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The Gift of Giving Nothing this Holiday Season


Some people are difficult to shop for. What do you give someone who seemingly has everything? Focus on experiences, or perhaps give nothing at all.

Experiences, not things. You’ve heard the anthem.

If you want to be happy, spend your money wisely. That means you should concentrate your spending on experiences that you will remember forever, and forget about the fleeting hoverboard / Furby / Hatchimal that might bring a couple days of happiness and just maybe set the plane on fire. Spending on experiences is solid advice, and science supports it. Science.

I understand the draw of things. I spent a good forty years focusing on obtaining them. And here we are, drowning in so many things. Things I collected as a child. Things I held onto as a poor college student. Things I couldn’t think of parting with because I’d had them for so many years.

And now it’s the biggest time of year to give. It’s time to buy presents. You’ve got siblings! Parents and cousins, coworkers and friends! Time to buy so, so many things. Happy Holidays!

But what if — deep down — they don’t want things? What if, like you, they are grownups that buy all the things they want when they want them? Well, that’s a conundrum, now isn’t it?

They May Not Want Things.

What do you get the person who has everything? Not a thing.

Not a soap that smells like his favorite beer. He already has a case of his favorite beer, and it smells better than beer scented soap. Not a nonsense-of-the-month club just because he enjoys nonsense. He can sort the good nonsense from the bad nonsense, and if he wanted twelve random nonsense deliveries, he would have signed up already.

Some of us are actively trying to reduce the number of things they own. When I took a shot at minimalism in my master bedroom closet, I donated over 100 things. We’ve filled dozens of moving boxes with other stuff this year in our attempts to declutter our home and our lives.

What to Buy, Then?

Buy experiences.

If you didn’t see that coming, Tommy will come back there and hit you in the head with a tack hammer.

It’s super-obvious, but super-good advice.

Don’t buy a football jersey; buy football tickets! Instead of giving her the CD (or iTunes album), take her to the show. Mom says she wants a sweater? Take her out to lunch and to the mall afterwards. I’ll bet she’ll be happier with the lunch date, whether she goes home with a sweater or not.

weezer concert with foo fighters

weezer. worth it.

I’ve taken this tactic and applied it to gift giving the last several years with resounding success. No one’s been left wondering what to do with yet another pair of home team undies. I’ve done my best not to stick anyone with next year’s white elephant gift.

Other Options?

OK, neat advice, but his favorite band never comes within 300 miles of your town. She’s tons of fun when her team wins, but you don’t want to feel her wrath when the home team loses. Tickets are simply a bad idea in your case. What then?

Food! Who doesn’t like food? Restaurant gift certificates simply do not lose, and never end up donated to the local Salvation Army, unlike every popcorn-making device ever. No red-blooded American will turn down candy, and I don’t know many that would refuse a dinner and night on the town.

When giving someone food, we’re generally talking gift certificates, unless you really want to gift a side of beef. But most people don’t gift a side of beef. Or pork. [Note to readers: I would never reject a side of pork. Or beef.]

Your gift of a gift certificate should be reasonably generous. Once again, you’re giving someone an experience. Be sure to give enough to cover a meal for two at a minimum, or enough to cover the entire family if there are kids in the mix. Feeling really generous? Give one gift certificate to buy a meal for two, and a second for babysitting their munchkins while they enjoy an uninterrupted scrumptious meal. Then cross your fingers and hope they return the babysitting favor.

Don’t forget about other consumables. Last week, I gave the gift of beer to four unsuspecting brewery customers, courtesy of the Rockstar Community Fund. To see what others are doing with their $20 grants, see this thread on the Rockstar Finance Forum.

Sorry, Mom. Sorry, Dad.

It’s hard to implement a strategy like this without letting someone down. For me, it’s my Mom & Dad. My parents grew up in the shadow of the Great Depression. Things were everything. Experiences were luxuries. Luxury was having three squares, a roof over your head, and your Dad back from the War.

I grew up with a similar mindset. The more, the better. It makes sense. Things are worth something. The more things you have, the better off you are. In recent years, I’ve come to realize that the axiom may not be true for us. While we’ll never be true minimalists, we’re striving to be a little less maximalist.

Now, my parents have given me lots of great gifts over the last 41 years. They are also quite good about asking what I would like, and buying that exact thing. That’s how I got several of the great Nikon and Olympus lenses I use to take photos you’ll see all over this site.

This fall, I fielded the annual question about my wish list, and I struggled to come up with anything. After a month or so, a month in which my lovely wife reminded me with increasing frequency that I had to come up with something, I got a Black Friday e-mail with my Christmas gift(s) staring right back at me. Three all-grain brewing kits for $19.99 each.

The gift idea checked all the boxes. The gift will be used up, leaving no thing behind. Brewing is an experience, that will lead to a consumable — a consumable that can no doubt lead to more interesting experiences, and a consumable that I share with fellow aficionados at our monthly homebrew meetings, where I’ve made many friends.

Degifting. The True Give Nothing Option

Penny from She Picks up Pennies introduced me to a term for what my wife and I have done on most holidays for years. Degifting. To degift is to agree not to exchange gifts with someone whom you previously had or normally would exchange gifts.

Degifting takes practice. You’ve got to be committed. If you mutually agree not to spend your money on each other, then don’t spend money on each other, unless you like inviting resentment and mistrust into the relationship. Then by all means, violate the Treaty of No Presents, but do so at your own peril.

If giving absolutely nothing seems inherently wrong to you, consider the next best thing, a minimal gift exchange. Set a low dollar limit, say $5 or $10, and give something small that you can wrap up, open, and preferably eat or drink to celebrate the holiday for which the present was given.

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