53+ Ways to Give Experience Gifts Instead of Stuff This Year (Even Last Minute)

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Wellness Mama » Blog » Motherhood » 53+ Ways to Give Experience Gifts Instead of Stuff This Year (Even Last Minute)

In the midst of holiday gift-giving, I can’t help but think how well-intentioned gifts can lead to more stress, for both the giver and the receiver. My family has really embraced a minimal lifestyle, so we decided to give experience gifts instead of material ones as often as we could. After a few years of trial and error, this is now the norm… and the results are amazing!

An experience gift can be easy to arrange and thoughtful, even if it’s last minute. 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 are priceless memories or skills that last a lifetime.

Do We Have Too Much Stuff?

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.

Consider this:

  • The average American home has over 300,000 items in it.
  • There are over 50,000 storage facilities nationwide. This is the fastest-growing real estate segment!
  • At least 4 in 10 of us have a storage unit to store our excess stuff.
  • There are three 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!

Why Give Experiences and Not Stuff?

Those staggering statistics wouldn’t worry me if it seemed the excess stuff improved our lives in some way. But that isn’t the case. Statistically, we’re not happy. Over 54% of us report being overwhelmed with clutter, and 78% of us have no idea how to overcome it! There are tons of topics on organizing and decluttering out there to help us deal with all of our stuff and the stress it causes us.

Thomas Gilovich, a researcher at Cornell University, spent more than a decade on the subject. He explored why experiences contribute more to happiness than stuff. He found that experiences are 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.

Even the anticipation leading up to a family trip, event, or experience has the potential to give happiness. This makes it the gift that keeps on giving! Happiness in anticipation, during the experience, and in the memories. Beats the heck out of a pile of toys you trip over while tucking the kids in at night!

Experience Gifts: The Importance for Kids

Shared family time (even at family dinners) is drastically important for a child’s well-being. Much more important than the toys we give them or the dozens of extracurricular activities we often neglect family time for.

There are lots of reasons to have shared family time and experiences, including:

  • bonding within the family
  • fewer behavioral problems in children
  • a stronger sense of identity and sense of security
  • higher rates of academic success
  • lower rates of violence

These shared experiences can be as simple as time spent together during or preparing meals. Or even while driving or reading stories before bed. Prioritizing shared experiences as gifts helps reduce unwanted material items while fostering family bonding.

53+ 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. That just adds to our clutter and stress.

Experience gifts are great because they reduce clutter, give kids something to look forward to, and promote bonding. Yes, they may be more expensive upfront, but the benefits outweigh the cost in the memories made. And sometimes they pay for themselves after one or two visits!

Family Experience Gift Ideas

Bigger experiences, like memberships or vacations, are often family gifts. It’s a fun way to check a few things off of your bucket list. Or try a new activity as a family, ranging from kayaking or rafting to setting up a zipline in the backyard. Feeling adventurous? Schedule a hot air balloon ride!

Season Passes or Memberships

  • Museum Memberships – Look into which local museums offer annual memberships near you. Some even offer discounts for local residents or have programs for kids.
  • Science Center Memberships – Many cities have a children’s museum or science center with an annual pass option. Sometimes these end up costing less than one visit.
  • Orchestra Season Tickets – We have a local orchestra that performs every few months. I found children’s season tickets to be extremely affordable (less than $8 a show). It’s now a fun family activity.
  • Community Theater Tickets – If you have a local theater, buy season tickets. If you can’t buy one for each member of your family, buy two. Parents can go to the more grown-up plays as date nights, and then Mom or Dad can alternate taking the kids for special nights.
  • Sporting Events – Any professional or college teams in your area? Purchase season tickets to your favorite sport. Or if that’s too expensive, buy tickets to one game. My family loves baseball, and it’s been a great outing that lasts all summer.
  • Nature Center Tickets – Check for local nature preserves 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.

Family Activities

  • Camping Tent – 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!
  • New Family Hobbies – Get the necessary equipment or passes to take up a new family hobby. Try hiking, camping, card games, a sport, or another fun activity.
  • Escape Room – This is an ideal group activity that Mom, Dad, and older kids can do with extended family for some fun quality time. Check to make sure the theme is family-friendly.
  • 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 or New York to have a fun family trip. Visit an amusement park, take a local food tour, or plan a family staycation. 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 $100 per child, and they decide where to give it. 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

Kids love learning new things or spending time doing their favorite activities. It’s always special to spend one-on-one time with their parents. Experiences are a great way to give them both!

Learn or Perfect a Skill

  • 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!).
  • Pottery Making – For older kids, some places offer pottery-making lessons or classes.
  • New Skill – Does your child want to try horseback riding, cooking, sewing, painting, or another similar activity? Give them classes for a new hobby or skill. You can even buy virtual classes through sites like Udemy. Or, to keep costs down, look at your local recreation center, or ask a family member to teach your child. Here are my favorite cooking classes for kids.
  • 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!
  • Learning Magazine Monthly Subscription – Our kids love getting “real mail” in the mailbox. This is one gift my extended family members often get for them. They look forward to it coming each month and doing the activities.
  • Craft Bucket – One of my favorite Christmas gifts as a child: a basket of craft activities that lasted me all year! My aunt filled a large basket with scissors, paper, glue, string, and every craft supply imaginable. It led to hours of fun for me. My kids love getting these baskets, plus books about how to draw, painting kits, sticker pads, construction paper, and other craft kits.
  • 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.
  • 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, and even ukulele!

Active Experiences

  • 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 together.
  • Bowling or Skate Tickets – If you have a local bowling alley or skating rink, ask about family passes or gift certificates. Roller skating and 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. It’s a free year-long park pass to all the national parks. It provides access to everyone in your immediate family, not just the fourth grader. (Here’s how to get it.)
  • Treasure Hunt – If you’re giving a material gift, make it a fun experience. Instead of wrapping it up, create a scavenger hunt for the child to find the final gift. 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.

Family Time

  • 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 sometimes there are some great family movies coming out around Christmastime.
  • Question Book – My kids all love this Question A Day Book, and it gives us a fun conversation starter each day. Similar is the Little Talk Deck. It has some fun questions to prompt kids to share and leads to some great conversations!
  • Garden Kit – Just like crafts, gardening is a great activity to do with children. If you have a budding gardener (pun intended), wrap up some seeds and gardening supplies and let your child help you garden all year!
  • Movie Night Packages – My children don’t watch much TV, but we love family movie nights. To make it even more fun, I wrap up a new DVD and some healthy snacks for each child to let them “host” the movie night.
  • Game Night Packages – 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 together (like this DIY Christmas garland) or give them as gifts. This paper-making kit was an especially big hit. Bonus: they’re learning new skills too!

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 him an organic (or at least non-GMO) home brewing kit. There are pre-made brewing kits but go to a local homebrew store if possible to find out what supplies and ingredients he’ll need.
  • Sports Tickets to see his favorite teams play can be a big hit. These tend to be more expensive, so you may have to save for a while, but they can make for an amazing and memorable experience!
  • 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 like golf.
  • Scuba Certification – Why not give each other scuba certifications as a gift? Go through the process together and then enjoy a great hobby together.
  • 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. Here’s a fun list of material gifts for mom for the perfect gift. But moms also love experiences too!

  • Day Off – 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!).
  • Painting Session – These sessions are a great way to learn and have fun while being creative. Treat mom to a night of painting, even better if it’s with a few best friends.
  • Wine Tasting – It would be great to get her a trip to Napa or Italy, but not everyone can do that. Instead, arrange an in-home wine tasting. Dry Farm Wine has wine gift boxes that will ship straight to your door.
  • Pampering – All moms can use some pampering! Plus, it’s something mom may only do if 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 – 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 the healthy foodie, I like the meals from Balanced Bites and The Good Kitchen.
  • Nap or Getting to Sleep In – This may be one of the toughest gifts to pull off, but definitely one of the most appreciated. If you can figure out how to do it, 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

Often our loved ones don’t need any more material gifts or just really appreciate experiences. I’ve found these to be really popular options with my family members.

  • Day Out with Kids – The kids pick a fun activity to do with grandparents and give it as a gift. It could be something like going out for smoothies, playing at the park, or going to the store to gather ingredients to cook a meal together.
  • Window Garden – Sometimes it’s harder for grandparents to get down in the dirt like they used to. A windowsill garden with herbs is a great way to have flavorful spices all year long and have fun gardening. My kids and I love this countertop version from Aerotop.
  • Memory Book – I love making a photo book with a company like Mixbook that showcases favorite memories with the giftee. Or let your kids make a homemade scrapbook by printing and cutting out pictures and writing captions.
  • Membership Add-Ons – For grandparents who live close by, add them to any of the family memberships listed above. This lets them come for free and spend time with the kids. And as a bonus, you have extra eyes to help with the kids.

Experience Gifts: The Bottom Line

Even if you’ve already purchased gifts this year, consider adding some experiences as well. Or slowly transition to more experience-based gifts. Family time and memories are worth so much more than material gifts.

Have you given experiences instead of gifts in the past? What other suggestions would you add to this list?

Katie Wells Avatar

About Katie Wells

Katie Wells, CTNC, MCHC, Founder of Wellness Mama and Co-founder of Wellnesse, has a background in research, journalism, and nutrition. As a mom of six, she turned to research and took health into her own hands to find answers to her health problems. WellnessMama.com is the culmination of her thousands of hours of research and all posts are medically reviewed and verified by the Wellness Mama research team. Katie is also the author of the bestselling books The Wellness Mama Cookbook and The Wellness Mama 5-Step Lifestyle Detox.


105 responses to “53+ Ways to Give Experience Gifts Instead of Stuff This Year (Even Last Minute)”

  1. Jennifer Pinsonneault Avatar
    Jennifer Pinsonneault

    I would love to see some suggestions for older kids – i.e. teens or young adults. I have purchased concert tickets for their favourite bands in the past.

  2. Steve Avatar

    If you have parents or grandparents who are immigrants or English learners, online English lessons are a tech gift they might appreciate. Checkout Lingo Loop, pretty cool program to learn English.

  3. Hollie Avatar

    Wellness Mama, This is just what I needed today! With Christmas less than 2 months away I’ve begun to feel the panic of “OMG what do I get for people?!”. For several years I’ve been thinking of doing the switch from Material to Experience giving but didn’t know what to do. Thank You for the guidance!

  4. Brianne Avatar

    My husband and I have been trying to move towards experience gifts instead of material items. We’re struggling a little, though, with Christmas. I grew up in a house where we spent hours opening presents (lots of people, opening presents one at a time). Our kids will be 7, 5, 5 and 3 this year… What does your Christmas day look like without the gift opening? Do you wrap something to let them know about the experience? What do the kids do for the rest of the day if they don’t have new gifts to play with? Do you have special traditions that you do every year in Christmas?

    1. Wellness Mama Avatar

      We do have special traditions every year. And we typically get the kids a couple of joint gifts. They usually get a game of some kind that we play during the day, and we find fun ways to wrap/tell them about experiences.

  5. Heather Avatar

    I was hoping you could help me with the verbiage on birthday party invitations advising that our children have plenty of toys that we would prefer that they are gifted experiences like movie, museums, etc.
    How would I word something like that with the invitation ?

    1. Katie - Wellness Mama Avatar

      I always go with something along the lines of “No gifts please, your presence is the perfect present” if we are asking for no gifts at all. It also depends on the age of the child and if it is a family party or with friends, but something along the lines of “This year, we’re making a family effort to emphasize experiences over physical gifts. Instead of a toy or physical gift, (birthday child) would love the gift of your time or an experience with you.”

  6. Eva Avatar

    Me and my husband organized our children’s tent trip. Durring watching a sky full of stars we said them that we bought to them one of them. It was not a lie, because we bought one from Kingdom of Universe. The certificate is now hanging in their room and they keep reminding us of the trip 🙂

  7. Melissa Wilkes Avatar
    Melissa Wilkes

    Hi! The tent you selected looks nice, but don’t you worry about flame retardants? I haven’t been able to find one without FRs that isn’t a ton of money.

  8. Robb Avatar

    There are companies that specialize in giving experiences as gifts. xperiencedays.com and excitations.com for example in the US.

  9. S. J. Finley Avatar
    S. J. Finley

    THANK YOU. I read this after a bad birthday experience. Trying to figure if it ok to be minimalist.
    Every birthday my girls get one single present( worth up to $20), art supplies, brand new outfit, and books. That’s it. I do decorate the house on Dollar tree budget and creativity. Homemade cake. Its always mom, dad, 2 other siblings. A neighbor kid barged into our house after being told day prior no and told her mom about my lack of not including her. The mom thought I was rude and kill-joy for lack of Real birthday. We have always done it the same way for years! Never invited anyone- we have no family except each other. No huge anything. I had doubtd creep in my head. Was it ok to have so little and be personal? Than I thought of our holidays such as Christmas it same minimalist way. 2 Pjs, 2 fuzzy socks, books, crafts/art, 1 musical for kid that likes that or 1sports, 3 actual toys under $25 each, beauty supplies( we have 3 girls). Plus Christmas eve we exchange presents fm Dollar tree we bought for each other- thats 4 extra personal gifts.
    I thought we was Ok. Why do you need so much? Why be greedy or is it not greed to have so much? Why be wasteful? Do the kids even understand or actual appreciate any of it?
    I keep reading more of your other posts and feel better. Thank you! Thank you!

  10. Julie Avatar

    This year we gave a generational gift of lunch and a round of golf for grandpa, son-in-law and grandson. A complete hit. Also for the younger grandsons a loaded gift card to Get Air (trampoline park). Waterparks are good, too, but require a lot of patience until summertime arrives. Would have loved to do Cavalleo horse show but just too pricey as each daughter has 4 children. Thanks for the article

  11. Amanda Gibson Avatar
    Amanda Gibson

    Thanks for starting this discussion! I think everyone realizes we all have too much stuff. In our family, we have 8 children….which means we often receive a large number of inexpensive toys/ gifts. While we are thankful for the love shown to our children, the items are often low quality ones that break easily or less favorite things they do not have room to keep. We understand….it is costly to buy for a large family…but we don’t want money wasted either.

    As our family grew, it became awkward to request specific brands or items because of the expense. Now when someone asks about gift ideas, we request family gifts or experiences we can enjoy together such as family passes to science centers, a special dvd or audio drama, board games, movie tickets (budget seats), sporting/ outdoor equipment to share, money to visit the aquarium or special attraction during family vacation, etc,… I was hesitant at first; but everyone loves a suggestion that brings a smile and fits the budget.

    This approach has provided some very special gifts that we could not afford. Several years ago, I asked each of the grandparents, aunts and uncles, and family friends to contribute toward a special family/ experience gift rather than suggesting small gifts to fit into gift budgets ($5-30per child) I created a puzzle from a picture of their present and gave the kids the outer frame to explain they would be getting a family gift. Over the course of 2 weeks, they received pieces from everyone and attempted to figure out the mystery gift. (People who contributed more had more pieces of the puzzle to give them) Our children were thrilled when they completed the image of a 15×15 square trampoline! They are still jumping up and down 🙂 This idea works for day trip/ vacation destination also. So much fun for everyone.

    This year, three sets of grandparents contributed $30 toward a season pass to Dollywood rather than giving each of our children a $30 gift. I created a three part card…DOL on one…LYW on one…and OOD on one… for each child to open. Great fun for Christmas…and a HAPPY New Year ahead 🙂 As a special benefit, they received take-a-friend day passes so we can bless another family with our family gift! (Also, that’s 24 items that do not find a home in ours 🙂

    Thanks, everyone, for the great ideas…planning ahead for 2017!

  12. Heather Avatar

    Check out Little Passports for kids – it’s a monthly subscription with activities that get mailed to the kiddo to learn about different countries and cultures.

  13. Amy Avatar

    We’ve been doing experience gifts for years & love them. However, when the kids only receive presents on Christmas & birthdays – ya better believe they’re going to get more than 4! These occasions are also the times when they receive things like new clothes, sneakers, etc. so those are also wrapped up and considered presents.

  14. KC Avatar

    I’ve always been a huge proponent of experiential gifts. Our granddaughter has 5 sets of living grandparents (2 grand, 3 great-grand), an endless number of aunts, uncles and cousins. After witnessing the almost obscene collection of toys she received when born and then only 2 months later for her 1st Christmas, my husband and I (paternal grandparents) made the decision to not buy toys and give her lessons and experiences. We bought and have been teaching her sign language (I had to learn then teach, which benefits us both!), We have a pool and her mother is deathly afraid of the water, so we gave her swimming lessons, which started at 6 months and go year round. Until she graduated to the next level two weeks ago, I was in the pool with her, 30 minutes, 1-2 times a week. It was our special time together.

    This year for her birthday we added Stretch and Grow, a toddler form of gymnastics and yoga, once a week, Christmas is a membership to the Science & Nature Museum to visit the dinosaurs whenever she wants, her favorite.

    We’ve reduced the number of gifts to our adult kids as well and started giving one need (jeans, car washes, grass cutting) and one experience (family vacation, concert tickets or membership to zoo). They too have expressed how much more they like these gifts then just “stuff”.

  15. Julie Avatar

    I gave my mom a ride on a Zamboni one time and another time a hot air balloon ride. Another was a horseback ride with her grandson. She also enjoyed learning to do glass blowing and she got us lazer tag passes as well as karate and gymnastics lessons for the kids. She got us dance lessons as well. We love giving this kind of gift!! 🙂

  16. Linda Avatar

    Our daughter is getting a gift certificate for 10 driving lessons with her Dad.
    Dad is getting a voucher for a home massage.
    Other “voucher” ideas. A home cooked meal, a house clean, 4 hours gardening….the list is endless, and the only cost is time.

    1. Amy Avatar

      I would have been horrified if driving lessons with my Dad had required a “gift certificate.” C’mon, really?

      1. KURT THONINGS Avatar

        No kidding, its more of a responsibility to teach your kid how to drive. I think when most people are going to learn to drive and they ask their dad, ”hey dad can you come with me so i can practice driving.” they will want the response, ”sure lets go.” instead of, ”that will be one certificate.” Honestly though

  17. Jo Avatar

    yes yes yes. Great post. Looking forward to your post about wardrobe capsules..needing some ideas about kids clothes as the cousin hand me down supply is drying up, especially if you have any resources for relatively inexpensive USA or fair-wage basic (label, graphic free) classy kids clothes. Hope you’ll include the link to that post in your weekly email so I know when you post it. thanks!

  18. Christopher Feldt Avatar
    Christopher Feldt

    What a fabulous post! I teach karate and as part of our martial arts curriculum, we include acts of kindness as a requirement for belt rank. The idea being if we treat each other with kindness and respect, we will hopefully all get a long better. Our current project is called Randy’s Reindeer and we are collecting “lovey kits” for the homeless that include blankets, hats, socks, candy, and some toiletry items. One of my adult students goes out to the local homeless shelters on Christmas Eve and distributes these kits. Thanks for reminding us all about the power of giving!

  19. Misty Guye Avatar
    Misty Guye

    I like the idea, but, this year, my boyfriend bought $350 tickets to a concert featuring artists I have no interest in. I’m forced to go, or he loses his money. I truly appreciate the gesture and don’t want to sound unappreciative, but can you imagine going to see a musical act you have no interest in? Oh how I wish he would have chosen a different experience…

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