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Beyond Frugal Gifts // Giving Gifts of Experience

happy monday, friends! please tell us that you got to see the supermoon eclipse, since we were clouded over. one of the perks of living in the mountains in the west is having a clear sky nearly all the time, and it’s why mountain dwellers like us are willing to risk crazy things like catastrophic wildfire and snow in the summer. so to get all those clouds on a significant eclipse day was a huge wop wop. but it was a good reminder to hold on tightly, let go lightly. we were so excited about the eclipse that, when we couldn’t see it, we let ourselves get in a cranky mood. we held on too tightly, and didn’t let go when we should have. it is not unlike the emotional decision-making that makes many investors buy high and sell low.

but speaking of emotional decisions, today we’re talking about gifts. we promise this isn’t one of those “let’s get ready for christmas!” posts. we’re the scrooges who get ornery when christmas decor is in full effect in stores before thanksgiving (never mind that it now shows up before halloween). so if we blog about christmas, it won’t be until december. instead, this is a post about gifts generally, which are on our minds because i recently had a birthday. i used to not like birthdays, because i saw them as a sign of dwindling time remaining. i remember being 11 years old and thinking, “i’m good. i don’t need to get any older.” and i only (finally) started rethinking that feeling when we formulated our early retirement plan, and i realized that we’re now on a path to being both adults and children simultaneously, for a long, long time. we’ll be adults in that we have our finances in order and we’ll have saved enough to sustain us indefinitely, but we’ll be kids in the sense of having almost no responsibilities, and being able to follow our whims on a daily basis. but even if we weren’t on the path to early retirement, i’d still have come around on birthdays. each year we’re granted is a gift, and celebrating birthdays is a perfect way to be grateful for having more time to experience love and joy on this beautiful planet of ours. so let’s celebrate ’em! for most people in our culture, that means giving or receiving gifts of some sort.

obviously, not spending money on gifts is something that aspiring early retirees are big fans of, but right-sizing pseudo-minimalists also aren’t into acquiring more stuff. we’ve already had several big rounds of stuff acquisition in our lives: when we each struck out on our own post college, when we separately got rid of that post-college crappy quality stuff and upgraded to better stuff, and when we got married and got a registry’s worth of stuff that was better still. needless to say, we have more than we need, and there’s nothing we even want. which poses some challenges at gift time.

we may be scrooges about christmas junk for sale in october, but we are not scrooges about gifts. we love giving gifts, and back in our old spending days, we were known to give one or two over-the-top gifts. (but never a car with a giant bow on it. though the mr. did deliver those giant bows to car dealerships when he worked as a flower delivery man in college.) and we love receiving gifts too, so long as they’re something we want and will use. the most unfrugal gifts — no matter how cheap they are — are those the recipients don’t use. so we’re big fans of gift registries, because they let you ask for what you’ll use, while still allowing some element of surprise since the giver has a choice of several options. for years, we kept amazon registries, which were great for that reason. we got exactly what we wanted and our family members buying for us didn’t have to guess — everybody wins.

but as we’ve moved away from wanting any more stuff, we’ve rethought that approach, too. for a while, we asked family for donations in our name, and provided a list of organizations we support. (bonus: they got a tax write-off!) while they were happy to support the orgs, the family didn’t love giving only donations, since they didn’t feel like they were doing anything “for us,” which is the point of a gift. then we started asking for homemade gifts, which felt both very frugal and more personal, but then realized that that’s asking too much of people who don’t consider themselves crafty or creative or who are just very busy. (though we still love making homemade gifts for friends — mostly consumables like body scrubs, marmalade or cookies.) for a while we asked for e-books, though now we get most of those from the library.

finally, we asked ourselves, “what do we love most of all?” the answer: experiences. we love travel, and adventure, and culture. meals out, music, theater, trips to new places — that’s our jam. spending the same amount of money on an experience versus a widget gives you great memories instead of some object that will just gather dust, or eventually require repair. and so we shifted to a gift giving and gift receiving approach that we plan to stick with for a good long time, one which also matches our broader definition of frugality (creating less demand for stuff): we now deal almost exclusively in gifts of experience.

we’re not talking trips to bali, since our goal is biggest goal of all is to minimize spending. we’re talking about experiences of all sizes, many of them small. tickets to the movies. a round of bowling. a day at the art museum. admission to a you-pick strawberry farm. dinner at a new casual restaurant. a gift certificate for a massage. concert tickets. an art class. a season pass to the state parks. or, on the splurgy end, tickets to a big city ballet performance — what i got from the mr. for my birthday, and which we’ll pair with hotel points for a frugal weekend getaway. these are all things we would love to do, as opposed to stuff we’d love to have, and by receiving any of them as a gift, they also take on more meaning when we go do them. even bowling feels special if was given as a gift.

of course it could be awkward to sit on santa’s knee and ask for a round of golf, but there’s a solution we love: the so kind registry. unlike every other registry we know of, which is all about stuff, the so kind registry is about exactly the opposite: gifts of experience, secondhand gifts and charitable donations. (it’s also a nonprofit project which we haven’t been paid or perked to mention. we just love it and use it ourselves.) we’ve shared the idea with our families, and everyone’s on board, filling their lists with things like tickets to disney on ice, or dinner at chipotle, or a season pass to the botanical gardens.

it may have felt like a bummer to some folks at first, thinking about not having physical presents to open, but quickly everyone realized how great it is to have fun activities to look forward to, often ones none of us would buy for ourselves. like me and the ballet. it’s something i now get to look forward to for a few months, and that i’ll remember for a long time after it’s over. that’s the best kind of gift in our book. (and, unlike the supermoon eclipse, we’ll actually be able to see the ballet from our seats!)

how do you approach gifts? have you tried asking for gifts of experience, or charitable gifts? have you found any other great ways to avoid giving and receiving stuff? please share!

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43 replies »

  1. For any gift-giving occasion, we ask others to make contributions to non-profits orgs or to the Christmas bike drive we run. Initially, some were not thrilled about it. However, pictures of happy kids getting bikes at Christmas that they wouldn’t have otherwise put their minds at ease.

    • Good for you guys. I wish we could get to that point, but the families are not quite there yet! We find that gifts of experience are our happy medium for now, but we’ll keep working toward charitable contributions as gifts, since that’s what we really want.

  2. We’ve done only consumables and charitable donations for years and years. Consumables certainly includes gifts of experience. Having had to clear out the houses after death of two of my aunts was the impetus for this years ago and we’ve never regretted it. Exemptions for children under 16 – older than that they received $ for university and small consumables. The focus on holiday celebrations becomes the shared food and fun – we always play board games, and/or go for a fall or winter walk. Much more relaxed.

    • If our family could get behind consumables and charitable donations exclusively, we’d be pretty pumped, but we don’t think everyone’s quite ready. :-) Something to aspire to!

      And we had a similar experience in terms of cleaning out homes of older loved ones, and realizing how many things they’d received as gifts were never used. And just how much stuff they’d accumulated generally. We don’t ever want that to be us, and that’s a big part of why we’re trying hard not to let more stuff into our lives!

  3. The way I approach gifts is definitely by providing experiences, or ensuring that someone most surely wants that item (I accomplish this by creating a secret pinterest board – when I hear someone talk about something multiple times and I add it to the board as a ‘future gift idea’ for that person). I am also a HUGE advocate for gifting books as well – but it does make it tough when the recipient is an avid reader! I think I might have brought this up already, but for my fiance & I’s registry our main tagline is “your presence is more important than presents!” (cheesy, I know ;) ) but we understand that just the trip to come to the wedding will cost people. If they so choose to participate in our registry, it will mainly be consisted of categories for experiences where we can grow, learn & enjoy together!

    • I love giving books, though even as a voracious reader, I don’t read all the books I already have. So I have moved away from that because I don’t want them to just pile up at someone’s house! But I definitely think books are better than most physical gifts. And I love that you guys are registered for experiences, and not just the typical china that will never leave the cabinet. :-)

  4. That’s a great idea about the gifts of experience! Especially nowadays, because I have to search my brain high and low for gift ideas every birthday or Christmas. People don’t want to hear, “I’m good, I don’t need anything.” They also don’t seem to be fans of buying socks, undershirts, etc… because it’s too boring. :)
    Mrs. SSC is a big fan of the “giving experiences” as gifts, so I’ve gotten tickets to games before, and other fun things like that. We’re strategizing how to tackle this Christmas because we’ve gone so overboard in the past, or at least it seems like it. We buy lots of little gifts, so there is usually a lot to unwrap, but Mrs. SSC starts shopping early, like last month… It’s fun, but we realize we need to dial it down and we have been doing that these last few years, but it’s just so fun to see everyone’s face when they get that “perfect unexpected gift”!

    • Haha — I know what you mean about asking for socks. The last physical gift Christmas we had, I asked for cleaning cloths, reusable produce bags and a new travel coffee/water bottle. Talk about unenthusiastic gift givers! :-) If opening lots of little gifts is what the family is into, you could still wrap up several small experience gifts. And, of course, you have to find what works for you. We fully accept that not everyone is as anti-stuff as we are. :-)

  5. We did gt to see the supermoon eclipse on the East coast, it was amazing!
    We often give experience type gifts. Dinner and a movie, makes a great date night for a couple. We have given museum tickets to our family. It so great to have a future event planned and already paid for. When we receive these types of gifts it does make the experience that much better when you are not spending any money!

    • So glad you got to see the eclipse! Love your dinner date gift idea, and museum tickets for the family. And so true — it IS more fun when you can do something like that and not worry about how much it costs!

  6. LOL – I already posted about Christmas gifts, but only because I want to get a head start on making presents so we don’t have to spend much money this year.

    Everyone seems to love buying “stuff” for our kids. We tried asking for “experience gifts” for their birthdays (tickets to zoos or museums) but ended up with things like a Frozen art set with over 2,000 stickers. We will have to check out this new registry. Maybe it will help family members give more meaningful presents for Christmas.

    • Your gift ideas rock! I love that post. I just don’t want to see Santa at the drugstore quite yet. :-) And we LOVE the registry. You can fill it up with gift ideas so family and friends feel like they have lots of choices. And it also helps drive home the point that you really don’t want stuff, and aren’t just saying it.

  7. My gf and I don’t really do gifts. If we know the other person needs something or really wants something, then we make the purchase but not just because. Anything I need, I buy, and anything I don’t need, I don’t want other people spending their money on to get for me. My gf’s mom thinks we’re total weirdos for taking this approach, but hey… I already know I’m a weirdo.

  8. I love this. And I’ve been trying to get grandparents on board. Maybe this registry is the key! I, on the other hand, LOVE giving gifts and giving an experience is awesome because I get to plan the perfect outing for that particular person. It’s fun when you really know someone. This is why I’m struggling with my sister in law for Christmas. I have no idea what they like to do. I’m working on it. And yes, I have all my other Christmas presents planned out! I don’t love Christmas stuff or songs until after Thanksgiving, but I do plan presents nearly a year in advance. I’m crazy like that.

    • *Planning* way in advance is totally fine — I just get so sick of hearing Mariah Carey belting out “All I Want for Christmas Is You” 10 thousand times before it’s even Thanksgiving. :-) (Even though I LOVE the sentiment of that song! It’s the anti-consumerist Christmas anthem!)

      It’s definitely tough when you don’t know someone well, as you said. Maybe you can suggest the whole family do the registry and see what she asks for?

      • That would be awesome! Good idea. I’ll see if she goes for it! One year during college, Mr. T and I worked custodial in a building that played a radio station that started exclusive Christmas music after Halloween. They actually put it to a vote that year and he and I spent a good hour continually voting until after Thanksgiving won! They didn’t ask for a vote the next year… :)

  9. A few years ago, We defined a gift as something luxorious, something you would not buy otherwise. We are now moving along the line of experiences as well.
    My first attempt to this ill be my godchild. For his birthday I take his and our family for a swimming a subtropical pool… Curious to see how that goes

  10. Wow, never heard of that registry – very cool! Perfect for people like myself who are far away from their family and friends. One of my oldest friends and I are still shipping each other birthday presents across the country. Every time I get or send a big package, I can’t help but feel guilty about the environmental impact. Also – not cheap! I think this year I will suggest we try the registry! Thanks for the idea!

    • Glad to offer something helpful! We love the registry or we wouldn’t recommend it. :-) I can definitely see why you’d want to stop the big shipments, especially if the things you’re shipping aren’t things either of you *need.* But giving and receiving gifts is so FUN, and that’s why we tried to think of alternatives that retain the fun while improving the environmental impact and stopping the accumulation of stuff. :-)

  11. I am now in the home made phase. At Christmas family groups (my brother and his family) get a family goodie bag of home made cookies and banana bread, maybe a tea cozy, a favourite bottle of wine, gourmet cheeses, etc. For my Mom, I love to get her her a gift certificate for car washes, snow shovelling, and at a local book store because we like to go over there and grab a magazine or a book and then have a latte at the coffee shop next door. We also put $50 each into a gift certificate at local theatre where we can see concerts/plays etc that we might want to see throughout the year. For birthdays I will do a person’s favourite meal, knitted socks, thoroughly clean the car, etc.

    • All of the gifts your family does sound wonderful! A nice mix of homemade and experience gifts. Everything sounds so thoughtful and practical, but also fun. :-)

  12. Love this! We prefer the gifts of experience, too. Wonder if we can implement this for our kids, as I’m getting overwhelmed with generous gifts of toys. Love the registry idea, but half the family lives without the net. Something I’m going to put some serious thought into.

  13. ONL,
    I have similar personal feelings about gift giving. Unfortunately, my view on gifts does not apply to Grandparents. My parents give so my crap to our kids, it used to drive me crazy. But I find it’s easier to just take them instead of try to tell my parents not to shower our kids with gifts. It’s more pleasure for the Grandparents than the kids.

    Mrs. RBD recently gave a wedding gift to pay for part of a honeymoon on some website that allows for that. We would have loved that idea when we married. Experiences definitely tops in my book.

    Bali, btw, is not all that expensive unless you only stay in the luxury suites ;)

    • The grandparents in our families have — shockingly — come around on the gifts of experience thing, so don’t lose hope! My sister in law found that they really got it once they shared a registry full of activities the kids wanted to do, which helped the grandparents see that it wasn’t just the parents being scrooges. No idea if that would help in your case. :-) And thanks for the Bali tip… we’ll make it there one day! (To be honest — the biggest challenge right now is just time. It takes forever to get there, and would eat up half our vacation! But soon we’ll have a lot more of that…)

  14. I love that idea! Travel has been a huge theme for me this year, and any help toward making it less expensive is appreciated. Otherwise, like you did, I like asking for donations. Good causes are close to my heart and there’s nothing I love more than helping others less fortunate.

    • Hi Shannyn — That’s great! The wonderful thing about the SoKind registry is you can register for literally anything, including a mix of charitable donations and fun activities on your travels. :-)

  15. My parents have recently started giving an extremely generous family vacation each year. Last year, the vacation was to their house. The year before to my sister’s house in Colorado (sadly, we were rejected as the hosts this year in favor of a condo in Florida). With 5 kids, and significant others and grandkids, this is the most generous gift I can think of. We always give my parents theater tickets which is more for my mom than my dad.

    In terms of gifts to others, we don’t really do it other than some baked goods, or offers to babysit. We prefer to just host parties and invite people into our lives.

    • I love that approach, both what your parents do, and how you guys give a little food and have people over. That’s perfect, and keeps the focus on the people and time together, instead of stuff.

  16. I love the idea of the SoKind registry! My hubby and I are working on paying off over 100k of student loan debt in three years, so we are extremely frugal and we only do things together that are free (like going for walks, going to free yoga, etc). I don’t miss buying useless junk, but I do miss having certain experiences. When our debt is paid off, I will definitely be buying the hubby some experience-related gifts for holidays.

    • It’s super inspiring that you guys are staying so focused on your debt repayment! What great momentum you’ll have, when it’s all done, in not accumulating stuff! I love the idea of shifting to experience gifts once you clear the big hurdles. Good luck!

  17. I was fortunate enough to catch the supermoon eclipse and it was stunning. I’ve gotten away from traditional gifts for family the past few years. My parents have everything, literally everything. So now I get tickets to the theater and live sporting events. That way we can all enjoy them and do fun things as a family. Mr. MyCountdown and I do small gifts for one another still, but it’s always something that is on our “wish list.” I love gifts of experiences. I’m really into museums, so I purchase annual memberships for my parents to share with the Mr. and I. It does two things; 1) supports the museum and 2) you automatically have something to do on the weekends and or if you have a free afternoon; and you can enjoy it all year. I like the idea of charitable donations also- that may be on the gift list for the family this year. Nice post.

    • Tiny jealous pangs that you saw the eclipse so clearly — but that’s great! Super happy for you! :-) Your approach to gift giving sounds ideal — mostly experiences, a few little gifts you know the other person wants, with maybe some charitable gifts thrown in this year. Perfection!

  18. I have asked my mom to give to PP for part of my Christmas for the last 3 years because I’m trying not to gather too much stuff. I also ask for fun/practical things. Tickets to concerts, toiletries (in the stocking), and anything that will aid my own travels. This year I think I’m asking for a carry on sized suitcase, a camping backpack and maybe the money for a new tire. I haven’t replaced my tires in three years and have done a lot of driving…I think once I’m a bit more ‘grown up’ and I have my life in order I would be very down for the so kind registry!

    • I am such a sucker for practical gifts, so I LOVE these! And you could definitely put any of that stuff on the So Kind registry if you were so inclined, since it’s completely open-ended. :-)

  19. Tanja,

    I’ve been reading PF/tiny house/simplicity/minimalist/zero waste blogs for years, and this is the first I’ve heard of SoKind. Thank you! This will be a game changer!