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Christmas Gift Ideas: Giving Experiences Rather Than Stuff

Coming up with fun and unique Christmas gift ideas year in and year out can be a challenge. For some stymied shoppers, it can even turn gift-giving—what should be a true joy of the season—into a tedious chore.

Last year, I decided I didn't want to buy my kids more stuff for Christmas. They already have toys and gadgets galore. And over the past few years, I've noticed that the Christmas morning thrill of finally getting the most coveted item on their wish list was fading fast—sometimes by Christmas dinner.

So I focused last year's holiday planning around experiences instead of toys. I figured that focusing on family time would create more meaningful memories. In the months leading up to Christmas, I avoided the mall and skipped Black Friday. Instead, I shopped online for an experience.

On Christmas morning, my kids opened a letter from Santa. In it, he explained that we'd be leaving on a trip that very day. There were no presents to unwrap, but there were no tears, either. My kids were too excited about the adventure ahead to think about what they didn't get.

The cost of Christmas

U.S. parents spend an average of $271 per child on Christmas, according to a 2011 survey by TODAY Moms and Parenting.com. But even as we spend more, its not clear whether the outcomes we get are any more meaningful.

Trading pricey gifts for quality time might just improve your family's health and well-being, according to FamilyFacts.org, a project of the Heritage Foundation, which says spending time together enjoying fun activities is associated with kids and parents having a stronger emotional bond. Moreover, studies have shown that kids who communicate with their parents tend to do better at school, and teenagers who actively spend time with their parents tend to have fewer behavioral problems.

Experience togetherness

Though some experience-based gifts can be more expensive than the Nintendo 3DS your 8-year-old might want, you don't necessarily need to spend more to make these gifts meaningful. You can't place a dollar value on spending time together as a family or on the memories that will come from shared experiences. Here are just a few ways to replace "stuff" with experiences:

  • Instead of spending about $400 on an Xbox One, you could give your family a hot air balloon ride. In Albuquerque, New Mexico, you can take off at sunset for the ride of a lifetime over scenic Southwestern landscapes. Top the experience off with a special meal.
  • Maybe this year you can pass on the iPad, which can cost $450 to $850 and instead take your family on a train ride, such as a scenic ride up the California coast. Traveling daily between Los Angeles and Seattle, the Coast Starlight train passes through Santa Barbara, the San Francisco Bay Area, Sacramento and Portland.
  • On the less expensive side, you can give your children a field trip. Venture to a zoo, a kid-friendly art museum or science center, or a sporting event. If you enjoy your time together, buy a yearly family pass, so you can return month after month and extend the fun throughout the year.
  • If your children have never seen a live stage production, this could be the year for it. Some of the best shows from Broadway, such as "Wicked," "The Lion King" and "Beauty and the Beast," hit the road each year for shows around the United States. Visit your local performing arts center to see what they have planned for 2015, or check out such sites as Broadway Across America to see what might be coming to a town near you.
  • Give the gift of learning and pick up a new skill as family. Sign up the whole group for cooking or art classes or horseback riding lessons. If you live close to water, look into scuba or sailing lessons for the group. Maybe your kids are budding photographers, and you can all take a class in photography.
  • If you're looking for something both peaceful and adventurous, pack up your family and head to the Tree Bones Resort in Big Sur, California, and stay in a beachside yurt. The yurts overlook the Pacific Ocean, and you can reserve a human nest you can call your own.
  • If none of these suggestions have piqued your interest, check out websites such as Unstuff Gifts or Vayable for unique experienced based gifts. Or, check out some of our Top Family Vacations off the Beaten Path or our list of Family-Friendly Resort Vacations.

It's worth a try

How did our family getaway stand up to shiny, wrapped packages filled with iPads or video games?

Almost a year later, my 5-year-old is still talking about our adventure, and my 10-year-old keeps saying, "I hope Santa brings us a trip next year, too."

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