Experiential Gifts for the Holidays

The following is a reprint of a previously published post. I’ll have more posts about compact-friendly holiday gifts over the next few weeks.

This is the first segment of a series I’ll be doing this week about non-consumer holiday gift giving. Today I’ll talk about “experiential” gifts, tomorrow I’ll have ideas for handmade gifts, and Thursday I’ll give you some frugal gift ideas that cost under $10.

“Experiential” gifts are my absolute favorite, both to give and to receive. I’ve been a proponent of gifts of experience since way before I started The Compact. Experiences are so much more meaningful than STUFF, and the options are endless.
I started down this path several years ago when I was trying to think of a gift for my mom for her birthday. My parents had recently moved into a smaller house and had already gotten rid of a lot of possessions and put a lot more into storage. Whenever I’d taken the train to visit my parents in San Diego from Los Angeles, I’d noticed a restaurant in San Juan Capistrano that was right along the route and looked so charming. So my gift was a card with a train ticket and a coupon for lunch inside. My mom and I met at that restaurant halfway between our homes for a delicious lunch and a glass of wine, walked around San Juan Capistrano, browsed in a high-end gift shop, and got inspired by the people painting watercolors of the mission. It was a perfect afternoon and my mom absolutely loved her gift. Since then my whole family has adopted the practice of experiential gifts.
Here are some ideas to get you started:
1) Museum membership. One of my favorite gifts from my parents that my husband and I have enjoyed this year is a membership at The Norton Simon museum, which is less than a 10 minute drive from our home. There are so many advantages to a membership, but the main one is that going to the museum doesn’t have to be a big “outing,” you can just drop by to see a new exhibit or look at your favorite painting, or browse for an hour. I often go just to stroll through the gardens and sit and read a book. A really fun bonus is that members are invited to special events, like the acquisition of a new piece of art or a piece on loan from another museum. My husband and I love the wine and cheese receptions that accompany these events. This is a more affordable option than you might imagine: a one-year membership for myself AND my husband, which included 2 free guest passes, cost just $65.
2) Classes or lessons. If your husband has always wanted to play the guitar, give him guitar lessons. I got that idea from Non Consumer Girl, and I’m thinking it would be a good gift for my husband too. Maybe your mother always talks about taking a writing course at the community college, your parents would love to learn the tango, or your daughter in college is a budding gourmet who would enjoy a cooking class. Music lessons, horseback riding lessons, cooking classes, dance lessons, college courses, the options are endless.
3) Concert tickets. This one has been a big hit with my parents. One Father’s Day I took my dad to see Dave Brubeck at a San Diego venue right on the water. It was a fabulous concert and we had a great time. My brothers and I splurged to send my parents to see Josh Groban, something they never would have figured out how to even buy tickets for on their own. My mom is a huge fan and she was swooning for days.
4) Massage, manicure, pedicure, or other spa services. This is the kind of gift that is so appreciated by someone who’s lost their job or going through financial difficulty. They can’t afford to treat themselves, and the stress relief and pampering will make them feel so much better.
5) Yoga classes. Again, this is the kind of thing people cut from their budget, usually just when they need it the most. This is what I’m giving my brother this year because he loves yoga but just can’t afford the luxury of paying for a class.
6) Gym membership. Joining a gym is a big commitment, but if your loved one recently dropped their membership, or you know where they’d love to go if only they could afford it, this would be a great gift.
7) Animal encounters. I’m not talking about getting in a cage with sharks or wrestling an alligator, there are much safer ways for animal lovers to interact with other species. Look into what’s available at zoos and animal parks in your area. My mother got into a tank in a wetsuit with a beluga whale at Sea World, and the smile on her face in the photo makes her look 20 years younger. The photo of me at the beginning of this post was taken on Christmas Day in 2001 in the Florida Keys at a marine animal park. My husband likes to tell the story of how my hand shot up with a bunch of kids when they asked who would like to come up and meet the sea lion. Then they asked each of us as we went up if we wanted a hug or a kiss, and I was the only one who chose a hug. It’s one of my fondest memories and favorite photos.
8) Wine Club. I’m arguing for this as an experience, even though it’s tangible, because it’s an experience to receive and drink the bottles. This was one of our favorite wedding gifts from our good friends, because it was an excellent winery and the type of wine we rarely splurge for, but we’d save it for special occasions, and make the event even more memorable. Also, you can look into an organic winery. And if a full year is out of your price range, many places offer a half-year membership.
9) Charity. Kiva dot org and Global Giving are two examples of charities that let you get involved and pick the project you want to participate in. For as little as $10, you can give your loved one the gift of providing a family in Mali with a mosquito net to protect them from malaria, textbooks for schoolgirls in Afghanistan, or job training for at-risk teenagers in the United States.
10) CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) delivery of fresh, local, organic produce. You know what a fan I am of this service we started back in May. This would be a great gift for someone who has good intentions about eating healthy, but doesn’t have the time or follow through to get to the Farmer’s Market. Check out Local Harvest to find a CSA in your area.
11) Theater tickets. Tickets to a performance of their favorite play or season tickets at their favorite venue are a great gift for a theater-loving couple living on a fixed income or whose funds are tight. Theaters offer great prices on season tickets when you can attend during the week or at matinees. And these days you can negotiate deals because theaters, and the arts in general, are hurting for business.
12) Brunch. Much more reasonably priced than dinner, some buffet brunches at nice hotels offer an incredible spread and a nice dose of luxury for a newly married couple or a couple with kids who need some time alone.
13) Getaway. An overnight or weekend getaway to the beach or the mountains would be a fantastic option for an overstressed couple. A wine country package, canoe trip, cross country skiing, or just sitting on the porch of your creekside cabin reading a good book- just what the doctor ordered.
14) Go-Kart or car racing track. An afternoon with their dad at one of these places would be heaven for a pre-teen boy, especially one who wants to grow up to be Dale Earnhart, Jr.
15) Other options for kids include theme parks and water parks, an afternoon of kite-flying, or a day at the beach. Or introduce your child to volunteering at an early age, by serving up plates at a food kitchen, caroling at a hospital or nursing home, or “adopting” a family who’s fallen on hard times and buying gifts for each of them. Your children will learn the meaning of the holidays through their experience.
16) Certificates. Home spa treatments, car washes, babysitting, dog walking. This is a nice option when you’re short on money. I recently gave my husband a home facial and he loved it. He said it was very relaxing.
17) A home-cooked meal. It’s so simple you might not even think of it, but for someone who’s socially isolated, new in town, or has recently divorced or lost their spouse, this gift of food and friendship would be extremely appreciated.
Additionally, spending time with family members doing holiday-related activities like decorating cookies, trimming the tree, or attending a holiday-themed concert or play can be your gift to each other.
I’m sure you can think of more ideas that will be just perfect for the people in your life. When you give this kind of gift, you’re giving memories. And you know what they say: memories last forever. Which is not the case with most of the stuff many people will be buying at the mall. The bonus with these gifts is that avoiding the mall this time of year will save you immeasurable amounts of stress and give you more time for whatever rituals you enjoy, whether it’s baking, listening to music, or just spending time with family and friends.
I hope you got some ideas here. Please tell us about your favorite experiential gifts in the Comments section.


  1. says

    My daughter and I went away for a weekend before Christmas last year and basically renewed our relationship. We are both so busy, me a teacher, her in university, that we literally don’t see each other for days on end. It was such a wonderful time she said she wanted to do it every year!

    • Angela says

      Jane- What a lovely gift, and how wonderful that your daughter wanted to make it into a tradition. What could be better? Thanks for commenting!

  2. says

    I love to give homemade canned goods, meals, or photos (framed or in bound photo books) for holiday gifts. It can be more expensive to make these things than to find a gift on sale, but I enjoy the process and get to give something that I’ve put my heart into instead of having to push my way through a mall or stare at a computer screen shopping online for hours.

    • Angela says

      megan- I agree that it’s more rewarding to give these kinds of gifts. And framed photos or albums have been a big hit. I find that we all take so many photos these days that unless they’re set aside to frame or use in some way, they are forgotten. My parents have loved framed photos as gifts, both of good times or of when we were kids. Thanks so much for commenting!

  3. Marie-Josée says

    Experiential gifts are those that I prefer giving and receiving. I no longer want gifts on my birthday or other holidays, I just ask my family for a meal out, where everyone is there in spirit and heart as well as in body. I have been dreaming of making friends a nice home-cooked meal to celebrate their birthdays, and I have managed it a few times, but not as much as I would like. I also want to bake my colleagues either a nice birthday cake or some cupcakes to bring to work to celebrate their birthdays. I haven’t gotten around to doing that, but hope I will stop thinking about it and just do it soon.

    • Angela says

      Marie-Josee- I also love to make good friends a home-cooked meal on their birthday, and I love your idea of baking for colleagues. It’s so much more personal, and delicious, than sending someone out for a home bought cake. I think cupcakes are easier, maybe you could start there. Or a sheet cake, which is much easier for me than a layered cake. Thanks for continuing to read and comment on my blog.

  4. says

    This year, I’m giving my best friend a “Year of Happy Hours.” It’ll be delivered in 12 small envelopes (one per month), with the name of the restaurant/bar inside and a place for the date we’re going on the outside of the envelope. When I give her the gift, we’re going to get the dates down in our calendars immediately, and record the dates on the outsides of the small envelopes. Then, each month, she can open a new envelope and be surprised at the location of where we’re headed for a couple of hours of girl time! And of course, the first round is on me each month :)

    • Angela says

      Kimberly- I absolutely love this idea. Something you both love and can share together, plus something to look forward to, and new places to explore, and all-important girl time! A most excellent and original gift. It’s funny, I was just reading about happy hours lately and telling my husband we’ll have to start exploring more of them in our neighborhood. Thanks so much for sharing that fabulous idea.


  1. […] Black Friday: Experiential Gifts November 26, 2010 Posted by nrhatch in Creativity, Food & Drink, Frugal Living, Inspiration, Mindfulness, Simple Pleasures, Special Events, Sustainable Living. Tags: Black Friday, Creativity, Food & Drink, Frugal Living, Inspiration, Mindfulness, Simple Pleasures, Special Events, Sustainable Living trackback Angela Barton has some wonderful ideas for Gift Giving:  Experiential Gifts for the Holidays.   […]

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