When I was a kid, my parents’ solution to the massive expense of Christmas was to give each of us eight children an allowance and take us to the flea market to buy presents for each other. We’d disperse—with an older sibling escorting the little ones—and burrow deep in the dusty aisles of books, furniture, dishes, record albums, old fishing gear, toys, and tchotchkes of all descriptions.
We had to find and acquire the right gift without the recipient happening around the corner and catching us in the act. It was like a treasure hunt mixed with hide-and-seek. One year when I was small, I remember spying a plate featuring a bas-relief of a mill, with a water wheel and flowers. It was only 50 cents, possibly on account of the giant chip on the bottom. Almost as soon as I saw it, I heard a heavenly host and there were god rays and magic spells, and Excalibur, and an ancient prophecy. That plate took my breath away. It was the perfect gift for my older sister, Katherine. I was so excited to give her that plate I could hardly wait for Christmas morning.
Gift-giving was a crap-shoot back then. I remember some years receiving a wonderful surprise—an antique doll, The Secret Garden, The Beatles’ Love Songs (the year I had my first boyfriend). Other times it was a chipped plate or the straw purse with “Mexico” written in embroidery thread on the front that my aunt sent me every blessed year.
With convenience comes sterility
Then in 1994, the gift card was invented. Finally you didn’t have to make a choice between cash or giving somebody random crap that they feel obliged to keep until they could come up with an excuse to ditch it: “Oops, lost it in the move, the kids broke it, the dog ate it…darn.” You bought people the power to buy what they wanted, or later you bought them something on their wish list. It might be stuff they couldn’t justify buying for themselves (although, to be honest, they probably will in the after-Christmas sales if you don’t.) And that was fine. It feels good to get someone something you know they’ll like. And it certainly is reasonable given the fact that many of us are drowning in “stuff.” The website Becoming Minimalist reveals some pretty shocking statistics about American materialism:
- One in 10 Americans rent offsite storage—the fastest growing segment of the commercial real estate industry over the past four decades. There are 7.3 square feet of self storage space for every man, woman, and child in the nation. So, technically, there’s so much extra storage for our stuff we could all gather under the collective roofs of existing storage space—if it wasn’t already full. And more is being built all the time.
- The average 10-year-old owns 238 toys but plays with just 12 daily.
- Americans spend more on shoes, jewelry, and watches ($100 billion) than on higher education.
- And here’s a stat they didn’t have. The book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, which is all about getting rid of anything that doesn’t spark joy, has sold more than four million copies.
But as practical as it is to buy somebody something they really want, it feels sterile. A lot of the fun of gift giving is knowing you really thought about the person. It’s coming up with something that will genuinely take their breath away. It’s keeping it hidden and wrapping it and waiting, excitedly, for the joy you’ll see on their face when they open it. You really don’t get any of that when you buy a gift certificate or check something off somebody’s wish list. And they don’t either. It’s more like putting in an order and having the item arrive. Woot!
But as practical as it is to buy somebody something they really want, it feels sterile. A lot of the fun of gift giving is knowing you really thought about the person. It’s coming up with something that will genuinely take their breath away.
Reintroducing the magic
There are two ways I can think of to reintroduce the magic without contributing to the burden of materialism: giving experiences, and donating something wonderful on someone’s behalf. Every year Deloitte, the international consulting firm, does a survey about holiday spending. The 2017 survey shows that only a third of holiday spending will be in traditional gift giving. The rest will be in creating parties or experiences with friends or paying for others’ experiences—like travel.
Millennials say they’d rather give and get experiences. But if they do buy stuff, they want it to be from socially and environmentally responsible retailers.
GenXers and Boomers love gift cards, according to an annual retail holiday report by PWC. But 75 percent of them also will give money to charity. So, here are some great choices to make everybody happy.
Give the gift of travel
Travel changes your life, broadens your horizons, and doesn’t clutter your closets. In fact, Deloitte discovered that travel gift giving is growing, while most material gift-giving is shrinking. Those making less than $60,000 a year expect to spend 25 percent more of their gift-giving budget on travel gifts in 2017 than they did in 2016. While airlines are sticklers for the actual traveler booking the trip, there are still ways to give your loved one an experience of a lifetime.
Pay for transportation. Buying a trip for someone is tricky. Fortunately, most airlines, train companies, and cruise lines have gift cards. When your giftee is ready to book a trip, they just enter the number on the gift card. If you know the person you’re buying for is collecting miles on one airline, go for a card from that airline. Otherwise, aim for an airline that traditionally has the cheapest flights. Norwegian Airlines, for example, has introduced flights to Europe for under $100 from certain airports. And they have gift cards.
Pay for the stay. Many hotels and Airbnb also have gift cards. If you pay for a place for your recipient to stay while they’re traveling, that takes brings them that much closer to really being able to go or to being able to choose their dream accommodations.
Pay for the passport. Passports are expensive. Getting one or renewing one costs about $100. So while you can’t actually present somebody with a passport, you can give them the cash and download and present them with the State Department paperwork, which has to be filled out and signed in paper form anyway.
Pay for the equipment. This could be a tent, or a neck pillow for the flight, luggage or a really great ergonomic travel backpack. Or you could pay the equipment fees at a ski lodge or buy a city pass like the one they offer for all the museums in Chicago.
Take the extreme cost out of extreme experiences
Groupon and other discount sites always have holiday breaks on stuff like skydiving, hang gliding, scuba diving, zip lining, bungee jumping, parasailing, sailboarding, jet ski hoverboarding, shooting ranges, or race car driving. Make sure the recipient really wants to jump off a cliff, though, and wasn’t just saying it to sound cool.
Gift personal enrichment experiences
These could be a membership to a museum, several classes at a CrossFit gym or yoga studio, music or art classes, and so on. Maybe your loved one wants to become a wine or coffee expert or speak more languages. Chances are you can find an experience to suit.
Maybe your loved one wants to become a wine or coffee expert or speak more languages. Chances are you can find an experience to suit.
And everybody needs the gift of feeling amazing. Spa days, massages, Reiki, an hour in a sensory deprivation tank, a visit to an aromatherapist or acupuncturist…. aahhh.
Give a goat or some other goodness
Sometimes people just don’t need anything. In fact, probably a lot more often than we think. A spectacular gift is to rock the world of someone who does need. For under $25 you can buy a family in a third world nation a pair of chickens, start a farmer’s market, or buy a family a cooking stove or tools. For $50 you can buy a goat or for $100 a pair of goats who will, presumably, then have baby goats. For under $100 you can help dig a well, irrigate a farmer’s land for four months, or buy school supplies.
You can be Santa for kids who otherwise feel like they’re on the outside, with their faces pressed up against the window, watching holiday magic happen only for other people. Huffington Post ran a piece about ways to give to children in crisis areas, in foster care, or just kids whose parents who are forced to decide between paying the heating bill and buying their kids presents. A gift to a family like that transforms holiday despair and failure into joy and peace. You may not get to see it, but that’s what happens.
When you buy someone an experience they’ve longed for or been curious about, or contribute to something they really believe in, you affirm them as a person. And when they actually have the experience, it contributes to the store of what they know, the palette that makes up their lives and memories. It will never have to be stored, cleaned, repaired, or ditched. It makes them more themselves than they were before. So maybe the question, when it comes to buying gifts isn’t “What do they want?” but “Who do they want to be? How do they want their lives changed? How do they want to make the world better?” That’s a cool thing to shop for.
Susan Lahey is a journalist who lives in Austin and writes about everything that piques her curiosity including travel, technology, work, business, art, sustainability, and cultivating deep, messy, exquisite humanness in the digital age.