53+ Ways to Give Experience Gifts Instead of Stuff This Year

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In the midst of holiday gift-giving, I can’t help but think how well-intentioned gifts can lead to more stress, for both the giver and the receiver. My family has really embraced a minimal lifestyle, so we decided to give experience gifts instead of material ones as often as we could. After a few years of trial and error, this is now the norm… and the results are amazing!

An experience gift can be easy to arrange and thoughtful, even if it’s last minute. They’re also rewarding to both the giver and receiver. Going to the movies as a family, taking a painting class, or learning to scuba dive are priceless memories or skills that last a lifetime.

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Do We Have Too Much Stuff?

Joshua Becker is my favorite expert on the topic of clutter and minimalism (see my interview with him here). He shares some sobering trends on his Becoming Minimalist blog.

Consider this:

The average American home has over 300,000 items in it.
There are over 50,000 storage facilities nationwide. This is the fastest-growing real estate segment!
At least 4 in 10 of us have a storage unit to store our excess stuff.
There are three times more storage facilities in the U.S. than the number of Starbucks!
There’s enough physical space for every man, woman, and child in America to stand in U.S. storage facilities—all at the same time!

Why Give Experiences and Not Stuff?

Those staggering statistics wouldn’t worry me if it seemed the excess stuff improved our lives in some way. But that isn’t the case. Statistically, we’re not happy. Over 54% of us report being overwhelmed with clutter, and 78% of us have no idea how to overcome it! There are tons of topics on organizing and decluttering out there to help us deal with all of our stuff and the stress it causes us.

Thomas Gilovich, a researcher at Cornell University, spent more than a decade on the subject. He explored why experiences contribute more to happiness than stuff. He found that experiences are a uniting factor. You’re more likely to bond with someone who enjoys the same hobby or has traveled to the same places as you.

Even the anticipation leading up to a family trip, event, or experience has the potential to give happiness. This makes it the gift that keeps on giving! Happiness in anticipation, during the experience, and in the memories. Beats the heck out of a pile of toys you trip over while tucking the kids in at night!

Experience Gifts: The Importance for Kids

Shared family time (even at family dinners) is drastically important for a child’s well-being. Much more important than the toys we give them or the dozens of extracurricular activities we often neglect family time for.

There are lots of reasons to have shared family time and experiences, including:

bonding within the family
fewer behavioral problems in children
a stronger sense of identity and sense of security
higher rates of academic success
lower rates of violence

These shared experiences can be as simple as time spent together during or preparing meals. Or even while driving or reading stories before bed. Prioritizing shared experiences as gifts helps reduce unwanted material items while fostering family bonding.

53+ Ways to Give Experiences This Year

The average parent spends over $276 per child on toys and gifts each year! And over 40% of Americans are willing to go into debt over Christmas gifts. That just adds to our clutter and stress.

Experience gifts are great because they reduce clutter, give kids something to look forward to, and promote bonding. Yes, they may be more expensive upfront, but the benefits outweigh the cost in the memories made. And sometimes they pay for themselves after one or two visits!

Family Experience Gift Ideas

Bigger experiences, like memberships or vacations, are often family gifts. It’s a fun way to check a few things off of your bucket list. Or try a new activity as a family, ranging from kayaking or rafting to setting up a zipline in the backyard. Feeling adventurous? Schedule a hot air balloon ride!

Season Passes or Memberships

Museum Memberships – Look into which local museums offer annual memberships near you. Some even offer discounts for local residents or have programs for kids.
Science Center Memberships – Many cities have a children’s museum or science center with an annual pass option. Sometimes these end up costing less than one visit.
Orchestra Season Tickets – We have a local orchestra that performs every few months. I found children’s season tickets to be extremely affordable (less than $8 a show). It’s now a fun family activity.
Community Theater Tickets – If you have a local theater, buy season tickets. If you can’t buy one for each member of your family, buy two. Parents can go to the more grown-up plays as date nights, and then Mom or Dad can alternate taking the kids for special nights.
Sporting Events – Any professional or college teams in your area? Purchase season tickets to your favorite sport. Or if that’s too expensive, buy tickets to one game. My family loves baseball, and it’s been a great outing that lasts all summer.
Nature Center Tickets – Check for local nature preserves or nature centers in your area and see if they offer an annual pass. I’ve found these for nature centers, a local cave, and state parks.
Local Attraction Season Passes – Any other local attraction with a season pass can be a great gift. Check for other types of museums, historical sites, or local attractions.

Family Activities

Camping Tent – Sometimes, a material gift leads to an experience. This tent was a family gift a couple of years ago, and we’ve used it quite a few times. I picked this one because it’s easy to set up!
New Family Hobbies – Get the necessary equipment or passes to take up a new family hobby. Try hiking, camping, card games, a sport, or another fun activity.
Escape Room – This is an ideal group activity that Mom, Dad, and older kids can do with extended family for some fun quality time. Check to make sure the theme is family-friendly.
Be Puzzled – Feeling brave? This 33,600-piece puzzle is the world’s largest. It might take you the whole year to put together and will foster a LOT of family time!
Fun Family Outing– You don’t have to go all the way to the Grand Canyon or New York to have a fun family trip. Visit an amusement park, take a local food tour, or plan a family staycation. Remember, looking forward to an experience makes the experience more fun and fosters happiness on its own!
Volunteer – Truly a gift that keeps on giving. If your kids are old enough, volunteer at a local food pantry or charity. Give your kids (and yourself) the gift of helping others!
Give to Charity – Another favorite in our family. We designate $100 per child, and they decide where to give it. They love choosing gifts like farm animals, fruit trees, or educational supplies for those in need around the world through programs like Food for the Poor.

Best Experience Gifts for Kids

Kids love learning new things or spending time doing their favorite activities. It’s always special to spend one-on-one time with their parents. Experiences are a great way to give them both!

Learn or Perfect a Skill

Local Pottery Painting – An absolute favorite with our girls. Our local pottery place has dozens of options to paint, and this has been a fun activity for the kids (and me!).
Pottery Making – For older kids, some places offer pottery-making lessons or classes.
New Skill – Does your child want to try horseback riding, cooking, sewing, painting, or another similar activity? Give them classes for a new hobby or skill. You can even buy virtual classes through sites like Udemy. Or, to keep costs down, look at your local recreation center, or ask a family member to teach your child. Here are my favorite cooking classes for kids.
Rock Climbing – Have a local rock-climbing gym? See if they offer annual passes or pick-up gift certificates for a climbing outing with older kids. Bonus: It’s a great way to get exercise too!
Learning Magazine Monthly Subscription – Our kids love getting “real mail” in the mailbox. This is one gift my extended family members often get for them. They look forward to it coming each month and doing the activities.
Craft Bucket – One of my favorite Christmas gifts as a child: a basket of craft activities that lasted me all year! My aunt filled a large basket with scissors, paper, glue, string, and every craft supply imaginable. It led to hours of fun for me. My kids love getting these baskets, plus books about how to draw, painting kits, sticker pads, construction paper, and other craft kits.
Musical Instrument – A favorite gift one Christmas was a steel drum for my kids. Though I admit, on a couple of especially loud days, I have regretted the idea! This is the one I got, and they’ve loved learning to play it. I also ordered mini musical instrument kits.
Music Lessons – Along with their new instrument, you can gift them some music lessons. Piano or guitar lessons are popular, but there’s also violin, harp, and even ukulele!

Active Experiences

Local Jump Gym – Another fun activity that helps kids stay active. See if you have a local jump gym or indoor trampoline center and get annual passes or gift cards.
Batting Cage Membership – For a child who loves baseball, look for a local batting cage. Some offer year-long memberships or bulk discounts on packages. This is a great way to stay active and have a fun outing together.
Bowling or Skate Tickets – If you have a local bowling alley or skating rink, ask about family passes or gift certificates. Roller skating and ice skating are both fun.
Every Kid in a Park – If you have a fourth grader, there’s no excuse not to get this one. It’s a free year-long park pass to all the national parks. It provides access to everyone in your immediate family, not just the fourth grader. (Here’s how to get it.)
Treasure Hunt – If you’re giving a material gift, make it a fun experience. Instead of wrapping it up, create a scavenger hunt for the child to find the final gift. This is especially fun for a larger gift or experience!
Geocaching – Speaking of treasure hunts, geocaching is a fun, free way to go on a treasure hunt with your kids almost anywhere in the world. You can learn more about it here.

Family Time

Lunch Dates – Give gift certificates to a favorite breakfast or lunch place to a child and plan a one-on-one date with that child.
Movie Tickets – We don’t go to the movies often, but sometimes there are some great family movies coming out around Christmastime.
Question Book – My kids all love this Question A Day Book, and it gives us a fun conversation starter each day. Similar is the Little Talk Deck. It has some fun questions to prompt kids to share and leads to some great conversations!
Garden Kit – Just like crafts, gardening is a great activity to do with children. If you have a budding gardener (pun intended), wrap up some seeds and gardening supplies and let your child help you garden all year!
Movie Night Packages – My children don’t watch much TV, but we love family movie nights. To make it even more fun, I wrap up a new DVD and some healthy snacks for each child to let them “host” the movie night.
Game Night Packages – Giving each child one game is a fun way to expand our collection. And they love playing “their game” when we have a game night. Some favorites are Apples to Apples, Tsuro, Uno, Sequence, and basic card games.
DIY Kits – My kids enjoy getting the supplies to make DIY items together (like this DIY Christmas garland) or give them as gifts. This paper-making kit was an especially big hit. Bonus: they’re learning new skills too!

Experience Gifts for Dad

Check out this post for ideas of usable, practical gifts that dads will enjoy (and that help them be healthier, sleep better, etc.). In my experience, guys are the toughest to find experience-based gifts for. But here are a few ideas that have been a hit over the years:

Home Brewing – For the guy who loves beer, give him an organic (or at least non-GMO) home brewing kit. There are pre-made brewing kits but go to a local homebrew store if possible to find out what supplies and ingredients he’ll need.
Sports – Tickets to see his favorite teams play can be a big hit. These tend to be more expensive, so you may have to save for a while, but they can make for an amazing and memorable experience!
Outdoor Activities – This will vary depending on the guy, but finding outdoor experiences he already loves is a great gift idea. This might be finding time to camp as a family or for him to go hunting, hiking, or playing sports like golf.
Scuba Certification – Why not give each other scuba certifications as a gift? Go through the process together and then enjoy a great hobby together.
Skydiving – Is your guy adventurous? Skydiving is a ton of fun, and many cities have a local place you can go. They can also do indoor skydiving if they’re not feeling quite as adventurous.

Experience Gifts for Mom

Memes abound online about moms enjoying going to the bathroom alone. Here’s a fun list of material gifts for mom for the perfect gift. But moms also love experiences too!

Day Off – One of my favorite gifts ever was a series of “days off” that I didn’t have to cook, clean, or have any household responsibilities (and it included a gift card to go out for coffee!).
Painting Session – These sessions are a great way to learn and have fun while being creative. Treat mom to a night of painting, even better if it’s with a few best friends.
Wine Tasting – It would be great to get her a trip to Napa or Italy, but not everyone can do that. Instead, arrange an in-home wine tasting. Dry Farm Wine has wine gift boxes that will ship straight to your door.
Pampering – All moms can use some pampering! Plus, it’s something mom may only do if it’s a gift. Massages are my personal favorite!
Date Nights – A couples getaway or time alone can be tough with kids. Give mom a pre-planned date night and handle all the arrangements, line up a sitter, and make the plans.
Craft or Hobby Supplies – Some new yarn, drawing supplies, or even an adult coloring book are all great experience gifts for moms. You can get art supplies here.
Meal Kit Subscription – While I love my meal planner app, some days I don’t feel like cooking. For the healthy foodie, I like the meals from Balanced Bites and The Good Kitchen.
Nap or Getting to Sleep In – This may be one of the toughest gifts to pull off, but definitely one of the most appreciated. If you can figure out how to do it, she’ll be grateful!
Any Family Gifts – Any of the family gifts listed above are also a great option to get for moms. They’ll enjoy the family bonding and the idea of an activity to do with the kids.

Gifts for Grandparents + Extended Family

Often our loved ones don’t need any more material gifts or just really appreciate experiences. I’ve found these to be really popular options with my family members.

Day Out with Kids – The kids pick a fun activity to do with grandparents and give it as a gift. It could be something like going out for smoothies, playing at the park, or going to the store to gather ingredients to cook a meal together.
Window Garden – Sometimes it’s harder for grandparents to get down in the dirt like they used to. A windowsill garden with herbs is a great way to have flavorful spices all year long and have fun gardening. My kids and I love this countertop version from Aerotop.
Memory Book – I love making a photo book with a company like Mixbook that showcases favorite memories with the giftee. Or let your kids make a homemade scrapbook by printing and cutting out pictures and writing captions.
Membership Add-Ons – For grandparents who live close by, add them to any of the family memberships listed above. This lets them come for free and spend time with the kids. And as a bonus, you have extra eyes to help with the kids.

Experience Gifts: The Bottom Line

Even if you’ve already purchased gifts this year, consider adding some experiences as well. Or slowly transition to more experience-based gifts. Family time and memories are worth so much more than material gifts.

Have you given experiences instead of gifts in the past? What other suggestions would you add to this list?

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