How to avoid a gaudy Christmas with meaningful gift ideas

Gifting experiences instead of things is one way to create a more meaningful holiday tradition this year.

The road to achieving an anti-consumerist Christmas is paved with critics and skeptics. Just ask Mark Patrick. 

The 38-year-old father attempts to buck the time honored trend of overspending at Christmas when it comes to his two children, but his request isn’t always honored by friends and family. 

“We're doing our best to show that joy does not come through material things, but through family, friends, experiences, and other non-material ways,” said Patrick, who lives in St. Louis. “Of course, we do still receive some toys as gifts despite this request.”

His sentiment is shared by others who feel disheartened by the rote nature of gift-giving, which is so interwoven with the holidays that spending – and overspending – has become a tradition itself. 

Americans will spend an average of $1,047 this holiday season— with $658 going to gifts for family, friends and co-workers. But for the Americans who can’t or don’t want to spend that kind of money on presents, rallying families and friends around an alternative Christmas can be a hard sell.

Here’s how Americans all over the country get around that.

Giving to the less fortunate 

Ditching gifts isn’t always about wanting to spend less. 

Terry Feinberg, his wife Carla Ruigh, and their rescue dogs from Chrismas 2017. The couple prefers to donate to charities instead of exchange physical gifts during Christmas. (Photo courtesy of Terry Feinberg.)

“Holiday gift-giving has become transactional and lost some of its meaning,” said Terry Feinberg, a 62-year-old living in Gilroy, California. Always struggling with gift ideas, he suggested to his wife of 29 years that they make a $1,000 donation to Best Friends Animal Society, their favorite charity, instead.

When Kristine Thorndyke floated a similar idea to her boyfriend a couple of years ago, he didn’t need much convincing. The couple was aggressively saving for early retirement and felt that additional spending would derail their momentum. But they could agree on a charitable budget of $50 each. 

On Christmas Eve, the pair presented one another with their online donation receipts.

Kristine Thorndyke and her boyfriend. Thorndyke is an American living in Shanghai, China where she is a teacher and founder of Test Prep Nerds, a standardized test resource. (Photo courtesy of Kristine Thorndyke.)

“It was really fun and sweet to see what charity my boyfriend thought would be meaningful to me,” the 29-year-old said, “and it made the holiday seem more about giving than receiving.” 

Gifting for the long term

Patrick admits that his children “are fortunate to already have many toys” and humbly requests to those bent on gift-giving to make a contribution to their 529 college account, instead.

All 529’s operate the same way: Deposits are made after-tax, but as funds grow over time, the earnings are tax-exempt. When the child has reached college age, disbursements are tax-free as long as funds are used for higher educational expenses. 

Gifting experiences 

Annual memberships to cultural centers like aquariums, theaters, museums, or nature sanctuaries are gifts that will endure and are memory-making opportunities for the entire family. Patrick has appealed to his family to gift experiences like a zoo membership or hockey tickets to his children.

Not just for clutter-averse parents, experiential gifting appeals to adults, too. Natalie Raphael, a 24-year-old yoga instructor, has gifted her friends cooking classes and a wine and paint class and asks for experiences in return. 

“One of my friends recently got me a gift card to an infrared sauna, Perspire Sauna, and I loved that gift,” she said. 

Make it personal, not expensive

Rather than mindlessly grabbing an iTunes gift card or candle on your way to a holiday party, Melanie Musson, a writer in Belgrade, Montana, and her friends put an end to impersonal gifting by buying items they’ve fallen in love with over the past year. 

Melanie Musson, pictured far right, and her friends during one of their annual Christmas gift exchanges. (Photo courtesy of Sara Routhier.)

The exchange encourages small, but special gifts.

In the past, Musson, 36, and her friends have exchanged natural deodorant, gel pens, caramels, notebooks, and vegetable wash. Even though the items weren’t big-ticket or expensive, the presents end up being among her favorites.  

“I have definitely felt the strain of holiday gift-giving on my budget. I don’t resent it, though, because I love to give gifts,” Musson said. “This gift exchange idea helps me to continue to feel good about being able to give gifts, but it takes away the financial stress.”

Making a memory

After broaching the subject with her children, Charlene Hess, 30, and her family are taking a Christmas vacation this year, instead of spending their budget on “toys that would get lost or broken,” she said. 

“As it turns out, we are actually spending a fraction of the money we normally put towards Christmas,” said Hess, who homeschools her seven children and lives in Eagle Mountain, Utah. “So our budget is very happy about this, too!”

Lauren Mochizuki of San Juan Capistrano, California and her family during a visit to the Polar Express in Arizona. (Photo courtesy of Lauren Mochizuki.)

Lauren Mochizuki, a nurse and mother of two in San Juan Capistrano, California, and her husband do something similar, gifting each other a vacation every other year as their budget allows.

“The bottom line is that purchasing gifts for Christmas shouldn’t be a strain, or end up in feelings of resentment,” Mochizuki, 34, said. “The holidays should be a time of giving what you have because you want to give. Ultimately, do what’s best for your family, and what brings you peace.”

Stephanie is a writer for Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter @SJAsymkos.

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