involved come from 100-200 miles away to participate. I love the idea of experience gifts but find it difficult with the travel time that would be required for most. I thought maybe I’d suggest a big combined blowout for father’s day instead of Christmas including maybe a baseball game and Omaha steaks on the grill. We’ll see how the family reacts to that.

Daphne
Daphne
10 years ago

I really like this idea. My family has been decreasing material gift giving over the years and I have definitely started thinking more about experiences that I want to have rather than things I want to have. Thanks for the awesome tips! One more that might be good is charity giving – give money to a charity in the name of someone else.

nmh
nmh
10 years ago

Zoo memberships are great for a family (especially if you live somewhere they are open all year). My MIL gave us one last year and its been great, it even includes parking so throwing the kids in the car and going to the zoo for an hour is very doable (rather than trying to make it a whole day event and everyone getting tired and cranky!).

Adam
Adam
10 years ago

Last year for my parents we made a donation to buy a family in need a sheep and two chickens from World Vision. And for my brothers we gave them a monthly subscription to our own little cookie club. We don’t live nearby, so every month we mail them a dozen cookies. Speaking of which, I need to get to the post office.

Little House
Little House
10 years ago

These are terrific gift ideas that I can use this holiday season! I think it’s much better than buying a family member a gift he/she won’t necessarily use. I also agree with the kids still getting gifts that they can enjoy right then and there. Although, I’ve been known to give bond certificates that that can’t appreciate at the moment, but their parents appreciate. So I’ll usually buy a little gift for the kids to go along with their bond.

Claire
Claire
10 years ago

I wholeheartedly agree with this article. I personally would MUCH rather go somewhere and do something than get another gift that I probably will not use. My husband is ridiculously hard to buy for. He’s an electronics junkie, and I gave up on buying him anything like that a long time ago; as soon as he gets one thing a newer more updated version comes out & it’s frustrating for the gift giver. For our anniversary one year, I took us to Asheville, NC one weekend & we spent time at the Biltmore & other areas around town. That was… Read more »

Jacob
Jacob
10 years ago

This year we’re giving Goats, Chickens, etc to our family. Actually we’re giving them through World Vision to people who need them in honor of our family.

Oleg Mokhov
Oleg Mokhov
10 years ago

Hey April, The best gifts are a combination of usefulness, thoughtfulness, and immediate impact. Useful, because–like you mentioned–it won’t sit around on a shelf gathering dust. The friend will actually use it. Whether it’s a physical tool or a membership of some sort, the gift brings genuine value into their life, and they utilize it to improve whatever it is they’re doing (or would like to learn to do). Thoughtful, because it shows you care (cue cheesy music). Seriously though, the friend gets a sense that you really know them, what they like, what they are interested in. It’s not… Read more »

Jennifer
Jennifer
10 years ago

Great post, and great ideas. We really try to have experiences with our kids as opposed to stuff and doing the same for adults is just as great. Thanks for some good ideas.

Vanessa
Vanessa
10 years ago

Great ideas! Thank you April. 🙂

Sara A.
Sara A.
10 years ago

Our family looks on the positive side of stuff instead of banning it altogether. We make lists so that we know the recipient wants the item. Most of the items we give and receive are useful items. We will often delay purchases of things we need to replace that are not urgent so that they can be given for the holiday season. Some examples of “stuff” we have exchanged and still love and use all the time: pizza stone, chef’s knife, winter socks, wallet, messenger bag, tupperware, expansions for much-loved and played board games, circular saw, shower curtain, and more… Read more »

stevesliva
stevesliva
10 years ago

It’s funny, I was just noticing a few of the usual crap-no-one-needs holiday gifts appearing in stores, and the thought process they use to market incredible junk is the same in that you have some sort of superficial classification or hobby for the recipient, and need to get them something… What can you get the “foodie” who has everything? Newly invented junk! If you notice some newly invented affordable but marginally useful piece of junk for “the foodie” this year, try to resist. The worst new junk has to be the stuff for “the student” and “the techie.” Stuff that… Read more »

stevesliva
stevesliva
10 years ago

I forgot “the husband.” Junk created for Xmas gifts for the hubbie is usually good for a chuckle.

ctreit
ctreit
10 years ago

I am totally with you. We have switched from buying things for each other to spending good quality time with each other a while ago. I think this also leads to less fights within the family, which I believe is a general problem during the holidays. When you focus on each other rather than the potential disappointment in an inadequate gift, you will most likely collect good memories of the holidays.

Golfing Girl
Golfing Girl
10 years ago

I love gifts that do not have to be “stored” and are used up. As long as it’s not a restaurant that is so far away it becomes impractical (my uncle and his wife do this every year to us). I would also much rather spend a few days on a mini-vacation with loved ones than wrapping presents for them and opening another sweater.
Unless I have an exact idea of a “thing” someone on my list wants, they get gift cards or tickets or the like.

ami | 40daystochange
ami | 40daystochange
10 years ago

Great ideas to create a new paradigm for Christmas (or is it going back to an old paradigm?) Would love to have great Christmas *memories* rather than a pile of forgettable Christmas *stuff*.

Chad
Chad
10 years ago

A good gift for a baptism, Kiva Certifacate. Kiva Is a nonprofit lending organization where people can choose a person from a third world nation that is trying to start up a small business to lend money to. I think this is a great gift because it is somthing the parents can do right away and as the kid gets older and they can choose who to make a loan to when previous loans were repaid.

Jean
Jean
10 years ago

All great ideas. If you have to give gifts, make sure that it’s something that the person wants. My siblings & I, along w/our SOs, exchange names to cut down on the gifts (and money spending), and a list is a requirement. My BF suggested that we not buy gifts for each other this year. Instead, since I work for an airline & can fly for free, we’re taking a day trip to Washington DC – all it will cost is metro fare & food, since the museums are free. He’s never been to DC and it’s been 15+ years… Read more »

elisabeth
elisabeth
10 years ago

On the other hand, experience gifts can be just as unappreciated as any other. I once gave a museum membership (in the town where they live) to my brother and his family, but that didn’t mean they used it: and I should have realized that it wasn’t a really good gift, since I do know them well enough to know that camping or gardening supplies would be things that they would really like. Similarly, I have been given gift certificates for massages and pedicures that I’ve never used; those just aren’t things I find fun or relaxing or a good… Read more »

partgypsy
partgypsy
10 years ago

We definitely want to do something along the lines of this for my parents-in-law, who have moved closer and downsized. The last thing they need is more stuff, unless it is something readily “consumable”.

Ironically my husband and I have hinted quite a few times really what my husband and I would like is simply time off together, even to watch a movie (i.e. a iou “I will watch the kids one evening”) but no dice. If we get a sitter it costs 80-100 and so it is a gift that is most appreciated.

Kristy
Kristy
10 years ago

I noticed you mentioned “Student” but didn’t give any ideas … as a graduate student who gets a lot of work done in coffee shops but can’t get anything done at home, a gift card to a coffee shop would be fantastic. And for those who are on semesters rather than quarters and have finals happening right around Christmas, a basket of consumables (coffee, energy drinks, study snacks, maybe an iTunes gift card? pens and highlighters, etc) would be much appreciated! 🙂

Meg
Meg
10 years ago

Along the same lines as babysitting for someone with kids, I sometimes give iou’s for chores I know someone hates doing, or a gift certificate where it can be done. For example, this year my siblings and I are combining gifts for my dad to get his two dogs groomed, because they shed like crazy and fight him on getting bathed and brushed. Out of the four kids, none of us are really home at times when the dogs most need grooming (when they shed heavily in the spring). Giving him a way to get them groomed elsewhere also means… Read more »

Azalle
Azalle
10 years ago

Another thought for anti-stuff – donations to a person’s favorite charity, in their name. My husband and I started this several years ago, as our parents have what they need and buy what they want. My mom LOVED it – and has passed on the practice within her circle as well. After cleaning out 12 years of accumulated stuff in preparation for an interstate move, we vowed to truly focus on experience rather than stuff. Goodwill benefitted, but isn’t it a shame to just keep a bunch of stuff you never use or really needed in the first place? Thanks… Read more »

Autumn
Autumn
10 years ago

I also like giving subscriptions: magazine, netflix, game sites, gift of the month clubs… giving something people can enjoy all year long.

Honey
Honey
10 years ago

My boyfriend and I keep extensive (like 4-5 pages, single-spaced) lists of things that we want as gifts. They are organized into categories – electronics, books, DVDs, movies, clothes, experiences, food, etc. We give edited versions of these lists to friends and family we know will be buying us presents to ensure we get exactly what we want. When applicable, sizes and URLs for buying the things online are included. Although, once you reach a certain age, don’t people pretty much just ask you what you want and then buy it for you? That’s how things work with my friends,… Read more »

reiner
reiner
10 years ago

i love your posts, April!
i hate storing stuff that i don’t use, but not all experiences are enjoyable either. i hate going to discos and clubs where people smoke so much but i would appreciate a good book or a building kit (robotics, electronics, models, crafts etc) anytime!

MICHELE
MICHELE
10 years ago

I love the idea of Zoo passes/museum passes. I have both and they are not only good for the locality issued, but because I travel quite a bit, they are good at many locations across the country for either free or discounted admissions. (I can get into Phoenix or columbus zoo for half price with my pass) I can use my Arboretum pass to get in free at the local botanical garden. since both my kids live out of state I try to buy them things that ship or pack easily, but also give thought to what they want or… Read more »

Caitlin
Caitlin
10 years ago

While I really like the article, I do find it somewhat sad that it needs to be said at all. Isn’t this how people usually give gifts? It’s how my family has always given gifts. I’m confused. I wasn’t aware that some people actually just ran out and bought a gift, any random gift, rather than give something incorporeal. Crazy. o_0 Our exchanges are not solely items like tickets, but the gifts are never “stuff”, they are items that have either been requested/hinted at, or are items that the giver knows the recipient will love and use. It’s only “stuff”… Read more »

EscapeVelocity
EscapeVelocity
10 years ago

It’s not a Christmas item, but for my mom’s birthday and Mother’s Day, I clean her ovens. She hasn’t had to do it in years. I do it as a surprise–I live in the same town and do it when she and my dad are at a movie or something, but sometime around those times of year.

Katy Wolk-Stanley
Katy Wolk-Stanley
10 years ago

These are all great ideas. However, almost all of them are extremely expensive. I very much want to give (and receive) gifts that don’t clutter up the home, but I also don’t want to be spending thousands of dollars on my gift giving. You mentioned food baskets and movie tickets which are within most people’s budgets. How about something along the lines of a cooking lesson from you instead of a cooking school? One thing that I have done over the past few years was to a take an $100 restaurant gift certificate that had been a gift, (seriously —… Read more »

Crafty
Crafty
10 years ago

My husband’s family takes the romance out of gift giving, but makes sure that everyone gets exactly what the want/need. Like a new winter coat, power tool or beautiful wool slippers that will last for years. They send each other links for the exact item, size, & color, and that is exactly what they get. They generally keep requests under $100. I don’t love the practice, but it never feels bad to get the books/sweater/shoes you’ve been wanting. I’ve been trying to make gifts for friends & family — I made beef stock from scratch & froze it, potted bulbs… Read more »

Lisa
Lisa
10 years ago

I love the idea of giving and experience rather than gifts and I try to do that on birthdays. If I gave everyone an experience gift or gift card to a spa on Xmass my budget would be way over the top. Sometimes it is cheaper to give an actual gift that you know someone will like and won’t inflate the Xmass budget.

Lesley
Lesley
10 years ago

One that I haven’t seen mentioned yet: my DH and I usually are able to find some item that we both want and use the money we would have otherwise spent on gifts. One year it was a PVR, another year we combined it with other gift money we had received and bought an iMac, etc. Basically, items which are splurges. Plus, because it’s by agreement, we can wait until after Christmas and take advantage of Boxing Day sales, if appropriate.

Joanne
Joanne
10 years ago

One thing I’m considering giving this year is similar to a wine-of-the-month plan. Instead, I’m going to bake something (cookies, muffins, breads, but healthy stuff) for friends each month. Not so much that they’ll be overwhelmed, but enough so that they can store some in their freezer if they’d like, or have items to bring somewhere else as a hostess gift. The friends I have in mind for this do like my baking and have said they don’t want any more “things.” I love baking. So it’s win-win (I hope!)

Tomas Stonkus
Tomas Stonkus
10 years ago

Dear April: This is something I can relate to. I never liked stuff. I just didn’t. Stuff just creates clutter and usually leaves no memories. I am all about creating experiences. Memorable experiences last forever and add much more to our lives than things. Gifting an experience is much more memorable. For example, my girlfriend took hot air ballooning for my birthday! It was awesome! I will remember it forever! I am not saying that gifting useful and thoughtful things is a bad idea, but most people gift things that people don’t need or want. Let’s us create experiences for… Read more »

Laura
Laura
10 years ago

I love the idea of experiences instead of stuff, but please make sure that the person is actually going to be able to enjoy the experience. Years ago, my MIL gave me a certificate to a very expensive spa, that I could use to get a massage or facial, but I never used it. First, it was hard for me to schedule an appointment, because I couldn’t find anybody to watch my children. So, if you’re giving theater or movie tickets to parents, maybe an additional gift could be a babysitting night so the parents can actually go and enjoy… Read more »

J.D.
J.D.
10 years ago

I thought this post could use more pictures, so I just added a bunch. If I’d thought about it, I would have worked with April to find photos for all of the ideas. I think they’re great!

mario
mario
10 years ago

I agree. Last year we were struggling to figure out what my father-in-law would like for a christmas. What can you give someone who can practically buy anything he wants, anytime he wants. Then I remembered introducing him to a vocal trio called the Puppini Sisters, and my wife just found out that they were going to be in town early the following year (2009). We bought him 4 tickets so he can bring his wife and two other friends. What a bonus, because the “two other friends” ended up to be me and my wife because the couple they… Read more »

Teresa
Teresa
10 years ago

This year I will be giving the gift of a chartered fishing trip… I paid for the charter, and am giving it to my husband, my brother-in-law, my father-in-law, and my father….. it worked out to be the right price for a half-day trip….they can all go together and have the gift of a day spent together on a great boat on Lake Michigan!

LK
LK
10 years ago

I love the picture of the kids making Martha Washington balls! What a flashback for me from my childhood! Now I will have to tell my mom that we need to make those this year 😀 These are great tips. Unfortunately, my family doesn’t go anywhere or do anything, so I’m stuck buying ‘stuff.’ I tell my parents to get my husband and I gift certs or something, because our tastes are so different, but they are of the ‘I need to buy things to buy things and have things for you under the tree’ mentality and it has been… Read more »

chacha1
chacha1
10 years ago

Experiences are where it’s at. If I had a foodie friend, instead of putting together a basket I would get a gift card to the local gourmet/chef’s supply emporium and suggest we could go together. Most of us in my city have only a few chances a year to find an afternoon to spend together … sometimes it’s hard just to find an afternoon to spend with DH! Recently we went to a chef’s supply store, had brunch in their cafe, then spent a very entertaining hour browsing and shopping. Not only did we find a couple of tools we’d… Read more »

valletta
valletta
10 years ago

My husband and I stopped exchanging physical gifts a long time ago and don’t miss it at all. If I find something during the year that I know he would love and use I give it to him then 🙂 For the rest of the family we can exchange anything homemade or recycled (thrift store, etc.) or nothing at all….usually there are beeswax candles, wine (winemakers in the family), food, plants, etc. But this year I am thinking about getting California State Park passes for everyone since we all like to hike and the state needs the funds so they… Read more »

Amy @ Frugal Mama
Amy @ Frugal Mama
10 years ago

This is a wonderful post full of great ideas for all types of people. Re theater tickets: we gave each of our daughter’s a night out at a Broadway show (alone with Mom — a treat in itself) and presented it with a wrapped CD of the show music. We have gotten an unbelievable amount of mileage from those tickets — which, granted, were expensive. But they were SO worth it for several reasons: – the shows and the music created a love of theater and music (they play those CDs ALL the time!) – the mother-daughter outing formed a… Read more »

Marie
Marie
10 years ago

I’d like to warm people against the alcohol “of the month” clubs. I got my husband a year of the microbrew of the month, and it was a logistical nightmare. In the summer the beer was skunked, in winter it was frozen. There was an “adult signature required” sticker on the box in plain sight, and still Fed Ex would dump it on the porch with no warning. One box went missing, and we’re pretty sure the neighbor kids stole it. We decided it wasn’t worth the legal risk, and will never do it again.

valletta
valletta
10 years ago

#48 Marie
This reminds me of a funny story that happened to us….years ago we had signed up for a quarterly wine club, adult signature required for delivery, yadda yadda.
Well, the FedEx guy took the package next door to get my 80 year old neighbor’s signature and leave the package with her *for us* but she was confused after he left and thought it was for her. She drank 6 bottles of very expensive Napa Cab, something she’d never had before 🙂

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