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11 Thoughtful Gifts To Buy Instead Of Wasting Money On Cheap Crap From China


Sometime around my middle school years, my parents tamped our Christmas celebrations down to a very muted holiday—hardly a holiday at all, in fact. There were cover reasons, but I think a major underlying reason was that my mom was overwhelmed by all the preparations and hoopla.

Because Christmas nostalgia is strong in our culture and kids like the constant excitement of the season, that disappointed me. But after I grew up and had to manage my desire for Christmas fun against the difficulty of realizing it given the demands of mothering plus working, I began to understand the overwhelming nature of American Christmas celebrations.

I’ve now seen several upsetting scenes on what should be a delightful morning full of fuzzy family memories (or so the movies tell us). Toddlers having very understandable meltdowns after being forced to open present after present because well-meaning relatives bought them so much stuff and were only visiting for one day so it all had to be opened at once.

I’ve seen people just rush out and buy almost anything to tick off person number 83 on their floor-length Christmas list. It’s also not just Christmas. I’ve now witnessed as routine birthdays where the child of honor lives in a ridiculously nice middle-class house perfectly stuffed with every kind of toy imaginable, yet sits at a table during the festivities and gorges herself on piles of new pink plastic from China while her little friends look on with giant greedy eyes.

What happens to that pile of toys worth several hundred dollars? The kids flick through it one by one and quickly grow bored after breaking and losing things. There’s just so much stuff that it’s hard to care for it all.

A Few Words about Gluttony and Giving

Now, I’m also aware of the good mixed into these situations. Generosity is a lovely impulse, indeed a virtue. Giving to others is also one of the core characteristics for a strong society. I and my family have been blessed to have very giving family and friends, the kind of generous people who take the time and money to bring gifts even though I’ve told them “Please don’t bring gifts—we have too much!”

Americans are the most generous people in the world, both in terms of percentage of income and volunteering, and in net volume. But we often divert this motivation and our resources in wasteful ways—perhaps especially inside a wonderful country like ours, where we are all so rich.

Sometimes we use gifts for all sorts of bad reasons: to make ourselves feel less guilty, to show how much money we have, to beat the Joneses, because we’re addicted to shopping and consuming to distract ourselves from what happens when things get quiet. There’s a lot of talk about how fat Americans are, but I’ve also seen some physically skinny Americans whose closets and cupboards are pretty darned fat, and there’s not a lot of talk about such vices in anything other than a jocular tone.

So I don’t mean to suggest you should not give to friends, family, and colleagues this season. After all, Christmas is about gratuitous, unearned, undeserved, bountiful mercy. It’s about a gift that we desperately needed but didn’t deserve, and that transcends our wildest dreams. God is neither a miser nor a glutton, and people should also avoid those two extremes of greed. I’m just suggesting you take a few extra minutes to really think about the presents you’re buying, and why you’re buying them, and whether you can manage your time and money more optimally.

To that end, I’ve compiled some gift ideas that may help channel your good desires to give to others into more substantive blessings for your recipients than the latest heavily advertised toy designed to get attention but not sustain it. Kids trash those quickly for good reason. Might as well not waste your time and money, right?

1. Museum Memberships

I’m a big fan of “experience gifts.” These are opportunities for personal and relationship development, and they come in many, many forms. One of my family’s favorite things to do is visit a museum. Cities from large to small include children’s museums that beat a kindergarten classroom hands down for stimulating activities parents can either do with their kids or push their kids toward while sitting down nearby with a book. For families with preschool and younger elementary-age children, a children’s museum membership is excellent. One of those fabled “gifts that keeps on giving.”

For families with older children there are “real” museums, which almost every town from mid-size up contains. The benefits of membership rather than just a visit include the important ability to just drop in for an hour rather than having to carve out a full day because you paid $125 to be there for six hours; and the ability to really go deep with the exhibits. Sketchbooks would be an excellent accompaniment.

One caveat: Museums are rapidly becoming overstimulating, larding on electronic gear and ill-planned activities that distract from the art, artifacts, and activities available. It’s always optimal to know your museum.

2. National or Local Parks Memberships

This year I “splurged” and spent $35 to buy a family pass to our county parks in an effort to have an outdoor outlet for my three boys since we live in town. Well worth it. So would be an annual National Parks Pass if your intended recipient lives at close distance from such a park or enjoys day and weekend trips. At $80, it’s a steal even if they only visit a few times.

My family has visited parks across the country and generally find American parks to be well-maintained and full of beautiful natural wonders. The visitors centers at our county parks include hands-on activities for children that are a full visit in themselves for our preschoolers, on rainy days or not. America’s National Park System is typically very well-maintained and covers some of our great land’s most delightful and awe-inspiring natural wonders.

In a day and age when people are typically very disconnected from nature, a parks pass can help your loved ones unplug, unwind, and relate to creation. I have learned it’s a lot of work to get us all in the car and out the door—it’s no small feat to shoe and coat and snack four kids under six plus myself and hit the right naptime and mealtime window—but it’s always, always worth the trouble. People with older kids or no kids will find the friction far smaller and the enjoyment far higher.

3. A Special Trip

The grandparents of some family friends take each grandchild on a special vacation once the grandchild turns ten years old. They let the grandchild help pick the location and plan the trip. For a horse-loving young lady, the trip was to the Kentucky Derby. For another grandchild, it was an American Founding tour of Philadelphia. This is another beautiful way to create a lifelong memory, reinforce good relationships, and learn something in good company.

4. A Family-Funded K-12 or College Scholarship

Soon after we married and my husband and I faced a large amount of college debt to pay off, my mother-in-law gave my husband some advice she’d learned when in the same situation: “If you even just have an extra five dollars, put it towards your debt.” I feel similarly about saving up for my kids’ advent into adult life. In an endeavor like this, grandparents can be a major blessing.

Baby boomers, who are today’s grandparents and rising grandparents, control 70 percent of disposable income in the United States, which is a crapload of money given that we’re the richest nation in world history. They are also the only consumer segment that has made gains in real income since the 1970s.

Younger folks like me are not at peak earnings for a while yet, and are paying mortgages and for kids’ braces and emergency room visits, and for babysitters and for cars to fit our growing broods. Adults nearing retirement have far fewer expenses: They’re typically not too physically decrepit to need extensive health care yet, they’ve paid off their houses and cars, and they’ve hit their earnings peak.

All of this to say, old folks, give your kids a hand. But don’t just hand them money for a cell phone bill or cheap trinkets. Put it towards something substantial, like paying off their college debt, or paying tuition for your grandchildren to attend a quality private school that teaches the fundamentals of your family faith. This is a genuine, private investment in your family’s future, unlike crazy socialist schemes that involve high prices and terrible results.

5. An Heirloom

I loved Leslie Loftis’s idea to give their children heirlooms on one of the twelve days of Christmas. I plan to give my daughter her first set of pearls when she’s at an appropriate age (hopefully this article will be so far down in the Google results by then so she won’t be expecting them). She also has coming this Christmas the first of several lovely dolls I’ve been hoarding since childhood then collecting, and which have been stupidly replaced by—you guessed it!—chintzy, history-thieved crap from China.

6. A Thoughtful Magazine Subscription

As a little girl, when I was lucky enough to get to sleep over at my aunt’s house, I spent the time before bed tucked in and reading her fashion magazines. Now I consider Pinterest the equivalent, but even Pinterest lacks something a tangible, glossy magazine contains yet. There are also some excellent online subscriptions to audio and other journals. These will help spark new thoughts and ideas that can lead to rich relationship building through conversation and shared activities.

For just about anyone, I recommend: Cook’s Illustrated; World magazine; and Mars Hill Audio. For men, my husband really enjoys Popular Mechanics, and you can get it for next to nothing ($5!).

7. Hobby Materials

Hobbies are good for humans, period. They keep people from idle boredom, develop their skills, create intergenerational exchange, and turn out things they can share with others. There’s no shortage of ideas. Obviously, you’d start with whether your recipient has a hobby, and may need to do a little scouting to see if there’s a much-desired tool they haven’t been able to purchase yet. But even if your loved one doesn’t seem to have much of a hobby, you can start them on one, especially if it’s a child.

I recommend cooking first, since everyone likes to eat. Also crocheting, which is easy to learn, cheap, and can make a surprisingly fun array of items. Sewing and woodwork are very satisfying, but have a longer learning curve. But just about anyone (of age) can enjoy a wine and painting class!

8. A Multi-Year, Multi-Age Present

My husband’s uncle had the most brilliant idea for a family Christmas present. Sitting in my in-laws’ basement is the fruit of it: The most glorious wood train set. The gift-giver gave the family a new piece every Christmas, and 20 years later they have a glorious train set that family members of all ages love to redesign and redesign together. I liked the idea so much I’m doing it with our kids.

This same theme, of course, could be applied to a number of other ideas. An aunt of mine sends me a new Christmas decoration each year. My husband’s great-grandparents sent Christmas ornaments to their passel of grandkids and great-grandkids each year.

9. Fuel a Personal Library

An excellent library is a particularly good kind of multiyear, multiage present to send someone you love. People who love books and ideas read the same books several times, and when they know their collection well can better recommend and share out to friends.

For both children and adults I’ve been enjoying giving out the excellent Barnes and Noble Collectible Editions, which are originals bound and illustrated beautifully. Throughout the year as they bring in and out various titles, B&N will have good sales on these. I always snap a few up and have to restrain myself from spending too much.

10. Living Things

A colleague shared that she loved to receive living things as presents. The most wonderful people to children and most horrible ones to their parents will splurge on that Christmas puppy or kitten, but kinder people will purchase things like an ant farm, a bonsai tree, or a butterfly pupae.

One of the best gifts I received one year after the birth of a baby was a Christmas orchid. It’s a fabulous gift because the orchid needs hardly any light and hardly water, so when I get around to remembering it bimonthly I haven’t killed the poor thing. In fact, it hasn’t even noticed my neglect! You can pick them up at just about any grocery store after the snow flies, although especially around Valentine’s Day.

11. Delicious Food

As I mentioned before, every single person eats, and almost every single one likes it a lot. You can just about never go wrong by buying anyone a consumable. Some of the best food items I’ve gotten were from Omaha Steaks and the glorious (but overpriced unless you’re city folk) Zingerman’s. Edible Arrangements are also really yummy and available just about anywhere except the true sticks.

I would personally also just about die with joy if someone bought me a raw milk share. It’s so hard to personally justify spending $7 per gallon of milk, but as a gift it’d be glorious, and many farm-nostalgic real foodies will feel similarly. A monthly Community Supported Agriculture box is another related option—that’s a monthly box of fresh, organic produce from a local farm. Especially good for busy families, shut-ins, or single people who need a good reason to cook.