an unexpected gift-giving guide – give presence not present

Photo courtesy of
Photo courtesy of

When a birthday or holiday is approaching and gifts are expected, I can start to feel anxious and sometimes resentful. When gift-giving becomes an obligation, it leaves me feeling overwhelmed because I want to get something they'll love or something they really, truly need and will be able to use.

What if I can’t find anything they'll like? Do I end up with a gift card just to get it over with and get the hell out of the store? How many hours do I have to spend in a shopping mall or driving from store to store to find that perfect gift? What if I don’t find the ‘perfect’ present? Should buy any old thing, just to get the chore done? This kind of gift-giving must be what inspired ugly-Christmas-sweater parties.

When friends and family ask what the kids want for birthdays or the holidays, my response is always the same. They already have everything they need; they have more stuff than they even know what to do with. When that fails, there are of course Amazon wish lists that we've put some thought into.

We're constantly reducing the amount of stuff in our home, read more about this in less stuff and more life. Most people, however, feel obligated to buy things when the kids have a birthday. I remind them that the kids would much rather spend time with their friends and family than to add to their growing, and mostly ignored toy collection.

New toys lose their novelty within a few days and the kids have just as much fun playing with a ‘sword’ (a stick) as a shiny new gadget with flashing lights and bling. The stick leads to more creative and fulfilling play than the plastic-made-in-China thing that requires batteries.

The next time you need to buy a gift for someone, think about offering them your time instead. This is as simple as hanging out on a Sunday morning, taking someone out for breakfast, to a movie, to the park, even to help pay for some of their sports like hockey and horseback riding.

They'll never remember the best toy they ever received - but they will remember the time you spent with them.

In an effort to help friends and family keep clutter out of their homes and spend more time with them, I only buy things when they're super useful and instead, buy experiences.

If someone really needs something, I'm more than happy to help them out, but if I want to get a gift and they have everything they need, I like to think outside the gift box. I enjoy spending quality time with the friends and family in my life, being together, and being present, rather than spending money on useless crap that'll collect dust, get thrown out or be re-gifted.

Here are some delightful ways to give presence, not presents:

  • taking someone out for lunch or dinner
  • giving a restaurant gift card
  • having a personal chef come cook a gourmet meal at someone’s home
  • wine tours and wine tastings
  • home cleaning services
  • gift cards for spa visits
  • gift certificates for activities; art studios, sports, events, concerts, etc.
  • cook them dinner
  • make a card
  • paint a picture
  • write a handwritten note
  • bake something
  • prepare them a heat-and-serve meal (this in addition to sleep is the ONLY thing new mom’s need!)
  • go to an event together
  • babysit their kids
  • run an errand for them

Most of these experience gifts can be purchased online; no crowded malls, no driving, no parking, and it only take a few minutes. 

Since making this shift in my gift-giving outlook to giving people experiences rather than stuff, it's become much more enjoyable for me because I get to spend more time with the people I love or help someone else spend more time with the people they love.