No More Junk! Why Experiences Make the Best Holiday Gifts

Things break and toys become boring, but my family believes—and studies show—the gift of quality time together is priceless and can last a lifetime

Parent and child kayaking Photo: Kohei Hara/Getty Images

The tradition of exchanging gifts during the holidays is just that, a tradition—one that I would argue has grown wildly out of control and has lost much of its true meaning. Americans blow budgets and stress over getting the perfect gifts for loved ones and acquaintances when the key to the best holiday celebration is so much simpler than that. 

Every December my family is one of millions inundated with unwanted stuff from well-intentioned people who feel they have to give us things, because tradition. And none of this stuff defines any particular Christmas for us or stands out in our memories in any way. Many experiences we have with each other and friends, however, stick with us decades later. It’s why I argue that experiences are far and away the best holiday gifts we can give and get. 

If you’re already on board, super. You can skip to the section with just the tips (I’ve got 22 of them for you). And if you’re not, perhaps my five-point case will convince you.

Lesbian couple taking at home dance lessons.

Photo: Willie B. Thomas/Getty Images Photo: Willie B. Thomas/Getty Images

Point #1: Most People Don’t Actually Care About Gifts

A December 2019 CBS News nationally representative poll asked participants which aspect they liked best about the holiday season and a whopping 73 percent responded that spending time with friends and family was the bee’s knees while giving and receiving gifts was least liked (4 percent) after good food and drinks (9 percent) and decorations and music (6 percent). 

More on Holiday Shopping

And when it comes to gifts, market research firm Mintel’s 2021 Winter Holiday Shopping Report indicates that nearly half of respondents think experiential gifts are better than tangible items. For people between the ages of 25 and 34, it’s 66 percent. Yet experience-based gifts made up only 12 percent of gifts last year. The writing is on the wall, people.

“The era of outdoing the Joneses is over for a lot of people,” says Susan Newman, PhD, a social psychologist who specializes in family life and author of "Little Things Long Remembered." Plus, overloading kids with gifts has been shown to be developmentally unhelpful, Newman says. Young kids can’t focus and quickly lose attention, creativity, and the desire to play.

So, less is more, but Newman also advises parents to steer clear of the overload and overstimulation by focusing on creating traditions that add to the family’s collective memory bank. “It’s something that literally lasts more than a lifetime because these traditions tend to continue from generation to generation.”

Point #2: Experiences Are More Meaningful

If you don’t want to listen to me or your loved ones pleading for no gifts, listen to science. A 2016 study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that participants got more enduring satisfaction from money spent on experiences, compared to material objects. The researchers wrote that experiential purchases connect people to one another, enhance their sense of self, and tend to be appreciated for their intrinsic value. A more recent 2020 study published in the International Journal of Research in Marketing found that children ages 12 and up also derive more happiness from experiences than from material goods.

“The experience of getting a new toy or digital device is fleeting,” says Newman. “You can get bored with things but experiences and memories are embedded in your brain.” 

Point #3: Experiential Gifts Are Less Wasteful

Trash collectors are left to deal with an extra 1 million tons of trash Americans produce every week during the holiday season. “To put it into perspective, it’s about 1,000 pounds of extra trash per household,” Jeremy Walters, sustainability ambassador for Republic Services, one of the largest waste management companies in the country. Americans throw away 25 percent more trash this time of year. Part of it is food waste, decorations, and disposable tableware, but a lot of it is directly tied to gifts—packaging, cardboard shipping boxes, wrapping paper, and actual gifts. “People give gifts and people get gifts and maybe it’s something that’s replacing another thing or it’s something that they don’t want, so across the nation we see a lot of people getting rid of stuff in bulk,” says Walters.

Point #4: Stuff = Stress

Living in a place strewn with stuff can be emotionally distressing. Joseph Ferrari, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at DePaul University in Chicago who studies the impact of clutter on emotional well-being, told Consumer Reports that people can experience lower life satisfaction because clutter makes their homes less homey. Help the giftee avoid clutter, especially if they recently went through the painstaking process of decluttering their home or plan to do so. 

Point #5: Gifting Experiences Is More Convenient

While experiential gifts still demand thought and consideration, there’s no shopping, no lines, no shipment delays, and no wrapping hassles. You are so welcome, last-minute gifters.

Great Experiences to Gift This Year

From learning opportunities to outdoor adventures, here are some gift experiences that will wow everyone on your list.

Person making a clay pot.

Photo: Getty Images Photo: Getty Images

New Skills

Online learning courses for music, cooking, language, science, writing, style, and more, let your giftee take it at their pace in the comfort of their own home.

  • MasterClass offers streaming courses taught by more than 100 celebrity instructors who are considered masters in their field. The annual membership is $180, gives your giftee unlimited access to the entire catalog, and is great for people with wide interests.
  • Craftsy is for people who are more into arts and crafts, such as sewing, painting, woodworking, paper crafts, fiber art, and jewelry making. Memberships range from $7.99 per month to $79.99 per year.
  • Know of anyone who bought a guitar during quarantine and still can’t play it? Give them a year of lessons ($89.99) via Fender Play, an app from the famed manufacturer with step-by-step lessons for guitar, bass, and ukulele.
  • CraftJam offers real-time virtual crafting classes geared toward millennials and Gen Zers. You can purchase individual workshops for $25 and add an optional materials kit ($8 to $60 depending on the workshop), which are mailed out before the class. It’s a great bonding option for friends and family members who don’t live in the same place.
  • Airbnb has also pivoted its hosting services to the virtual world with online experiences, which means you don’t need a plane ticket to learn how to make pasta with Nonna Nerina. The class is $37 per person or $283 for a private group—ideal for connecting with people in various locations. More interested in magic than carbs? David, a magician in Tokyo, teaches mind-blowing yet easy-to-master tricks for $26 per person or $398 per group. There are thousands of other activities on the site, including in-person experiences, too.
  • Learning a new language on your own tends to not stick because you don’t use it in day-to-day life. But learn one with family and friends? Now we’re talking. And maybe instead of gifts next year, you can all take a trip and use your new language skills. Pimsleur lets groups of four share an account via their premium subscription that costs $20.95 per month and includes access to 52 languages. If you have a particular language in mind, you can also purchase lessons (five at a time or 30 at a time). If your group loves to dish about TV shows, Lingopie does double duty by teaching new languages through binge-watching (it’s best for intermediate learners and only available in European languages). An annual gift subscription is $144. Pro tip: You can do something similar using a Chrome extension like Language Reactor, which lets anyone watching Netflix and YouTube videos overlay subtitles in two languages and auto-pause at the end of sentences.
Family at a restaurant.

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Services

The gift of a service is a great way to help out a couple or family with something they’ve been putting off or would never spend on for themselves. It’s also, in a way, a gift of time.

  • We all have to eat, but it’d be nice to not cook every dang day. Give them a break from the kitchen with a gift card from their favorite restaurant. If it’s a hot spot, go ahead and book them a table, too. If they’re homebodies, go the food-delivery service route, such as DoorDash or Goldbelly
  • Give them a better sense of home. Havenly is an interior designer consultation service that can help make their Pinterest board a reality. Gift packages range from $99 for a little sprucing to $179 for a room makeover. You can also book a video consultation with The Expert, which connects users with big-name designers (the ones splattered all over your friend’s Instagram feed).
  • Perhaps your bestie has a new—or not so new—baby, and hasn’t had the time, energy, or money to book a photo shoot. Do the legwork for them by researching local photographers and studios that match your friend’s aesthetic, then book your favorite.
  • If you want to get all extra this year, treat your most special people to a dinner at home cooked by a personal chef. And those dirty dishes? You’re taking care of them. 
A visitor interacts with the exhibit during a media preview of the exhibition "teamLab: Continuity" at Akiko Yamazaki and Jerry Yang Pavilion of Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, the United States, July 14, 2021.
A visitor interacts with an exhibit at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco.

Photo: Getty Images Photo: Getty Images

Entertainment

Many people have been spending more time at home these past couple of years due to COVID-19, and while it’s still not okay to throw caution to the wind, it is okay for most people to venture out into the world in a smart and safe manner. Shared activities outside of your little bubble help strengthen family bonds and friendships—and they’re fun!

  • Are they an art lover? A history buff? Give them an annual museum membership. The great thing is, there is a museum for just about every interest these days—from music and films to pop culture and even ice cream. 
  • If nature is more their speed, make it easier for them to get outdoors with a National Parks Annual Pass. For $80, you give them access to more than 2,000 parks, trails, recreation areas, and scenic sunsets. For adventurers, REI offers outdoor skills classes and events all over the country. 
  • We all went without community events last year, and even though COVID isn’t over, sporting events, concerts, and theater shows are back in business and safe to attend when following health protocols. Get them tickets to the latest hotness—an event in 2022 will give them something to look forward to.
  • Whether they believe in the mystical or not, psychic readings can be pretty fun, especially when done with a tight-knit group of friends and family.
  • Mystery Picnic is the perfect gift for that special someone who loves food, exploring, and puzzles. The organizers pack the group a gourmet picnic basket (dietary restrictions are accommodated) and then send them on a scavenger hunt in their neighborhood of choice for clues and riddles leading to the prepared basket and picnic spot. Packages range from $90 to $180.
  • Wintertime is tricky for parents with young kids that have loads of energy to unleash. It’s too cold to play outside in many regions and indoor activities can quickly add up financially. Gift the family a day of indoor fun at a local trampoline park, bowling alley, rock climbing gym, indoor skydiving facility, pickleball court, escape room, mini-golf course, or laser tag center.
  • You know that friend that jokingly asks for a sports car for Christmas? Maybe this is the year to abide. You might not want to buy them a vintage Porsche, but you can gift them the experience of driving one around for a day via DriveShare or Turo.
20-something year old man meditating with headphones in.

Photo: Getty Images Photo: Getty Images

Self Care

It feels good to be pampered and it’s twice as nice when you don’t have to pay for it. Give them the gift of relaxation without the worry of whipping out their wallet.

  • If they’re all about yoga, pilates, or Zumba and you know it, buy them credits to their favorite studio or find a streaming service to get them hooked at home. If their interests are all over the place, get them a ClassPass that lets them take in-studio classes—from boxing and rowing to martial arts and barre—in various cities or digital classes online. They can also use the pass to book salon, spa, and acupuncture appointments.
  • Facial, massage, mani, pedi, mud bath, body wrap—whatever works to get them to say “Ahhh,” a Spafinder gift card will help get them there.
  • Experiential gifts don’t need to involve leaving the comfort of the couch. How about an at-home wine tasting? Vinebox mail-order boxes ($44 to $129) come with three, six, nine, or 12 different wines in single-serving vials.
  • You no longer need to be in New York City or Los Angeles to reap the benefits of a FaceGym workout. Online classes now teach their signature face massage techniques, including knuckling, pinching, and whipping strokes, which claim to boost blood circulation, cell renewal, and lymphatic system drainage. 30-minutes classes are $15 and more personal one-on-one sessions are $60.
  • If they’re ready to begin their journey into meditation, help get them started with a Headspace subscription. An annual gift costs $69.99, but tranquil bliss post-holidays? Priceless.

Headshot of Perry Santanachote, editor with the Home editorial team at Consumer Reports

Perry Santanachote

I cover the intersection of people, products, and sustainability, and try to provide humorous but useful advice for everyday living. I love to dive deep into how things work, and debunking myths might be my favorite pastime. But what I aim to be above all else is a guiding voice while you're shopping, telling you what's a value, what's a rip-off, and what's just right for you and your family.