No More Presents, Please + Thank You

What to do if the gift of nothing doesn’t work

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Spoiling the nieces and nephews is one of the wonderful benefits of being Auntie and Uncle. We’ve enjoyed the fun of planning, shopping, and giving when we could, but now I am more aware of the impact of my purchases and feel accountable for what I buy. As my niece’s Thanksgiving-ish birthday fast approaches with Christmas on its heels, I’m struggling with what gift to buy for her — and for that matter, what to give all our 6 nieces and nephews for Christmas in the context of intentional living. 

I would have been glad to buy the kids a new winter coat or something like that, but when I asked my brothers and sister what their kids needed, they all said the kids were fortunate to not need anything. They offered suggestions if I wanted to buy gifts, but my journey towards minimalism made me closely examine giving — from both sides of the gift.

This examination led me to consider my own cycle of shopping, the emphasis on stuff = success/happiness when I was growing up, and how that affected my adult life. I don’t want to be part of sending those same messages to the next generation, especially since I took such a long time to realize that my possessions don’t define my value or identity. 

And the more I thought about how I want to receive, the more I wanted to apply responsible buying practices when purchasing for others too, even if the recipient is only 8 years old. 

For the kids

In all this hemming and hawing, I remembered a woman I worked with over 10 years ago who had a brilliant gift policy for her kids: no physical gifts allowed. 

I’m serious! She did not accept gifts for her kids from friends or family. She instead had a bank account for them, and if anyone wanted to give them something, they could give to the college fund, please + thank you. Even back then, as a 20-something-year-old without kids, I knew this was genius. 

Instead of spending money on toys that they’ll play with for 2 days and then get bored of, she was giving the kids something lasting. I wanted to give my nieces and nephews something lasting, too. So I followed suit and opened a custodial account for each of our nieces and nephews, depositing what we would have spent on a gift into the account instead. 

I did a lot of research to compare the different types of custodial accounts and to find banks that didn’t have minimum balance requirements or fees. I also contact my local tax professional to discuss any tax implications for accounts like these. The custodial accounts are taxed on income (interest, investments, etc.) in California, so I also considered opening a college fund for each kid to save on taxes. I didn’t go that direction for two reasons: 1) I didn’t want to assume that they would go to college, and 2) I wanted them to have flexibility with the money. Of course I would rather they spend the money on something smart — like college or a trip instead of going on a shopping spree or something — but I realized that when they’re 18 and have full access to the money, it’s their choice. Any money deposited into this account is a gift for the kid, and no one can — nor should they — control how the kid enjoys that gift. We might give them advice or tell them what we would have done with it, but that’s all we can do.

Although depositing money into a bank account isn’t as fun as shopping for toys or princess dresses, I feel good about this solution, and the parents were all thrilled when I called to ask for the information needed to open the savings accounts. I will probably still buy the kids smaller things like books and stickers, and I always do small bags of sweets for Christmas, but this bank account is where our focus will be from now on.

For adults

Even without the holidays and other obvious reasons, some people simply love to give gifts — it’s their Love Language®, or basically how they give and receive love. Although I wouldn’t open a bank account for an adult, here are a few other ideas of what to give that would respect a minimalist lifestyle and still satisfy a gift-giver.

  1. What they ask for: A minimalist may still want something, but it may be a very specific thing. Gift giving may not be as fun when it’s not a surprise, but if you want to give them something they’ll love, ask them what they’ve had their eye on.
  2. Experiences*: Movie tickets, spa treatments, theme park tickets, virtual reality games, wine tasting, the possibilities are endless. Groupon is great for these, and if your recipient has a favorite spa, hotel, or activity, keep that in mind if you’re looking to gift an experience. If your recipient is more of a homebody but loves watching movies, a gift card for movie rentals or a subscription to HBO might be a good option for them.
  3. General gift cards: A gift card to essential stores like Target, Costco, Amazon, grocery stores, or even DoorDash would be useful. These are more practical, but if your recipient wants less stuff, they will appreciate the ability to choose what they bring home.
  4. Specific gift cards: If you know your recipient has a favorite restaurant, brand, or pastime, a gift card to the restaurant or a store where they can buy hobby supplies is great. For example, I have a favorite brand of skincare called Chagrin Valley Soap and Salve, and a gift card to that store would make me so happy.
  5. Consumables: Something that the recipient can eat or drink is probably a good bet, but keep dietary needs in mind. Of course, it’s the thought that counts, but if you’re given a food item that you can’t eat, it’s a real bummer — trust me, I know: a boss once bought an ice cream cake for my birthday celebration at the office, but I’m lactose intolerant and couldn’t eat it! If you’re not sure about food allergies, ask the recipient directly or a friend or family member who would know that information.
  6. Donate to a cause: Some people don’t appreciate a donation to charity in their name, so this won’t work for everyone, but to me, this is a lovely gesture. I have a list of many local nonprofit organizations that I support when I can; if someone gave to one of these organizations to honor me, that would truly warm my heart.

*Experiences are a little tricky right now, but depending on where you live, you might be able to partake in fun activities 6 feet apart.

These gifts may not be as fun as shopping, but you can get creative and bundle a few things together. For example, if you’re giving a subscription to HBO, you can include popcorn, drinks, or other movie-time snacks. 

Closing thoughts

This holiday season will be a new and interesting experience for many of us as we try to figure out safe ways to celebrate. Whether you’re trying to figure out how to buy for your minimalist friend or you’re trying to figure out how to politely tell your gift-giving family that you have all you need, this can be tricky territory to navigate. 

As a minimal-ish recipient, I appreciate the gesture of a gift. The real gift is that someone took the time to think about me and knew me well enough to know what I would like — that is a beautiful show of love and friendship. Truly, I feel blessed when given a gift from the heart. 

As a gift giver, I hope to continue giving lasting gifts and be responsible with my purchases, supporting companies that are working for a better future for all of us, not just their own wallets.

Photo by Nynne Schrøder on Unsplash

Teena Merlan