We're all guilty of it: You put off buying a present for a loved one, and suddenly it's too late -- so you just throw money at the problem and buy something for buying something's sake. In the end, it's a waste of money, and your friend or family member has another piece of junk they don't need and didn't want, cluttering up their house.
Pull yourself and your loved ones out of the vicious, vapid, and expensive cycle of consumer hysteria this holiday season, and try one of these more thoughtful gifts.
1. Restore a Prized Possession
Dig out an old photograph or diary, a beloved childhood toy, a piece of heirloom jewelry, or idle musical instrument from the attic and have it professionally restored.
For example, my father has an acoustic guitar he used to play often in the '60s and '70s (insert hippie joke here). I know he loved it. However, it's been kicking around in storage for years now, and both the guitar and my dad need quite a bit of work to get back in playing shape. I've been thinking about getting the guitar professionally restored for him by a luthier, and throwing in a few lessons, too.
Old jewelry and pocket watches are also great candidates for restoration. If something is in really rough shape, you can rescue the good parts -- say, the gemstone of a broken ring -- and have it incorporated into a new piece. In fact, one company, Project Repat (so named because they want to repatriate textile jobs to the USA), can make a custom quilt out of your loved one's favorite old t-shirts.
2. Handmade Items
You can teach yourself virtually anything through online courses these days, so find something that interests you anyway and get started. Sew a handbag or a pillow, or build a bench out of scrap boards or reclaimed wood.
It may not come out as nice or as polished as something out of the Pottery Barn catalog, but you may surprise yourself. And anyway, it'll be a one-of-a-kind item -- and that's worth a lot.
3. Family Identity
Research your family history on Ancestry.com or at your local library. Dig as deep as you can, compiling old articles or photos if possible, and present your findings in a bound scrapbook or decorative scroll for your family.
A connection to the past can be a deep and fulfilling gift to anyone, especially your older family members. And it may not cost you anything but some afternoons at the library reference desk. If you don't have time to do the legwork yourself, or know a relative who might enjoy the research process, an Ancestry.com membership is a gift in its own right.
You can even hire a personal historian to write and custom publish a narrative memoir of a loved one's life or your entire family's history. While this admittedly priceless gift can get expensive, some services, such as Colorado-based Time Capsule Memoirs, offer less pricey packages that allow you to immortalize one significant life event (such as a first date, wedding, or military service).
Another option is to get a family member's DNA tested, which can reveal detailed genealogical information and where your ancestors lived centuries ago. This takes some prep work -- you'll have to obtain a saliva sample -- so the gift itself won't be a surprise. But the results certainly may be. DNA testing services vary in both cost and methodology; some of the most popular services are 23andMe, Family Tree DNA, National Geographic, and Ancestry.com.
4. Charitable Gifts You Can See
It's lovely to donate in someone's name, but sometimes the recipient is left a little wanting if it's just a card and an intangible sense that some money went somewhere for some purpose.
There are charitable organizations that offer more tangible receipts, though. For example, Kiva.org offers microloans to entrepreneurs in poorer countries. Give someone $50 to use on Kiva, and he can choose whom to loan the money to -- whether it's a woman in Kenya trying to start a bicycle shop, or a family in Uganda running a farm stand. More likely than not, he'll get that $50 back in full after a while -- at which point, he'll be able to loan it out again and again, playing a small but fulfilling role in helping people all over the world realize their dreams.
Charities like Oxfam America and Heifer International allow you to donate a specific animal -- such as a sheep, goat, or llama -- or basic equipment, books, or other necessities to a needy family or village in someone's name. The recipient gets a card detailing exactly how his or her gift is being used to change someone's life for the better.
And some nature conservancies, such as the World Wildlife Fund, allow you to "adopt" a specific animal, which can be a great gift for kids. They'll receive a small plush version of their polar bear, panda, dolphin, etc., plus an official adoption certificate with their real-life animal's name and photo. The Sea Turtle Conservancy allows you to "adopt" an endangered sea turtle that you can then track in the ocean.
5. Experiences, Not Stuff
Research shows, again and again, that experiences -- such as trips, dinners out, concerts, and gatherings with friends -- offer longer-lasting happiness than things. Most of us have enough stuff already, so give someone a precious memory instead, like tickets to see their favorite artist in concert, tickets to see their favorite sports team, a weekend getaway, or brunch at a great restaurant.
Another kind of experience to consider is education. Many communities offer continuing education classes in everything from wine pairings to woodworking to foreign languages. I love Thai food, and cooking, so one year my wife signed me up for a three-hour Thai noodle cooking class at the Boston Center for Adult Education -- it was one of my all-time favorite gifts. (And she got to eat some pretty good meals as a bonus.)
Food is its own experience. We all love something delicious. Bake a tasty pie, a batch of brownies, or a pan of lasagna, and anyone alive will enjoy your gift. Plus, when someone else gives you the go-ahead to stray from your healthy diet, isn't that a gift in itself?
If you're the cook in the family, you could even consider compiling a cookbook of your favorite recipes -- or creating a keepsake cookbook full of traditional family recipes, from your grandmother's meatballs to your brother's famous sweet potato pie.
Likewise, you can rarely go wrong getting someone a more luxurious version of something they use already. Want to know what people who like good coffee enjoy? Even better coffee.
7. Practical Memberships
Memberships make great, useful gifts. One of our favorite gifts last year was from my brother: a family membership to the local aquarium. We ended up going all the time, because it was free with the membership, and that helped us enjoy it even more. There's likely a museum or other member organization for just about everyone on your list.
For example, a membership to AAA is a great, practical gift for anyone who drives, especially those teens or young adults in your life with beat-up, hand-me-down cars. Know someone who just bought a fixer-upper of a house? A subscription to a contractor review site like Angie's List can be a big help. Got a family member who loves to research every purchase? Get them an online subscription to Consumer Reports.
One thing to note: A subscription that automatically renews year after year on your loved one's dime may not be the most welcome gift a year from now. So either buy just a one-year membership, or plan to cancel the subscription (or renew it for next year's gift) yourself.
8. Plants and Wildlife
Want a gift that truly keeps on giving? Plant someone a fruit tree or other type of flowering tree, or perennial flowers or shrubs. Oddly, one of the best times to plant saplings is during their dormant stage, including early winter, according to the Arbor Day Foundation, so it's good timing.
And while it's a huge commitment and not exactly cheap, adopting a rescue animal from your local shelter can be one of the very best presents you'll ever give your children. However, it can't be overstated: This is a weighty responsibility that you must think through completely. Be sure you and your family are on the same page and are ready to welcome and care for a new member of the family for many years to come.
Also consider whether the chaos of the holidays is really the best time to bring a new pet home. If you'll all be home together for a couple of restful weeks, it might be a great time to get acclimated; but if you'll be driving long distances to see family or flying off on vacation, wait until another time.
Looking for a less intensive gift of wildlife? Make a homemade bird feeder -- you and the kids can even make one together for a grandparent's present -- and install it just outside the window to attract colorful birds all winter long. If you have it set up in time, you and your family can take part in the Audubon Society's annual Christmas Bird Count.
9. Dividend Stocks or Other Investments
Another gift that keeps on giving: Buy a steady dividend stock such as Disney (DIS), McDonald's (MCD), or even Apple (AAPL). In addition to any appreciation in the stock price, your recipient will get a 2% to 4% cash payout each year, paid each quarter. You could also set up a dividend reinvestment plan, or DRIP, which consistently reinvests those dividends into additional stock purchases, adding up considerably over time.
Another good investment gift for children is to contribute to their 529 college savings plan or prepay a chunk of their college tuition. It's not as exciting as a new iPad -- not in the moment, anyway -- but they'll definitely appreciate it down the road.
- Read more: Making Money Gifts Fun for Kids
Sometimes, the gift people want most of all is one of the hardest to come by: They simply want more time with you. It might not seem like a gift -- not one you wrap, anyway -- but you can package it up as one.
Offer to help a family member with a project around the house, like yard work or building a simple table or bookcase. Treat your mom to coffee or a pedicure, and then go for a long walk to catch up. Plan an entire day with someone you don't get to spend enough time with, doing things you both enjoy or used to do as kids.
While you're with them, keep your focus on them and your time together -- leave your phone in your pocket or purse, and enjoy each other's company.