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.

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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There are 84 comments to "The Anti-Stuff Holiday Gift Guide".

  1. Adam says 12 November 2009 at 06:16

    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!

  2. Jason says 12 November 2009 at 06:38

    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!

  3. Cara says 12 November 2009 at 06:45

    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 fronts. I hate the holidays because I’m tired of fighting the anti-stuff battle with everyone every year, so now I simply budget for it, expect to waste a bit of money, and go with the flow. These days, keeping the family peace is more important than insisting on “no stuff” since no one listens anyway. And I don’t feel guilty about tossing stuff in the Goodwill bin anymore.

  4. Hannah says 12 November 2009 at 06:47

    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.

  5. Debi says 12 November 2009 at 06:58

    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.

  6. Daphne says 12 November 2009 at 07:05

    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.

  7. nmh says 12 November 2009 at 07:14

    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!).

  8. Adam says 12 November 2009 at 07:15

    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.

  9. Little House says 12 November 2009 at 07:19

    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.

  10. Claire says 12 November 2009 at 07:21

    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 a great time.

    This year when he asked what I wanted for the holidays, I said that I’d rather us do something together because I honestly can’t think of anything.

  11. Jacob says 12 November 2009 at 07:24

    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.

  12. Oleg Mokhov says 12 November 2009 at 07:28

    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 a generic gift but something the friend cares about. Not just any food gift, but a specific country, region, or style of cooking the friend loves or wants to learn how to make.

    Immediate impact, because we’re all kids, no matter what our age says. We like to tear open fun stuff, and have something to hold and look at it. Just walking up to your friend and telling them their gift starts on Monday, or to check their email to confirm lessons, doesn’t maximize the impact of the gift. But present your non-tangible (if that’s the case) gift in a visually-exciting way, and the smile is immediately formed on the face. There’s a reason some places offer to give gift cards packaged in a themed and exciting way.

    Here’s to ant-stuff. May the garbage gifts continue to be reduced 🙂

    Awesome list,

  13. Jennifer says 12 November 2009 at 07:41

    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.

  14. Vanessa says 12 November 2009 at 07:46

    Great ideas! Thank you April. 🙂

  15. Sara A. says 12 November 2009 at 07:54

    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 that I can’t think about.

    If we are not sure what someone likes and we would like to give them a gift, we give them homemade fudge or cookies or chocolate covered pretzels that we dip ourselves. But, with most people, if we are close enough to give them a gift, we are close enough to ASK THEM what they want as a gift.

  16. stevesliva says 12 November 2009 at 08:12

    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 is marketed mostly to fulfill a desire to get a gift for everyone– gaarrgh!

  17. stevesliva says 12 November 2009 at 08:14

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

  18. April Dykman says 12 November 2009 at 08:24

    @stevesliva–Good point. As a foodie myself, the last thing I want is a specialized kitchen gadget that does one thing and gets used twice a year. Most gadgets don’t do anything that a chef’s knife can’t do. The thing to give foodies is food! Either as consumables or as an experience.

  19. ctreit says 12 November 2009 at 08:26

    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.

  20. Golfing Girl says 12 November 2009 at 08:26

    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.

  21. Ami Kim says 12 November 2009 at 08:28

    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*.

  22. Chad says 12 November 2009 at 08:29

    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.

  23. Jean says 12 November 2009 at 08:41

    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 since I’ve been there, so I’m sure it will be a memorable experience.

  24. elisabeth says 12 November 2009 at 08:52

    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 experience.
    Maybe if you don’t know a person well enough to buy something they like (or you’re not willing to buy what they would really appreciate!) then maybe there shouldn’t be a gift exchange.
    Because my husband and I are in a better financial situation than some of our relatives, we regularly give gifts to people from whom we know won’t be giving gifts to us. And that feels just fine (we even keep on giving gifts to the younger folks even without a thank you note — up to high school age, we figure it’s their parents who should be monitoring that, and if they don’t, well, why punish the kids…).
    And sometimes someone gives one of us a gift we didn’t expect — when that happens we don’t think we are suddenly required to reciprocate; grateful thanks for the thoughtfulness is enough, I think.

  25. partgypsy says 12 November 2009 at 08:59

    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.

  26. Kristy says 12 November 2009 at 09:07

    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! 🙂

  27. Meg says 12 November 2009 at 09:15

    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 he won’t have two wet dogs hanging around the house the whole day!

    I’ve also given friends “A day of cleaning” and let them pick out what things around the apartment they least like doing. Maybe they don’t mind vacuuming but hate cleaning the bathroom (or vice versa).

  28. Azalle says 12 November 2009 at 09:20

    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 for the column!

  29. Autumn says 12 November 2009 at 09:28

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

  30. Honey says 12 November 2009 at 09:35

    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, anyway. My dad hates to shop and gives the gift of depositing cold, hard cash into my bank account 🙂

  31. reiner says 12 November 2009 at 09:43

    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!

  32. MICHELE says 12 November 2009 at 09:53

    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 what they would use.

  33. Caitlin says 12 November 2009 at 09:56

    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” if it’s never loved or used.

  34. EscapeVelocity says 12 November 2009 at 09:56

    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.

  35. Katy Wolk-Stanley says 12 November 2009 at 10:03

    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 — it was over the top!) and have the restaurant split it in half, which meant we could give a $50 gift certificate away and still have a dinner out ourselves.

    Thanks for the ideas.

    Katy Wolk-Stanley
    “Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.”

  36. Crafty says 12 November 2009 at 10:05

    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 or tomato plants, and this year I want to make dog biscuits for the dog lovers.

  37. Lisa says 12 November 2009 at 10:08

    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.

  38. Lesley says 12 November 2009 at 10:15

    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.

  39. Joanne says 12 November 2009 at 10:17

    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!)

  40. Tomas Stonkus says 12 November 2009 at 10:18

    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 our loved ones and let us declutter the world and our minds one experience at a time!


  41. Laura says 12 November 2009 at 10:34

    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 the movie.

    Also, when I looked up the prices for the spa, it turned out that all the prices were above that amount on the certificate, so I would have ended up having to pay extra to get any of their services. I’m sorry to say that the certificate went unused, because I hate to waste money, but it just didn’t work into my lifestyle.

  42. J.D. says 12 November 2009 at 10:38

    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!

  43. mario says 12 November 2009 at 10:55

    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 invited could not come.

    Seeing my in-laws having a blast was priceless.

  44. Teresa says 12 November 2009 at 11:04

    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!

  45. LK says 12 November 2009 at 11:19

    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 very hard for me to break out of that mentality as a grownup. I still love buying lots of *things* but only when I know it will have meaning or use for the recipient. We’ll see how this year goes!

  46. chacha1 says 12 November 2009 at 11:25

    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 been looking for (like an oyster knife), we found some gourmet food items that let us carry that experience over.

  47. valletta says 12 November 2009 at 11:29

    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 don’t close the parks!

  48. Amy @ Frugal Mama says 12 November 2009 at 11:33

    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 special connection and provided time for bonding
    – no extra clutter in our household or plastic toys gathering dust
    – the characters and storyline supplied more fodder for their imaginative play and artwork
    – the experience was extremely memorable (they still talk about them a lot one year later)

    By the way — we bought a $20 program at the show as a souvenir, and that was also a great investment. I can’t even count the times they have taken those out and read them and sang to them and talked about the show and showed them to friends and brought them to school.

    For more on low-impact holiday ideas, the New American Dream website has a section called Simplify the Holidays:

  49. Marie says 12 November 2009 at 11:35

    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.

  50. valletta says 12 November 2009 at 11:40

    #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 🙂

  51. Madeline says 12 November 2009 at 11:53

    I love the idea but I am also with the poster (#35) that mentioned the majority of these gifts are very expensive especially when you’re talking about extended family.

    So, I’ll take the somewhat opposing view and side with stuff. See, I think “stuff” has a bad name and that’s not fair. Everyone enjoys stuff if you take the time to buy OR MAKE things you know they will appreciate and use.

    This does require time and planning though and most people just don’t care about that sort of thing. Really, it shouldn’t be Anti-Stuff it should be Anti-Meaningless/Useless.

    Some people mentioned the “romance of gift-giving” and I appreciate that. For instance, I maintain a wish list on Amazon but, and I stress this every time I reluctantly admit I have one to my friends and family, it’s a guide to things I like not the end-all of what exactly to get me. I put a lot of effort into the things I buy my friends and family and always get great feedback on them.

  52. Kristin says 12 November 2009 at 12:57

    My family started a tradition of a yankee swap for the adults (and the kids still get gifts). We set a price each year $50, and get one gift that most people would enjoy (or we can get a gift for a specific person but they don’t necessarily get to keep it). So we wrap the present and put it in the middle of the room, and draw numbers. Who ever gets number one pick a present from the pile and opens it. From the next person has five minutes to decide if they want to steal the present already opened or pick another present from the pile. This goes on until the last person in the group picks. When someone takes your gift, you get the option to take from someone else or go back to the gift pile. Its a lot of fun, and saves everyone some $$ if there is a large family.

  53. Stefanie says 12 November 2009 at 13:11

    @Kristy (26) – I wholeheartedly agree with your grad student suggestions. Both my partner and I are grad students and we would love something as easy as a coffee gift certificate – whether from a national chain or a local one (all our family lives 2000+ miles from us). Some people might think this was a boring or unthoughful gift, but since we try not to spend too much money on coffee out, but still love to go and do work at coffee shops, it would be perfect. Same with bookstore gift certs – whether for an academic book or something fun – even though this isn’t really an experience gift, though we both do love wandering a bookstore for a while, esp. with the luxury of having a bit of money to spend at the end.

    Also, this isn’t exactly an experience gift either, but it kind of is by default of distance – last year my brother and SIL made a calendar featuring photos of their adorable bulldog. My SIL dressed him up in all sorts of seasonal outfits and then created the calendar with those photos – we love it and have it in our kitchen. Since they’re so far away, its fun to have a bit of them with us all year long.

  54. Jeff says 12 November 2009 at 13:15

    I’m *totally* drinking the Kool-Aid on this concept! My brother and I are trying to slowly change our family’s mindset on physical gift giving.

    Last year, we did a gag-gift “white elephant” exchange. Nobody receives anything of material value, but everyone enjoys hours of laughter and great memories of spending time with each other.

    One exception to the rule: I have started a tradition of giving calendars with my own photography on it. For me, it allows me to share my joy and passion of photography with others. It’s useful, hand-made, and relatively cheap (~$15/calendar). FedEx Office and Shutterfly are two places that have done a wonderful job on these calendars.

    Great Article, April!

  55. Samantha says 12 November 2009 at 13:16

    Agree with Stephanie (#52) and Kristy (#26) – coffee is always the perfect gift for a student. A study basket is even better!

  56. Rachael says 12 November 2009 at 13:27

    What a great post! Some of my extended family members are simply doing a gift card exchange (with $15 gift cards) this year because it’s so hard to buy for people. Then people can go out and get what they want.

    And I often do a lot of homemade gifts. They’re useful and inexpensive. Last year our budget was very tight for Christmas, so I made some homemade hot chocolate mix (tons of recipes online) and packed it into nice, decorated mason jars for our friends. It was a hit!

    One warning to those considering buying a gift for gardeners: I am a gardener, and sometimes I receive plants as gifts and don’t have a good spot to put them in my yard. If you have an idea of what plants the recipient could actually use, that would help.

  57. wolfgirl says 12 November 2009 at 13:44

    I seem to be the odd one out on this, but if someone gave to a charity in my name, I would probably never speak to that person again. I am extremely particular what I support and none of my family knows who they are. Now, if giftgivers know someone is ok with that type of gift, it is a different story. Just don’t assume that a donation will please someone.

  58. Gen Y says 12 November 2009 at 15:14

    uh, ok wolfgirl, i guess you’re really particular. Unless it was a charity to drown kittens (or something equally horrible) i don’t think i’d be so angry at a person for donating in my name, even if you don’t support that charity they at least tried to do a good thing.

  59. aelily says 12 November 2009 at 15:42

    I have given both dinner gift certificates (with included babysitting) and massage/spa treatment gift certificates, both went over very well.

    As for myself, last year I told everyone that I wanted to take cooking classes, and said that if they didn’t know what to get me, money to go toward the classes would be great. All my siblings and my mother-in-law gave toward the cause, and I don’t think that any of them were affronted that I asked for money. I made sure to gush about the cooking classes in my thank you note, so that they understood that I really appreciated the gift.

  60. BB says 12 November 2009 at 18:03

    I’ve been doing this for years already, even when my children were small.

    I’ve given gift cards to local movie theaters for families of employees, with gift cards for soda and popcorn.

    I’ve taken my parents out to dinners and shows.

    I’ve bought ballet tickets for my entire family to see something special, from “Nutcracker”to “Swan Lake.”

    This year, husband and I will see a Broadway show (we live in metro NYC) instead of getting tangible gifts.

  61. Anna says 12 November 2009 at 19:43

    But if this is about financial sense, why spend money on something that’s gone in an instant, an hour or a day?

  62. Alyssa Lum says 12 November 2009 at 20:31

    Thanks for the great ideas. My mind is spinning with ideas of how to make this year’s Christmas much more “experience” oriented!

  63. AP says 12 November 2009 at 20:42

    I love these ideas! Both the combination of a fun event or activity in lieu of a gift as well as the “no clutter” idea!!

    As a variation on this, I have started a Google “wish list” for our family of 4. Each of us has access to it and can add or delete items from this list at any time. That way, I’m hopeful that if we do opt to shop, we’ll be getting items that the person truly desires rather than something that turns into dust-gathering clutter (like the digital photo frame from last Christmas…)

    My favorite family Christmas tradition is Bingo where there’s very little money spent up front, loads of laughs, every single person can participate, and we’re all enjoying time together. Nothing can beat it!

  64. David/yourfinances101 says 12 November 2009 at 20:51

    My wife and I needlessly exchanged gifts at Christmas virtually for no other reason than to say we exchanged gifts. The gifts we gave were hardly necessities, probably some of them weren’t even wanted.

    We finally came to our senses and realized we could spend all the money in the world on each other and it wouldn’t bring us closer to one another.

    Since then, we give each other the gift of time. There is nothing more precious in either one of our lives, so each Christams, we plan dates throughout the year that come hell or high water, we will spend those dates together.

    It has really strengthened our marriage

  65. Karen says 12 November 2009 at 21:02

    My husband and I haven’t exchanged Christmas gifts in over 5 years. But, we do have a Christmas budget; and use the money that we would have spent on each other to make a very nice donation to our favorite charitable organizations. We still get the joy of giving, plus we know that our gift is needed and appreciated.

  66. Wendy says 12 November 2009 at 22:27

    Excellent post, and wonderful comments! My siblings and I have a fun tradition. Each of us picks a charity, and the others make a donation to it in our honor. I love it!! My husband and I also give gifts to a child or two from our local giving tree.

    Like Cara, I have in-laws who are all about the stuff. They seem to take it personally if I say I don’t want any THINGS. In the interest of family harmony, I’ve decided to drop it.

  67. Avistew says 12 November 2009 at 22:37

    I’m not good with Christmas gifts because in my family, Christmas was “Ki’s Day”, just like there is Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. In other words, parents would give something to their kids, and that’s it (and the kids would give something on Mother’s and Father’s Day).
    Since I don’t have children, giving Christmas gift just feels completely weird to me.

    Now that I’m married, I let my husband do most of the giving because it still feels awkward and unnatural to me.
    Of course, it feels just as weird receiving gifts from people who aren’t my parents (I don’t even receive gifts from my parents anymore since I’m not a kid anymore).

    And I have to say I’m not the type to like giving something because it’s the proper time to. When I see something a friend or family would enjoy, I get it for them right away. It could be December, I’m still not going to wait until Christmas to give it to them.

    Anyway, I realise my personal experience is different from most. And I do think the gifts you mentionned really are great ieas that people would enjoy more than gifts that were bought because “you gotta buy something”.
    I do agree with what someone else said though, that most of these are kinda expensive, and might not be in everyone’s budget (especially if you need to get one for everyone you know).

  68. Ian Hickman says 13 November 2009 at 01:39

    Great article, some useful alternative ideas.

    BTW where did you get the picture of the cat? it’s a spitting image of my moggy, Milo!

  69. Holly says 13 November 2009 at 06:40

    For well over a year my husband (I really dislike the term ‘DH’) and kids, along with my sister and her family, have been wanting to take my Mom to a dinner and a Broadway show (she went through treatment for colon cancer). So last year, she wasn’t up to it due to the chemo.

    Several other times we tried to get together (sis lives 1 and 1/2 hours north of us and mom lives 1 and 1/2 hours south of us), but since my sister has 2 young kids under 5 (my youngest is 9), she always has a sitter problem; to make matters worse, someone always gets sick at the worst time (flu at Christmas, New Year’s, what have you). My sister’s husband travels a lot and my husband works shift work, so their schedules are often conflicting!

    There are also so many other obligations during the holidays like work parties, school concerts, piano recitals, fundraising events, church events and planning, decorating, shopping, cleaning, baking; it’s way too much for one person to have to do in a month or so (our husbands tend to do the bare minimun all year long!).

    So many good intentions that never pan out is what frustrates me–not to mention the hundreds of dollars to have to spend for that ‘experience’. This year we decided that we would only give the kids gifts, no adult gifts…we’re old enough to buy for ourselves and are satisfied with just spending a holiday together at last!!!!

  70. Holly says 13 November 2009 at 06:51

    Sorry for typo above….’minimum’! Comment editor won’t work for some reason on my computer.

  71. April Dykman says 13 November 2009 at 06:57

    @Ian–That’s my cat, Mia, in the photo. She likes to “help” with gift wrapping.

  72. WilliamB says 13 November 2009 at 08:32

    The best give I ever gave involved box and bows … and nothing else.

    My mother was always putting things “someplace special” and then forgetting where the special place was. One year I was desparate for a gift and out of ideas. The lightbulb went off. I wrapped the biggest box I could find, in the fanciest manner I could manage, and labeled it “Someplace Special.” She used it for 15 years before it finally disintegrated. I don’t usually get that lucky with ideas, though.

    My family has a tradition of sometimes giving money. The recipient is to use the gift for something special – no paying the electric bill – and then telling the giver all about the special thing. One year my special thing was a 3 day group lecture-and-tour of a historic battlefield. Not only did I thoroughly enjoy it, I now understand US history better.

  73. Tracy says 13 November 2009 at 10:27

    Great post April! I have been on the receiving side of this idea many times and I can tell you that it means a lot more to me and I usually get a lot more out of it.

    Some examples of experiences that I’ve been given:
    Membership to the local Aquarium
    Adopted Zoo Animal — I was a llama mama!
    Cowgirl Creamery Cheese Club Membership
    Wine Club Membership — This one was awesome!
    Concert Tix
    Safari Trip for 2 at Safari West — Perhaps my favorite!

    An idea that is always nice and from the heart is making a donation to an organization that is meaningful to that person on their behalf. One year for Christmas I adopted animals for all of my friends through the World Wildlife Fund and another year we purchased animals through Heifer International and gave that to all of our long distance family members.

    Perhaps the best experience I ever gave was surprising my mother with a trip to Disneyland. She was 57 the first time she ever stepped foot in a Disney park, and even though it rained on us most of the time, we had a blast and she had the biggest smile on her face the whole day!

  74. Kelly says 13 November 2009 at 14:26

    A lot of the above options are extremely expensive! We tend to get consumables for family, and our kids since those gifts are sure to get used.

    We do like to teach our kids about giving, so we chose to start a new tradition where everyone buys a gift for each member of the immediate family. This year they are saving their allowances to purchase gifts. It’s wonderful to see them choose something so thoughtfully for each other.

    I like to give a receive consumables like food, craft items for the kids, etc. or memberships since we can use those again and again.

    We also shop for a child or family in need each year.

    The gift I really want? To be debt-free, but I think it may take until next Christmas to get there.

  75. Diana says 14 November 2009 at 01:04

    This year all the adults in the family are receiving brandied pears and amarreto pears, canned this summer. Previous experience tells me they will be appreciated. Two days out of the summer for canning and I’m done with most of my list.

    I have been scanning old photos (you know, before digital camaras?). I also have very old family photos. When I am done scanning, I am planning on making (or having made) photo albums for the rest of my family. Before digital, pictures weren’t shared quite as much. They will enjoy having pictures of when we were kids, or their own children, or of their great grandparents.

    As someone who just graduated from college, I have to agree with the coffee, consumables gifts for students.

    As a foodie I would love to recieve food items that I normally wouldn’t buy for myself. Good quality balsamic vinegar, olive oil, saffron, etc. Things that when I look at the budget and the grocery list I have to make choices about. No, it doesn’t have to be the $100 bottle of balsamic, since I’m only buying the $5 bottle…pretty much anything would be better:)

    Gardeners appreciate gift certificates too! We don’t always have a use for plants, seeds, etc. If your buying tools make sure they are good quality and not something they already have,or they will turn into “stuff.” We used to buy my grandmother GCs to her favorite nursery. They were her favorite gifts! Every year she turned them into flowers for her garden. At past 80 she had all the stuff she needed, but had to watch her budget. It helped her to afford what she still loved.

  76. FB @ says 14 November 2009 at 06:42

    I am most definitely anti-stuff, because I hate clutter.

    The experience and memory is worth a lot more than STUFF to me..

    But there are others who clearly don’t feel the same way 🙁

    And I’ve also highlighted the Major Holiday Busters Part 1 that most people experience. (Part 2 coming)

  77. Marie says 15 November 2009 at 00:08

    The charity donation idea …I swear some people use it passive-aggressively. My old coworker loved to tell about how her in-laws made a donation in her name to a conservative Christian organization, when they knew perfectly well she was an atheist.

  78. Funny about Money says 15 November 2009 at 03:44

    What a nice idea!

    I once gave my (now ex-) husband a balloon ride. That was a hoot! Later I gave him a ride in a glider, which he also seemed to enjoy.

    When asked what he wanted for Christmas, he would invariably say “money.” Grr! So, one Christmas I took my paycheck to the bank, had it cashed out in one-dollar bills, packed it into a box, and wrapped it as his present.

    That was the last time he asked for money. Then he started asking for real estate.

    Agreed with Marie about the passive-aggressive uses of charitable donations. Really: who are we to decide what will be donated in someone else’s name? Unless you know the person has a favorite charity, it’s better to ask her or him where to donate. Some people’s favorite charity is their bank account…

  79. deepikaur says 15 November 2009 at 13:01

    This is an excellent post! I plan on sharing it with all of the people who absolutely insist on buying gifts for me, as I do not enjoy seeing them struggling to buy the ‘perfect gift’ when the holiday seasons roll around (especially since my birthday is within two weeks of the holidays). Anti-stuff gifts are definitely the best, as an experience with all its memories attached can be treasured for a lifetime as opposed to Stuff, which could be lost, broken, or used up.

  80. Ben Hebert says 16 November 2009 at 00:29

    I really like this idea. Being a big fan of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu I’d love to have a private lesson with one of the local black belts in my area.

  81. ElizabethG says 16 November 2009 at 07:15

    While I love the ideas of giving gifts of experiences like tickets to the zoo, theater, etc. what do you do if you live so far away from these things that they aren’t practical? I live in a smaller town where these sort of attractions just aren’t available anywhere close. I also have three stepdaughters (19,20 and 27) that are all about things and “stuff” and would most likely not really appreciate gift certificates or food gifts. My husband and I have about decided just to give them cash, but once you put some cash in a box and stick it under the tree it just feels really impersonal.

  82. Matt says 19 November 2009 at 11:04

    My girlfriend and I recently did a glass blowing workshop. It was awesome.

  83. Badger says 20 November 2009 at 12:43

    This is another string to the bow. It won’t suit everyone, but it’ll suit others better than the usual alternatives.

    I can’t afford to buy for a lot of people at once, so I make a point of not giving christmas gifts to many people. They will get enough stuff at christmas to drown in, without my contribution. I do place importance on birthdays, especially the ones near christmas, which get submerged.

    However, I take my nieces to the pantomime every year. They’re talking about it for weeks, sometimes months afterwards, and it’s the kind of treat their harassed parents don’t have freedom to give them. Nothing I could afford to buy would make that big an impression on them.

    Sometimes it goes wrong, though: I once bought entrance tickets (wedding present) to an attraction I knew the recipients would really enjoy. Weeks after the tickets expired, I got a polite thank you for the tickets to the recycling centre. It could have been worse: they could have mistaken it for a sewage farm.

  84. Peggy says 21 November 2009 at 00:46

    If today’s (Nov. 21) Zits comic isn’t apropos to this topic, I don’t know what is! 🙂

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