An ‘Experiences Not Things’ Holiday Guide for TEENS

We adopted this perspective on gifting years ago and it has truly served our family well. I get asked about it all year long — and finally decided to capture ideas to get people started. Check out the original article if your kids are a little younger. I’ve updated it a bit this year with a full-blown teenager in our house, but the sentiment is really the same: a holiday season (and household!) with less STUFF.

Our culture of ‘stuff’ has reached a fever pitch. Our gift shopping lists get longer every year, and our closets and toy boxes are busting at the seams. We feel obligated to spend a certain amount of money on certain people, and with kids – forget it. Kids are conditioned to make lists of toys and gadgets and collect all the things and everybody from Santa to the Easter Bunny to the Tooth Fairy are delivering STUFF.

1 in 10 of us have a storage unit because our houses can’t even HOLD all the stuff.

The average American family spends over $900 on gifts at Christmas.

And it may seem logical that an object you can see and use every day could bring you more joy over time than an experience that lasts a single day or a few hours. But that object doesn’t bring you the same joy on Day 30 that it does when you rip open the paper on Day 1. It instead fades into your life and becomes part of your normal. Meanwhile, a new experience changes you, it broadens your perspective, and it means memories with your family that will last a lifetime.

Years ago, my sister-in-law gave Colt this:

experiences not stuff

Many kids get “Birthday Money” or “Christmas Money” — and this is no different. But the spirit of this, “for fun experiences… not stuff!” is one we can all try in big and small ways. A gift like this makes it a teachable moment. It shows kids (that are old enough) that we can make choices with our money — and that THEY can make choices with THEIR money. Colt travels and has amazing memories and experiences with us and with many of our friends and family members — but putting the power of choice in his hands, and challenging him to run with it — is a beautiful gift.

Whether you believe experiences are more meaningful than things, or you’re just over it with the clutter in your storage closets — a holiday season with more experiences and fewer things may be for you.

Ready to try gifting experiences?

5 Things to Consider:

  1. Lead by example. Let your kids see you and your spouse enjoy experiences together and they will learn this is a bonding experience for a family. I hear couples say “this trip is our anniversary present to each other”. Make sure your kids hear that!
  2. Talk about it the right way with your teens. Especially if this is a big change from your usual gift-giving style. Don’t say “we’re not getting any presents this year”. I can promise you that won’t go well… Rather help them make a Christmas list, if that’s a tradition you have, and put some of these types of ideas on the list. Refocus them from toys and gadgets to their interests and hobbies.
  3. Offer gift ideas to relatives who ask. And better yet, encourage those relatives to be part of the experience itself. If aunts and uncles and grandparents can’t be there in person, be sure to remind kids who lovingly contributed toward that experience for them, and kids will appreciate the thoughtful gift. Over the years I’ve found our family has embraced this gift-giving style along with us — which has meant everything. Colt’s grandparents, aunts and uncles find incredible experiences for him and those ‘gifts’ are the ones we still talk about.
  4. Find your people! Social media makes it easy to find inspirational families who are taking this approach to heart. They will give you ideas and provide a source of encouragement. Follow hashtags and social media feeds that celebrate and encourage this lifestyle. #ExperiencesNotThings or REI’s #OptOutside campaign are two of my favorites. And of course, join forces with your IRL friends and family to embrace your new outlook on the joy of giving.
  5. Tackle the existing clutter. As you prep for a holiday of less stuff, start now! Sort through old gadgets, projects and electronics and donate them, and have your kids help you. Yes, this means the process may move more slowly, but it lets kids see the number of things they already have and start to think about which of their things are really important to them and why. It will lay the groundwork for changes you want to make.

The secret to ‘more experiences and fewer things’ is… there is no secret. If you wanna try it, you just have to try it. And it doesn’t have to be a big lifestyle overhaul – start small.

8 ‘Experiences Not Things’ Gift Ideas:

1. Tickets to a play or concert
Recent Taylor Swift madness aside… concert or show tickets are a go-to. Whether they’re into music or theater — snag a schedule for your community theater or the tour schedule for your teen’s favorite band or stage show, and you’ve got an incredible gift idea. If this is a particular interest for you and your teen, consider springing for season tickets to your local venue. As teens start to enjoy their interests more and more independently from you, season tickets can be a recurring ‘date night’ you both look forward to.

2. Sports tickets
A trip to see a favorite game or player can be an incredible gift for a sports fan, and if you do your homework, you’ll find behind-the-scenes opportunities to meet players, walk on the field, get autographs, etc. that will make the experience even more special.


3. Travel somewhere new
Simple, but this is my favorite. Take your teen to get his first passport, or surprise her with her own suitcase or carry on. Travel is the ultimate new experience, and bonus points if you travel somewhere with spotty Wi-Fi — they’ll enjoy it more than they’ll ever admit. If passport-traveling isn’t in the cards, plan a road trip — and let them choose the destination.

4. Cookbook and/or a Meal Kit Subscription
Do you have a teen who loves to help in the kitchen — or better yet(!) wants to handle meal prep on his own? Indulge this hobby with a quirky cookbook geared for teens – or trial a meal kit subscription service. There are tons of them now – Hello Fresh, Home Chef, Blue Apron, and so many more. They’re designed for convenience, but they’re a perfect way to let teens have some independence in the kitchen, too.

5. Lessons for something new
The options for this are endless: guitar, surfing, pottery, photography, golf, cooking, acting, cake decorating, sewing, carpentry, voice, karate, painting, computer coding, and anything else your teen shows interest in. This pairs well with a book or magazine subscription. This is your chance to lean into what they’re into — and double-down on it. Teens start getting questions about career path and post-high school decisions — so don’t make this about THAT. This interest doesn’t have to be about a career choice, it just has to be something that they love and want to spend energy doing.

6. Amplify their interests
Ok, so you’ve secured lessons in an interest — now you can take it to the next level. Do some homework and find the ultimate experience in their area of interest. This past year, my kid has been into a card game called Yu-Gi-Oh! and he’s been competing in local tournaments. He won enough to earn himself a seat at a national tournament — in Chicago… so we went for it and made arrangements for him to spend the weekend this summer, immersed in his interest.


7. MasterClass
A good option for middle schoolers and teens, MasterClass is an unbelievable deal. For less than $200, you are giving an unlimited pass with access to everything from Tony Hawk teaches Skateboarding to Steph Curry teaches Ball Handling and Aaron Sorkin teaches Screenwriting. The videos are bite-sized and engaging, and there are more added all the time. Photography, cooking, interior design, science, politics, philosophy, fashion – anything your teens (and you!) are into.

8. Be a tourist in your own town
You could have lived in your town for years and be missing unique landmarks and experiences right under your nose. Do you live in an area that attracts visitors? What do they do for fun?? It may seem silly at first, but it’s a ready-made fun afternoon for teens. Do you live within an hour of a zip-line? A cave tour? Hot air balloons? Go for it.

Add to this list! What are your ideas?

When you give the gift of experiences, what you’re really giving is the gift of time. If you have a teen, you may find yourself ‘counting down’ — you realize your time with them at home is getting shorter. Time spent together is precious, and finding a gift that gives you that time together is priceless.

More ideas and resources:

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