Experiences Over Stuff: Gift-Giving Ideas

Any parent who has ever slogged through their kids’ rooms and sorted, tossed, and/or donated piles of clothes and toys, seriously considers never buying a single, solitary toy ever again. I know I do this at least once a year. My sweeping declaration usually sounds something like, “Sweet Baby Jesus, please give me the strength I need to complete this task and I swear I will never, ever, ever allow another unnecessary item to cross the threshold of this house ever again.” And I’ve been known to extend these declarations to family members, threatening their very lives if they dare to buy my children any more STUFF.  

There is plenty of research out there explaining to us why too much stuff is overwhelming and telling us that it isn’t where happiness and contentment are found anyway, in spite of all of the advertising to the contrary. In fact, the research is pretty clear that experiences and time spent with those we love are much more fulfilling than material possessions.

(Here’s some link love for all you research devotees:

How too much stuff affects our mood and health.

Experiential gifts foster stronger relationships.

Spend money on experience, not things – secret to happiness

Experiences give us the gift of anticipation – which supports happiness and mental health.

Experiences turn into memories and improve our social bonds.)

In keeping with my annual meltdown-resolution, my family has come up with quite a few ways to buy less stuff and make memories instead…and with the gift-buying season upon us, I thought I’d share some of these ideas. So, whether you just want to avoid acquiring/giving more stuff or you simply need a solution for the people in your life who “have everything,” there’s something for everyone when you start considering experiential gifts.

Tickets and Memberships

If you haven’t ever done this kind of thing, tickets and memberships are probably the easiest way to start.

  • (Speaking of sports, I have a friend whose parents always gift her kids’ YMCA and sports league fees to support all the basketball, baseball, soccer, and football activities that their grandchildren are involved in. The kids know that grandma and grandpa don’t just cheer from the sidelines, but have invested in sports as an ongoing family-bonding activity. You could do the same with music or art lessons for the kids!)
  • For the outdoorsy families on your list, consider a state park family pass, which gives free access to more than 90 parks statewide and discounts on camping for a whole year. We do day hikes quite often and two or three big camping trips annually, and it pays for itself very quickly.

Gifts of Adventure

  • My father and I went skydiving together for one of my birthdays in my twenties, and this past year, when he turned 70, we gave him a flight package at iFly with his grandsons—so fun!!

  • There are some very cool driving experiences available now that the Circuit of Americas is so close. And there are a variety of other race car packages for every level of interest and ability. We gave this to my husband one year for his birthday, and the boys loved seeing him behind the wheel speeding around the track!

  • Don’t forget about all the great hunting and fishing services in South Texas! From fly fishing and guided canoe trips to big game hunts and off-shore fishing, there’s no shortage of bonding opportunities in the great outdoors.
  • Power Park Fitness is a hidden gem just outside of San Antonio that simulates a lot of the American Ninja Warrior challenges. My father takes my boys there for hours and hours of sweat and fun. They are always begging to go back!
  • Head out northeast of town for a trail ride or dude ranch experience—it doesn’t get much more “Texas” than this! Places like the Mayan Ranch and Bandera’s Historical Rides are great places to start with lots of options for a variety of cowgirl/cowboy experiences.

Words of Affirmation

  • Ask friends and/or family members to write letters. I’ve done this with both of my boys for birthdays or Christmas when they were very small and saved the letters as keepsakes. Several of those family members are no longer with us, and it is so special to have those personal notes for the boys now that they are older.
  • When my mother was turning 60, I wrote to every friend of hers I knew—current and past—and asked them to please send me a card, note, or letter telling her what her friendship had meant to them or sharing a favorite memory. I collected the letters and photos that people so generously sent (along with cards and letters from all of us), and for 60 days leading up to her birthday she had a card or note to open every day. I know she also got some wonderful gifts that year, but none came close to how much those letters from her friends near and far meant to her!

Gifts of Learning

  • One year for Christmas I gave my mother a cake decorating class that I took with her. We had a blast learning how to make flowers and use fondant, and it was like having a weekly date with my mom for six weeks—with cake! And a friend of mine was gifted with guitar lessons that she and her mother took together for one year. What a great idea!
  • The Southwest School of Art is a wonderful resource for community art and craft classes for both adults and kids. I strive to be a life-long learner and am always on the lookout for ways to model that for my children. This is a great place for that!
  • There are also lots of places to make and/or paint pottery in San Antonio, as well as studios for guided art instruction (usually with wine) that make for fun nights out.

  • And speaking of wine, you can make your own and learn a ton from the three sisters who run The Stray Grape, which is a super fun, educational, urban winery. I think it is a perfect gift for a friend who will take you with her when she goes!
  • If wine isn’t your thing, then maybe some of the really interesting craft brewery and distillery tours close by would be the perfect experience to give, like Rebecca Creek and Garrison Brothers (my husband’s personal favorite).

Trips instead of Gifts

  • We made a decision a few years ago to forgo Christmas gifts to our children and replace those with experiences and/or trips. We were losing the please-don’t-buy-them-a-thousand-things battle with grandparents and just decided that all we could really do was opt out of gift-giving ourselves. I have snow-chasers in my family, so Christmas usually means a road trip to somewhere they can snowboard. Each year when I ask the boys, “No gifts, OK? We’re going to the mountain instead, right?” They respond with “Absolutely!” They have their favorite places to stop on the way and favorite activities to take in the car (we read a Harry Potter book on each trip) and enjoy stopping for Red Box rentals on the drive. As much as they love the snow part, I sometimes wonder if they don’t love the road trip part nearly as much!

  • One summer my father took my oldest on a 10-day hiking/camping trip and, in spite of getting caught in a crazy rainstorm that kept them cooped up in a tent for more than 16 hours, my son still talks about that trip as one of his favorite things he’s ever gotten to do. He looks through the photos and retells the stories on a regular basis.
  • For Father’s Day one year we set up a treasure hunt in a nearby park, and my husband and the boys spent several hours on bicycles chasing clues and gathering puzzle pieces that culminated in a picnic lunch with homemade cookies. I am 100% sure that my husband would much rather have that kind of mini-adventure with his kids than open one more tie or shaving kit.


I know there are a lot of other great ideas out there for giving experience over gifts. Share yours in the comments!


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2 Responses to Experiences Over Stuff: Gift-Giving Ideas

  1. Michelle F December 10, 2017 at 9:03 am #

    This is a fantastic article, and I have jotted down some great ideas! I started doing experiences vs. gifts a few years ago, for birthdays as well… and it has always ended up being so rewarding. Thank you for writing this!

    • Jennifer
      Jennifer December 11, 2017 at 5:34 pm #

      You are welcome! Happy to share… and I agree with you – so rewarding! Merry Christmas!