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12 Ways to Give Fun, Not Stuff

Ten years ago this month, our Christmas budget officially blew up. Perhaps your family was hit by the same destructive force: The Great Recession. 

If I close my eyes, I can still feel the throbbing that overtook my frontal lobe when I thought about the cache of Christmas gifts that had already amassed in the back of my closet. It was a tough call to make, but a necessary one. All but a few of those gifts – for family, friends, and the kids – had to go back that year. 

Fortunately, we had always realized that Christmas wasn’t solely about what was under the tree. As charming as that sounds, however, everyone knows that kids have lists. And most of the time, their friends have even longer lists. 

We immediately started brainstorming ideas to make Christmas morning special for our family. That meant finding creative ways to stretch our resources. In a tight spot financially, my husband was (and still is) a numbers guy who immediately started reviewing budgets for the coming year: food, clothes, activities, travel, all of it. During this discussion, a lot of activities we had enjoyed as a family were suddenly on the chopping block for the coming year. For example, we had a family membership at a neighborhood pool. Could we afford that for the next summer? That day, we received an email offering decent savings and an installment payment plan on a Busch Gardens/Water Country USA family pass if we made our first payment in December. We passed on the pool membership, and turned the theme park combo pass into an unforgettable Christmas gift the girls loved. It was our first attempt at giving fun instead of stuff. And it worked! 

Although that Christmas was challenging for us all, it was also memorable – and memorable for good reason: the teamwork with my husband, giving with purpose, and the realization that our kids were growing into grateful humans. Plus, I did little or no actual shopping and had very few presents to wrap. That said, here are some other ways you can make the holidays memorable for your family by giving fun and experiences instead of traditional gifts. I’ve tried some of these and others were recommended by friends.

1. The fully stocked dress-up box was one of my first  homeruns on Christmas morning. I started with a very affordable cardboard drawer set and headed to Goodwill for a few dresses, hats, and shoes. Next, I added a doctor’s kit and playset, an old briefcase, a phone receiver, a pack of birthday party hats, and bits and pieces of Halloween costumes that I found on sale in November (masks, superhero capes, headband ears, etc.).  

2. The room makeover gift package was another hit at our house. Our youngest daughter had a flair for decorating and had been splitting her TV time between the Food Network and HGTV. We wrapped up a rainbow of paint chips, paintbrushes, a drop cloth, and a gift card to Target so she could pick out some accessories. 

3. If you learned something about your child’s interests from a camp last summer, think about giving a session of classes as a gift this holiday. One year, we packaged brushes and paints, a few small canvases, and a painter’s palette with a gift certificate for art classes at VMFA. We gave one of our older daughters a gift certificate for a wheel-throwing pottery class at Visual Arts Center. 

4. The gift of theatre and live entertainment is also a good choice. And in Richmond, there are many options. Virginia Rep offers flex subscriptions that let you choose shows from each of the seasons (Children’s Theatre at Willow Lawn, Hanover Tavern, or the Signature Season downtown). You can also buy a gift certificate for any amount and apply the balance to whatever shows you want as the year unfolds. Altria Theater and Dominion Energy Center have similar programs in place. A friend of mine buys two season subscriptions to Broadway in Richmond every year and lines up special dates for each of the shows. Mom and daughter might like one show, while dad and son might choose another. 

5. If theatre isn’t your thing, how about a movie-a-month gift package? This can be your child’s choice of picking out a movie to watch at home, seeing a new release at the theater, spending an evening at the Goochland Drive-in, or catching a film at one of my family’s favorite movie houses, the Byrd Theatre in Carytown (where movies are only $4). You can pick up movie gift cards to major theaters in Richmond, as well as The Byrd (at the box office), and wrap those up for Christmas morning.

6. While I’ve never tried this with my family, when I was a girl, my parents booked our summer vacation and gift-wrapped the real estate magazine. A mom I know is giving her kids a spring break trip in a box for Christmas. This doesn’t have to be extravagant. Even a weekend getaway would make an awesome gift (just ask my kids!).

7. As cliché as it might sound, family memberships and season passes mean your gift will continue to give all year long. The Science Museum of Virginia is at the top of my family’s list. Make sure you buy the membership that includes tickets to the Dome so you can see a movie before winter break ends. Also, the Kings Dominion Gold Pass is an even better deal this year with WinterFest 2018 included. I recommend buying the Gold Pass, heading out to WinterFest, and sharing the good news with the family while you’re at the park using the gift!

8. Whether it’s a college team or a local professional team (Kickers, Flying Squirrels, Richmond Raiders), the gift of sport is a great one for many families. In Richmond, there are basketball games right after the first of the year at VCU, UR, and Virginia Union (to name a few), so you can provide immediate gratification for your kids. Be warned, you will probably have to settle for non-marquee matchups because the best games sold out months ago. Of course, if you’re family supports a college further from home, a road trip to see a game is perfect. In DC, you should consider Wizards or Capitals tickets (they play at Capital One Arena). Even if you’re not a fan of these teams, remember your family’s favorite team might be playing in DC sometime soon. My Miami Heat will play the Wizards in March so I have my fingers crossed. For any of these gift packages, gift wrap t-shirts and other gear with tickets or a homemade pronouncement certificate.

9. I made it to the mid-century mark before having my first pedicure, but now I’m hooked. What motivated me to try it in the first place? A friend gave me a gift certificate to a local shop, of course. Soon after this, I realized there were a lot of personal care experiences that would make great gifts for my teens. If you’re like me, paying for these kinds of services regularly is cost-prohibitive. Nonetheless, your kids will appreciate receiving these as a gift. If your teen daughter has been asking about highlights for her hair or eyebrow threading, consider giving her a gift certificate this holiday. This is also a win because she will realize these things are luxuries. Then, if she wants to use her own money for the next salon appointment, that’s her call. Other examples of personal care items that have translated to great gifts for us include the massage and over-the-counter teeth-whitening strips. 

10. If you have a child or teen who enjoys cooking, there are a few options to consider. First, consider giving him a meal kit service subscription, such as Blue Apron or Sun Basket, to make meal prep easy and fun. The whole family will love that one! For a time, we had fresh produce from local farms delivered to our doorstep by Dominion Harvest (now Seasonal Roots). It was always a challenge for me to use all of the contents of the box in our meals, but my oldest daughter, who is vegan, loved it! Is there someone in your family who would appreciate taking on that culinary challenge? Traditional cooking classes are also wonderful. For classes for kids and adults in Richmond, take a look at Publix or Mise en Place.  

11. I mentioned before that we gave art classes to two of our daughters. We also gave our youngest daughter gymnastics classes at a local gym one year. To impress her on Christmas morning, we wrapped up a leotard (that I picked up at a second-hand sale) with a book about Shawn Johnson, the gymnast of the year. Remember, the way you present the gift to the kids makes all the difference.  

12. The big family gift, while still defined as “stuff,” has been a lifesaver for me on Christmas morning. When all is said and done, one big family gift can save you time (less shopping!) and money (not always, but you never know). And although, the big family gift is indeed an item you purchase, if it’s a good fit, it will provide lots of enjoyment and fun for your family. Some of our past big family gifts include a digital piano, a ping-pong table, and a trampoline. Family friends bought a pop-up camper and used it for the next three years touring our fabulous Virginia State Parks with their kids. 

No matter your reasons for wanting to give fun and experiences instead of more things this holiday, your kids and family will benefit in the long run. In ten years, odds are good the memories they’ll hold in their hearts will be about time spent together, not the money that was spent on more stuff.

Karen Schwartzkopf has her dream job as managing editor of RFM. Wife, mother, arts and sports lover, she lives and works in the West End with her family, including husband Scott, who not coincidentally is RFM’s creative director. You can read Karen’s take on parenting her three daughters – Sam, Robin, and Lindsey, also known as the women-children – in the Editor’s Voice.
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