Giving Back Less Stuff, More Fun: Gift Ideas Beyond the Box

by Vanessa McGrady | December 10, 2019

In an age when clearing clutter has become a national pastime, lots of people are realizing they simply don’t want more stuff.

A 2018 Eventbrite survey showed that 63% of adults would rather have experiences over things. It’s a trend worth bearing in mind as the season of gifting ramps up.

Etiquette expert Lizzie Post says there are ways to give gift cards, cash and experiences graciously and thoughtfully — especially if you ask your giftees for ideas. “So if you know that they like to cook, if you know that they like a particular sport or hobby, those are good places to start,” Post says.

Another approach is to gift something you love that you think the recipient would also appreciate. “We humans like to share the things we like. We recognize that we all have really truly different tastes and preferences and, and get excited about different things,” Post says. Think about what your recipient might find interesting — concert or theater tickets, a restaurant gift certificate, a spa day — and gift away.

But there's not much "wow" factor when you just hand over a print-out of your receipt, even if it is a super cool evening of, say, swimming with dolphins. Wrap the certificate in a festive box or bag, and include a personal hand-written sentiment, Post says. “The note is really that thing that takes it from being just that piece of plastic card or just that check or that gives it a bit of ‘gift lift.'”

The holiday season is also a time when we dig deep into our hearts and wallets to help others. Giving to a cause is a generous, altruistic way to honor a person for whom material things aren’t that special. "In general, if donating on someone's behalf, try to find a cause that you know the person cares about,” says Erica Best, associate director, Direct Response, for No Kid Hungry, a national campaign working to end childhood hunger and poverty.

“If you're thinking about donating to a charity in lieu of a gift, you probably know a thing or two about the honoree's interests. That said, if I still wanted to donate on behalf of someone I didn't know that well, I would donate to a non-controversial, non-partisan cause — perhaps a local organization or nonprofit with a mission to end hunger, help children, help animals or find a cure for a disease,” advises Best.

She suggests letting the recipient know not only that you gave in their name, but also indicating what the impact of the gift is. “A $50 gift to No Kid Hungry can help provide up to 500 healthy meals for hungry kids. That's a lot more compelling than simply telling someone you made a gift to an organization in their honor,” Best says.

Giving to a cause is a generous, altruistic way to honor a person for whom material things aren’t that special.
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Still stumped? Here are seven creative gift ideas for the people on your list.

  1. The wildlife lover: Looks like you pulled your pachyderm-loving cousin's name in the family's annual gift exchange. What they don’t need is another elephant-shaped tchotchke. But, you know what they probably would love? A donation to the Save Elephant Foundation or a similar conservation organization in their name.


  2. The new parents (and their sprout): As tempting a purchase as those teeny-tiny little shoes are, this baby won’t be walking just yet. But you can still encourage that this new family gets out and explores their surroundings. Gift them a membership to the zoo, a children’s museum or local science center. It's the gift that fits everyone. Better yet, offer to take the darling little one on an outing (or make a standing date) to give the parents a break.


  3. The workout novice: Your buddy has been declaring for ages that they want to try yoga (or pilates or trapeze). Help them reach their fitness goals with a Class Pass to use at participating gyms and studios or an online service such as Daily Burn.


  4. The charcoal slinger: Your neighbor thinks they’re the go-to griller, but everyone else politely picks around their hockey-puck burgers at backyard cook-outs. Help them honestly earn Grill Master status; sign them up for a cooking class. Sur la Table offers hands-on classes in several major cities. Or gift an online course, like to the esteemed Auguste Escoffier culinary school.


  5. The adventurer: Their closet is full of camping gear and survival supplies just waiting for the next excursion. Give a gift certificate for trekking, skydiving, horse-packing tour, bungee jumping or a similar exhilarating experience with a reputable outfitter. And, if you’re brave enough, offer to go as well.


  6. The bored teen: It’s time to show your teen that you still know how to make them happy (and what's cool). Try a gift certificate to a VR arcade with hyper-real games, movie tickets, or music or dance lessons. Join them for an activity to reconnect with them on their level. And of course, if a teen is college-bound, a check earmarked for books, dorm supplies or a savings account is always welcome.


  7. The perennial giver: It’s been a long year for this friend, who puts everyone else first at home and work. Give them a boost in the self-care department with a spa appointment, in-home massage or a home-delivery meal service.
Young girl feeding an elephant at the zoo

Of course, gift-giving often goes both ways. So if you anticipate being on the (unwanted) receiving end of another present-palooza, there are gentle ways to ask family and friends to taper off.

Open the conversation, suggests Post, the etiquette expert, with something along the lines of, "This year, we're trying to be less focused on things and more about experiences. It would be so fun to support whatever you're into these days." If the hint goes unnoticed, still be grateful and gracious, Post says.

Finally, gifts are great, but nothing is more important than spending time with someone you love. Where you can, offer to accompany your friends and relatives as they explore the experiences you give. And, if they’re far away, plan for a mutually convenient long weekend to spend time creating memories that, unlike material things, never wear out.

Vanessa McGrady

covers personal finance, health and feminist parenting; she is also the author of ROCK NEEDS RIVER: A Memoir About a Very Open Adoption (Little A).