Maybe your brother hates clutter, or your best friend lives in a shoebox-size city apartment. Or maybe your New Age aunt has announced that she is eschewing materialism and won’t accept physical gifts this year. When you’re shopping for recipients like these, you can’t go wrong with a present that takes up zero square feet. Instead, focus on giving experiences instead of stuff. And if the experience isn’t too pricy, maybe you can come along too.
Excluding physical vouchers or cards, this list includes no permanent objects or gift cards intended to purchase permanent physical objects. Even with that restriction, we found 10 gift ideas that should suit a range of tastes.
Travel can reduce stress, depression, and even heart attack risk (really!) while increasing satisfaction and creativity. But even if you’re taking a simple weekend trip, the expenses can add up. Subsidize someone’s journey by helping cover these costs. Most airlines let you purchase gift cards that can go toward a plane ticket, and for ground-based travelers, you can buy cards for Amtrak or certificates for specific car-rental services. If you’d prefer to put your contribution toward staying somewhere nice, try a gift card for Airbnb, Hotels.com, or the recipient’s favorite hotel chain. Just make sure that they tag you in any Instagram photos from the trip.
Massages and other spa treatments simply make you feel better. In fact, studies show that even mice enjoy receiving massages. This year, buy your frazzled friend a gift certificate for a massage or splurge on a spa day for both of you. Working with a budget? You can pull off a DIY spa experience with some homemade bath bombs.
We all make New Years resolutions to eat better and exercise more—but science shows that we’re unlikely to keep them. And it’s way more pleasant to hit a nice gym than a cheap one. Help your friend keep those resolutions by paying for a couple months of a swanky gym membership. If a full membership’s price tag is too steep, you can at least purchase a few exercise classes. And if your friend needs more motivation, sign yourself up for the same classes so you can hang out while you sweat it out.
There’s something magical about walking through a museum. The problem is, unless you live near a free institution, those admission fees can add up. Luckily, a membership will take care of the charges. Whether your friends prefer to stare at oil paintings or dinosaur bones, you can probably figure out which nearby museums are their favorites. If the membership fee is too pricey, buy a single admission ticket or write an IOU for a visit.
Rather than a year’s worth of museum access, your friend may prefer a one-day experience. For the bold, an outdoor adventure should fit the bill. After all, a spike of excitement-induced adrenaline once in a while can better prepare the body to deal with everyday stresses. Plus, it puts your senses on high alert and may be able to reduce pain and even prime your immune system. Make it happen with a gift certificate for skydiving, bungee-jumping, or even playing with giant construction equipment in an extreme sandbox. Bonus points for giving a group activity, such as a paintball session: Now it’s a gift for you, too.
Indoor day out
Not everyone loves spending time outdoors. So plan a special indoor excursion for your gift recipient, one she would never buy for herself. For an animal lover, buy admission to an aquarium; for a theater buff, get your hands on tickets to a play; for a music lover, book amazing concert seats. Alternatively, let your friend take herself out: Free up her busy schedule with an offer to watch her kids or pets.
Help around the house
Speaking of house-sitting, one of the most useful gifts you can give—and also one of the most cost-effective—is helping around the home. To be clear: This isn’t a cutesy “I will clear up after 1 dinner” IOU. For max effectiveness (and gratitude), you need to promise something that will actually save the recipient time and effort. Giving the gift of time could actually make its recipient happier than a physical present would. So if you intend to clean, then clean the entire house. Or take care of a nagging chore that the giftee really means to tackle, but might not get done without your aid: Washing windows, repairing nail-holes, clearing gutters, shampooing carpets, or even painting a room.
And then there’s food. If you’re comfortable in the kitchen, cook (and clean up after!) a warm, colorful meal or, for someone with a sweet tooth, bake a cake or pie. If you can burn a dish just by looking at it, then cover the cost of a restaurant visit or buy some pastries from a bakery. For the over-21 crowd, don’t rule out alcoholic beverages. You can pick up a nice microbrew or bottle of wine, or make your own beer.
We all like to veg out in front of a screen or two. But between Netflix, Hulu Plus, YouTube Red, Amazon Prime, and premium cable services like HBO Now, all those subscriptions can sap your wallet. Help a fellow viewer by covering just one of these streaming subscriptions, even if it’s only for a couple months. For music lovers, skip the video streaming and get a subscription to Spotify or Apple Music. Or if your friend prefers to watch on a big screen–say to see the upcoming Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker in Dolby Cinema—pony up for a few screenings at a theater with Fandango.
This item won’t work for every giftee, but if your friend or relative feels passionately about a cause—speaking up for science, fighting breast cancer or ALS, helping the homeless—then consider donating to a relevant organization in his or her name. You’ll be giving a thoughtful gift, reducing waste, and supporting a good cause all at once. And after all that sweetness and light, your friend had better buy you an awesome gift in return.
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