Explore these minimalist gift ideas:
For most of us, the holiday season involves a lot of family, food, and … gifts. Many, many gifts. Gifts that need manufacturing, gifts that need packaging, gifts that need shipping and boxes and ribbons and wrapping.
Americans throw out 25 percent more garbage between Thanksgiving and Christmas than at any other time of year — to the tune of nearly 6 million tons of additional trash. That’s not just wrapping paper, either. Plenty of presents go straight into the garbage or make their way there soon enough. (We’re looking at you, bobbleheads.)
Gift giving can be a messy business.
So how can you step back from the clutter-clogged holiday machine and reduce even some of this waste without curbing your generous nature? One way is to opt out of giving and receiving physical presents altogether. But that doesn’t mean renouncing the gift-giving ritual. After all, exchanging thoughtful presents can be an important way to show you care for and appreciate loved ones.
Reducing waste at the holidays just takes a little mindfulness about what you’re giving. In that spirit, we’ve gathered some ideas for mostly waste-free gifts to suit everyone on your list.
If you want to give a gift that lasts, keep in mind that experiences may provide more enduring happiness than physical presents, according to one study conducted at Cornell University.
For example, Megan McKeever, a Brooklyn-based editor and mother of two, once received a ticket for a skydiving lesson from her husband. “Roy made a scrapbook of all our adventures: pictures, napkins and matchbooks from restaurants, concert tickets, etc. He even printed out the emails from setting up our first date. At the end of the scrapbook, he made a little pocket that said something like ‘And here’s our next adventure.’ Inside was the gift certificate to go skydiving.”
The gift of experience can also include lower-adrenaline options:
A walking-tour map of a city someone is planning to visit is a great idea; so is a walking tour of landmarks in your own city. The latter can double as a sweet opportunity to spend time together, making it even more meaningful.
Tickets of all kinds — to concerts, plays, live podcast performances, standup nights, or whatever your recipient likes best — make excellent offerings. This is another present that sets you up to spend time with someone.
Another treat for the traveler: language lessons. Sure, they could learn from an app, but nothing beats in-person practice conversations for developing fluency.
A cooking class is a superb gift for novice cooks who love food, as well as for experienced chefs who want to learn a specialized skill, like making pastry.
Restaurant gift certificates are reliably welcome. Who doesn’t relax more over dinner knowing that the tab is already paid?
Dance lessons are a fun present for your favorite social butterfly — or anyone on your list who’s looking to get out and meet people. Lessons for dances that require a partner, like salsa, tango, or swing, also make a great gift for a couple or as something you plan to do with a friend. Many studios also welcome solo dancers to partner-dance classes.
Many of your foodie friends will be delighted to go to wine tastings, and you could also surprise them with a tasting for cheese, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, or tea.
Travel-themed gifts are always a sweet surprise for your footloose family and friends. You can transfer some of your own frequent-flier miles or hotel points to the recipient’s account, buy them an airline gift card so they can start a trip with some expenses covered, or offer a gift certificate for a hotel or resort where you know they love to go.
It can also be fun for a family or group of friends to pitch in for a weekend getaway together — in lieu of exchanging gifts. That also gives you something positive to anticipate in the new year.
The gift of service is a terrific way to honor what people really need. Do you have friends who are busy parents? Offer to babysit so they can enjoy a night out without the kids. Likewise, busy dog parents might love a coupon book for a week’s worth of dog walks or dog-sitting.
For an aging relative who struggles with household or outdoor tasks, or for homeowners with busy schedules, consider hiring a cleaning, yard work, gardening, or landscaping service. Your relative will be relieved knowing someone else is going to plant the annuals this year, weed the garden, or shovel the walk. You might buy a gift certificate for specific tasks or hire someone for a set period, like a season or a year.
Likewise, you might know an entrepreneur in your life whose website needs updating; hiring someone to redesign it can be a great show of support. You could hire a photographer to take new headshots, or spring for web hosting by prepaying for a year.
Then there is the gift of luxury — services that people are often reluctant to buy for themselves. A gift certificate for a massage makes an excellent present for almost anyone.
Grooming services are also a treat to give and receive. A gift card to someone’s favorite stylist or for a facial, a close shave, or a mani-pedi is guaranteed to be welcome. Offer to join the recipient and make it an outing.
And if you’re not especially handy but still love to lend a hand? Hire someone through a service like Taskrabbit to do household chores or errand running for the recipient; this can help someone who’s settling into a new home (and needs to hang curtain rods or build shelves) or aging loved ones trying to keep up with home maintenance. If someone needs help decluttering, you could hire a professional organizer to help start (or finish) the process.
Subscriptions and Memberships
Reading in print offers its own kind of pleasure, so subscriptions to publications that the recipient loves are lovely — a gift that can be recycled. (Online subscriptions, while less fun to read in the bathtub, do prevent the clutter problem entirely.)
A subscription to Netflix, Hulu, or any other streaming video service is another sweet gift, especially if you attach a list of your own favorite shows and films to that service to give the person a place to start.
Likewise, the music lovers in your life are certain to appreciate a one-year subscription to a streaming music service like Spotify or Apple Music. Providing a playlist of your favorite tunes makes it personal.
If someone you know is going through a rough time, a gift subscription to an app that may help them relax would be a thoughtful gesture. “I recently gave a friend of mine a subscription to a year of a meditation app, and she really liked it,” says Miss Minimalist blogger Francine Jay, author of The Joy of Less and Lightly.
A year’s membership to a local museum or botanical garden often comes with extra perks, like preopening parties and shop and restaurant discounts, and it’s suitable for individuals or families.
Again, foodies are easy: Offer gift certificates to their local gourmet grocery store or, if they are starved for time, a subscription to a grocery-delivery service. A membership to an online grocery retailer, like Thrive Market, can also be a welcome resource.
Finally, for that someone who really does have everything, there is always flowers — specifically, a subscription for weekly or monthly flower delivery.
Any gift that will be sipped, supped, or otherwise consumed is an ideal minimalist present, because it will take up space for only so long. A bottle of wine is a classic offering, especially for the host of a gathering, but also for friends and family — holidays are a chance to give them a nice bottle they might not buy for themselves.
Likewise, handcrafted chocolates or fine aged cheeses that someone might not typically seek out are a delight to receive. You might offer the tea lover in your life a specialty tea, such as pu’erh or genmaicha, that doubles as a gift of experience.
Coffee drinkers reliably appreciate a bag of quality coffee beans, and gift cards to coffee shops are another thoughtful present. (Note: Coffee shop gift cards can be a surprise hit with hard-to-please teens.) Like restaurant meals, a treat in a café is more fun when someone else is buying.
Skincare products are a thoughtful gift: They encourage self-care, add something special to daily routines, and are soon enough used up. (Products are also quite personal, so if you know someone favors a specific brand, steer in that direction.)
On the minimalist score, be mindful about synthetic scents and ingredients, which can have health consequences. You can shop with confidence about ingredient safety at a clean-beauty site, like Credo or The Detox Market.
They technically take up space, but plants make lovely gifts for green thumbs. Potted fresh herbs are fun, especially for foodies — and hew to the consumable theme.
For a beer or kombucha lover who also likes a DIY project, consider a brewing kit. Craft a Brew makes good ones; it also sells wine kits. (The less crafty beer or wine lover in your life might like a gift certificate or guide to local breweries, distilleries, or wineries.)
The fact that many of us genuinely do not need more stuff is a luxury. It also allows us to support others through charitable donations. Donating in someone’s name to a cause they care about shows that you know and respect their values. For example, instead of a book for the writers and readers in your life, you could donate to PEN International, an organization that aids persecuted writers and promotes literature and free expression.
Your favorite healthcare provider might appreciate a donation to Doctors Without Borders, an independent group of medical volunteers that provides services in conflict and disaster zones and other areas of need in the world. And pretty much anyone can appreciate a chance to support the health of families around the world through a donation to The Hunger Project. Other thoughtful possibilities: Make the animal lover in your life into a “chimp guardian” with a donation to the Jane Goodall Institute. Or adopt a cheetah, sloth, vampire bat, or bison through the World Wildlife Fund. You could also support an orphaned elephant, rhinoceros, or giraffe at the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. Or keep it local and donate in your loved one’s name to an animal rescue or shelter in their community.
Lovers of the outdoors would probably appreciate a donation to The Nature Conservancy or a similar group. Or have a tree planted in someone’s name through the Arbor Day Foundation or A Living Tribute.
At a time of the year when many of us are enjoying the chance to gather with loved ones, it can feel good to help others be with their families. One way is by donating airline miles, credit card points, or cash to an organization called Miles4Migrants, which helps reunite families that have been separated.
In the same spirit of helping others, local homeless shelters and kitchens always need financial and material support. Check their websites to see what’s on their holiday wish lists. You can also donate time: Serving food or washing dishes can be a great way to get to know your neighbors during the holidays or spend time with family.
Finally, if none of this feels quite right — or if you’ve given it all before — consider giving the gift of your undivided attention. Offer to cook a dinner for your sibling or your best friend, or plan a day trip for the two of you. Jay suggests that parents plan a whole day with each of their kids, doing whatever the kid wants to do.
She does something similar with her friends at the holidays. “We’ve gotten to the point where, instead of [exchanging] gifts, we go to lunch or coffee. It’s such a great experience — it’s a busy time of year and we’re making time for each other. Our gift to each other is our presence rather than presents.”
When a Material Gift Is the Way to Go
Professional organizer Felice Cohen makes one exception when it comes to physical gifts: “If you’re replacing something that a person needs, I don’t consider that clutter,” she says. “Like a new pair of sneakers if they like to run.” Or a new coat or dog leash.
The thing it’s replacing is likely to be on its way out, so clutter is not an issue. “One thing in, one thing out,” she explains.
If you’re not sure what someone really needs, ask them or someone close to them directly. For a lot of people, a useful gift is far more valuable than the pleasure of surprise. And if someone needs a big-ticket item — like a new guitar because the last one was stolen — consider joining forces with family and friends to chip in to cover the costs.
Finally, some physical gifts are simply worth the space they occupy, says Seattle-based travel writer Amanda Castleman — especially those that have deep meaning to the giver and receiver. “After a long, rambling Eastern European road trip, I was exhausted and asked my BFF to tell me a bedtime story,” she says. “He concocted one about my childhood stuffie being a magic bunny king who helped all the rabbits find their true callings. Later, he illustrated the tale, in magnificent Thurberesque Sharpie, and had it bound.” He even managed to find a photo of her beloved childhood stuffie and put that on the cover. That friend died seven years ago, at age 53. “His book remains one of my most cherished possessions.”
How to Navigate the No-Gifts Conversation
Changing a gift ritual can be difficult for people, so be sure to give plenty of notice, says professional organizing consultant Geralin Thomas. “Thanksgiving is not the right time to tell your family that you don’t want gifts at the holidays,” she says. They might already be planning their shopping — or finished with it.
Instead, Thomas suggests starting the conversation in the summer. Let people know, in a straightforward and lighthearted way, that you won’t be giving or receiving material gifts this year. She also recommends introducing the topic gently, with something like, “We realize this may upset people, so let’s go ahead and talk about it now.”
Then you might offer something like “We’ve just decluttered and we’re on a ‘stuff diet’ — but if you’d like to give us something, we’d welcome a donation to these organizations!” You can also offer loved ones a “one less gift” certificate. (Here’s an example from Jay: www.missminimalist.com/one-less-gift-a-holiday-gift-exemption-certificate/.) It releases each of you from the responsibility of finding a present — and gives you both the gift of time.
This article has been updated and originally appeared as “The Gift of Giving” in the December 2019 print issue of Experience Life.