For most Americans, 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.
We throw out 25 percent more garbage between Thanksgiving and Christmas than at any other time of year — to the tune of 25 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, bobblehead toys.)
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 gifts altogether. But that doesn’t mean renouncing the ritual. After all, exchanging thoughtful presents can be an important way to show you care for and appreciate loved ones.
It 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, N.Y.–based editor and mother of two, once received a ticket for skydiving 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 less-adrenaline-filled options:
A walking-tour map of a city that someone you love 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.
Give the traveler in your life a series of language lessons. It’s like offering the keys to a foreign locale.
A cooking class or series of classes can be a wonderful gift for novice cooks, as well as 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 an excellent 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 can be something you do with a friend. And some studios say that you don’t need a partner for dancing and can come alone.
Most people are delighted to go to wine tastings, but why not a tasting for cheese, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, or tea? They’re fun for the curious foodie in your life.
Travel-themed gifts are almost always welcome, and there are many options: Transfer some of your own frequent-flier miles or hotel points to a loved one’s account; buy an airline gift card to start the loved one’s trip with some expenses covered; or offer a gift certificate for a hotel or resort where you know that person loves to go. It can also be fun (and bonding) for a family or group of friends to pitch in for a weekend get-away together — in lieu of exchanging gifts.
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 dogsitting.
For an aging relative who struggles with outdoor tasks, or homeowners with busy schedules, consider hiring a yard work, gardening, or landscaping service. They’ll 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 of time, like a season or a year.
Likewise, you might have 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 webhosting 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 just about anyone.
Grooming services are also fun 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? Services like TaskRabbit offer gift certificates for household services and errand running that 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 can hire a professional organizer to help start (or finish) the process.
Finally, for your super-curious friends or family members: How about giving them a DNA kit? Or, if they’re obsessed with their mystery-breed shelter dog, a DNA kit for canines? (And with that, there’s no real risk of their learning anything they don’t want to know.)
Reading in print offers its own kind of pleasure, so subscriptions to publications that the recipient loves are a treat — and this gift 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 nice gift, especially if you attach a list of your own favorite shows and films on 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 Tidal. Providing a playlist of your favorite tunes makes it personal.
If someone you know is going through a rough time, maybe unable to focus or sleep, a gift subscription to an app that may help her or him relax is an especially 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.
Rather than trying to find your favorite fashion lovers the perfect something, consider gifting a clothing subscription to Stitch Fix, Bombfell, or Rent the Runway. These services offer the chance to play with various looks and outfits; they’re also excellent for those who become easily bored with their wardrobe.
A year’s membership to a local museum or botanical garden often comes with extra perks like preopening parties and shop and restaurant discounts. A nice gift for individuals or families.
Do you have friends who want to cook more? Offer gift certificates to their local grocery store or, if they are starving for time, a subscription to a grocery-delivery service like FreshDirect. A membership to an online discount grocery retailer, like Thrive Market, can also be a great gift.
Finally, for that someone who really does have everything, what about flowers — specifically, a subscription for weekly or monthly delivery?
A bottle of wine is always a good gift, especially for the host of a gathering, but also for your friends and family members who might appreciate a fine bottle. Any gift that will be sipped, supped, or otherwise consumed makes a good present, because it will take up space for only so long.
Consider some handcrafted chocolates or fine aged cheeses that someone might not typically buy. Likewise, tea is a universe of its own, with so many varieties to try beyond the standard black and herbal. Offer someone a specialty tea, such as puer or genmaicha, and it doubles as a gift of experience.
Coffee drinkers reliably love a bag of quality coffee beans, and gift cards to coffee shops are another thoughtful present. Like restaurant meals, a treat in a café is more fun when someone else is buying.
Skincare items are good gifts for many reasons: They encourage self-care, they add something special to daily routines, and they are soon enough used up. Be mindful about synthetic scents and ingredients, though, which can have less than salutary effects. You can always find safety ratings for skincare products at the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep website or shop at a clean-beauty site like the Detox Market or Credo.
Though they technically do take up space, plants make wonderful gifts, too. And you can always give potted fresh herbs if you want to keep to a consumable theme.
For a beer or kombucha lover who also likes a money-saving DIY project, a brewing kit would make a fun and quirky present. Craft a Brew makes good ones; they also sell wine kits. (The less crafty beer or wine lover in your life might like a guide to local breweries, distilleries, or wineries.)
The fact that many of us simply do not need more stuff is a real luxury. And it allows us to pursue our charitable inclinations by offering donations.
Donating in loved ones’ names to causes they care about shows them that you know and respect their values.
Instead of a book, for instance, consider donating in the names of the writers and readers in your life to PEN International, an organization that aids persecuted writers and promotes literature and free expression.
For your favorite healthcare provider, what about a donation to Doctors Without Borders, an independent group of medical volunteers that provides services in combat zones? Or support the health of families around the world by supporting The Global Hunger Project.
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.
Lovers of the outdoors would probably appreciate a donation to the Nature Conservancy or a similar group. Or you could have a tree planted in someone’s name through the Arbor Day Foundation or A Living Tribute.
At a time when many of us are enjoying the chance to gather with family, it can feel good to help others do the same. One way is by donating to a new organization called Miles4Migrants; it reunites families that have been separated and transports people to safety using donated airline miles. You can donate your miles in the migrant recipient’s name or group your miles together with family, friends, or colleagues, and give together.
Local homeless shelters and kitchens always need your support — whether that’s financial or physical. Check their websites to see what’s on their holiday wish lists. Or donate your time; serving food or washing dishes can be a great way to get to know your neighbors during the holidays and a memorable opportunity to 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 take a day trip together. Francine Jay suggests that parents plan a whole day with each of their kids, doing whatever the kids want 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 Good
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. It won’t take up more space because the thing it’s replacing is likely to be on its way out.
“One thing in, one thing out,” she explains. If it’s not your spouse (who you know would like a new pair of pajamas) and you’re not sure what someone really needs, ask someone close to that person. Or drop hints. And if what someone needs is a big-ticket item — like a new guitar because her 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. “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,” she adds. He even managed to find a photo of her beloved childhood stuffie and put that on the cover. Her friend died three years ago, at age 53. “His book remains one of my most cherished possessions.”
How to Have the No-Gifts Conversation
First of all, give plenty of notice, says professional organizing consultant Geralin Thomas of Metropolitan Organizing. “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, letting people know that you’re not accepting or giving 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 X or Y!” The holidays are busy and complex, and people appreciate guidance.
To keep the conversation really simple, you could also offer the “one less gift certificate” from Francine Jay’s blog, www.missminimalist.com/one-less-gift-a-holiday-gift-exemption-certificate/.
This originally appeared as “The Gift of Giving” in the December 2019 print issue of Experience Life.