Forget the Gifts, Give an Experience this Christmas

It seems to me people have great intentions when it comes to less materialism and more saving, but once the holiday spirit is upon us, most tend to lose focus.  Mountains of presents sit under a Christmas tree making for a pretty picture and ensuring a great holiday, right?

We tend to rationalize our decisions to buy stuff for ourselves and others pretty easily.  “Brian loves cars, he’s going to love this remote controlled do-hickey” or “I have to get that doll for Susie before they are all gone” and “Danny can’t be the only child without this new contraption” or the most common “We want to give our kids the childhood we never had, the toys that we did not have so that they don’t feel deprived”.

We haven’t had that image in our house for several years.  We aren’t so minimalistic that we don’t want things occasionally, but we realized quickly that the stereotypical image of Christmas just isn’t cutting it for us.  We like gifts, just not an overload where the quantity trumps the quality.

The Multiple Gifts at Once No-No

Multiple presents nearly always requires that the child keep opening gifts.  It’s more about opening than the actual gift.  The child pings from one gift to the next, usually without more than a quick “Oh wow” and then on to the next gift.  If this doesn’t encourage ADD and ADHD, I don’t know what does!

Our Solution:

We still want our children to experience the fun that Christmas time brings.  We don’t want to ‘deprive’ them of the magic of the season, Santa Claus and art of gift giving and receiving.  But we do want to instill a sense of gratitude.  Last year we did a multiple day Christmas.  It was very low key, but we had bought 4 small gifts for each child.  Each morning they woke up, they found one gift at the base of our designated Christmas spot.  These were small gifts:  one day it was 2 vials of Play-Doh, another day it was a harmonica and a book.  Each day G was able to focus on his new toy and played for hours with it.  And a year later, they are still his favorite toys.  I don’t think this would have been the case if we had opened all of the gifts at one time.

We will continue to give our children one or two gifts for Christmas, but want to make Christmas more of a time for experiences and giving.

The Kings Christmas Costa Rica 2010

The Kings Christmas - Costa Rica 2010

G enjoying his Christmas Gifts

G enjoying his Christmas Gifts Costa Rica 2010


Our favorite gifts to our family is the gift of experience.  Instead of spending hundreds on stuff, we want to use the time of Christmas to experience something or some place new.  Reducing the focus on materialism for Christmas and focusing on enriching life through experience is the ultimate Christmas gift.  We feel like we’ve been living this gift for the past 1 1/2 years of traveling abroad, but any family can give the gift of experience to themselves or others.


Gift of Experience Ideas

  • Mini-vacation
    There are usually lots of great places to go near where you live that people visiting your town would go to…so why haven’t you been there?  It may be an amusement park that is nearby or a cool museum that your family would enjoy. Or that drive into the mountains or countryside. It could be something grander that includes a plane trip (I recommend tropical destinations, but that is just me 😉 ). The point is to have a new experience together.  The memories last longer than wrapping paper.
  • Lessons (Cooking lessons in a foreign cuisine, golf lessons, language lessons)
    The gift that keeps on giving.  Learning or perfecting skills is hardly ever a waste.  The newly acquired skills are a gift to yourself and your family. A lot of people would like to try new things, but just won’t spend the money on themselves.
  • Tickets to a live performance (a musical, play, comedy or symphony)
    Again, these are fun things to do, but people rarely spend money on their own enjoyment.
  • A gift certificate for a dinner and a movie to a restaurant they wouldn’t normally go to.
    An evening out is special.  If the family has children, you can treat mom and dad to a night out while you babysit.  (We like the thought of that one, and if anyone would like to gift US with that…we’d appreciate!)
  • Practical Gifts
    For sure, this may be the least exciting category.  However, in these economical times when families are struggling with money, a practical gift that helps alleviate some financial stress may be just right.  Ideas for practical gifts are oil change certificates, grocery store gift cards, and gas cards.
  • Giving of your time or to those less fortunate.  Volunteering your time at a shelter or giving a meal to a family who cannot afford much is a wonderful experience and low cost.  We think this will be our choice this year.
Our Best Christmas Advice: Buy or treat them to something that is going to add value to their lives – don’t just buy stuff.

There are so many other ways to make this holiday season less about presents and more about family and amazing experiences that will be remembered long after packaged gifts are forgotten. I would love to hear what you do to make your holidays special and less materialistic! Please comment below and share your thoughts and tips this season. Happy Holidays.


The following are different articles from other traveling families on their perspective of Christmas:

Pearce On Earth: A Different Kind of Christmas

Family Trek: What’s For Christmas? Dear Santa, do we really need more stuff?

The Nomadic Family- Poverty for Christmas

New Life on the Road – Dear Mr Santa Claus Whats For Christmas

With 2 Kids In Tow, It’s Backpacking We Go:  Dear Santa, For This Christmas We Wish…

Living Outside of the Box –  The Best Christmas Presents

Discover Share Inspire – Christmas is Coming – What Do We Give on the Road?

Bohemian Travelers- Gift giving while living a simpler life

Presence vs Presents –
Christmas Time for Travelling Families

Family Travel Bucket List – Feliz Navidad Without All the Stuff

Livin On The Road’s kids:  Peter and Susan

A minor diversion – Reinventing Christmas

Carried on the Wind – Christmas Giving

Edventure Project


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21 Responses to “Forget the Gifts, Give an Experience this Christmas”

  1. Brandon Pearce December 1, 2011 at 8:15 am #

    Great post! I love the idea of giving experiences for Christmas — the memories we have from time spent together last so much longer and have greater effect than most any tangible gift we can give. I also like your idea of just giving one or two gifts within your family each year — otherwise, we tend not to appreciate what we do get. Thanks again for a great post.

  2. Jennifer Pearce December 1, 2011 at 9:23 am #

    I love the idea of giving practical gifts and also giving gifts that add value instead of just adding stuff. I also think it is a great idea to give each gift its own time and attention like you guys do. Thank you for sharing your wonderful ideas.

  3. gail December 1, 2011 at 11:09 am #

    Thanks again for saying what I mean to say so beautifully! Back in consumerland (aka Canada)I am finding it really hard to stick to the minimalist plan. Even though I have already purchased gifts for my 3 children on budget ($300 in total – $100 each) I find it difficult to resist the bombardment of commercials, web ads, peer pressure (from other parents and kids desires) and my need to give them what I always wanted.
    So keep the article coming – you strengthen my resolve!

  4. Justin@GreatFamilyEscape December 1, 2011 at 12:38 pm #

    A multiple day Christmas! Yes Please! That is a great idea. I couldn’t agree more and will be trying that this year. Thanks for the great idea!

    • S King December 1, 2011 at 1:24 pm #

      It was such a good idea. And it is pleasantly surprising that G still plays with the most simplest of gifts. I also think that it’s because we took the time to play together with them after opening, to share the present. That may be the real reason they enjoyed the toys. (one can hope,right?)

      I think we spent a total of $20 for Christmas.

  5. Susan December 1, 2011 at 8:35 pm #

    Love the idea of a multiple day Christmas, too! It does get overwhelming, especially with little ones, to have SO many gifts to play with. But splitting it up so they enjoy one gift a day is a wonderful idea. Plus it makes the fun last longer!

    And I have to agree with giving experiences. The first year we “restricted” the grandparents, it forced my in-laws to think outside of the box. They ended up getting drama lessons for our oldest 2 girls and they LOVED it. It lasted for about 2.5 months and now they have memories for a lifetime!

  6. Diya December 1, 2011 at 8:40 pm #

    I never thought about it, but the multiple gifts thing really does make a big difference (in a negative way). Really enjoyed your ideas, especially the one on cooking lessons! That’s a gift that will keep giving.

  7. Lisa Wood December 1, 2011 at 10:17 pm #

    What a great idea for christmas – spreading the toys out over a few days 🙂

    This year is going to be our first year in our Motorhome – so we are looking at what we can “give” with our time instead of with “gifts” – I think that the true meaning of xmas has disappeared and its all about what the latests, the biggest, the most expensive gifts ever!

    Love your ideas about giving an experience this christmas instead of gifts.


  8. Mary December 2, 2011 at 9:43 am #

    Love the gifts for each day, that is a great idea! We are only doing 1 gift this year though and after carrying their own packs the last 2 weeks I think they will only want that much anyway:)

  9. Rebeca December 2, 2011 at 5:11 pm #

    I’ve often observed, especially when they’re little, that they would be perfectly happy with one gift, but they have to keep opening them in order to get through the stack. Talk about encoring discontent!
    We open stockings on St. Nicholas day, December 6th, then let the kids open a gift on Christmas Eve too, just to spread things out a little. We don’t buy a ton of gifts either, but find they appreciate and enjoy things more when it’s not all shoved at them at once.

  10. with2kidsintow December 16, 2011 at 2:14 am #

    Love your Christmas Advice and the ensuing gift ideas! While we don’t go overboard on gifts for our kids, we are a bit at a loss regarding the intentions of others such as family friends and extended family, who don’t necessarily see our point of view 🙁 suggestions??!!

    • S King December 16, 2011 at 2:12 pm #

      Family gifts are tough. Luckily we live out of the country, so if family wants to give gifts they have to ship them and then we can control when the child gets to open it.

      I think the most important thing is not overwhelming the children with gifts all at once. Perhaps you can find a way to spread out the gift giving a bit.

  11. Heidi November 26, 2012 at 8:07 am #

    Hi, I love this post. It is nice to find others that think as we do. We have been trying to do “experiences” for gifts (Christmas, Birthday, Celebration). It seems the entire family remembers those experiences, but doesn’t remember much about a gift from years past. Thank you for sharing.


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