Make This the Year of Clutter-Free Gift Giving

Holiday gifts are expressions of love and gratitude for the people we care about most, which is wonderful. But giving them can also contribute to clutter, which is not always wonderful and can make your presents a bit less of a gift. This year, consider these clutter-free alternatives to giving things that – no matter how thoughtful and well intentioned – the recipients may not need, use or love, and that may only end up becoming clutter in their homes and lives.

If you don’t celebrate Christmas, or you really love the “thrill of the hunt” on Black Friday and throughout December, or you fear doing irreparable damage to our national economy if you stop buying Yuletide gifts, try applying the following ideas to other gift-giving occasions throughout the year.

The gift of fulfilled needs

Take a broad mental sweep of the people to whom you normally give gifts, no matter the time of year. Do (m)any of them really need what you’re giving, or – if you’re honest – are your gifts more like excess on top of abundance?

If there are people on your list who truly do need things and you have the means to provide them, by all means, grant those wishes! Consider fulfilling their actual needs, even if they aren’t very glamorous: Maybe your recipient would really appreciate gift cards for groceries, gasoline, hardware, haircuts or household goods; some items from a pharmacy; or some outstanding bills paid off. Making contributions to investment and savings plans and kids’ college funds can add up to make a big difference in the future.

The gift of helping others

Consider making a donation to a charity in your recipient’s name. Not only will you be giving a thoughtful (and clutter-free) gift, but you’ll also be supporting a cause that’s meaningful to the recipient and worthy of your help. Even better? Spend some time and energy – as well as money – in support of an organization that your gift recipient values.

The gift of experiences

How about forgoing tangible gifts and facilitating experiences instead? Give your recipients tickets to a play, concert, art exhibit, movie or sporting event they’ll really love, or get a gift certificate to a favorite restaurant. To add in the gift of choice, buy a gift certificate to a performing-arts center or sports arena, and let the recipient choose which future event to attend – perhaps with you!

Also think about a longer-lasting experience that the gift recipient could do alone or maybe with you: Pay for dance or yoga classes; music, language or cooking lessons; or a membership to a museum. Just make sure your gift won’t be misunderstood or inadvertently cause offense: A makeover or gym membership might send the wrong message unless the recipient has expressed interest in such a thing.

The gift of time

Increase the value of an experiential gift by spending time with the recipient during an event you’ve planned: Take the person out to lunch, cook a special dinner, plan a picnic, orchestrate a camping trip, arrange for pampering at a spa or salon, explore a city far away or nearby, or spring for a day at an amusement park or a ride in a hot-air balloon. Take a trip to a zoo, museum, bowling alley, skating rink, ski hill or baseball game.

You can also give handmade coupons for your time and effort spent washing a car, doing dreaded chores or yard work, cooking meals or breakfast in bed, providing child care, giving massages or – for kids – letting them stay up extra late. 

You’ll be giving good times, memories and togetherness: precious (and clutter-free) gifts indeed. And when you consider the time, energy and money you spend on buying tangible gifts, maybe you’d rather spend that time and money on being with the person. Even a long phone call, Skype or FaceTime chat, or in-person visit might be more appreciated than an object that arrives in a box.

The gift of consumables

Giving a consumable – though it’s tangible – doesn’t create long-term clutter because eventually … it’s gone! You can put thought and care into choosing just the right perfume or bath beads, a fine box of chocolates or jar of chutney, special vinegars or oils, personalized stationery, beautiful candles, excellent wine or coffee, sumptuous baked goods, dinners you’ve cooked and frozen, craft supplies, fun pens, fishing lures or golf balls (which could be considered consumables depending on how many the recipient typically loses), gorgeous cut flowers in the winter or a beer-of-the-month-club membership.

The gift of choice

Giving gift cards and gift certificates doesn’t guarantee that your recipients won’t end up with clutter, but receiving that gift of choice increases the chances that they’ll buy something they need or will use and love. Granted, opening a gift certificate isn’t as much fun as opening a box containing a beautiful sweater that the recipient loves, but it’s a lot more fun than opening a box containing a sweater that the recipient doesn’t like, doesn’t need, will stand in line to return, or stuff in a drawer, never to be seen again. 

The gift of – yes – cash

Cold, hard cash is a little, well, cold … but cash is also kind because its recipients can buy gas or groceries with it, save or invest it, or pay bills with it if that’s what they need most. Try wrapping it in a clever way to disguise it or folding it into fun origami shapes.

The gift of letting go

On top of giving gifts that don’t create clutter this year, tell recipients that even though you meant well, perhaps you didn’t choose quite the right gifts in past years – or perhaps those things have since become extraneous to their lives – and release them from the obligation of keeping those objects. Say that it’s OK with you if they get rid of them, with no questions asked. This will reduce clutter and feelings of guilt, and it really was your thought that counted. 

Similarly, whenever you receive a gift that you cherish enough to keep, give yourself the gift of letting go by getting rid of something you already own to create a net-zero holiday. It’s no sin to pass on things that you don’t need, use or love to someone who will use or love them more than you do. Think of it as win-win, pay-it-forward recycling. 

The gift of nothing

This will be unthinkable to some, but consider having an earnest talk with those in your gift-exchange circles about reducing those exchanges (drawing names within a group rather than buying for everyone, for example) or ending them completely if they feel burdensome or have become traditions that you no longer value. Maybe others have grown tired of the gift exchanges, too, but they haven’t wanted to bring up the subject!

Or, even if you choose to continue giving gifts to others, you could release givers from buying for you. Years ago, I read about what I thought was an exceptionally good idea in a newsletter written by Edith Flowers Kilgo. To let others off the shopping hook and reduce clutter in her life, she gave out a little certificate that read:

“Nothing for me, please” Gift-Exemption Certificate

Dear ____,

As a person who has acquired all the material goods I want or need, I’d like to give you something special this year: the gift of not shopping for me. Please use the time, energy and money you usually put into buying my gift to enjoy more of the real joys of the season, to give yourself time to relax, or to do something for those less fortunate. This would be the most appreciated gift I could ever receive.

Love, _____

Nothing (no-thing) is a great gift in its own way: You spend no money, time or effort, but you still have every opportunity to tell your loved ones in other ways – even without ribbons and bows – how much they mean to you. 

Gift giving doesn’t have to create clutter if you think outside the (gift-wrapped) box. Wishing you and yours a reduced-clutter holiday season full of good times and great memories. 

Paula Apfelbach, the former owner of Breathing Room Professional Organizing in Madison, is now the copy editor at the Peninsula Pulse and Door County Living magazine.