The Ultimate No Stuff Gift Guide

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Because you want more fun, creativity, and adventure in your life—not more mess.

The truth is, most of us have more stuff than we need.

But that doesn’t seem to stop us from going crazy around the holidays, when the average American shells out about $270 per child on holiday gifts and goodies, helping us maintain our status as the nation with forty percent of the world’s toys and a little more than three percent of its children. It would be one thing if all that stuff made us happy, but it doesn’t: In fact, researchers at the University of Missouri at Columbia found that the more money people spent on the holidays, the less happy they felt during them. And all that stuff adds up to more clutter, which makes more than eighty percent of families feel stressed out, according to researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles Center on Everyday Lives of Families. Even if you can afford to part with the $800 the average family spends on holiday gift buying, the whole season can start to feel a little, well, excessive.

The solution isn’t necessarily to Scrooge up and call a moratorium on gifts. There’s a pleasure in giving a great gift and receiving a wonderful gift—it’s just those very real pleasures can get lost in a pile of presents. The key is to think outside the box, and focus your energy and your budget on experiences that will make your life richer and your homeschool more fun all year instead of just for a few minutes on the morning of December 25. We’ve rounded up some of our favorite ways to give without the gift pile-up this holiday season.

Theater tickets

Why? Carving out time for big events like the theater is easy when you plan ahead. Plus live theater gets kids excited about drama in a way no HD, 3-D movie ever could.

Who will love it: Kids who dream of life on stage, kids who get lost in stories

Cost: From about $8 for a single ticket to $300+ for season tickets to a major theatre

Cheap tip: Tickets at big venues like the Atlanta Opera are going to be pricey. If you’re looking to save, check out student productions at Georgia State University or Kennesaw State University, where you can catch theater and musical performances for considerably less.


Sports tickets

Why? Even small games feel like the big game when you’re cheering in the stands. Watching sports can also encourage kids to participate in sports, and regular physical activity comes with benefits in health and self-esteem.

Who will love it: Sports fans, of course, and kids who’ve never experienced the in-the-stands drama of a live sports match

Cost: From about $5 for a kid’s lawn ticket at a local game to more than $1,000 for prime season tickets

Cheap tip: Again, colleges offer more bang for your buck—and honestly, the raucous crowds may actually make the whole sports viewing experience a little more memorable. You can also score day-of tickets, but that’s tougher to manage logistically if you are giving tickets as a gift.



Why? Mastering a new skill—whether it’s learning how to play the guitar, throw a pot, practice yoga, or groove like Gaga—is so much cooler than anything you can buy at the toy store. (Plus those new skills may come in handy when your child is trying to decide what to give her friends and family next holiday season.)

Who will love it: Choose the right lesson—art, music, theater, sports, handwork, LEGO robotics—and you can thrill any kid

Cost: Varies

Cheap tip: Trade lessons with another homeschooler. Barter is back, baby, so ask a friend with mad sewing skills or musical savvy to give your child lessons in exchange for tutoring her child in math or doing co-op pick-up and drop-off. Everybody benefits.


Garden supplies

Why? Growing a garden takes an investment—in terms of space, effort, and stuff—but the experience is worthwhile and a great way to improve your family’s eating habits (and ultimately reduce your family’s grocery bills). Plus, it’s a built-in science class.

Who will love it: Almost everybody

Cost: Expect to spend about $150 to start a small garden (Our advice: Stick with vegetables and fruits you know your family will eat for your garden’s first year, and get more adventurous with produce after you’ve gotten the knack of gardening.), though you can spend more if you want to plant a big area or hire a professional to help you get started

Cheap tip: A container garden can be versatile and affordable, so don’t assume you have to go big to make your garden happen.

We like: Seed Savers heirloom seeds, where you can choose from five varieties of carrot, six kinds of garlic, and thirty-eight different types of lettuce. Let your picky eaters do the choosing.


Family memberships

Why? The cost of field trips can add up fast when you’re homeschooling. Not only do family memberships at places like Fernbank Natural History Museum, the Atlanta Botanical Garden, and the Atlanta History Center make regular outings more affordable, they can also expand your curriculum.

Who will love it: Kids who love roam schooling, parents who need to get out of the house on a regular basis

Cost: Prices vary, but expect to pay $50+ for family memberships.

Cheap tip: Get the most bang for your buck at museums that offer reciprocal free admission. Though the 90-mile rule means your Fernbank Natural History Museum membership won’t get you into the Tellus Science Museum in Cartersville, through programs like CuriOdyssey that link science museums and zoological parks, you can use your Fernbank membership to visit the Chehaw Wild Animal Park in Albany, the Museum of Science and Industry in Tampa, and other museums around the country.


CSA subscription

Why? Getting fresh produce delivered regularly to your door is a great way to teach your kids what seasonal food means in a world of shrink-wrapped, shipped-from-Argentina produce. And seasonal produce is a great excuse to try new foods and recipes with your kids.

Who will love it: Kids who are up for a little dietary adventure, families who can’t swing a garden but value fresh food

Cost: From around $300 for a ten-week half-share to $750 for a twenty-five-week full share in Atlanta; prices vary in different cities

Cheap tip: Community share agriculture is a great investment, but it can be a little pricey if you’re on a tight budget. If you can’t swing a CSA, consider signing up for a plot at a community garden with some friends or fellow fresh produce lovers instead. You’ll have to do some of the weeding and planting yourself, but the cost is ultimately much less than a CSA.


Bedroom makeover

Why? That cute train-themed toddler room or pink ballerina schoolgirl room just isn’t cutting it for your teenager anymore.

Who will love it: Teens, especially, but any kid who views her room as a refuge

Cost: You can spend as much or as little as you want

Cheap tip: Ikea is great, but thrift stores and a can of paint create a look that’s much more individual.

We like: Loft beds mean you have room for a work desk and a cozy reading nook no matter how big your space is.


Family club

Why? Because you really want to do more nature walks/read more books/eat your way around the globe/ride bikes together every weekend, but you’re always getting distracted by all the other stuff on your to-do list

Who will love it: The whole family

Cost: Technically, you could start a club for free, but you’ll be more likely to stick with it if you make an investment and schedule some dates. So go ahead and buy the family hiking boots for your nature club or splurge on an subscription for your book club. A small investment and some appropriate gear will make your family club feel like an adventure, not a cheap gift-giving cop-out.

Cheap tip: Hit second-hand or thrift stores for used sporting or camping equipment. People who upgrade or find that biking isn’t their thing after all are likely to donate or resell their lightly used gear.

We like: Is it really, really nerdy to suggest you get matching t-shirts for this?


Fashion consult

Why? Teens are finding their own style, and professional help can make the process a little easier. Plus you can eliminate the “I have nothing to wear!” drama.

Who will love it: Any kid who spends more than ten minutes in front of the mirror before you leave the house.

Cost: Expect to pay $35 or more per hour for a personal stylist.

Cheap tip: If you’ve got an eye for fashion, you can do this without professional help. Start collecting fashion magazines, set up a full-length mirror, and work your way through your teen’s closet together, trying different combinations to mimic the looks in magazines or to create your own style.

We like: It’s easy to put together a great outfit in the store, but a real stylist will help you put together outfits from your own closet and recommend a few extra pieces to fill out your wardrobe rather than recommend purchasing a whole new wardrobe.


Family vacation

Why? Spending a week digging for fossils in Arizona or rafting down the Colorado River makes more memories than opening boxes. And shared experiences promote family bonding and connection, strengthening your familial relationships.

Who will love it: Kids who love planning, families who look forward to their annual vacation, parents who want to save up for a big gift over the next few months instead of spending all their cash now

Cost: Depends on the trip

Cheap tip: This is one project where being cheap can actually be fun. Give the gift of a family budget, and let everyone research activities and sights at your destination. Looking for bargains can keep you excited about your plans, even if you’re not due to roll out of your driveway until next fall.

We like: There are tons of cool places to go, but if we had our druthers, we’d be roaming the Greek ruins in Turkey, exploring the ancient cliff “condominiums” in Colorado that were America’s pre-Colonial cities, or swimming with the manatees in Florida’s Crystal River. But we’re kind of guessing you probably have your own list.


Summer camp

Why? A well-chosen summer camp can be an awesome learning experience—not to mention a nice addition to your college application.

Who will love it: Kids who are mature enough to look forward to spending a few weeks away from home

Cost: Depending on the camp you choose, anywhere from $200 to $10,000

Cheap tip: Some camps offer scholarships to help offset costs.

We like: Spy Camp in Lake Como, Pennsylvania, where kids learn spy skills like code breaking, martial arts, and evasive driving, then put their skills to work in a role-playing adventure. The Maine Arts Camp, which is the camp equivalent of homeschooling, lets kids piece together a summer of activities based on their interests.


Sponsor an animal

Why? Scientists have predicted that over the next one hundred years, more than half of the species that live on Earth will become extinct. Kids have a natural passion for animals, so helping save creatures in danger is a natural place to start.

Who will love it: Kids who love animals, kids who are passionate about the environment, kids who want to make a difference, families who’ve been studying endangered species

Cost: From around $20 for a small-scale sponsorship to more than $500 for a sponsorship with benefits

Cheap tip: If you don’t want to spend on a sponsorship but you know your kids would like to sponsor an animal, decorate a Save the Animals bank or jar to go under the tree instead. Tell your kids that you’ll spend the next year collecting all your change in the jar so that you can sponsor an animal the following holiday season.


Movie tickets

Why? Because Iron Man 3, Star Trek 2, The Lone Ranger, The Man of Steel, Jurassic Park, the Phineas and Ferb movie, Wreck-It Ralph, and Monsters University (from the Disney-Pixar team) are all on tap for the 2013 movie season. [Editor's Note: These movies all came out in 2013], but there are plenty of awesome flicks slated for 2017, too.)

Who will love it: Any kid who’s old enough to sit through a film in the theater (and probably some who aren’t)

Cost: $5 and up per ticket

Cheap tip: Sites like Groupon and Deal Chicken can hook you up with amazing buys on movie tickets. Of course, you’ll actually have to read all their email to keep up with them, but if you’re shopping for a deal, it may be worth it.


Privileges coupons

Why? These redeem-for-a-privilege coupons aren’t just a way to deal with a tight budget. The value of things like getting to stay up past your bedtime to finish a book, unlimited Minecraft on a Saturday, a spontaneous day off school, or a lunch date with Mom are priceless.

Who will love it: As long as you opt for privileges you know your kids will appreciate, everybody

Cost: Free, unless you decide to get fancy with paper and decorations

We like: Our kids appreciate coupons that let them pick up a box of their favorite sugar-rush cereal, weekday television marathons, the right to commandeer the remote control for an hour, and freedom to demand the occasional park trip. I suspect that as they get older, things like the right to text after bedtime, get-out-of-jail cards for less-than-perfect behavior, getting to choose the music/audiobook/podcast in the car, and permission to wear lipstick out in public will become more popular.


A fitness membership

Why? Sitting around, especially in front of the television, contributes to obesity and depression. Exercise makes you healthier and happier. Plus many fitness centers offer reasonably priced classes and activities for kids that your family can also enjoy.

Who will love it: Parents who want to stay in shape, families who want to figure out a better way to handle P.E., kids who hate to sit still

Cost: From about $10/month for a kid-only membership to $80-plus/month for a full family membership

Cheap tip: Ask for the best deal a fitness center can give you. If they can’t give you a better rate, they may give you free classes, guest passes, and other perks that make a membership a little more affordable.


An awesome experience

Why? Adventure is the spice of life, and a cool experience lasts forever. Ten years from now, your kids will be home from college saying “Remember when we took that awesome hot air balloon ride?” They probably won’t wonder what happened to that random pile of coloring books under the tree ten days after the holiday.

Who will love it: Families with adventurous spirits, curious kids

Cost: From around $25 to more than $1,000, depending on how much help you need and how many people are participating

Cheap tip: With a little creativity, you can put together an experience gift for your family for next to nothing. Borrow a tent and scope free campsites for an inexpensive camping weekend, or ask a friend with a boat to play captain for the day in exchange for a stack of freezer meals or a free tennis lesson.

We like: If you want to keep it simple, reserving a spot a campground for a family campout is easy and affordable. Up for something a little more expensive?  You can’t beat a hot air balloon ride, an overnight train ride, or a tour of the Everglades.


Expert advice

Why? Whether your problem is perpetual school clutter in the dining room, canning supplies you don’t know how to use, or a sewing machine you can’t seem to figure out, bringing in an expert can solve one of your family’s daily stresses for good.

Who will love it: Anybody who gripes or gets griped to about the problem

Cost: Expect to pay $35 an hour or more

We like: A professional organizer can turn your schoolroom into a functional, attractive space. Can’t beat that.


Making the world a better place

Why? It’s the season of giving, not just the season of getting, and making a family donation part of your family’s holiday spending ritual is a good way to bringthat aspect of the holiday spirit to the forefront.

Who will love it: Compassionate kids will get it instinctively, but you may have to be the driving force to generate that compassion.

Cost: Up to you, but we like the one-quarter rule that encourages you to spend half your budget now, save a quarter of it for later and donate a quarter of it

We like: Charity giving doesn’t have to be boring and meaningless. Encourage your kids to look for a cause they care about, or channel your funds somewhere inspiring, like Heifer International, where your family can purchase a flock of chickens for a family in Cameroon, Doctors Without Borders, where your family can purchase a basic medical kit to help treat people in a troubled area, or, where you can choose a specific person—like a grocer in Haiti or a fisherman in Samoa—to support with a loan you can reinvest in another person when it’s repaid.

This gift guide was originally published in Atlanta Homeschool magazine.

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