5 smart gifting alternatives for this holiday season

A family, including parents, kids and grandparents, sit on the couch together opening gifts

You’ve made a list, checked it twice … and you’re wishing Santa could swoop in with his sleigh of toys to help provide for the friends, family, and coworkers who expect gifts. Instead of pulling out your credit card or raiding the closet for re-gifts (scented candle, anyone?) you have a few other options.

The people on your list might be just as relieved to do away with a gift exchange, and these ideas can provide meaningful ways to bond, celebrate your friendships, and even give back to others.

Non-material gifts for family

For young kids, wrapped presents can be a really important part of the holiday — and there’s no need to give that up. But minimizing material gifts can help your family save money and spend time together.

Some parents find it easier to make a mutual decision to skip gifting each other presents, saving the money for either a family goal or to use, guilt-free, for a solo spa day. And while you may find yourself buying a few material presents for young kids, getting them excited about the present that can’t be wrapped and put under the tree can help them begin to understand the value of time spent together.

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A night at a hotel

Staying up late, building pillow forts, watching movies until all hours and eating pizza in pajamas pretty much sounds perfect for any age. Add in an indoor pool, and the whole family will have fun. A getaway doesn’t need to be involved, and booking a night at a hotel a few towns over — using an app like Hotel Tonight to browse deals — can give the family time to bond. It’s also a way to maximize the fun of the holiday season in the week leading up to New Year’s Eve.

A coupon book

It’s a classic homemade gift for a reason! Building a coupon book for each child (or your partner) to cash in throughout the year lets them know how much your treasure the unique bond you have. These “goods” can be as simple as baking cookies together, playing a board game, or a bedtime an hour later than usual. Not only can these be fun to use throughout the year they can also help you find pockets of time for one-on-one bonding with each child.

A fun fund or a charitable donation

If your extended family regularly gives gifts, make a plan to pool a set amount of money — say, $100 per family — in one place, with the idea that it can be used for a fun activity the next time you’re all together. If your extended family rarely gets together as a group, consider pooling money and giving it to a charity or cause in the name of your family.

A plan for organizing family photos, documents, and memories

If you’re stumped for gifts for extended family, conquering old photo albums and documents is a huge undertaking that everyone would appreciate. Taking the lead on deciding how and where photos and mementos should be kept, organized, and distributed, or setting up a virtual cloud of family photos for distribution, is a really big gift. Instead of exchanging gifts, family members can come together with items related to the history of the family and then throughout the year, various people can take the lead on organizing and distributing them.

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Non-material gifts for friends and coworkers

Gift exchanges between friends can become pricey. Not only that, but a candle here, a mug there, and it’s all too easy for a gift exchange to feel like you’re simply swapping through the same presents. This year, instead of gifts, propose these options:

Take something off their to-do list

From cleaning the house to putting air in tires, one person’s dreaded chore is another person’s NBD. This year, make a plan to exchange dreaded to-do list items, with the idea that everyone will get something they truly need — and have been putting off for way too long. To make the process fair, add some guardrails, like time limitations. (Psst: If anyone’s item is “buy life insurance” let them know that the process can take five minutes and be done online. It had to be said!)

Contribute to a shared gift

If you work with a tight group of coworkers, suggest everyone pitch in $20 for an epic candy drawer. If you and your pal always get together for a brew, consider chipping in and sharing a beer of the month club. The idea here is to think of potential ongoing gifts that can benefit all, and also offer an excuse to get together.

Write a note of appreciation

If your usual office or friend holiday gathering includes a gift exchange, suggest that this year, you each take the time to write a short note or a poem about what the other person has done this past year that you admire or appreciate. It doesn’t need to be elaborate. Taking the time to reflect on how important a person is to you, or even just how amazing their Google Sheets skills are, can be a great (and memorable) way to bond without breaking the bank.

Start the conversation surrounding gifts now

Of course, you should still give presents if you want to — but if present buying has become stressful, then it may be time to speak up that this year you would like to do things differently. By prioritizing relationships, connections, and fun, you’re setting the stage for plenty of memories and laughter. You might be saying what others are thinking. Putting this idea out there can ensure that everyone’s on the same page without any awkwardness — or unwanted reindeer sweaters.

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Anna Davies has written for The New York Times, New York Magazine, Refinery29, Glamour, Elle, and others, and has published 13 young adult novels. She lives in Jersey City, NJ, with her family and loves traveling, running, and trying to find the best cold brew coffee in town.

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