Balance,  Confessions

Confessions: I don’t buy into traditional gift giving

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Dear Chris,

Right in the middle of what is considered holiday season in my circle of friends and family, I have a confession to make: I don’t like the traditional gift giving process. I know that many people love this time of year and spend ages picking out a specific gift for the people that they love in their lives but this just does not hold true for me for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, while I love finding the perfect gift for someone, I don’t necessarily like the idea of having to find something for everyone who is on my list. While I may be occasionally inspired with one person, if I am buying for a holiday or a birthday, many times the gift buying feels forced to me. Of course, I understand that limits can also be a source of creativity and inspiration but, especially during holiday season, to me it adds up to a pressure that just doesn’t balance the rewards.

Secondly, I don’t like the idea that gifts are given at a certain time of the year, regardless of what else is happening the rest of the year. I understand that in many families, having a reason to celebrate and splurge on a gift is something very special, especially in cases where money and other resources are tight. However, in my personal case, I would prefer to be a bit more flexible with my gift giving and, if possible, make the most impact when I find the right thing. This means that I would rather give the right thing at the right time rather than trying to make my ideas fit a specific season or date.

Finally, I have to admit that in the world I live in, consumption for the sake of consumption feels really big. What do I mean by that? I mean that people give gifts for the sake of giving gifts, not because they have been thought out or because they are something that really fits the person. For example, imagine you are going to a family Christmas and you know that every person has bought every other person there something. You are going to feel obliged to get something for everyone else too, whether or not you really know what to get them, or if it even fits in your budget. And there is nothing I like less than giving someone a gift I think they won’t like or may even try to return (after all, you could always just give them money).

All this said, if you are the kind of person who loves giving presents and always finds good ones, maybe this post isn’t for you. And I truly appreciate this kind of person because it is the complete opposite to how I am and how I look at gift giving as a whole. Not to mention, I may be slightly envious of you because, in my opinion, the world seems to agree with your outlook on presents and I am the one who is trying to figure out how to give the best sorts of gifts I can without burning myself out on finding the perfect thing or spending more money than feels reasonable.

So, how do I manage to get through gift giving, hopefully, without coming across as a bit of a grinch? These are my top tips:


Decide on when you want to gift

Now, depending on your social situation, you might not have much in the way of options on choosing only giving holiday-time gifts or only giving birthday gifts but, especially if the recipients of your gifts are adults, you may have more flexibility than you initially think. In my personal case, I find myself in two, very different, scenarios. In the first scenario, the family I grew up in, gift giving is an option, never expected, and a rather unlikely event (this is probably why I look at giving gifts in the way I do now). I never feel pressured to give presents, even for bigger events, like my brother’s 30th birthday last spring, and I don’t expect to get anything either.

I realize, however, that this is not the most common case and in the second scenario, the family I have chosen, gifts are important, focused mostly around Christmas and birthdays. However, like I mentioned before, the pressure of gift giving to everyone on a specific day, like Christmas, feels overwhelming to me and, therefore, my partner and I have decided that the holiday gifts will be small. We try to do something cute or iconic to show the people in our lives that we love them, without going all out.

Therefore, with this small group of individuals, we focus more on the birthdays (which, incidentally, happen quite close to the Christmas holidays anyway). In this way, we can think about meaningful gifts that we think will really make someone happy instead of just trying to get through the season with one set of gifts after another. We love getting something special for people we care about and this is the best way we have found our balance to give well, without burning ourselves or our wallets out.

Please note! It is important to be open and transparent about your thoughts and plans for gift giving. Especially if it is important to someone, be clear about your intentions and try to be available to any questions or conversations they want to have about it. Remember, gift giving is supposed to bring pleasure, both to the giver and the receiver, and if someone got you something but you forgot to tell them you are forgoing gifts this year, you will both feel bad.


Collect ideas throughout the year

I told you—I like giving good gifts to people I care about. Since I am not one of those people who automatically knows what others would love or am able to magically find the right thing just in time, I like to take notes all year long and reflect on them when thinking about gift giving. For me, this looks like having a page on my notes app in my phone where I just jot down things as they come up. Everything from favorite colors to new hobbies is fair game and I write it all down. You may never know where your inspiration is going to come from.

In addition, if you see something that would be the perfect gift for someone, it is okay to buy it, even if it is not the “right time” of the year. You have two options: you can save it until the day you want to give it to them or you can let them know you think you found something great and you’d like to give it as an early gift. Either way, practicing spotting things throughout the year (even if you don’t always buy them) will help prepare you for when you want to take the plunge and get the present.


Do it together with others

Another tip for gift giving, especially when you are unsure what you want to give, is to do it with others. Not only will your money go further with a larger group of people pooling together, you may find that your brainstorming with others is more fruitful than by yourself. If it is a birthday or a holiday gift, think about who else in the group of family or friends could be interested. Then reach out and ask directly if they want to split a gift with you—the worst case scenario is that someone says no because they already have something.

However, when buying a gift with others, be very clear upfront on the expectations on the budget and what type of gift you are getting. If possible, try to get buy-in from everyone involved in the gift selection process and ensure you set a budget that fits everyone’s needs. The last thing you want is to be choosing a very cool but slightly expensive gift and have someone pull out at the last minute, causing the rest of the group to have to pay more.


Reflect on the types of gifts you want to be giving

Finally, if it hasn’t come across yet, I am quite particular about how I look at gift giving and there are certain things I am more willing to shell out for than others. I wouldn’t expect anyone else’s preferences to be the same as mine, but I am sharing some things that I really enjoy giving in case they serve as inspiration. Figure out what sort of categories are your preferred giving style and it can help you narrow down the options. Some of the things I like:


Hands down this is my favorite thing to give people if I can think of a good experience to give. If you decide to focus on experiences, there are so many different ways you can give experiences that I think you (and the people you are giving to) will never get bored. To get the juices rolling, here are some of the experiences I have given in the last two years:

Concerts and other cultural events: More than once, concerts have been a gift of choice for the music lovers in my life. This is something that I have done with my mom, for example, as more of a cultural experience than a specifically musical one. My personal preference is that it is not a solo experience or a gift of two tickets but that it is something you can do with the other person.

There are many ways to look at choosing concert tickets as a gift and I like both discussing it with the person in question (so they know exactly what they are getting) and leaving it open. What do I mean by “leaving it open?” In my case, this has looked like creating and giving a gift card for some time later in the year when you can go with the person to the event of their choice. Of course, if you know exactly what they want to see, it is also an option to surprise them but I haven’t done that yet.

Another thing that I really enjoy here in Finland is the ability to give the museum card. It is not too expensive and offers one year access to many museums around Finland. I haven’t seen this kind of thing everywhere I have lived but I am sure you can find similar cultural gifts such as a tour of the Alhambra or Sagrada Familia, for example.


Sports events: I am not sure if this should also fall under the heading of cultural events (I suppose some will say yes and others not) but I also really enjoy giving tickets to sports events to people. Again, I think this is especially nice if you do it together as it means you spend time with the person you are giving the ticket to. This can be extra meaningful if you don’t feel so passionate about their choice of sports or if you don’t always have the time to go together.


A shared trip or adventure: Of course, if you have the budget to go for an all expenses paid trip to somewhere crazy cool that is amazing. Personally, that is a bit outside where I currently am but it doesn’t mean that I cannot plan something simpler. Things like a weekend trip where you pay for the transport and share the costs of the AirBNB or hotel (or vice versa) is a way to spend time together and do something different. It may not seem like a lot, but if it is not something you do regularly or without prompting, you can make something that feels simple, extra special. Another example could be a long hike, perhaps even overnight,—where you plan all the stops and the food—would also definitely be a hit in the group of people I buy gifts for, even if they have to bring their own gear.

Another way you can support someone’s adventure is offering to pay for a part of a trip you know they will be going on. Some family members of mine recently paid for my hotel as a very sweet gift, not only because I was saving money but also because they did all the heavy lifting for me by thinking of where to stay. Of course, if you have a very specific way of travel or place you want to stay, this might not be the best option for you but I really enjoyed not having to search all the websites and still stay in a nicer place than I would have probably booked for myself.


Dinner: Whether you are offering to give someone a dinner at their favorite restaurant, take them out somewhere new and unexpected, or treat them to a meal of their dreams at home, I always think food is a good option. This can be especially nice if you know that someone has been wanting to try (or go back to) a specific place that is a bit too fancy for everyday eating. It can also feel really special if you make it a date for the two of you if you know they might want to try a new place and don’t have someone to go with.

And, while I have not done this myself yet, I really like the idea of getting the offer of something homemade and planned just for me, so I could also imagine giving this to someone else. This could look like a planned date night at home for friends who are busy parents or offering to cook your mother-in-laws’ favorite meal when you know she doesn’t make time to do it herself. There is something beautiful in my mind about giving something you make yourself (see next item) and food is no exception.


Handmade or locally made food or crafts

They say time is money and when you spend the time to create something unique to give to someone else, that is truly a special gift. Alternatively, as someone who doesn’t spend much time investing in learning how to craft, giving locally made gifts is something I enjoy doing. Buying local means you not only support your community financially but it also means you are spreading the word about work that you like. Trust me—the small business people in your community will appreciate it!


Books or games

If I am confessing in this post that I don’t really like traditional gift giving, I should also confess that I am a sucker for a good book. I know not everyone is a reader but I do think that if you find a book that fits a person, there may be no better gift as it is something that can bring joy, knowledge, and reflection. Not to mention that, if they are like me, if they really like the story it is something that can be revisited over the years.

Of course, if the person you are buying for isn’t a book person, I also like giving games. While I personally like board games—can I recommend Dixit as a creative version of games like Apples to Apples or Cards Against Humanity with pictures instead of words—, I can also understand that some people prefer to play other types of games. At the end of the, however, what I am going for with games is a way to connect with others or think outside the box, so if what you choose does either of those two things, I am in.


Offer to help or donations to those in need

One thing that I sometimes feel about gifts is that I would much prefer an offer to lend a hand than something that I will use once or that sits on a shelf gathering dust. I don’t know if I am the only one who had this growing up but I remember making these tiny “coupon books” where I offered to help out with different tasks, whenever the receiver asked (within reason, of course). If they were given to my parents, this could look like extra helping out around the house or garden. For a friend with kids, it could look like a free pass to help watch their kids for a date night out. There are endless ways that we can support each other in the day-to-day of life and by giving a gift like this (and following up on it) allows you to also give the people in your life permission to ask for help.

A final type of help that I like giving as a gift is donations to those in need, perhaps in the name of your recipient (or request that others do it for you). When I was a kid, one of my favorite gifts was when my parents told me around the holidays that I had x amount of money to spend and I was going to spend it on a kid from the local shelter. We only had a very basic profile about the receiver, but I remember spending hours picking out what I thought they would like, trying to get the most out of every dollar. If you do something like this with a child in your life, it could be a life changing experience. Equally, if you know that someone really likes a certain animal or has a specific charity that they resonate with, supporting that cause is never a bad option. Even if they are dreaming of something specific, they will appreciate the donation.


I have now shared quite a lot about how I look at traditional gift giving and how I like to give it my own spin. I have one more thing that I would like to share with you as well—you have the possibility to give yourself your own dream gifts. I know, things like your bank balance or other responsibilities may prevent you from literally buying the things that you truly want (however, if you don’t have any limitations, please get yourself the things you desire). What you can do, no matter the situation, is express the things you want to have in your life. People around you will decide to take your desires into consideration or not but you shouldn’t expect anyone to read your mind. And if you want something big, that could potentially be years worth of gifts, see if you can’t figure out a plan with your loved ones to make that happen.

At the end of the day, I don’t dislike the idea of giving gifts, in fact, I relish the idea of someone opening something I know they will like. So, I hope if you are like me, often overwhelmed by the traditional gift giving process, you can find some joy in sharing with your loved ones again.

And let me know your favorite way to give gifts in the comments!


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