Friday, June 20, 2008

Easy Green: The Alt-Consumerist Guide To Gift Giving

One of the questions I get asked a lot is, what have I been doing about presents for the past year?

Well, the truth is, that presents are on the list of exempted items. I made an exception for presents because I was trying to make this year as easy on my friends and family as possible. I figured that since they're not non-consumerists it wasn't fair to hold them to my rules.

But, as the year progressed, I started to realize that I was generally able to buy nice gifts for people that weren't durable items. 

Here's the thing about presents. How many of you have a pile of crap that other people gave you that you never ever use? 

Yeah, me too. So instead of giving people stuff they'll never use, why not give them a different kind of gift?

So without further, ado, here's my alt-consumerist gift giving guide:

Gifts for babies (Good for baby showers or early birthdays):

  • Okay, let's be honest here. These gifts are not strictly speaking for baby. They're generally for Mommy and Daddy. So one of your options here is to cut to the chase. Instead of buying the parents yet another baby monitor, consider pooling in with some people for a gift certificate for a cleaning service. Other options in this vein could include food, a gift certificate for a massage, etc. Or hey, how about offering your baby sitting services a couple times a month so that Mom and Dad can have a date night without (too much) worry.
  • If you want to get something for the baby, consider making part of the gift. If you're crafty you could knit a hat or crochet a blanket. If you're like me, and the least crafty person ever, don't despair. For Bean's first birthday, I bought a used copy of my favorite childhood book. Then, I recorded myself reading the book on a CD, and I sent both the CD and book to her. I live too far away to read to Bean in person, but I figured the CD was the next best thing.

Gifts for Children:

  • Have a hard time keeping up with the many, many birthday parties your child attends? Make life simple on yourself. Go to your local movie theatre, and pick up a bunch of movie gift certificates. Then any time your kid gets invited to a birthday, stick a movie gift certificate in a card, and you're done. After all, what kid doesn't like going to the movies?
  • Other good options include gift certificates to mini golf, bowling, ice skating, Chuck E Cheese, etc.
  • For a child you're close to, like a niece, nephew or cousin, or your own progeny, consider buying them a token gift (like a used book) and then taking them out as their main gift. The child would much rather have quality one on one time with Aunt Sue than another toy. You can do anything you think you'd both enjoy whether that be a picnic at the park, a fancy tea at a hotel, a trip to the zoo, or a baseball game.
Gifts for Teenagers:

  • Teenagers are hard. But gift-giving is not. Hand them cash. Trust me. 
  • If you really don't want to give them cash, an iTunes gift card is a pretty safe bet. 
Gifts for Friends:

  • Again, friends are pretty easy. I've done all kinds of things here. One of the most fail-safe is to take your friend out to dinner. 
  • But there are plenty of options here as well. Pool together with a few friends to buy a spa gift certificate. Or take your friend out to a concert, or to a play. Again, your friend would rather spend time with you, than get more stuff.
  • And if your wallet is feeling a little light, a bottle of wine is always classy, and often inexpensive. (Try Trader Joe's or Cost Plus World Market for good, inexpensive wines.)
Gifts for Weddings:

  • I actually love buying non-traditional wedding gifts and have pretty much stopped purchasing stuff off of registries. Because frankly, I find cheese graters sort of boring, and doesn't everyone live together before marriage these days? It's not like we're all Victorians living with our parents until we say, "I do." So how did you grate your cheese before marriage? Yeah, I thought so. So instead of buying the bride and groom a cheese grater they already probably own, why not just buy them cheese? Yes, there really are Cheese of the Month Clubs. And they are awesome. Because nothing says, "I love you," like cheese.
  • In that vein, what about a Wine of the Month Club? A group of people pooled in to buy a year long membership for Honda and Mr. Honda, and they say it was their favorite wedding present.
  • Oh, but there's more! Spice of the Month Club? Tea of the Month Club? Fruit of the Month Club? You name it, it probably exists!
  • Okay, I get it. You are tired of the month clubs. Do I have any other options? Why yes I do. What about a CSA share?
  • No food? Okay, how about movie passes so that the husband and wife can enjoy Friday date nights? Or a gift certificate for a couples massage? Or a gift certificate for a nice restaurant? Or how about chipping in with a few people and paying for a couple nights in a hotel so that the couple can have a little weekend get-away?
  • And if all else fails? You know what married couples like most? Cash!
Gifts for Family:

  • What does your mom want most of all? She wants to spend time with you! For Mother's Day, my sister and I flew out to spend the weekend with my mom. Now granted, that's a pretty carbon-heavy present, but on the other hand, we will all three have memories of that weekend for the rest of our lives. 
  • Here's a less carbon-intense option: make a nice scrapbook for your mom filled with family pictures.
  • This one is for your brother's family next Christmas. Instead of buying five presents, one for your brother, one for his wife, and three for the kids, why not just buy them a present they can all enjoy? A year long membership to the zoo or aquarium? What about a museum subscription? In addition, a lot of theatre companies now offer a subscription specifically for families for the kid-friendly shows. These are usually less expensive than the regular theatre subscriptions, and the plays are aimed at younger audiences.
Gifts for Teachers/Coaches/Etc:

  • As a former SAT teacher, I can say hands down, the best gift you can give, is cash. Seriously. Even if you're not giving much, I would rather have $5 than a $5 doodad. 
  • If you can't stomach giving $5 and a nice card, what about a $5 iTunes or Starbucks gift card? Even $5 will get you a couple coffees or five songs.
  • Still not convinced? Okay, I'll let you buy "stuff." How about a couple nice soaps from the farmers' market? At least those are useful! Or what about a nice beeswax candle?
  • There is also food. But I gotta warn you, teachers tend to get food a lot as presents. Honestly, if you feel comfortable with it, a bottle of wine would be better because the wine will keep.
Now listen. I'm not against giving "stuff" here and there. In fact, some of the best gifts I've given have been things. If you find the PERFECT gift for someone, and it happens to be a thing, go for it! But all too often, I think we buy stuff for people, stuff we're not sure they'll ever use. So on those occasions, why not think outside the gift box?


Burbanmom said...

My sister and I have an agreement: I won't buy her kids plastic crap and she won't give any to mine. Instead, we give a small "token" gift (usually a used book or a toy of my kids that her daughter likes) and then a big, fat contribution to her 529 college savings plan.

hmd said...

We do money for our nieces and nephews. There are 23 of them so it gets expensive, but not as expensive or time intensive as if I had to shop for all of them. I'm exhausted just thinking about it!

We've agreed none of the siblings will exchange so we just gift to our parents. I do local things like nuts, honey, salsa, soaps and salves, or I'll make granola, breads, cookies, and (this year) jam. They get something unique, something that won't clutter the shelf, something they enjoy, and I've helped out the locals and our pocketbook in the process.

EcoBurban said...

You hit the nail on the head. For teenagers anyway. My kids MUCH prefer iTunes or cash any time. This was the first year I actually got through to my mother on this point. She always wanted to buy them board games they never played, plastic junk they never used. She felt like she was cheating by going for the iTunes, but they used them, they loved them and they are still listening to their gift months later!!

Great list!

Anonymous said...

Great list! I love the idea of recording a favorite book for a kid!

I also like the idea of taking a friend out to dinner or whatever, but here's the thing. If you are going to do that, make sure you have a time/place/date all set when you tell your friend. I have had friends tell me they want to take me out and then they never seem to have the time and that hurt my feelings way more than if they had just forgotten to give me anything!

Jennie said...

My favorite is the CD + book. I'm going to use this idea for my godson. He is on one coast and soon I'll be on the other coast. We will likely only see each other once or twice a year. His mother and I already agreed we weren't going to buy each other b-day and x-mas gifts anymore so we can save up our money for trips to visit each other.

Green Bean said...

Super helpful list. I'm actually going to pass this around. Thanks!

J said...

This is a great list! Thank you for this, I am always unsure what to do when it comes to gifting. The last thing I want to do is to put more crap into the waste stream.

Starting last year, my partner Brett and I sent out letters to our family telling them not to get us things for Christmas anymore. We told them that if they wanted to make something, that's fine, if they wanted to give us a hand me down, that was fine, but to otherwise save their money and to just enjoy our time together.

Most of our family understood, and were very respectful about it, even appreciative, as they don't have the most money. My dad, however, who works at Mastercard, and think one should buy love, didn't talk to me for awhile after I sent the letter. I got over it, since, well, it's what I really want. I felt so bad after cleaning out my closets to see all the useless crap I get as gifts! Not that I don't appreciate the thought, I don't want to sound rude, and I tried to make sure I came across that way to my family.

Joyce said...

What a great. practical list!

Anonymous said...

If you are going to gift Trader Joe's Wine here are some tips!

Anonymous said...

Man! What a wealth of ideas. I LOVED LOVED LOVED the idea of recording a CD of reading a kids books. Genius! :-)

Cath@VWXYNot? said...

Great ideas!

A few years ago, when a colleague got married, we all pooled our money and bought them a whole load of ticketmaster coupons. They ended up using some to see a musical, and the rest to see a Scotland rugby game. Ever since then I've always suggested the same gift for any co-worker, and it's always gone down really well! That ticket sales monopoly is good for something!

Amaya 5 said...

This past year I started giving "green gift bags" for my friends and family who are a little more hesitant about using green cleaning products. I get a nice reusable grocery bag from Whole Foods or similar and fill it with different things from green laundry detergent, to eco-friendly dishwasher detergent, dishsoap, green lightbulbs, recycled and/or degradable trash bags, recycled toliet paper.. and things of the such and then put in a gently read back issue of Natural Home magazine or such.
I've found that many folks are worried that they don't want to try products that don't work, so they don't by them. And if they aren't going to buy them, they aren't ready to make them at home yet. So this is a good way for them to get a jump start into a green home and try things they might not otherwise.
Works for engagement presents (start your life together chemical free), housewarming gifts (start your new home chemical/pesticide free). My kid's school teachers (makes my kids feel great about giving green), my family. And I've gotten a lot of positive unsolicited feedback after the products have been used. It has also opened up a lot of informative discussions with folks at showers and parties.

Going Crunchy said...

Awesome post! I've rethought how I give gifts this year too.

For thank-you birthday gifts I gave each child a used paperback book in great condition.

If you see the Color Your World Pink Blog (I'm linked), I've ordered several of her handmade Memory Match games. It's been a huge hit in our circle.

I always think crafting supplies work well for kids too. I just saw another parent give a gardening kit at a birtheay party- -it was soooo cute. Seeds, soil, clay pots. So well done. Shan

Anonymous said...

Good ideas! I know some people feel that giving cash is tacky. If that's the case, think about Treasury bills instead.

When I was growing up, my grandparents would send a card, a little bit of cash or a small gift, and a $50 T-bill. At this point, the oldest is worth over $150 and I think of them every time I pull them out!

As someone who has a wedding coming up, the gift I'm looking forward to most is the presence of all my friends. They're scattered across the country, so this is a rare (and often relatively expensive for them!) opportunity to get together. Anything else we'll treasure primarily for the memories.

Jennifer said...

As a teacher, the BEST gifts have been either gift certificates OR.... totally handmade by the child. I LOVE my decopaged wall hanging that a child made for me, the lumpy christmas ornaments, the handmade cards. :)

I'm not a big fan of giving cash... I would rather give nothing than cash. But... I love the rest of the ideas.

For our friends weddings, we usually pair something on their registry with the appropriate edible/drinkable... a set of crystal glasses and a bottle of wine, a nice heavy mixing bowl full of chocolate chips, sugar, and flour, whiskey glasses and single malt. A little bit of both...

I still find the registries somewhat useful for me and my friends... we are all just starting out in life, even if we HAVE lived together! My husband and I had 1 kitchen knife and 2 tiny pots when we got married, and no money to buy any... the registered for and gotten knifes and heavy duty pan set will last the rest of our lives. Most of our friends are in very similar circumstances, though we are getting older and it is starting to change.

I would definitely only buy a durable and life-long gift off of a registry, though! Something that would used over and over and over, and wouldn't wear out.

Lori said...

Thanks for the list! One thing I'd add for consideration is the gift of charity. Most of my friends and relatives have just about everything they NEED, so I have started donating to charity in their honor. For father's day this year, I "gave" my dad a flock of ducks from Heifer International ( He'll never see the ducks, but they'll go to a family somewhere in the world who needs them and will appreciate them more than he would have appreciated a $20 gift.

ruchi said...

Burbs, that sounds like a great arrangement! And the kids will be SO thankful to have to take out fewer loans when they get to college.

Jam, exactly. So many other people are getting STUFF. I bet the mom and dad would appreciate one less thing in the house.

Heather, that's a lot of nieces and nephews! I think you're wise to opt for the simpler option. Plus, I bet they appreciate it.

EBM, glad to know that I was right about the teens!! Those are two full proof gifts for my younger cousins.

Anonymous, good point. When you promise to take someone out to dinner, you HAVE to take the initiative because they'll feel too embarassed to demand it. So nail down a date within a week of their birthday.

Jennie, glad you like the idea!

GB, spread the word!

Jennifer, I hear you. I have plenty of useless crap as well. And spending time together is what's most important anyway.

Joyce, thanks!

Jason, AWESOME. Thanks for the tips. I am going to be sure to bookmark that page!!

SDG, glad you liked the ideas.

CAE, that's a great idea! You're right. Ticketmaster has EVERYTHING so any couple can find SOMETHING they want to go to. I will have to use that tip!

Amaya5, what a neat practical gift. Thanks for the idea!

Shannon, great idea. I've also been given a couple plants as gifts which are always nice. Sadly, I killed them all. I'm a bad plant owner.

Will, you're so right. Just having your friends and family surround you is what really counts. The T-bills is a great idea.

Jennifer, for sure. For some couples, they are getting married without many of the basics. And stuff like a good set of knives can last your lifetime. Those are things well worth the investment.

Lori, great point. For the charities, especially if you pick a charity important to them or one they're involved with, it can be especially meaningful. For example, for Christmas last year, a friend of mine sent $20 to Reading to Kids which is an organization I'm heavily involved in. It was one of the sweetest gifts I got.

Kristin Joy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

I love this post! I have been struggling with gifts this year too an the ideas you offered up are wonderful. I will pass it on!

Anonymous said...

The best gift I got my mom was a shoebox filled with all the stuff I know she uses every day: HER brand of eyeliner, mascara, a new eyelash curler, her lotion, a few pairs of socks, etc. It was all the stuff she loves and WILL USE!
My brother and I don't exchange, and the present is that we don't have to buy and wrap and worry about it.
My husband and I pick things we need and say they're presents. Like right now he's working on our backsplash, which is my anniversary present. The lawnmower is his present for everything for the next year. He honestly said the best present I ever got him was a welding helmet (and I gave that to him the Christmas he proposed... I felt like it was a dinky gift after that).

Robj98168 said...

My cousin's daughter is getting married and because they live in scotland while she is getting her doctorate, they requested gift cards from stores that don't expire- one of the stores was their gift cards are cool because the whole thing is done online- even printing the gift card. I had such a good time I bought a graduation gift for my cousin's other daughter there. Wrapped them in a nice certificate folder using homemade wrapping paper for the wedding one, and a canvas "graduation bag" for the graduate. Couldn't be any simpler! AND no shopping, major gift wrapping to worry about. Gift cards:I love 'em

Leila Abu-Saba said...

I have two kids, one in special ed who gets all kinds of services from a number of people. So at Christmas we are talking three teachers, occ. & speech therapist, classroom aides, busdrivers, and then all the extras like art teacher, music teacher and so on. (They go to a public school with a bunch of arts grants).

A guy in my urban Oakland neighborhood keeps bees and sells the honey at our local market. He makes his own labels with the name of our neighborhood on them and his address, three blocks from the school.

Everybody got a jar of this super-local honey one year for Christmas. They know the bees that produced it!

So many folk make hand made soap around here that I also give those at Christmas - great idea.

I like the movie idea. Independent book stores also have a gift card called "BookSense." My in-laws always call our local store from out of town to order up credits for us on the holidays. We appreciate it...

Grad Green said...

I really like your suggestions for kids' gifts. My kids are invited to TONS of birthdays. If I know the kid well, I like to give a token gift (often something gently used -- like a cool t-shirt or a book) with a certificate for a day out with my kid. At a recent birthday, the birthday girl told my son right off that it was her favorite present :)

ruchi said...

Kristin, what did you get your daughter? I'm confused.

Bugs and Brooms, glad to help.

Abby, I'm with you. If I'm getting or giving a physical present, I want something I know will be used.

Rob, yes one of the nice things about Amazon is you can get anything from books to toilet paper, so it's a very useful present.

Leila, that raw honey is AMAZING! What a great gift idea!!

Grad Green, cool idea! I'm glad the kids appreciate it!!

Anonymous said...

I just discovered your site, thanks to Beth at Fake Plastic Fish. I think I've finally solved my gift buying dilemna. I've adapted the Chinese red envelope for my gift giving. I have been using it for family birthdays and will use it at Christmas with only one actual handcrafted gift. You can read more about it here

ruchi said...

Nancy, neat idea!

Melissa said...

I also love the book on CD! And I second the charity gifts. I've done heifer, and that was a big hit. We're having a wedding in the fall and instead of favors that people probably don't want, we're making charitable donations with the money we would have spent. I have a ton of siblings / inlaws etc. so at Christmas time instead of buying gifts for everyone, we all buy or make each other one stocking stuffer. There's a limit of $10 so it actually requires a lot more thought, I find, than just dropping $50. It's still buying a thing, but it ends up being really cool to see what everyone comes up with - we all agree it's way more fun than "real" presents!

ruchi said...

Melissa, handmade gifts are AWESOME. I am not that crafty, so they are hard for me, but I've made scrapbooks for several family members. I think with the pictures and stuff they were more than $10, but they were everyone's favorite present at Christmas!!

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