Things vs. Experiences

by Katy on October 28, 2009 · 30 comments


Last Sunday’s Parade Magazine included an article titled, “Why Shopping is Good Again” by Lee Eisenberg. I set the insert magazine aside, thinking the information included in such an ad based publication would certainly be an interesting read.

It turns out that Eisenberg has a book to be published next week called, “Shoptimism: Why the American Consumer Will Keep On Buying No Matter What,” so the article actually was more than the that silly recession is behind us, please buy our advertiser’s products that I had expected.

One part of the article that struck me as quite insightful was the subject of how experiences differ from things:

“Over the past decade, social psychologists have conducted numerous studies that find we’re happiest when, instead of shelling out for stuff, we spend money on things that provide social and personal engagement.

Shared experiences, researchers find over and over again, offer greater value than material buys. Pleasant memories don’t fade in the wash or go out of fashion. Just think back on that family trip out West. Sure, everyone returned home with assorted souvenirs that proved you were actually there. But now, what do you remember as the most meaningful part of the trip? Maybe it was the look you saw on your kids’ faces, their eyes wide as saucers, as they peered into infinite chasms that offered up a spectacle beyond anything they’d experienced before—including, even, the first time they fired up their PlayStation.”

My mother’s birthday was last week, and instead of buying her more stuff, I took her out on the town to see a play with dessert afterwards. We started this tradition a few years back when a showing of Sing-Along Sound of Music was in town and I decided that I had found the perfect gift for her. Not only would we get to spend a child-free evening together, (a rarity at the time, as my kids were still small) but the combination of singing and making smart-ass remarks at the screen was right up her alley.  My instinct was right on the money, and we still laugh about how fun that night was.

My mother already owns a lifetime of possessions and there’s nothing I can buy her that she doesn’t already have. Nothing.

I would suggest that you consider the things vs. experiences issue when making your gift giving choices for this year’s holiday season. Not only are you providing an experiential gift, but are not contributing to the excessive clutter that so many of us struggle with. Plus there’s none of that pesky packaging!

Have you received or given experience gifts such as theater or movie tickets; massages or homemade gift certificates in the past? Please share your stories in the comments section below.

Katy Wolk-Stanley

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

{ 28 comments… read them below or add one }

Kristen@The Frugal Girl October 28, 2009 at 3:51 am

I’ve been thinking about this in regard to the gift suggestions I will make to extended family when they ask what to buy for my kids. We just already have so much STUFF (and we have less than the average home!).


Lauren October 28, 2009 at 5:16 am

Ooh, I love this post! We’ve been a big kick to give experiences rather than “stuff” for a few years now – it all started because of our disgust over my stepson’s bored reaction to the mountains of gifts he’d get at holidays and birthdays, and now it’s become a fun challenge and a great way to show our friends and family that we really “get” them and we thought about their gift. Concert tickets have been a big hit with everyone, and the “date in a box” – wine, special food items, and recipes (and sometimes movie tickets or a video store gift certificate) has been great for the newlyweds in the family. Most recently, my husband surprised me by setting up a babysitter and taking me out for a nice dinner for my birthday – the best gift he could give, considering we hadn’t had any alone time since baby #2 hit the scene! Another gift that’s been a big hit in our family is the photo calendar. Each fall, I compile all the year’s photos and create collage calendars for our parents, grandparents, and some aunts and uncles. Since we live far from our families and don’t get to visit often, they all love seeing pictures of the kids each month, and it’s a much more personal gift than a lot of other things we could give!


BarbS October 28, 2009 at 6:25 am

I’m a *big* fan of experiential gifts. In fact, last weekend I was treated to a wonderful comedy show (two of the performers from the show “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”) which was absolutely fantastic. One of the best gifts I’ve ever received.

For the BF’s birthday, coming up, he’s getting a stack of movie passes (he loves the movies but rarely goes, so this is a way of making it easy) and a “Fast Lane” transponder (it’s a way of paying tolls on the highway without stopping at the tollbooth, for those who live in non-toll states) so that driving to work will be faster and easier.

My mom has been downsizing, and so my whole family has started thinking about the “non-stuff” gift for a while. Experiences are so much better than stuff.


j. October 28, 2009 at 6:37 am

For my birthday last year, instead of buying me stuff, my best friend said she would read any book I wanted her to. I’m really interested in food issues, so I chose “Animal Vegetable Miracle” by Barbara Kingsolver. She read it cover to cover (slowly, she has two kids!) and bit by bit started paying more attention to where her food came from. Having her read the book gave us new things to talk about, and that, along with watching her eat more mindfully, was one of the best gifts I’d ever gotten.


Alison October 28, 2009 at 6:39 am

For the birthdays my kids are invited to, I like to give gift certificates to the bowling lanes, batting cages and mini-golf places.

My brother and sister-in-law have birthdays near each other so recently we have been giving them one gift to share: a generous gift certificate to a restaurant in their (new) town. It’s fun researching the local restaurants and picking the one we think they’d like, too.


Elizabeth October 28, 2009 at 7:11 am

Last year was my parent’s 25th wedding anniversary and I spent weeks agonizing over what to get them for such a special day. Finally, I decided I shouldn’t give them anything, but instead DO something for them. My family has been undergoing financial strain over the past few years, and my parents haven’t taken a vacation in a really long time. Even though I don’t have that much money, I saved up carefully and made them a reservation at a really nice local resort for a night. They were really touched at the fact that I chose to provide them with a nice (and fully-paid!) night rather than waste money on a gift that probably wouldn’t mean as much.

Other people have mentioned giving restaurant gift cards as gifts. We do that in my family as well, except the gift card always comes with free babysitting so that the parents can go out without having to worry about finding and paying for a babysitter. They are always thrilled to have a date night!


Meadowlark October 28, 2009 at 8:09 am

Don’t know if it’s QUITE what you’re thinking since it involves “things”, but one year for Christmas I contacted friends and family six months before and requested clothes…but not just ANY clothes. Old prom dresses, hats, ties, handbags… anything that would be fun for dress-up but would also have a connection to a real person. I asked that they jot a note about what the item meant or who it belonged to and how they were connected to our kids. For example, this was Aunt So-and-so’s prom dress.

For Christmas that year BabyGirl and YoungSon opened the “Make-believe box” and found a treasure trove of let’s-pretend along with a reminder that they are part of a huge extended family, even if we were miles away.


Cate October 28, 2009 at 8:19 am

I’ve been mulling over a post like this for a while–about how our family has begun to choose experiences over things and how it’s enriched our life. Because it really has!

Like you and your mom, there’s absolutely nothing I can buy my mom she doesn’t already have. Or, there ARE things I could buy her, but she doesn’t need any of it–she already complains about having too much! This Christmas my husband and I are going to buy her and my stepdad a few bottles of local wine. It’s thoughtful and won’t clutter up their house.


Jen October 28, 2009 at 9:38 am

We have been doing this in my family for awhile. My dad is incredibly hard to buy for, and a few years back, we realized that he actually doesn’t care about getting “surprise” presents. So now we have “tradition” presents instead–for Father’s Day we give tickets to a baseball game for the extended family (because it’s no fun without the grandkids along), and for his birthday, he gets his satellite radio subscription renewed. We have now extended this to other family members–gave a walking/tasting tour of a local market to my mom for Mother’s Day, an annual dinner out at a nice restaurant to a foodie sibling, a museum membership to a BIL.


Kristen October 28, 2009 at 9:46 am

Another thing we have started doing in our family is donating money to a charity that is close to their heart in honor of that family member. It is great because it is a win/win situation.


Angela October 28, 2009 at 9:59 am

I’m in complete agreement. I started doing this almost ten years ago, when my parents were moving into a condo from a house and getting rid of a lot of stuff. I gave my mom a card with a train ticket in it, explaining that we would meet at a restaurant halfway between our homes (we live 2 hours apart). The restaurant was charming, and we had a fabulous time. She loved it, and we’ve done it several times since. Other gifts my brothers and I have given my parents are: tickets to a Josh Groban concert, dance lessons, “meet the beluga whales” in a wetsuit in a tank at Sea World, and I took my dad to an outdoor concert to see Dave Brubeck, one of his favorites. My parents loved all these “experiential gifts.”

Some of my favorites to receive have been museum memberships and overnight getaways.

I was planning on writing a post about this when it’s a little closer to the holidays.


Lisa October 28, 2009 at 10:37 am

We prefer this type of giving too and have been doing it for awhile. I loved all the fresh new ideas from you all. Thanks!


Everyday Minimalist October 28, 2009 at 10:59 am

Which is exactly why I hate getting gifts or giving them.

I appreciate the thought, but I’d rather have a memory

A dinner, a coffee.. a hug.


Queen Lucia October 28, 2009 at 11:20 am

This is hitting home today! My 40th is in a couple weeks and my husband wanted some gift ideas from me. So I thought about some of the “things” I’d seen recently and even put a list together for him. But this list didn’t really make me happy or excited. The only things I could think of that would really mark the day for me are “serenity” (achieved through frugal, purposeful and simple living) and “fun”. We’re planning a weekend in Portland anyway, so I told him to just make it fun and that should do it for me! As for serenity – we’re working on it.


WilderMiss October 28, 2009 at 11:23 am

I love giving/recieving experience gifts as well. In the past I’ve recieved awesome things like lift tickets to a local mountain, tickets for a musical, kayak rental GCs, yoga passes, etc and have given many experience type gifts such as lining up a kayak/snorkeling excursion for my parents during thier trip to Hawaii shortly after Christmas.

This year I plan to give the family Olympic tickets so that we can experience an event together. That is, IF I can get my hands on some (sheesh!). Otherwise I’ll go with a play or cirque du soliel or something like that.


Elizabeth B October 28, 2009 at 11:40 am

Wooooooord. Seriously. I love this idea so much, you don’t even know. My gifts for my parents over the last few years have almost all been experiences–lunch or tea or dinner with me–because they have an entire house full of STUFF, but only one daughter. So thank you for a wonderful post.


Elizabeth B October 28, 2009 at 11:56 am

p.s. I linked to this post from my LiveJournal.


Kiki Leigh October 28, 2009 at 1:31 pm

I’ve been a mom now for 18 years now. My oldest is a freshman in college and my youngest is 2. In the early years of parenting when we were living in married student apartments working on our degrees it was very “cozy” with 3 then 4 then 5 of us living in a tiny space not much bigger than a dorm room jammed to the rafters with a crib, bunkbed set and every imaginable toy, video and book out there. You couldn’t walk into the living room without bumping into Little Tykes play kitchens, cozy coupes, Brio trains, Fisher Price Little people playsets too big for a toybox, etc. I was always buying stuff and all our relatives enjoyed catering to every imaginable whim or fancy too. If they sold it, my kids had it. Now that my husband and I are older living in a nice 5 bedroom home, I prefer clean lines and living in an uncluttered space. We yard saled away so much a few years ago and while I at first had separation anxiety from losing everything, I’m so glad I did it. The past few Christmases Santa only brings a filled stocking and 2 toys or gifts to unwrap per person. That’s it and I’ve requested that grandparents and aunts and uncles get gifts that are clutter free. With a big family 2 gifts per person still makes a pretty big pile under the tree. My mom in law always gets the kids a year’s worth of movie tickets (maybe $100 per kid). She likes to watch the kids unwrap a present so usually she attaches the card to a box of candy or something like that. They love her movie tickets and lots of times throughout the year she tags along with them and they have so much fun. My parents pay for a year’s worth of dance lessons or Karate or raquetball court fees or whatever the kids are into.I always send them a framed photo of each kid in his or her respective costume or uniform. They love it. My sister buys I tunes gift cards, loaded up McDonalds or Dairy Queen gift cards or something that costs money but doesn’t take up valuable living space. I got my husband tickets to see a comedy show last year and he got me the same. We had a super time kids free for the night. Christmas is still expensive, but no one seems to mind. Fortunately the economy hasn’t really effected us yet. We haven’t taken on the $100 challenge, and I’m not sure I’m ready or want to do that, but we have significantly reduced what will eventually make its way to the landfill and simplified our lives a little.


KC October 28, 2009 at 2:07 pm

Last Christmas I donated money to charities chosen by each family member instead of buying lots of stuff. I still bought a token present for each person but tried to ensure they were useful gifts – and often consumable – like beautiful Lush shampoos and body wash.

This year I provided my children with a very specific list for my birthday and asked that they choose something from the list. So I got the subscription to a magazine that I always buy anyway plus movie vouchers. Every time my magazine arrives or I go to the movies I am appreciative of the gifts they gave me.

I am definitely a fan of “experience” gifts over stuff.


Carla October 28, 2009 at 4:00 pm

This can be a great idea but sometimes it doesn’t work. Our youngest daughter loves to cook so one Christmas we got her a cooking class at an upscale grocery store which gave various cooking classes. She was thrilled, thanking us over and over… and never took the class. In fact, I think she was careless with the coupon and lost it before very long. This is one case where the gift was truly the thought because she got nothing else out of it! The whole thing disappointed us, too, since we really WANTED her to have the fun of the class. That is the last time we have given and “experience” gift.


Carla October 28, 2009 at 4:01 pm

That should have read “an” experience gift. Good grief.


thenonconsumeradvocate October 28, 2009 at 4:08 pm


I feel your pain. I have a family member who has a tendency to lose things, so when we give her a gift certificate we actually hold onto it until it’s ready to use.

Of course, this might cause offense for some.

I would suggest that you contact the upscale grocery store and talk to someone about your daughter’s lost gift certificate. All may not be “lost.”

Katy Wolk-Stanley

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


Rachel October 28, 2009 at 7:03 pm

I took my mum to see “Gone with the Wind” for her 66th birthday. Six months later I won tickets to “Love Actually” and took her to see it. A few months later she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and, sadly, passed away. I don’t remember any birthday present I ever gave her before the movie or after (when she was sick) but I remember and treasure those two occasions. Nothing beats the gift of time and shared experiences.


Mary Bigger October 28, 2009 at 8:57 pm

My husband and I get season tickets to the local theater group. That’s our Christmas gift to each other. It guarantees that we have an ongoing series of dates and keeps a sparkle in our almost 50 years. As our grandchildren move into teens and young adulthood we consult with their parents on how we can help support the kids special activities i.e. Lauren spent a summer on a choir tour of Eastern Europe, Daniel is raising money to go to the scout jamboree. He’s raised a major chunk already reselling on ebay and we’ll do an appropriate Christmas match and contribute to his sister’s transportation home from college. This family networking I hope will help the kids see that our frugal lifestyle is a long term good thing for all of us.


Keema October 28, 2009 at 11:25 pm

Last week for my birthday, a good friend gave me a haircut! It was the one thing I had not been able to fit into my budget. We went to the salon together, and had fun choosing a style. The results were great.


Nicky October 29, 2009 at 5:54 am

We’ve just started giving experience gifts and have found that the recipients take a while to get used to it – there’s been a bit of weirdness at the moment of “unwrapping” (it feels a bit like people somehow think they’ve been stiffed, even if it’s sharing a night at a pricey show) – but later when they experience the gift, especially if it’s shared with us, or my daughter, they seem to really love it. I think people will start to get used to us being experience-givers, and maybe it will catch on since we are all drowning in stuff. I hope so. I’m thinking of making myself a couple of t-shirts or shopping bags with your motto emblazoned across them, just to remind myself of what I really want to do when I have a brain-fade at the checkout line and desperately want to buy that magazine/Coke/chewy I don’t need and won’t enjoy that much.


Jacquelyn October 29, 2009 at 7:29 am

This concept has been heavily on my mind lately. I recently lost my grandmother, and in going through her possessions, it was clear that the ‘stuff’, even the stuff that meant something to her while she was alive, had very little value to me. However, going through her personal cards and letters (she kept everything!) gave me an insight into her social life throughout the years and how loved she was by her friends and family and left me with an image of her as an active, social lady who was loved by many. I am realizing what a gift it would be to my kids (and me!) to leave them fewer piles of ‘stuff’ to go through when I’m gone, and more memories of friends and family and fun experiences.
On that note, I will be thinking more about the holidays this year. I’m a pretty low-key gift giver anyways, usually just gifting my immediate family, but I plan to incorporate more experiences into the season. Holiday parties, anyone?


stacybaca October 29, 2009 at 9:20 am

I have to add, I always find that gifts of the heart are best. I have inlaws that are quite wealthy. Fear would strike my heart whenever we would draw one of their names for Christmas. We couldn’t afford Burberry and it was impossible to find name brands below the dollar limit. I took to shopping antique stores. An old copy of John Donne poems. An inkwell for the budding writer. A bejeweled lipstick case for the fashionista. Often I’d accompany them with a note or poem. They are always a hit!

There are gifts and then there are gifts of genuine love. I remember two such gifts from my husband. One, season tickets to Chicago’s Steppenwolf theater. The other, a beautifully simple wooden box filled with tins of exotic teas. I now have memories of sharing with my husband the experience of seeing John Malkovich and Gary Sinese on stage at their theatrical home and when I feel a need for peace or warmth, I choose from the variety of teas in my, now worn, wooden box.


Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: