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By Carol Church

The holiday season is approaching quickly. The average American spends more than $1,000 on holiday gifts, according to a recent survey, and over 50% admit that they’re likely to go into debt over holiday spending.  Many of us do work hard to economize on gifts, but with lots of people to buy for and the ever-present pressure to create holiday magic, it can be hard to be sensible about the amount we spend.

Woman wearing blue holiday sweater holding wrapped gift in front of Christmas tree.

Image via, CC0

Yet how many gifts are truly thought about long after the boxes and wrapping paper are just a memory? For some of us, the credit card may “remember” the gifts a lot longer than family members do! While it’s understandable to want to make others happy at the holidays, are the gifts we purchase worth the hard-earned cash we spend?

Try Giving Experiences Instead

Here’s a tip for gift givers who are looking to spend their money wisely: try an “experience” present instead. There are many possibilities, but ideas include tickets to a theme park, movie, concert, or event; lessons for something they’ve always wanted to try, like watercolors or rock climbing; a fun experience, like paint-your-own pottery, a massage, or zip-lining; or a trip or a getaway.  For military families, don’t forget that the Office of Information, Tickets and Travel on base can make experiences like these more affordable, too.

Some of these ideas may sound expensive. But there are plenty of experience gifts in all price ranges. The internet is full of ideas, but some could include a family camping trip (this could take place in the backyard!), homemade gift certificates for a lunch date or dinner out to a favorite restaurant, a promised outing to a fun place like the miniature golfing spot, driving range, batting cage, bowling alley, or a bounce gym, or an afternoon at home making fancy cupcakes.

Some givers, especially parents, might shy away from giving a gift that can’t really be “wrapped” and isn’t a physical “thing.” This is a mistake! Research shows that so-called experiential presents are actually some of the most loved, memorable, and valuable gifts we can give. Why?

Gifts like these are often social and can strengthen the relationship between the gifter and the giftee

We often get to enjoy gifts like these together with the giftee, which can help build relationships and fond memories. Even if he or she will have the experience without us, the emotional intensity of an experience gift can help bond the giver to the receiver, research finds.

Experiential gifts don’t lose luster as time goes by

Physical “things” break, get boring, get lost, and so on. None of this can happen to our memories of an experience. They stay shiny, special, and treasured.

Experiential gifts are unique and hard to compare

If you’ve ever felt unhappy because your kid’s best friend is getting the new (iPhone, PlayStation, whatever) and yours isn’t, you know that gift comparison anxiety is real. While experiences aren’t completely immune to this kind of thing, they’re less easy to put side by side and compare.

Experiential gifts provide additional happiness due to anticipation

Teens on a white water river raft.

Military Family Programs (2015). 2015 Kentucky Military Family Camps. University of Kentucky.

Have you noticed that part of the enjoyment of a vacation is thinking about how great that vacation is going to be while you’re at work the week before? Experiential gifts provide more “anticipatory enjoyment” than material gifts—we get to look forward to them with excitement.

Most of us are always going to spend at least some money on gifts–at holidays, and on birthdays, anniversaries, and other occasions. Of course, saving ahead of time, staying within a budget, and keeping costs manageable are key, but another way to cope with the expense is to make your money really count. Experiential presents are one way to make that happen.


Backman, M. (2016). Here’s what the average American spends on holiday gifts. Retrieved from

Gordon, A. (2015). 3 reasons not to spend your money on things. Retrieved from

ScienceDaily. (2016). There’s a science to gift giving: experiences are better than material items. Retrieved from