Updated on 09.18.14

Give Experiences This Holiday Season

Trent Hamm

The holiday gift-giving season is upon us once again. For many of us, that means stress. What gift can we give to the people we care about that actually means something? Why do the holidays have to be so expensive after we buy gifts for everyone on our Christmas list? Then, on Christmas Day, we have to find polite things to say about the unwanted gifts we get and we find ourselves with a bunch of additional stuff to take care of whether we like it or not.

All of these problems can be solved by one simple change in your perspective about gift-giving this year: give experiences instead of things.

What do I mean by this? Instead of giving a material gift that would require you to spend money on something you’re unsure they’ll like and them receiving something that they’ll have to now take responsiblity for, give them something that isn’t material.

Six Ideas for “Experience” Gifts

Here are six quick ideas to get you started, but there are hundreds more just like it if you let your creativity go.

1. For a child:

Give a field trip. This could be a trip to a zoo, to a kid-friendly science center (like the wonderful one in Des Moines, Iowa), a wilderness hike, or to a baseball game. You’ll handle all the logistics of the trip for them.

2. For a food lover:

Offer a home-cooked version of a meal they’ve longed for. Try making them something challenging like coq au vin or beef bourguignon. Get out your fine china and linens for this dinner, too – make it something special. It could be a romantic gift for a food-loving couple.

3. For an art lover:

Plan a trip with them to the art museum of their choice later in the year. Buy the ticket and handle the transportation yourself.

4. For a spouse:

Pledge to do the dishes for a year – or give them a few weekends where they can do whatever they want (with or without you).

5. For a gamer:

Give them some invitations that allow them to choose a game to play with you. This is a great way to understand someone’s hobby better (and perhaps find it interesting and exciting yourself).

6. For a parent:

Give a free night of babysitting. To them, this means an evening doing whatever they’d most enjoy doing without having to worry at all about their children.

Barter for Services

If you have some good ideas for experiences but don’t have the cash, look into a barter with the person that could provide that service. For example, you might be willing to work 40 hours at a museum or a zoo for a certain number of tickets. Perhaps you could provide IT services at a spa in exchange for some gift certificates there. Many businesses are quite willing to offer credit in exchange for your skills and/or your time. Take advantage of that.

The Presentation

Many people balk at such gifts because they’re unsure how to present it. With a home printer and some time, you can create an elegant presentation of any gift.

1. Spend a little on a decent stationery set

You can use this for many such gifts over the long haul. Look for something tasteful and simple that doesn’t necessarily have to be holiday-oriented.

2. Use a straightforward layout in your word processer

There are thousands of templates for Word, most of which are compatible with most word processing programs out there.

3. Fill out the document with the details of the gift

Print it on the best printer you have access to, and also print the envelope with the recipient’s name on it in an elegant font.

4. Include some visuals within the envelope

A brochure that shows what the event is all about is perfect, as is a photograph that provides a visual reminder of what you’re going to do. It can even be something as interesting as snapshots from a past event you’ve enjoyed together.

Why This Works

Aside from the fact that it’s less expensive than giving traditional material gifts, giving experiences works for three reasons.

1. It doesn’t give a material item that the other person will have to deal with

It’s not going to wind up needing maintenance or taking up storage space in their home or requiring a trip to customer service.

2. It will stand out in a positive way in comparison to the items they receive

When you receive several items for Christmas, something distinct like this will definitely stand out from the crowd. Most of the “experience” gifts I’ve ever received still stand out for me.

3. It often allows you to experience the gift together

If the gift is an event you can both participate in, it becomes a shared memory, something far beyond what a material gift can offer.

For us, unfortunately, “experience” gifts are a bit of a challenge since we don’t live near many of the people we exchange gifts with. Of course, we have another solution for many of those folks for frugal, unique Christmas gifts… but that will have to wait until next week.

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  1. laura in atlanta says:

    Man oh Man . . . you and Get Rich Slowly are on the same page this week!

    I’ve actually gotten to the point where I don’t WANT stuff . . . I want time and energy to be spent doing things, events, activities with my family!

  2. Johanna says:

    “For example, you might be willing to work 40 hours at a museum or a zoo for a certain number of tickets.”

    With all the recent posts about properly valuing your time, I’m surprised that you would suggest this without thinking it through. Suppose your “certain number of tickets” is four (you’re taking the whole family) and tickets cost $50 each (more than any museum or zoo I’ve ever been to). 40 hours for $200 worth of tickets is not even minimum wage. Unless you have a lot of time on your hands (e.g., you’re unemployed or retired) or you volunteer at that particular museum or zoo anyway as a hobby, there’s almost certainly a better way you can use those 40 hours to earn or save enough money to just buy the tickets.

    And that’s assuming that the museum or zoo will even give you free tickets in exchange for those 40 hours. My mother (who is retired) volunteers regularly at a botanical garden, but when she took my brother and me there, she still had to buy tickets for us.

    That point aside, it seems to me like most of these experience gifts have exactly the same drawbacks as material gifts. They have the potential to cost a lot of money (particularly if travel is involved), the recipient may or may not like them, and the recipient now has to take responsibility for the gift by going through the experience.

    In fact, it has the potential to be worse: If you give a material gift that the recipient doesn’t like, she only has to put on the “Oh, how nice!” act for a minute or two. But if you give an experience that she doesn’t like, especially if it’s an experience to be shared with you, she has to keep up the act throughout the entire experience.

    I’m not saying that experiences can’t work as gifts – me, I’ve both given and received short vacations as birthday gifts, and it’s worked really well – but it doesn’t in any way negate your responsibility to make a real effort to choose a gift the recipient will like.

  3. Jason says:

    This could go horribly wrong if the person receiving the gift thinks this is just a way for the person giving the gift to avoid spending money and the “service” is shoddy. This happened to me last year and left a VERY bad taste. Sometimes it’s okay to give meaningful gifts instead of doing the unconventional thing.

  4. My girlfriend and I share our birthdays less than two weeks apart and this year when she asked me what I wanted for a gift the choice was easy; nothing. While there are random things that I want, I am beginning to move away from the belief that we should purchase gifts for people as a sign of our affection for that person, especially at a time when gifts are “expected”. When my birthday came around I wasn’t disappointed by not receiving a gift from my girlfriend, was more than satisfied with the birthday card from my mother and thrilled that my sister made a donation to Mothers Against Drunk Driving. What mattered was that people were thinking of me, not what they bought for me.

    As my girlfriend’s birthday neared I asked her what she wanted and was not surprised when she told me that she didn’t want anything but in the back of my mind I asked myself, “Is this a trick?” When the role was reversed and it was me who was in the position of “expected gift giving” I began to feel uneasy about not buying her something. I asked her at least a dozen times what she wanted and each time she told me the same thing. Nothing. When the day finally arrived I wished her a Happy Birthday and we went about our lives as usual. As the hours passed I was feeling haunted by not doing something or getting her anything. I was filled with guilt. I grabbed my phone and asked if she wanted to go out to dinner for her birthday. She agreed and we went to a restaurant of her choice and I picked up the bill. Spending the time together and sharing in conversation over the course of the dinner was far better than giving her an object as a sign of my affection for her.

    As the holidays approach, all of us will be thrust into the season of expected gift giving. How can you opt out of consumerism without looking like a Scrooge on Christmas morning? Having recently been in both roles of giving and receiving after making the choice to opt out of the consumer lifestyle, I may have some insight.

    As a young boy I really enjoyed all of the presents I would get. Like any child, I had a hard time falling asleep on Christmas Eve. I was so excited about all of the wonderful gifts that would be carefully wrapped and pouring out from underneath the sparkling Christmas tree. As I get a little older I have a different feeling about those same gifts. I feel that we are representing our affection towards each other through pieces of plastic. We are misplacing our love for each other.

    Often we feel that we must quantify our emotions, that there is a correlation between the price of our gifts and our love for the person we are giving them to. Not to mention the anxiety we feel over whether the person will actually appreciate the gifts we are giving them. The other side of this, of course, is when we receive a gift that isn’t what we expected or up to our expectations. We may feel that the giver is unthoughtful or cheap. There are far too many emotions wrapped up in the holiday gift giving experience.

    Raising awareness of your decision to opt out of consumerism is an integral part of the process. You don’t want to show up at the door without gifts in hand when last year you bought for everyone in the family. Inform your family about your choice to not purchase gifts and be sure that they know that you do not expect any gifts from them. Be concise in your explanation so they understand your feelings, don’t just inform them that you won’t be buying gifts this year.

    Opting out of consumerism is not an excuse to opt out of the holidays. Spending time with family and gathering around the dinner table to eat a home cooked meal is irreplaceable and the real spirit of the holidays. Sharing the holidays in the company of your loved ones is more meaningful than any gift you can give. Taking time to have a conversation, to really connect with people, is far more lasting than a chunk of cheddar cheese.

    You may find that you are feeling pangs of guilt as the holidays approach. If that is the case, find a meaningful way of communicating your appreciation for the people in your life. A Hallmark Christmas card is a poor substitute for a handwritten letter. You might try showing your love with a pile of your famous chocolate chip cookies. The options really are limitless and none of them will be found at the Mall of America.

  5. Ally says:

    In response to #3 and #4 commenters, I think the whole point of this entry is that you don’t have to feel like you should buy someone a stupid gift just so they feel content in having a physical object. It’s best if you know the person well – hopefully you do if you feel you should/want to buy a gift for them – some people take offense to the fact that it isn’t an object they can put on their coffee table. But many people enjoy the experiences – many others appreciate a donation in their name to a charity.

    I think this article is great because it can encourage people to really think about what would make the other person happy, within the confines of what you have time to do / what you can afford / what you feel is appropriate for the person.

    I also have gotten to the point where I feel thankful and excited to receive ‘experience’ type gifts – for a wedding present, my parents gave my husband and I a trip to NYC and two tickets to a Broadway show. It was an incredible experience, and although it is not a crock pot or baking dish, it is something that we often think about in a positive light.

    Thanks for the great article!

  6. That’s a real nice idea. I could stand to save some money, and at the same time give a gift that will be remembered.


  7. Adam says:

    Someone who is close to me will know or ask what I want and no my tastes enough to not buy me a gift or experience that I don’t want.

    Someone who is not close, in my humble opinion, can’t go wrong with a gift card (or cash)!

  8. Emily says:

    We started this in a small way with our family last year. We gave my brother his wife and new baby a “night-in” with a movie rental, pizza coupons, popcorn and candy. We also have been doing family gifts with my other brother – new games for the entire family, a season pass to the zoo or magazine subscriptions- things like that.

    I think this year – we’re going to expand it to the rest of our family! With so many gifts from so many people, it’s what will be used or experienced later that will be remembered.

  9. Beth says:

    Your post really inspired me to give this some thought about this upcoming christmas. And then it hit me! I just ordered a zoo pass for my sister for Christmas, I have one and whenever she goes with me she has to pay. This way she can go for free all year with me, it was not expensive and the money helps a great cause! I am so thrilled. Thanks for this post! One present down, just a few more to go!

  10. kristine says:

    I like the idea of the experience that is not tied to experiencing it with the giver. This lets the giftee off the hook if they do not really like it. My husband and I were given tickets to BWay to show I disliked, but we went anyway and laughed about how awful it was over dinner. I would have ahted it if I had to feign enjoyment the whole evening.

    Adam, why in the world would you expect or want a gift from someone who is not close?

    I have an opposite problem- people often ask me for art- portraits to be exact, as a gift. (I teach art, but I also do commissions occasionally, and have been in museums)My portraits sell for thousands, and take 100 – 200 hours to complete. I recently came up with a technique to get that down to 35 hours. Even so, with supplies, and travel time to get supplies- I make about 25 an hour at 1200. Who in the world thinks it is OK to ask for a 1200 gift? Even if I made only 10 an hour, packing my hours after my full time job and parenting, that would still be about 500.

    People say to me- you can just make a portrait as a wedding/ birthday/retirement gift! Clueless. That’s like saying to a doctor- you can just provide 35 hours of free medical care- almost a week’s work! Or to an accountant- you can just do their taxes for the next ten years!

    I do make many gifts- but they are small things I can accomplish around my life. Not weeks of labor. Lately I have started giving banana bread.

  11. Andrew Weinberg says:

    Great idea Trent. This is especially useful for trying to find gifts for those people we know who seem to have everything they want. My Father is such an example, so I have to look for out of the box ideas. Some ideas that have proven useful have been golf outings together, flying in to surprise him on his birthday when I was going to school across the country (and arranging to have his sister fly in as well) and detailing his car (most people neglect their cars and if you’re willing to read up on how to do this yourself, you can usually wind up with a superior result for far cheaper than taking the car to a car wash). His girlfriend also got him a helicopter tour of the city for one birthday which also went over well.

  12. Adam says:

    “Adam, why in the world would you expect or want a gift from someone who is not close?”

    I have relatives who insist on buying me a gift each Christmas but are a little removed from my day to day life to know what kind of gift I want. We also see eachother only a few times a year, so I don’t really say we’re close. I prefer cash or a gift card to calling them and saying “hey Granny, can you go down to the liquor store and buy me a bottle of Grey Goose?”. *shrug*

    To each his own. You’re right though, my theory more applies to birthdays, where non-close friends might be invited to a birthday party for me and want to pool in for a gift with other people and we usually do group gift cards (or rarely cash, it seems kind of tacky even though its the same idea…cash is like a gift card that works at every store)

  13. Wendy says:

    I would love some better gift ideas for long distance families. Any ideas?

  14. Des says:

    Has anybody actually, in real life, ever given “coupons” for services and had success with it?

  15. Catherine says:

    My dad has always been one to give us little pictures in an envelope and then present the bigger present later when we’ve fleshed out the details together later (ie, one year he wanted to buy me a stereo, but wasn’t sure exactly which one I would want so we went to the store together). This let us have a time for bonding AND he got to give me the gift that I actually wanted. It also gave me a chance to say “hey, I’d rather have an mp3 player than a stereo” if I wanted to.

    Last year, he cut out a headline from the news paper saying that my favorite hockey team made the play-offs. (GO HERSHEY BEARS!) It took me half a second to figure out what it meant — he took me to a play-off game! And it was fabulous. Not only did I get a great experience, but I also got to share it with my family. :-)

  16. Vicky says:

    Aw, what a great post!

    For Christmas this year I am making pajama pants for my human relatives, and custom dog collars for the four-leggers. Everything I’ve giving this year is hand-made, and I’m putting it extreme amounts of effort into it.

    So far I have about 10 gifts and I’ve only spent $12.

  17. Ellen / MoneyLounge says:

    While I agree with the sentiment of this post, some of the ideas I would never want to accept/give, such as the doing dishes for a year one which I doubt would actually last in most cases. That being said, this year a friend of mine and his girlfriend revealed to me that they were getting each other a trip to Vegas for Christmas because neither of them wanted to accumulate more stuff and it was something they would both enjoy. I think that this is a terrific idea to replace gifts. If you and your family want to spend time together not just have more stuff, why not plan a family trip instead of presents? Or do it with friends?

  18. Given the isolation developing from people gravitating away from each other toward the various avenues of virtual reality, these gift suggestions have the real potential to strengthen personal bonds. I think that’s a valid reason to do them by itself.

    This can be especially positive for kids, since some of the “gifts” are participation oriented. The last thing most kids need is another toy or gadget, but time with Mom and Dad–how great is that!

    This is a winner Trent!

  19. Lauren says:

    I’m much better at thinking up fun things to do with someone than picking out gifts, so I do this a lot. I’ve given my family tickets to see Les Mis and The Lion King when they came to town right after Christmas. I took my husband (then boyfriend) for a night away and a visit to a casino last year for his birthday. My sister and I went to a Penguins play-off game one year for her birthday. My husband’s birthday is next week, and I’m planning a fancy home-cooked dinner (we’re talking truffles and duck — very high end food). Of course, all of the examples I’ve listed have cost a pretty penny. You don’t necessarily save money doing giving “experiences” but I think the memories are worth it.

    Of course, you can only do this type of thing for people you know very well, so you are sure to know they will like the gift. That siad, I agree with Ellen in #17 that my husband better not just offer to do a chore for a year this Christmas. Or offer to give me “free weekends” through out the year. I’m an adult I already get to pick what I want to do with my time, and I certainly don’t need his “permission” to “take time off.”

  20. Emily says:

    #13 Wendy – we’ve experienced this with a brother who lives in another state. Over the course of the last couple Christmas’ we got zoo passes, passes to the Science Center (in their town) – just call and they will sell you one and send it right to the recipient! I also have bought magazine subscriptions. We buy gift cards to restaurants in their town – do some research and try to find a local one that is really fun! My sister in law one year, got a book of Fun Family Night Activities – and she gathered all that were needed to complete – like cotton balls, ziploc bags – nothing expensive. We’ve also mailed boxes with board games in it as well. For a birthday we bought a gift certificate to a spa in their town. Research the fun things to do in their area and go with that – maybe a hotel stay next to a festival or something. It becomes a fun activity just buying the gift!

  21. Robin Crickman says:

    Another possibility is lessons. Maybe how to
    take better pictures with that digital camera
    uncle gave you. Or ice skating or tennis lessons,
    a session with a golf pro, horseback riding lessons
    (very popular with pre-teen girls). My dear old
    gray haired mom thought cross country skiing looked
    like fun. I got her a “Learn to Cross Country Ski”
    class from the local parks and recreation department which included equipment rental and
    training sessions. She was the oldest person
    attending, but that was one of the charms to her.

  22. Tammy says:

    My dad flat out said, “I don’t want stuff for Christmas. Just don’t do it. I don’t need anything.”

    When we cleaned out my Grandpa’s house after he died, he had about 20 dress shirts still in the cellophane…and a whole house full of other junk besides. My dad doesn’t want to be like that.

    So an experience-gift instead of a stuff-gift?
    My dad loves music, so I think I will give him my comp tickets to the symphony I perform with, and he can see me perform and enjoy the music, and not get another dress shirt and tie combo to stuff in the closet.

  23. Gretchen says:

    I’d make sure people want pj pants before spending all that time making them. A handmade gift you don’t want/need is still a gift you don’t need.

    Also, is people’s handwriting really that bad now that “the presentation” needs to be done in word?

    i agree with the theory of this post.

  24. Sara says:

    I think there are some experiential gifts that could be great for the right person, but unfortunately, the good ones usually require spending money (e.g., theater tickets, lessons for things they want to learn to do, or spa services). I’ve always had a problem with home-made coupons as gifts (like doing chores, babysitting, or — something I always see suggested as cheap Valentine’s day gifts — a hug or kiss, etc.), because it implies that you wouldn’t do it otherwise. If your spouse asked you to do the dishes, would you really require him or her to redeem a coupon? Would you not watch your friends’ kids for a few hours just as a favor? I think I would be downright insulted if someone gave me a “gift” of an invitation to play a game with him or her.

    The other problem with some of these things is the logistics of redemption. If you give someone a free night of babysitting, but he asks for it on a day you already have other plans, you’ll either be inconvenienced by having to cancel your plans or the recipient will be pissed because the gift was basically a lie.

  25. Vicky says:

    Well considering PJ pants can be made in about an hour if you get to it – it’s not a big deal. Hit up the store when flannel fabric is on sale – you get to them for QUITE cheap.

    Considering my husband’s family lives in places where the weather gets cold, and they nearly all sit around the house in PJ pants all winter? Yeah, I think they’ll enjoy them. :)

  26. Rosa Rugosa says:

    I think a lot of us are rethinking the consumer-oriented holiday madness, and that this is a wonderful thing. I’ll save my I-hate-xmas-and-am-phasing-it out-of my-life-in 2009 rant for another day (don’t say I didn’t warn you!)Instead I’ll offer a couple of relevant comments:
    @Steven #4 – I’ve been telling my husband of 25 years since he was still my boyfriend that he doesn’t need to buy me gifts for occasions. This man just hates to shop, and that’s OK. He does feed me about every meal I eat, and he butters my toast for me, and he packs my lunch for me, so I figure he gives me at least 3 gifts on a typical day. And I know this sounds a bit snotty, but I honestly prefer to buy my own things, and I’m reaching the point in life where I don’t really need too many more things. So I’ve told my husband that he is truly A-OK on this one; no gifts expected or needed. But I think he still doesn’t entirely believe me – afraid that on my deathbed I’ll say “you didn’t buy me a birthday present in 1988.” Sigh. So try your best to have an honest dialogue and make sure she isn’t just agreeing with you to agree with you, and if she really does want a gift, ask her sister or her mother what she really wants!
    @14 Des – I’ve only done this with my Mom. I never get her a b’day gift, I always write in her card that I will give her x many hours of labor, which is truly what she wants and needs from me. She is a clutter/packrat person, drowning in stuff, and I’m a hyper-organized neatnik, and I help her wrestle with her stuff. She feels that I am kind and patient enough with her that we can actually accomplish something. And we spend quality time together in the process, which is probably the real point of the whole thing. And she certainly doesn’t need more stuff!
    So enough about me and back to you: I would only do this with someone who clearly desired my time & talents, and I knew very clearly that they would value what I had to give.

  27. Sierra says:

    Last year, my husband rounded up 12 nights of babysitting for us from friends and relatives; enough to go out once a month for a year. It was one of the best gifts I’ve ever received. No one had to spend any money for it, and no one person had to spend more than a few hours of time, but it gave us a whole year of happiness.

    I’ve also, in the past, given to charity in my mom’s name. A few years ago I started a Kiva account for her. This year I think we’re going to give her some credit with Heifer International to choose how she wants to donate it.

  28. Jen says:

    Reply to Sara:

    Theater tickets don’t have to be expensive. Broadway or touring-show tix will be pricey, but check out the offerings from smaller, local companies, especially if you’re in (shameless plug!) the Chicagoland area. Just make sure you know your recipient’s taste and choose a production accordingly.

  29. kristine says:


    The best advice I can give you for long distance gifts is to cut the mailing fees by about 75%.

    How? Buy media. CD,s DVDs, Books, journals, even a handful of fancy magazines. (There are a myriad of ways to save on all of these. Try Borders clearance-great stuff!)

    When you go the Post Office, you MUST stand in line, and not use the machine. Tell them you want to send your packages “Media Rate”. It is a little known fact that there is a low media rate for sending informational “media”. It is NEVER advertised- it was negotiated by the biggies like Doubleday and Sony BMG, but it applies to everyone who sends media.

    They will ask you if it is all media, say yes, if it is. Don’t mix it with items like clothing, or the rate will not apply.
    The fee is extremely low, but takes longer- a week or so, but they will say up to 3 weeks. In my experience, it arrives in a week at non-holiday times.

    I believe the origin of the media rate was an effort to keep the populace literate, and promote the free exchange of information.

    Happy Holidays!

  30. Michele says:

    We started giving a charitable donation in the name of our parents and siblings a few years ago and we match the charity to their particular ’cause’. (everyone kept saying they didn’t ‘need’ anything in particular) For example, my husband’s father is former military, so we gave to a group that supports wounded warriors. My brother lives in an area that was hit hard by hurricanes a few years ago- we gave to a specific religious organization that assisted with hurricane relief, my nephew has diabetes, so we gave to a diabetes fund and so on. Everyone has loved these gifts!

  31. gsb says:

    I think if a person requests no gifts on a holiday you should honor that request and exchange no gifts. A few years ago my husband was unemployed and Christmas was coming. Any spare change we had was going toward small gifts for our son. I told my family that we would not be participating in our gift exchange that year so if we didn’t get anything for them, please do not get anything for us. We showed up for our Christmas dinner with the family and when the gift exchange came around, they started handing gifts to me and my husband. I don’t think I have ever been so upset in my life. I know they were all thinking they were doing a good thing by getting us stuff we couldn’t afford, but I’ve never felt like a bigger loser in all my life. So, if someone doesn’t want a gift, there may be a reason behind it and you may make them feel even worse by buying them something just because you think you should.
    As for the “experiences”, I think these can be good. Yes, you have to know the people well in order to give them an experience that you know they will want and enjoy. If you don’t know them, should you really be buying them a gift anyway?

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