Don’t buy a thing this Christmas…

Singapore Skyline, New Year’s Eve

This past summer, I spent way too many days combing through my home, evaluating each thing I owned. Sometimes, I would hold an item in my hand and ask myself if it sparked joy. Mostly though, I’d look at a cherished book stored in a closet or a once-favorite shirt I’d not worn in years and simply slip it into the Goodwill box.

By autumn, my house was consistently cleaner and neater: everything had a place and a purpose, so messes didn’t pile up. I felt less cluttered: not only my house, but me.

I’m not alone. The Marie Kondo effect has thrift stores bursting at the seams with unwanted detritus from our homes. And ownership of things is on the decline. According to a study by Expedia and the Center for Generational Kinetics, a full 74% of Americans prioritize experiences to owning more things.

And yet. Fast forward to late November: my inbox and my social media started blowing up with lists: 50 things to buy for Christmas; 10 things for the man in your life; 5 must-haves for the person who has everything.

So why are the lists so popular, and why are we still buying each other so much stuff?

In a word: habit. We are used to having something to offer, having boxes wrapped under the tree. Even the word gift implies a physical thing. According to the Oxford dictionary, a gift is “a thing given willingly to someone without payment; a present.” Don’t get me wrong: things can be delightful. They can be beautiful, useful, and meaningful: a delicate piece of ceramics from an expert potter, a hand-hewn table for family meals, a piece of art or jewelry from a trip.

But as we head into the next decade, I predict gift-giving will evolve. We will find ourselves giving less, but with more meaning. And more equally balancing experiential and tangible items: the term gift will come to mean not just a thing, but also a feeling.

But why wait until the new decade? To wrap up the decade on an experiential trajectory, here’s a challenge perfect for last-minute procrastinators: don’t buy a thing. Offer instead an experience. To help you along, I polled some of the most creative people I know, alumni of design consultancy IDEO, to get ideas.

Based on their answers, here are five types of experiences and one thing-that-cannot-be-bought:

Experience One: Gifts that Teach

One of the easiest experiences to offer is to support someone’s desire to learn something new. Have a friend planning to trek across South America? Gift them Spanish lessons. Is a young relative fascinated with the soundtrack to Hamilton? Offer her singing or acting lessons.

Says IDEO alum Charu Juneja, “a favorite gift I’ve received was an introductory piano and voice lesson.” And Ana Chang has given lessons in flying and glassblowing.

Experience Two: Gifts that Support Those in Need

Giving is a proven input to happiness, so help your recipient experience giving while receiving by donating to communities, people or animals in need.

The IDEO crew shared many examples of this. A few of my favorites included a WWF ‘adopt-a-booby’ (the blue-footed booby is a tropical bird facing threat due to habitat loss and egg collecting), a Kiva microloan (a service often used to support education and small businesses in developing markets), a US-based toilet that received a ‘twin’ in Liberia (all of the above thanks to the creative Ana Chang), and food for families in need (credit to Kenneth Robertsen).

Experience Three: Gifts that Encourage Exploration

Another thoughtful gift can be something that encourages your friends and family to experience something new.

Says Katja Batterbee, “in the past we have received Exploratorium membership and tickets to the San Francisco Ballet.” Another great option in San Francisco would be Andrew Evans’ magic show, which will have you questioning everything you know about how the world works.

Experience Four: Gifts that Nourish

In a twist on “consumables,” there were also nominations for activities that nourish. Will Abbott is fond of giving massage gift certificates (who doesn’t want to be his friend?!). I’ve gifted subscriptions to meditation tools like Headspace and Calm in the past.

Experience Five: Gifts that Bond

When I lived overseas, my parents would visit me and we’d go on a grand adventure. Our destinations included Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Italy, the UK, and Sri Lanka. Our gifts to each other were flight tickets and hotels, safaris, meals (and more meals and more meals).

But mostly, these trips were about discovering new sides of each other (who knew Mom loved to swim so much! I found out on a boat trip off the coast of Australia’s Hamilton Island), navigating the unknown as partners (Dad bravely experiencing the ‘miracle shave cream’ and the subsequent bald spot on his leg to save us women from the aggressive herbal salesperson), and discovering new Christmas traditions (like the delicious homemade sweets brought to us from our kind driver’s wife in Sri Lanka).

Christmas Tree, Sri Lanka

Experience Six: Things-that-Cannot-Be-Bought

Although not technically an experience, the last category doesn’t require buying any new things, so it fits.

Give something that means a lot to you.

When I met my birth mother this year, she gifted me a painting that had hung in her house. Every time I look at it, I think of it in her home, delighting her every time she passed it. For that reason, it brings me joy.

But you don’t need a huge life event like a 45-year-in-the-making reunion to gift something of meaning. As Mari Redi, another IDEO alum, says, “we have been ‘openly regifting,’ namely, the gift cannot be new or bought for this occasion and it has to have a reason. The easiest were books we own and believe someone else in our family would enjoy. My sister gave me a fabulous coat that she hardly used but loved. I gave her a pair of earrings that go with her style than mine.”

As a society, we are becoming more attuned to the benefits of owning less. Millennials, the generation to embrace the sharing economy, have taught us the joy that comes from lack of ownership. And eastern practices like meditation are reminding us to focus on the moment.

Additionally, despite our collective efforts at recycling over the years, we are learning that much of what we thought was being reused is ending up in landfills. And even the feel-good solution of donating to charity doesn’t have the effects we believe it does, our items often ending up as trash as well.

So, while a well-selected product might be exactly the right thing to offer (I’m looking at you, little LED tree from Mom to make our holiday rental feel like Christmas), why not consider offering experiences more often than things.

Because by reframing gifting from the tangible to the fleeting, we’re training ourselves to appreciate moments and memories more than things. By gifting experiences, we’re adding joy to the world, reducing excess waste, and most of all, saving our loved ones from ever having to wonder whether a gadget — even one of 2019’s must haves for those who have it all — really can spark joy.

I help companies weave in kindness, creativity and humanity using human-centered design. Founder of Nau ( and Creative Collisions, IDEO alumna.