Gifting Memories Instead of Presents

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Updated on Monday, November 30, 2015

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How much do you plan to spend on presents this holiday season? A recent Gallup poll shows Americans plan to spend, on average, $830 on Christmas gifts in 2015. 30 percent have said they plan on spending $1,000. This is a stark contrast to the estimated $720 adults were willing to spend just last year, but lower than a MagnifyMoney survey that concluded people added $986 of holiday debt on average in 2014.

I have one question: Why?

Why has gift giving gotten so out of hand? Do presents make or break the holidays? If they do, I’d urge you to reconsider what the holidays mean to you. What’s worse, many Americans will likely go into debt to buy these presents. Is there a justifiable reason for it? Probably not.

To me, the holidays are a time to focus on loved ones, not consumerism. In that spirit, I’ve been gifting memories instead of presents for the past few years, and I plan to continue that this year.

Here’s why I’m not a fan of participating in the gift-giving madness that permeates through our culture, why I wish more people would reconsider their gift-giving strategy, and how you can gift memories instead of presents.

Presents Equaled Debt Growing Up

Previously, I wrote about helping my parents get out of debt. At least part of that debt was due to the holidays.

Of course, when we’re younger, we assume Santa is responsible for the nice display of presents under the tree. That façade falls away eventually. For me, it was like having a rug snapped out from under me.

My dad lost his job when I was around 8 years old, and I remember money being extremely tight. My mom would pinch pennies wherever she could. I remember getting told “no” at the grocery store a lot. When it came to Christmas, they somehow managed to get what was on my list.

As I grew older, I became aware of what they were sacrificing to put those presents under the tree. One particular instance from over a decade ago remains clear in my mind.

We were taking decorations down a few days after Christmas, and my dad was dismantling our artificial tree.

As he removed a branch, he discovered a present he forgot he had hidden within the tree. In my excitement, I unwrapped it quickly, only to find it was a toy similar to one I already had.

I can’t tell you exactly why that moment hit me so hard, but I ran off to my room with tears streaming down my face. I felt incredibly guilty and selfish for my feelings of disappointment. I knew my parents wanted to make me happy, and they had it in their minds that presents were a way to show their love.

Unfortunately, that feeling of guilt never left me. I’ve become somewhat of a scrooge in the eyes of my family around the holidays. My mom still insists I need something to open on Christmas morning. My parents don’t understand their company is enough. They insist on there being presents under the tree. “It’s tradition,” they say.

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Breaking Holiday Gift-Giving Traditions

Well, I’m all about breaking tradition. I don’t see the point in Black Friday, and I certainly don’t see the point in going into debt to buy presents, no matter what your intentions are.

I also don’t see the point in buying gifts without questioning the value behind them. Many people buy gifts just for the sake of giving them, causing an awkward situation for the recipient who doesn’t have a clue what to do with the unwanted gift. Other times, there’s a competition among relatives to see who can buy the most expensive presents.

Where’s the holiday spirit in any of that? There isn’t any. Gift giving becomes an overwhelming, uncontrollable beast, resulting in people spending nearly $1,000 over the course of a few short months.

What’s left at the end of it? A bunch of discarded wrapping paper. Once the high of surprises has worn off, there’s nothing left to look forward to, except possibly standing in long “return” lines and figuring out how to spend store credit.

Melodrama aside, I’m not saying we should completely abandon giving presents, but we need to be thoughtful about the process. I know plenty of people who genuinely want their present to make someone’s day, and that’s great. But I also know a number of people who feel pressured to shop out of tradition. No matter how many times I tell my family to give me cash if they have to give me something, they find it unacceptable.

If you’re in this situation, or if you’re part of a family who can’t get past tradition, gifting memories can be a great alternative. It’s much more meaningful and fulfilling than simply giving an unneeded gift.

There’s no guilt associated with it, and gifting memories can be as expensive or inexpensive as you want, making it a win-win situation for everyone.

[6 Strategies to Keep Your Holiday Spending Low]

How to Gift Memories

Creating memories with your loved ones is what the holidays are all about, in my opinion. There’s nothing I love more than giving my time and attention rather than another shirt, candle, or piece of jewelry. This idea might sound strange at first, but after a few examples, you’ll come up with some of your own. It’s a simple matter of redefining the meaning of a “present”.

Help Out With the Festivities

Who hosts the major holidays in your family? My grandma has always had Christmas Eve at her house. My family is Italian, which means going all out in terms of food and dessert. My grandma also has a special cookie recipe she saves just for the holidays because they’re extremely time consuming to bake.

When I was younger, my mom would drop me off at my grandma’s house on the weekend, and we would bake cookies for the entire day. I would help her as much as possible, and she was always grateful. Baking might sound simple, but it was an all-day affair for her, and standing for long periods of time left her back aching. It was a joy for me to spend a day with my grandma, and I got to eat cookies as a reward. We talked throughout the day and relaxed at night. I still remember those days fondly.

I do the same for my mom when it comes to cooking now that I’m older and have a bit more experience in the kitchen. While only four of us gather for the holidays now, she still gets stressed out about preparation. I’ll make a dish at home and bring it with me, or I’ll get to my parent’s house a day early and help there.

Either way, I’m sure any host would be happy to have help in the kitchen. Cooking can be exhausting, especially if your family is huge! Bonus points if you make a dish your family absolutely wouldn’t want to miss out on. That shows love and dedication more than any gift does.

Decorate and Spread Holiday Joy

Is there a family member who loves to decorate, but needs assistance? My grandma has all her decorations in her attic, which requires going up and down a steep set of stairs. While she’s perfectly capable of doing it (even at 84), decorating can be a lot of work. Growing up, decorating was the family tradition in our household. My mom and I would decorate the windows and put ornaments on the tree, and my dad would assemble the tree and string the lights.

One year, I went to a conference and had to miss out. I came back to a fully decorated house, and felt somewhat disappointed. It’s something I look forward to every year. Even though my parents don’t need a lot of help, we see it as a way to spend quality time together. Nothing says holiday spirit like decorating and singing to holiday music.


Giving your time to a charitable cause is one of the best ways to make meaningful memories with your family, especially if you have kids. Pick a charitable organization you can all get behind as a family, and find a way to help. Sometimes, there’s no greater gift you can receive than simply giving back.

Get Together and Create Gifts

Guess what, your family doesn’t have to be crafty to create presents. I’d argue the less crafty you are, the better, as it makes it more entertaining. One year, I attempted to make ornaments for everyone. I went to a craft store, got the glass bulbs and paint, and went to work with my then-boyfriend. It was a lot more fun than we thought it would be, and my parents stopped in to watch (much to their amusement).

Grab a tutorial from YouTube or Pinterest, and have everyone follow along with it. See who comes up with the best and the worst creations, and then exchange them. At the very least, that gift will serve as a reminder of the fun memories you made.

If you happen to be crafty and have a few relatives or friends who are, why not get together and work on your gifts in one big room? You might inspire each other, and you could also learn a new skill. I used to watch my mom and aunt knit together, and my aunt would always give my mom tips. You can swap gifts with each other, or possibly work on one big gift for the entire family together.

Focus on What Matters

No matter what memories you create with your loved ones this holiday season, never lose focus on what matters. If you have children, remember that your actions reflect your family values. Do you want your child to grow up valuing stuff more than experiences? Are they going to remember the present you got them when they were six years old, or are they going to remember the wonderful time you all had as a family picking out a tree, decorating, and playing games?

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