Ditch the Stuff: Your Alternative Holiday Gift Guide

Parenting expert Annie Fox offers out-of-the box ideas that won't put your family in debt this holiday season.

Gift-giving doesn't have to come in a wrapped box under a tree. (Photo: Inti St. Clair)

Each week parenting expert Annie Fox will share her wit and wisdom for teaching kids to be good people and strong learners.


The year our daughter turned 15 she announced that she didn’t want us to buy her any “stuff” for Hanukkah. Huh? Did I hear that right? No stuff? Wasn’t she grateful for the many very carefully selected gifts she’d received since…birth?

Actually, the truth was far less sinister and more profoundly personal. As she put it, “I’ve had it with holiday commercialism.” This led to a lively family discussion about needs vs. desires.

Note 1: Our son was nine at that time, and while he dearly loved and coveted all kinds of “stuff” (except when it came to clearing it off the floor and stowing it all back where it belonged) he agreed his sister’s idea merited serious philosophical consideration.

Note 2: Said son is now a college graduate with a degree in…philosophy.

More: ‘Where’s My Present?!’ Tips for Teaching Your Kids Gratitude and Generosity

We love each other in this family and we’re not shy about showing it. So even though we placed a holiday moratorium on buying each other stuff there were absolutely no restrictions on the act of giving. Of course, without the stuff option to fall back on, we each faced the creative challenge of figuring out what to give.

That first year we abandoned traditional gift-giving, our tokens of affection and admiration became more experiential and far-reaching. I’m talking about live performances and other cultural outings. There were factory tours, waterfall hikes, specially baked desserts, multimedia presentations, and hand-crafted treasures.

By far the best innovation emerging from our new tradition was the advent of personalized coupons books. These handmade packets offered a variety of a dozen or so customized “goods and services and special privileges.” If you’re thinking “Give my kids a month of dry-cleaning?! A reserved parking space?! Is this woman nuts?”

Now allow me to explain. The key to coupon success is knowing your recipient. My daughter, who frequently got busted for talking on the phone after lights out, was thrilled to get: “This coupon entitles you to use the phone between 11-11:30 on a school night. Homework and all getting ready for bed preparations must first be completed.”

My son, who has always loved sweets, got: “This coupon entitles you to two dozen home-made cookies of your choice that you don’t have to share with anyone (unless you happen to be feeling particularly generous). Minimum 24-hour notice required.”

I remember happily receiving: “I will water all the plants in the house for you for one week.”

Freeing ourselves from buying stuff has opened the door to a new tradition and kept us out of the malls.

Now just in case you think I live under a rock, have a heart of stone, and/or am independently wealthy…none of the above. So, yes, I know times are tough and retailers around the country are wracking their business brains to figure out how to get us to regain enough confidence in the economy and our future earning power to get us down to the mall. And this No-stuff Gift Guide isn’t meant as an all or nothing deal.

I mean, let’s face it, there is very cool stuff in stores. And sometimes the special something your kid craves is just what you want to give, and if you can, go ahead and give it. All I’m saying is that you're not and never have been required to go into debt buying stuff that’s out of sync with your innate sense of what’s appropriate and healthy for your child.

So, if you’re looking for some extra meaning during this holiday season and a little less wear and tear on your family values, you might talk to your kids about alternatives to traditional gift-giving. It may not be coupons, but your family will likely come up with all kinds of great ideas.

When we explore more creative ways to show our love for each other, we celebrate the uniqueness of each family member. Now there’s a gift!

Happy holidays from our family to yours.

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