Choosing Experiences Over Stuff

by Katy on July 5, 2014 · 32 comments

Ashland library

My family is on a mini four-day-vacation right now. Okay let me rephrase that, my husband, 18-year-old daughter and I are on vacation right now. Because without our 16-year-old son, it somehow doesn’t seem right to refer to ourselves as a “family.” (But since that lucky duck is spending a month in Sapporo, Japan I hardly feel that he’s being deprived of any car trip vacation opportunities.)

Where was I?

Oh yes, my family is on a mini-vacation right now.

Rather than buying something for our daughter as a high school graduation gift, we decided instead for an experiential gift and take her on her very own vacation. Money is, as always, tight, so anywhere that would require flight was out of the question. (Although I have been getting more shifts at the hospital which has helped to loosen up my money anxiety issues.) I came up with the idea to drive down to Ashland for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. My initial thinking was that we’d see one Shakespearean play and one non-Shakespearean play, but since tickets are very pricey, I bought great tickets for the single play I thought we’d all enjoy. (The Tempest.) And also that we’d pack the trip with lots of wonderful (but frugal) things to do.

Before we could plan any activities, I needed to find a place to stay that wouldn’t eat up our entire budget. I used Priceline to shop for a motel, and then took my step-father’s advice to stay in close-by Medford instead of schwanky Ashland. And since this meant we could pay $68 per night instead of Ashland’s typical $175 per night, this was an easy decision. Of course, I went through eBates, which gave me an extra 4% back after the additional 5% I got back for using the Priceline promo code of SUMMER14. (Whew . . . ) Add the free deluxe continental breakfast included with our stay, and our housing was a unmitigated bargain!

Is our hotel a luxurious experience? Nope. It’s a Ramada Inn, which is A-OK with me. It’s clean, the beds are comfortable and it has both a pool and a fitness center. And since we’re saving so such money on housing, we can spend in other areas without worry.

We could save a ton of money by packing our own food and forgoing restaurant meals, but my family really enjoys the experience of eating out when we travel.

Yesterday we used Yelp to locate a locally owned Filipino restaurant in Keizer, Oregon for lunch on our drive down to Ashland, and for dinner we ate at a British-ish pub, as my daughter was craving fish and chips. (And since we used Yelp to find the restaurant, we earned a free dessert as a reward for “checking in.”)

We then explored Ashland and located a perfect spot to watch the town’s fireworks display. It was literally across the the street from where they were being shot off, and it felt like we were directly beneath the fireworks.

Today we’ll see our play, and then wander around town. Tomorrow we’ll explore the Historic Landmark town of Jacksonville and likely eat more delicious food. My daughter has a scheduled tour on Monday at Southern Oregon University, after which we’ll head over to the Oregon coast to slowly make our way back home. (My daughter is taking a gap year before college, which has given her an extra year to explore college opportunities.)

Nowhere in our itinerary will there be buying of location specific and useless souvenirs. (Although I have picked up two pennies so far.)

And hopefully, my son while have fond memories of his experiential graduation gift, where he got his parents all to himself.

Have you been moving toward experiential gifts over stuff? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Katy Wolk-Stanley

“Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.”

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{ 31 comments… read them below or add one }

Mary Perkins July 5, 2014 at 10:32 am

When I was in high school, the speech and drama club would go down to Ashland to do the same thing you did. We’d travel down to Medford and check in on Saturday. Then, we’d see a Shakespeare play. The next day we’d see another play before driving home. I got to go three times. It was loads of fun.


Katy July 5, 2014 at 10:52 am

That does sound like fun!


Barb @ 1SentenceDiary July 8, 2014 at 10:33 am

I went once, also with the drama club in high school, I think. I remember the play, but I can’t recall staying over. Maybe we drove down and back the same day?


Katy July 8, 2014 at 1:08 pm

It’s a 5-1/2 hour drive, so I’d be surprised if you didn’t stay the night.


Susan July 5, 2014 at 10:44 am

Enjoy the holiday!


Lesley July 5, 2014 at 11:07 am

My family always vacationed this way–although of course we didn’t have Yelp. There was a somewhat-flexible rule about souvenirs: “NO JUNK.” That generally meant no plastic doodads. I ended up with a lot of bookmarks, books, and 3D postcards.

These days I can admit I’m partial to souvenir spoons and mini-plates (the kind with local scenes cheaply printed on them) . Most of those are Goodwill specials (I make sure and get the ones from places I’ve never been!) But I also have a large number that were gifts, from when friends say “I’ll bring you back a present, what do you want from [location]?”


Amy Dunn July 5, 2014 at 11:39 am

We’ve done this with each of our two boys and are looking forward to doing it again with our daughter in two years.
Son #1 picked D.C., a road trip, and we happened to have free accommodations, thanks to a family member having a townhouse in Georgetown.
Second son got a slightly shorter trip to New York, which required plane tickets and a hotel.
No plastic do-dads came home, just a lot of digital photos and memories.


Elizabeth July 5, 2014 at 1:40 pm

My best birthday present ever was a day of biking with my husband. He surprised me with this idea one year when my birthday fell on a Saturday. He picked a route, took me to a farmer’s market we had never been to on the other side of the city, bought me one ‘fancy’ cocktail on a patio, gave me 5 dollars to buy a nice soap at an organic grocery store and took me to the beach. We spent a few dollars on ‘street food’ at an African drumming festival we stumbled across and we biked home ‘the long way’ through a local green belt. We probably spent about 30 or 40 dollars but I’d say that was a bargain for 8 hours of entertainment and a lifetime of memories!


Ellen @ The Cynical Sailor July 5, 2014 at 1:47 pm

I love the idea of an experiential gift! Always wanted to go to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Thanks for the tips on how to do it frugally.


Kristin July 5, 2014 at 2:06 pm

Yes, I have given quite a few experiential gifts in the past few years and made it known that I would prefer to receive them as well. My birthday was last week and my mother and sisters chipped in together to get me a subscription to our local opera’s next season. Couldn’t think of a single THING I would rather have!


MW July 5, 2014 at 2:09 pm

Migrant Lake is a great place to camp, and be near Ashland. I love the town and plays, I hate the prices.


Carla July 5, 2014 at 3:10 pm

I’m just curious… what prompted the gap year decision? Is that common in that area? No need to answer if I am being too nosy!


Katy July 5, 2014 at 8:02 pm

The gap year decision came from me realizing that my son was exhausted and burned out from 16 years of schooling and needed a break.



Susan July 6, 2014 at 11:47 am

Katy, I took a year out before going to Antioch. It did me the power of good. I would recommend it for most teenagers.


Lynn D. July 5, 2014 at 3:33 pm

Crater Lake and the Oregon Caves are pretty cool. Could you fit one or both of those in?


Katy July 5, 2014 at 8:03 pm

We’ve been to Crater Lake, and have our plans all made for the rest of our trip. Maybe we’ll check out the Oregon Caves on a later trip.



Trish July 5, 2014 at 3:49 pm

that sounds so very wonderful. and what a good idea to have a gap year. He will have an opportunity to figure out what to study, and maybe earn some money too. Your son sounds like a great kid, Katy.


HeatherS July 5, 2014 at 6:24 pm

I love the idea of experiential gifts and would love to move my kids more in this direction. The high schooler would probably be all for it but the 8 year old would not like the idea too much yet.

I am curious about the gap year also. Sounds like it could be a great idea. Just wondering what influenced him to make the decision, will he be traveling or staying home and what effect it might have on scholarship opportunities? Wow, I sound nosy! LOL


Annie July 6, 2014 at 6:12 am

My family and I have been trending towards experiential gifts, especially for my mom. She has a house full of stuff and doesn’t need more things she’ll not likely use. I try to take her to concerts I know she will enjoy and travel with her to cities we’ve never seen. Most of the time we are able to find good deals and do things that don’t cost a lot, but sometimes I’d rather splurge a bit. For years she mentioned wanting to see the Messiah performed live. Even though it cost me quite a bit more for the tickets than I would have spent on some tchotchke, the look of joy on her face hearing the music performed live at Lincoln Center in NYC was PRICELESS!


Katy @ Purposely Frugal July 6, 2014 at 6:20 am

Since we’re planning on moving to Africa next year, we’re trying to keep our possessions limited. Also moving to Africa will mean my daughter sees her grandparents even less than she does now. So this year for her birthday, while we were visiting, they took the kids to a children’s Discovery Center and out to Burger King. They absolutely loved it! We don’t have a bunch more stuff to figure out what to do with, and they got quality time with the grandparents!


Katy July 6, 2014 at 9:04 am

Where in Africa are you moving to?


J. Pario July 6, 2014 at 9:55 am

I’m off to see The Tempest, too– tonight, on a blanket, in a park, for free, in Omaha.

It is said to be the last play Shakespeare wrote and his sort of farewell to the stage. Adds a certain poignancy to it, I think.

In Consumer Ed class in high school we were assigned to plan a vacation and I planned one to your Oregon Shakespeare festival. Sounds like a great trip! Maybe someday…


Maria July 6, 2014 at 6:28 pm

I’m also curious about the gap year. I hope you will write a post about it sometime. I’m familiar with the concept but don’t know of anyone who has intentionally/thoughtfully taken a gap year.

I’m all for experience gifts and I love the idea of a special trip with just one of my children.


Diane July 7, 2014 at 5:42 am

I think a gap year is very worthwhile. I floundered in college as an older teen and then dropped out to get married. I went back in my 30s, divorced with 2 young children to raise and did exceptionally well. And went on to get a M.Ed.

Wishing your son a wonderful gap year. Will he work locally?


JD July 7, 2014 at 5:48 am

My oldest daughter turned down her senior trip to a place she wasn’t that interested in, in her senior year of high school ($1100.00 plus a recommended $400 spending money for food, etc., for one person for 4 days, including air fare). As a thanks to her for making that wise choice, I let her choose a whole week in someplace she REALLY wanted to go as a graduation present. She chose Vermont — we’re from the deep South — so she and I flew to Burlington and then stayed in Montpelier for a seven day week. It wasn’t what I would call cheap as a present– we spent around $1500– but that was for the two of us, for an entire week, including air fare and car rental, because we chose our timing carefully and got lower rates on everything. We stayed in a bed and breakfast with a second kitchen for guest use, so we shopped for groceries and cooked our own suppers. Breakfasts were complimentary (and fantastic) of course, so lunch was all we ate out. We went into Canada, crossed the lake into NY, drove through NH and Maine, and had a blast. She still talks of it fondly, 14 years later. It was an experience that she and I will never forget.
We gave our kids the experiences of exploring local parks and museums and local scenery. We took them on mini-vacations that didn’t cost much, but showed them places other than their home state. We also dropped them off with their out of state grandparents for a couple of weeks each summer, and the grandparents took them to local festivals, to explore the area scenery and parks, to Pow-wows, and to see elderly relatives they would not have known otherwise. They’ll never forget those days, made more precious now with the passing of their grandparents.


Alice July 7, 2014 at 11:47 am

We just spent last Saturday in Sioux City, IA at their free Saturday in the Park concert with Bonnie Raitt, Ziggy Marley and the Avett Brothers. Great entertainment for free, only pay forone night for a motel room and eating out. Really had a great time!


marie July 7, 2014 at 8:23 pm

You saw Bonnie Raitt in a free concert, love her. I’ve seen her in concert a couple of times


Barb @ 1SentenceDiary July 8, 2014 at 10:38 am

Travelling with the whole family is fun, for sure, but there’s something special about taking just one kid. I was in Seattle recently and I took one of my nieces to the zoo, just the two of us. I gave her the map, let her pick the route and how long we stayed in each area, and we had a blast. Again, something special about letting a kid who is usually “one of the kids” get to be the only kid.


Katy July 8, 2014 at 1:08 pm

I agree 100%! It’s kind of like how we do birthdays with the entire day dedicated to what that particular kid likes to do.



Barb @ 1SentenceDiary July 8, 2014 at 10:40 am

PS: We saw The Tempest in Boston recently, and it was fantastic. They performed it with amazing stage magic, all arranged by Teller (of “Penn and Teller” fame). I am still gushing about it, weeks later. Shakespeare performed well is so great!


Katy July 8, 2014 at 1:10 pm

The sets were pretty minimalist, although clever at the same time. The woman who played Ariel was AMAZING, but the actor who played Prospero got kind of mumbly at times. I felt like yelling, “Once more for the cheap seats!” a couple of times.


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