Experience Gifts: More Memories, Less Wrapping

It’s the time of year when everyone and their mother is putting out a gift guide. Don’t get me wrong, I love checking them out, I just usually can’t get my act together enough to pull one together. That being said, my husband and I usually prefer to give experience gifts whenever possible. With two sets of generous grandparents (plus doting aunts, uncles, and a great-grandmother) our kids have never been lacking for presents at Christmas or on their birthdays. Tony and I have always preferred the space saving, and memory making, option of family activities, concerts, day trips, etc. vs. another toy or game.

Today I wanted to share seven ideas for experience gifts for your kids, spouse, and other family members, with some photos of our favorite experience gifts from the past thrown in. One of the best things about experience gifts is they can be very budget friendly. You don’t need to spend tons of money on concert tickets. In fact, during some of our leanest years, the simple experience gifts were the clear favorite. And for most of these gifts, a simple handmade certificate or coupon is all you need to present, which makes wrapping 100 times easier.

  • Camping- This can range from agreeing to sleep in the backyard with your child(ren), to allowing a backyard sleepover, to a weekend at a local campsite. Roasting s’mores, hiking, swimming at a lake, canoeing, star gazing, playing card games by lantern light; there’s lots you can add to this trip to make it fun for everyone.
Early birthday campout in the backyard.
  • Museum memberships- If you have two+ kids, it’s usually cheaper to just buy the membership than pay admission for everyone individually. Plus, having a memberships means you can go for an hour here, and an hour there (perhaps with separate kids) vs. trying to do it all in one long tantrum inducing trip.
Family membership to the Camden Aquarium, Christmas 2013.
  • Day trips to local sights – We live in NJ, so we’ve done a lot of trips to the beach and/or boardwalk, the Cape May Zoo (free!), Historic Smithville, Philadelphia, lighthouses, and Basto Village. Trips to New York City are the 11th birthday tradition. If the day trip is part of a gift for one specific child, we do usually let them pick out a souvenir from wherever we visited and purchase or take along a special snack. Tony and I have gifted each other date nights in a certain small towns where we get dinner, check out local shops, and generally enjoy being alone for a long stretch of time. Wineries, breweries, distilleries are also great local attractions.
Cape May Zoo trip for Byron’s 4th birthday.
Cape May Zoo trip for Teddy’s 2nd birthday.
  • Visit out of town friends and family and do an activity together – Since we have family in Lancaster County, PA, we’ve given (and received) experience gifts for attractions there as well. When visiting out of state relatives, we’ve watched sports games and visited museums or attended fairs or special events.
Trip on the Strasburg Railroad; a 2013 Christmas gift to Fulton and Teddy.
Addie requested a Hobbit themed party with family friends for her 12th birthday.
  • Lessons – Giving a gift of a few lessons is a great way for a child (or adult) to try something. We gave Addie horse lessons for Christmas when she was 8 and it was a huge hit.
  • Tickets – You can spend as much as you want here, but don’t think that you need to “go big or go home”. For concerts, we always make it a one on one event rather than a family event. For sporting events, we stick to small, local teams (not the NFL, NBA, or NBA) so we can get tickets for everyone and still afford to buy food. My grandmother still buys the great-grandkids ride tickets for the amusement park on the boardwalk in Ocean City, and sticks them in their Christmas stockings. Groupon is a great site to check for discount tickets on all sorts of events, shows, and things like axe throwing, golf, escape rooms, or paintball.
Monster truck show for Fulton’s 8th birthday.
Watching BTS for Addie’s 16th birthday.
  • Spa / Beauty Stuff – I love getting massage gift certificates. Maybe you’d like one for a facial or manicure. I know some moms and daughters make pedicures a special treat. Maybe someone in your house actually wants a gym membership, or Botox…I guess those fit in this category, just be really, really, REALLY sure that’s what they want. (Groupon is good for all this stuff too.)

Most of these gift can be given as gifts to the whole family, or to an individual child or family member. Grandparents can give experience gifts for mom and dad to do alone, with the kids, or for activities the grandkids can do with the grandparents; same for aunts, uncle, and everyone else. Experience gifts can also be used whenever. Save the beach trip for a sunny day, plan a trip to visit out of state cousins in the spring- it’s nice to have things to look forward to once all the Christmas decorations are put away.

Godparents can give the gift of having a Mass said for their godchild, and try attending Mass with the child on the day. Or they can take a special trip to a local shrine or pilgrimage site to commemorate a baptismal anniversary or any other special event.

Do you have any experience gifts you would add? Leave a comment below to share your idea!


  1. We’ve tried experience gifts more and less successfully in the past, and we’ve found that it’s usually received better (especially by little kids) if it’s accompanied by some little physical trinket. Otherwise it’s hard to conceptualize what they actually “got” for Christmas. Last year we got tickets for our 4- and 6-year-olds to go to a monster truck show with Phillip, and we gave them a little dollar store Hot Wheels monster truck to go with the tickets. Granted, they loved the toy trucks so much that we probably could’ve just gotten them the dollar store trucks and called it a day.

    1. I understand this perspective. It’s why we’ve never been able to convince most extended family to give more experience gifts because they want the kids to be able to rip open wrapping paper, open something substantial, and they (the giver) want a joyful reaction, which I’ll admit is sometimes lacking for experience gifts. That being said, I personally learned to get over wanting a reaction, Certainly there are times I have the camera ready and am waiting for it, but in the case of experience gifts, I KNOW the kids will have a fun time and will be appreciative when the event happens even if I get only a mumbled thank you when they open the envelope. I don’t take it personally. The moment of opening is not what’s important. I know as the kids get older, they will realize that as well and get more excited about a set of tickets or gift certificate than they used to be. I think also when experience gifts are more the norm, kids don’t think of them as “less than” the toys and games they open.

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