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In the midst of holiday gift-giving, I can’t help but think how often well-intentioned gifts eventually lead to more stress. Both for the giver and the receiver. So much so that over time our family decided to give experience gifts instead of material ones as often as we can.
After a few years of trial and error, this is now the norm in our family… and the results are amazing!
Even last minute, an experience gift can be easy to arrange and thoughtful. They’re also rewarding to both the giver and receiver. Going to the movies as a family, taking a painting class, or learning to scuba dive. These are priceless memories or skills that last a lifetime.
Give the Gift That Lasts
Don’t get me wrong… I love giving gifts and always enjoy finding the perfect gift for a family member or friend. I’ve even come up with gift guides for loved ones and friends for everyone on your list.
Still, as a mom, I also dread the aftermath. The paper and toys all over the floor. The lingering messes. The kids complaining about having to clean up their toys.
As every parent has inevitably experienced at some point, the joy of material gifts fades quickly. And even the most anticipated Christmas toys soon become a chore to clean up.
This leads to my next question…
Are We Drowning in Too Much Stuff?
The dramatic success of the The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up provides a hint that perhaps many of us feel we have too much stuff. Short summary of the book = get rid of most of it.
Turns out, we probably do!
Think for a second about your grandparents’ home when you were growing up. If it was anything like mine, it was probably a small house with even smaller closets. And the closets weren’t that full. And they raised six kids in that house! They also didn’t need drastic storage and organizing solutions or extra storage rental units.
Fast forward to the present day. Joshua Becker is my favorite expert on the topic of clutter and minimalism (see my interview with him here). He shares some sobering trends on his Becoming Minimalist blog.
- In 2013, the LA Times reported the average American home had over 300,000 items in it. And there were over 50,000 storage facilities nationwide (this is the fastest-growing real estate segment!).
- At least 1 in 10 of us has a storage unit to store our excess stuff.
- There are five times more storage facilities in the U.S. than the number of Starbucks!
- There’s enough physical space for every man, woman, and child in America to stand in U.S. storage facilities—all at the same time!
Do we really have so much more stuff than people did just two generations ago?
Yes, we do…
Our grandparents had an average of nine outfits. This included dress and work clothes. Now, we have an average of 30, plus a lot of extra clothes that don’t qualify as an “outfit.”
The AVERAGE family spends $1,700 on clothes annually while giving or throwing away over 200 pounds of clothes per year.
This is the part that really shocked me…
The average child in the developed world owns over 200 toys but only plays with 12 of them on average per day!
Even crazier? Only 3% of the world’s children live in the US, but they own over 40% of the world’s toys!
If It Makes You Happy…
Those staggering statistics wouldn’t worry me if it seemed the excess stuff improved our lives in some way. If they made us happier, healthier, or closer to our children… but that isn’t the case. To quote Sheryl Crow:
If it makes you happy It can’t be that bad If it makes you happy Then why the hell are you so sad
We have and consume twice as many material goods as we collectively did 50 years ago. But statistically, we’re much less happy. 54% of us report being overwhelmed with clutter, and 78% of us have no idea how to overcome it!
This also leads to more stress. Joshua Becker explains:
Over the course of our lifetime, we will spend a total of 3,680 hours or 153 days searching for misplaced items. The research found we lose up to nine items every day—or 198,743 in a lifetime. Phones, keys, sunglasses, and paperwork top the list.
Certainly, there’s more to why we’re less happy than we used to be than just the excess clutter. But statistically, it is a contributor and an easy one to address.
Why Give Experiences Not Stuff?
Many studies show material possessions don’t equal happiness. And that experiences are much more intrinsically fulfilling than things. (Extra bonus: you don’t have to find a place to store experiences except in your heart, memory, and maybe in a photo book!)
Thomas Gilovich, a researcher at Cornell University, has spent more than a decade on the subject. Gilovich, along with Killingsworth, explored why experiences contribute more to happiness than stuff.
Their study concluded people are less happy with material purchases over time and happier with experiences. They speculate this is because we adapt to physical things. So even the nicest car or newest phone becomes commonplace after enough time. Memories though tend to get fonder over time.
Our experiences are a bigger part of ourselves than our material goods….You can really like your material stuff. You can even think that part of your identity is connected to those things, but nonetheless they remain separate from you. In contrast, your experiences really are part of you. We are the sum total of our experiences.
They found that we remember even negative experiences fondly as a funny story or bonding experience. Experiences are also a uniting factor. You’re more likely to bond with someone who enjoys the same hobby or has traveled to the same places as you than with someone who has a similar possession.
The anticipation leading up to a family trip, event, or experience even has the potential to give happiness itself. This makes it the gift that truly keeps on giving! Happiness in anticipation, happiness during the experience, and happiness in the memories.
Beats the heck out of a pile of toys you trip over while tucking the kids in at night!
It turns out Aristotle had it right all those years ago.
“Men fancy that external goods are the cause of happiness (but) leisure of itself gives pleasure and happiness and enjoyment in life.”
Experience Gifts: The Importance for Kids
As important as shared experiences are for adults, they’re even more important for children. Especially for their healthy psychological development. Shared family time (even at family dinners) is drastically important for a child’s well-being. Much more important than the dozens of extracurricular activities we often neglect family time for.
Shared family time and experiences are linked to:
- bonding within the family
- fewer behavioral problems in children
- a stronger sense of identity
- a sense of security for children
- higher rates of academic success
- lower rates of violence
These shared experiences can be as simple as time spent together during or preparing meals. It can be while driving or reading stories before bed. But prioritizing shared experiences as gifts helps reduce unwanted material items. It also fosters family bonding.
Our Rule for Gifts
You might have heard of the “4-Gift Rule” that some parents follow:
Something they want, Something they need, Something to wear, Something to read
We follow a variation of this focused on a few material gifts and a few shared experiences. Our kids typically get:
- The “Want”: One Material Gift – Despite my preference for experiences, we do get one gift for each child that is strictly something they want. Often these end up being experience gifts as well. Like craft supplies, a sewing machine, or the Gorilla Gym that’s been a favorite in our house for years. Sometimes they’re also educational gifts like Osmo, a Perplexus puzzle, or bulk Legos.
- The “Need”: Experience Gifts – Each child gets at least one experience gift per year. Often we get them several more experience-based gifts as well (see my full list below). Since family experiences are so important to us, we consider these gifts a need, so we prioritize and budget for them.
- The “Wear”: Clothes – I created capsule wardrobes for my kids to cut down on clutter. For holidays they often get one clothing item they need, like a new coat or hiking boots. This may also be something fun, like dress-up clothes, if they don’t need any new clothing.
- The “Read”: Memory Books – I try to take the kids to the library often. It’s an easy way to choose new books without them taking up room on the shelves. But our kids do get a different kind of book as a gift. Each year, I keep a folder on my desktop for each child. Throughout the year, I’ll add pictures from field trips, birthdays, and other fun memories. At the end of the year, I compile each child’s photos into a hardcover book. A photo service like Mixbook is perfect for these. This is my favorite gift to give them since it helps them relive and remember everything we did as a family that year. And it’s a gift they can show their own families one day. These books end up being the favorite gift every holiday season (and bonus, the photo service saves them so I can reprint them if one ever gets ruined!).
Plus, each child gets fun (and sometimes practical) stocking stuffers.
What About Extended Family Gifts?
Even once we decided to make the switch to experiences with our kids, it took a while to figure out how to approach the topic with extended family. We approached it in two ways:
- Switching to giving experiences to family members as well
- Gently explaining our reason for choosing experiences. We also encouraged extended family to give experiences too.
It’s taken a few years, but our extended family is now on board. The kids cherish the time with other family members as well. One year a family member took our daughter to see The Nutcracker. And grandparents often give memberships to museums or zoos or gift certificates to go to a movie or lunch.
At the end of the day, we can’t (and shouldn’t) control what extended family chooses to give our children. I’m very grateful our family has decided to prioritize experience-type gifts as well. But even if they didn’t and decided to still give material gifts, we’d still welcome these and teach our children to be grateful for them. The relationship with family is more important than arguing about the gifts.
46+ Ways to Give Experiences This Year
The average parent spends over $276 per child on toys and gifts each year! And over 40% of Americans are willing to go into debt over Christmas gifts.
While experience gifts can be a little more expensive up-front, they’re cheaper in the long run. Especially when we consider that on average, we’d spend over $1200 on gifts for our children. So I don’t mind spending even a few hundred dollars on a worthwhile membership or experience that will last all year.
The move away from material gifts was a slow one. I’m always adding to our running list of ideas. Each year I try to choose a few that sound suited to our current family ages and interests.
Maybe one of these will spark an idea for a special someone left on your list!
Family Experience Gifts
Bigger memberships or vacations are often family gifts. It’s a fun way to check a few things off of the bucket list. These can range from adventures like kayaking, rafting, or setting up a zipline in the backyard. If you’re feeling really adventurous, why not try a hot air balloon ride?
- Escape Room – These are popping up everywhere and run about $15-30 a person. Check to make sure the theme is family-friendly. This is an ideal group activity that Mom, Dad, and older kids can do with extended family for some fun quality time.
- Museum Memberships – Check around for local museums that offer annual memberships. Many offer discounts for local residents or have programs for kids. I’ve found great deals on local art and history museums.
- Science Center Memberships – Many cities also have a children’s museum or science center with an annual pass option. I found it’s cheaper to get an annual membership to a nearby science center than for our family to go one time! This is a great place to go on a rainy day and is a common destination for our Friday field trips.
- Orchestra Season Tickets – While we don’t live in a large city, we have a local orchestra that performs every few months. I called and found season tickets for children were extremely affordable (less than $8 a show). It’s now a fun family activity the kids look forward to.
- Community Theater Tickets – If you have a local theater, take children to these performances as well. This was the big family gift one year, and we got a few season tickets. Parents can go to the more grown-up performances as date nights. And I alternate taking the older kids to performances they enjoy (like Annie, Rudolph, etc.).
- Tent for Camping – Sometimes a material gift leads to an experience. This tent was a family gift a couple of years ago, and we’ve used it quite a few times. I picked this one because it’s easy to set up!
- Minor League Baseball Tickets (or college, or MLB)– We all love baseball (because it’s the best sport ? ). Season tickets to our local minor league team have been a great family outing that lasts all summer long. Any sports ticket (college, pro, etc.) is a great family activity.
- Nature Center Tickets – Check for local nature areas or nature centers in your area and see if they offer an annual pass. I’ve found these for nature centers, a local cave, and state parks.
- Local Attraction Season Passes – Any other local attraction with a season pass can be a great gift. Check for other types of museums, historical sites, or local attractions.
- New Family Hobbies – Take up hiking, camping, card games, a sport, or other fun activity. Get the necessary equipment or passes for your new hobby.
- Be Puzzled – Feeling brave? This 33,600 piece puzzle is the world’s largest. It might take you the whole year to put together and will foster a LOT of family time!
- Fun Family Outing– You don’t have to go all the way to the grand canyon to have a fun family trip. Plan in advance a trip to a local amusement park, a family vacation, or another activity. Remember, looking forward to an experience makes the experience more fun and fosters happiness on its own!
- Volunteer – Truly a gift that keeps on giving. If your kids are old enough, volunteer at a local food pantry or charity. Give your kids (and yourself) the gift of helping others!
- Give to Charity – Another favorite in our family. We designate about $100 in end-of-year contributions per child to let them decide how to give. They love choosing gifts like farm animals, fruit trees, or educational supplies for those in need around the world through programs like Food for the Poor.
Best Experience Gifts for Kids
- Local Pottery Painting – An absolute favorite with our girls. Our local pottery place has dozens of options to paint, and this has been a fun activity for the kids (and me!). Either pick out some unpainted pieces to paint or get a gift certificate.
- Pottery Making – For older kids, some places offer pottery-making lessons or classes.
- Rock Climbing – Have a local rock-climbing gym? See if they offer annual passes or pick-up gift certificates for a climbing outing with older kids. Bonus: It’s a great way to get exercise too!
- Local Jump Gym – Another fun activity that helps kids stay active. See if you have a local jump gym or indoor trampoline center and get annual passes or gift cards.
- Batting Cage Membership – For a child who loves baseball, look for a local batting cage. Some offer year-long memberships or bulk discounts on packages. This is a great way to stay active and have a fun outing with your child.
- Bowling or Skate Tickets – These are getting harder to find. But if you have a local bowling alley or skating rink, ask them about family passes or gift certificates. Roller skating or ice skating are both fun.
- Every Kid in a Park – If you have a fourth grader, there’s no excuse not to get this one. A free year-long park pass to all the national parks with the “Every Kid In a Park” program. This pass provides access to national parks for everyone in your immediate family, not just the fourth grader. It’s a great family gift and is available to homeschoolers as well! (Here’s how to get it)
- Treasure Hunt – If you’re giving a material gift, make the giving itself a fun experience. Instead of wrapping up the final gift, wrap up a clue and let the child go on a scavenger hunt to find the final gift (or figure out what it is and go with you to get it!). This is especially fun for a larger gift or experience!
- Geocaching – Speaking of treasure hunts, geocaching is a fun, free way to go on a treasure hunt with your kids almost anywhere in the world. You can learn more about it here.
- A New Skill – Does your child want to try horseback riding, cooking, sewing, painting, or another similar activity? Give them classes or ways to experience and develop this new hobby or skill. To keep costs down, try to find a family member or an elderly member of your community who might enjoy passing on the skill. Here are my favorite cooking classes for kids.
- Lunch Dates – Give gift certificates to a favorite breakfast or lunch place to a child and plan a one-on-one date with that child.
- Movie Tickets – We don’t go to the movies often, but often there are some great family movies coming out around Christmastime. Or gift them a voucher or coupon redeemable for a special movie night at home (snacks included!).
- Question Book – My kids all love this Question A Day Book, and it gives us a fun conversation starter each day. The “question book” is a fun pre-bedtime activity at our house. Similar to this is the Little Talk Deck. It has some fun questions for kids to prompt them to share and lead them into some great conversations!
- Learning Magazine Subscription – Our kids love getting “real mail” in the mailbox. Extended family members often get them monthly subscriptions to learning magazines. The kids look forward to the magazine coming each month and to doing the activities (and bonus: you can recycle the magazine when they’re done with it!).
- Craft Bucket – One of my favorite Christmas gifts as a child: a basket of craft activities that lasted me a year! My aunt filled a large basket with scissors, paper, glue, string, and every other craft supply imaginable. That basket led to dozens of hours of fun for me as a kid. Now my girls sometimes get activity baskets like this with crafts we can do together. My kids love getting books about how to draw, painting kits, sticker pads, construction paper, and other craft kits.
- Garden Kit – Just like crafts, gardening is a great activity to do with children. If you have a budding gardener (pun intended) on your hands, wrap up some seeds and gardening supplies and let your child help you garden all year!
- Musical Instrument – A favorite gift one Christmas was a steel drum for my kids. Though I admit, on a couple of especially loud days I have regretted the idea! This is the one I got, and they’ve loved learning to play it. I also ordered mini musical instrument kits for the kids to all create their own music.
- Music Lessons – Along with their new instrument, you can gift them some music lessons. Piano or guitar lessons are popular, but there’s also violin, harp, etc.
- Movie Night Packages – My children don’t watch much TV, but we do love family movie nights. To make the tradition even more fun, we wrap up a new family movie DVD and some healthy snacks in a box for each child to let them “host” the movie night.
- Game Night Packages – A game night is another great family activity. Giving each child one game is a fun way to expand our collection. And they love playing “their game” when we have a game night. Some favorites are Apples to Apples, Tsuro, Uno, Sequence, and basic card games.
- DIY Kits – My kids enjoy getting the supplies to make DIY items we can make together (like this DIY Christmas garland) or give as gifts. Homemade lip balm, soap, and lotion bars are other popular ideas. Bonus: they’re learning new skills too! This paper-making kit was an especially big hit.
Experience Gifts for Dad
Check out this post for ideas of usable, practical gifts that dads will enjoy (and that help them be healthier, sleep better, etc.). In my experience, guys are the toughest to find experience-based gifts for. But here are a few ideas that have been a hit over the years:
- Home Brewing – For the guy who loves beer give them an organic (or at least non-GMO) option. Home brewing beer can be a really fun hobby. I’d recommend this book to learn more about brewing. While there are pre-made brewing kits, I’d suggest talking to a local homebrew store if possible. This way you can find out what supplies and ingredients he’ll need.
- Sports – Sports-related experiences are popular with many guys. Tickets to see his favorite teams play can be a big hit. These all tend to be more expensive, so you may have to save for a while. They can make for an amazing and memorable experience though!
- Outdoor Activities – This will vary depending on the guy, but finding outdoor experiences he already loves is a great gift idea. This might be finding time to camp as a family or for him to go hunting, hiking, or playing sports.
- Scuba Certification – Why not give each other scuba certifications as a gift? You can go through the process together and end up with a great hobby to enjoy together. Though, not a great one for taking younger kids!
- Skydiving – Is your guy adventurous? Skydiving is a ton of fun, and many cities have a local place you can go. They can also do indoor skydiving if they’re not feeling quite as adventurous.
Experience Gifts for Mom
Memes abound online about moms enjoying going to the bathroom alone. Or her hobbies, include eating without a child in her lap or sleeping in. These are some practical experience gift ideas every mom will enjoy! Since moms deserve every good thing (ok, I know I’m biased), here’s a list of material gift ideas I’ve loved receiving as well.
- A Day Off – Moms work hard all year, and things seem to get even busier around the holidays. One of my favorite gifts ever was a series of “days off” that I didn’t have to cook, clean, or have any household responsibilities (and it included a gift card to go out for coffee!). Even better (hint to dads), get together and schedule a moms’ night out for several of your wives to go to dinner together!
- A Painting Session – More art studios are popping up and they make great experience gifts. Treat mom to a night of painting, even better if it’s with a few best friends.
- Wine Tasting – I had the opportunity several years ago to visit Dry Farm Wine’s farms. It was an amazing experience, but not everyone has that opportunity. Instead, you can arrange an in-home wine tasting in your own living room or kitchen. Dry Farm Wine has wine gift boxes that will ship straight to your door.
- Pampering – With that whole “motherhood is pretty hard work” thing, any kind of pampering is an awesome gift and one mom may not do it unless it’s a gift. Massages are my personal favorite!
- Date Nights – A couples getaway or time alone can be tough with kids. Give mom a pre-planned date night and handle all the arrangements, line up a sitter, and make the plans.
- Craft or Hobby Supplies – I mentioned earlier that one of my favorite gifts as a kid was a craft basket full of supplies. Some new yarn, drawing supplies, or even an adult coloring book are all great experience gifts for moms. You can get art supplies here.
- Meal Kit Subscription – While I love my meal planner app, some days I don’t feel like cooking. For families with younger kids especially, a meal kit subscription box can be a welcome gift. For the healthy foodie, I like the meals from Balanced Bites and The Good Kitchen.
- A Nap or Getting to Sleep in – This may be one of the toughest gifts to pull off, but one of the most appreciated. If you can figure out how to let mom sleep in for a day or take a nap, she’ll be grateful!
- Any Family Gifts – Any of the family gifts listed above are also a great option to get for moms. They’ll enjoy the family bonding and the idea of an activity to do with the kids.
Gifts for Grandparents + Extended Family
- Day Out with Kids – This has been a favorite for grandparents to give to the kids, but also to receive. The kids pick a fun activity they want to do with grandparents or extended family and give it to them as a gift. It might be something like going out for smoothies or playing at the park. They can even go to the grocery store to gather ingredients and cook a meal together.
- Amazon Prime – I know several extended family members who use Amazon all the time. But they didn’t want to pay for the Prime membership. In the past, we’ve given these family members a Prime membership. Click on “give the gift of prime” and enter their email address. This is partially a material gift but tends to make purchases they’re already making faster and easier.
- Memory Book – I’ve made a photo book with a company like Mixbook that showcases favorite memories with the giftee. Or let your kids make a homemade book by printing and cutting out pictures and writing captions.
- Membership Add-Ons – For grandparents who live close by, you may be able to add them to any of the family memberships listed above. We added guests/grandparent options to our zoo and science center memberships as well as to many of the local attraction places. This lets them come for free and spend time with the kids. And it’s a bonus for me as well since I have extra eyes to watch and help with the kids).
Experience Gifts: The Bottom Line
Even if you’ve already purchased gifts for this year, consider adding some experiences as well. Or slowly transition to more experience-based gifts over time. The family time and memories are worth so much more than gifts. And giving experiences may help reduce stress and contribute to family bonding. Here’s more on how I plan for the holidays and save my sanity.
Have you given experiences instead of gifts in the past? What other suggestions would you add to this list?