Why experiences make the best gifts

The headline read, “The science behind why you should spend money on family [vacations] instead of toys,” so of course I clicked on it. (Pardon my Americanization of the headline.)

Research repeatedly tells us that money is better spent on experiences than things—like in this 20-year study. They list many reasons: experiences have the power to shape our identities, the excitement about the money spent starts well before the experience and lasts long after; it cannot be compared—your experience is uniquely yours; we don’t get tired of good memories like we do things.

And according to the Telegraph article, there is scientific evidence showing that family travel makes children smarter. And you can’t overlook the fantastic bonding it allows when everyone is out of their daily routine and spending focused time together.

Toys end up in a landfill—memories stay in our hearts.

There are a couple of good points from the article to keep in mind though. First, children and adults find value in different experiences. Children often value the playfulness of an adventure together, while adults might be looking for more refined experiences. So it’s important to keep both priorities in mind. Second, speaking of that playfulness, many mistake toys for offering that. Most toys (especially as children get older and want more electronics) are played with individually, many are actually divisive and do not involve family time.

The article goes on to list some of the most popular gifts in the UK, and great family experiences as alternatives. But since we in the USA don’t shop at Herrods or Argos, I wanted to make an American version. And because transportation is often the most expensive part of a trip, I’m focusing on options near myself, but use them as examples and see what you can find around you!

So without further ado, here are some alternatives to 2016’s most popular gifts.

Alternatives to toys:

1. Hatchimals, $60

Photo: Texas Parks and Wildlife

Alternative: $65 gets you one night in a fully-equipped cabin at Palmetto State Park. The cabin has A/C, heat, a microwave and fridge, a wraparound porch, a fire ring and a picnic table. You could kayak, paddle boat, hike and, depending on the weather, go tubing. Plus, Lockhart’s famous BBQ isn’t too far away if you’re not feeling up to a campfire cookout

2. BB-8 App Controlled Droid, $125

Photo: Natural Bridge Caverns

Alternative: At this price range, I’ve spent a couple of nights in a cabin in Big Bend National Park. It was absolutely beautiful, with wonderful hiking, scenic drives, picnics, and plenty of evening stargazing. Another idea: take a family of four to Natural Bridge Caverns for $126. Spend a day partially underground in their cave tours, and partially high in the sky, with the canopy ropes course or zipline. (Tip: check around for coupons. For example, the Texas Travel Industry Association often offers a few dollars off.)

3. Power Wheels Ride-On, $200

Photo: Schlitterbahn

Alternative: Many of the popular 2016 ride-on vehicles for kids were much higher than this, but some of the simpler ones are in this price range. And for $180, you could buy day passes for two adults and two children to Schlitterbahn in New Braunfels. Most cities have some water parks nearby, and both Austin and San Antonio dwellers can make an easy day trip to Schlitterbahn. Pack a picnic lunch and head out for a day floating the lazy rivers, zipping down waterslides, riding water coasters, and hanging out at the kiddie pool with little ones. (Again, you can usually find coupons, or check TTIA, there are often ways to save here.)

4. Sky Viper Pro Series Drone, $250

Photo: Keep Port Aransas Beautiful
Photo: Keep Port Aransas Beautiful

Alternative: A weekend at the beach. Head a little further out, because at this price range you have some gas money. Maybe camp on the beach and use the trip money for boat excursions, dinners out and a nearby aquarium. Or spend the money on an Airbnb rental for a couple nights and enjoy all the free things at the beach: sand castles, flying kites, swimming, snorkeling, looking for seashells, and getting sand in everything.

5. PlayStation 4 Slim, $400

Photo: Silver Spur Guest Ranch
Photo: Silver Spur Guest Ranch

Alternative: At this price range, there’s so many options. Season tickets for two adults and two children at the nearest water park? A weekend at Great Wolf Lodge? I’d go slightly over budget at about $445 for a family of four to go on an all-inclusive two-day, one-night trip to a Texas Dude Ranch like Silver Spur. Meals are included, as well as two hours of horseback riding, hay wagon rides, campfires and s’mores, fossil digging, swimming pools and game rooms.

Granted, I didn’t buy anyone a $250 drone for Christmas, but many parents do spend at least that much on their family. In fact, it looks like the average American budgets nearly 1.5 percent of their income to Christmas gifts. And the annual average spent on toys for a child? $371.

For the record, I’m not against things. Things can also be wonderful gifts (and as an adult, I really would get excited over a vacuum for Christmas…). Sometimes things can also be experiences. Like this last Christmas, I gave my husband a hammock so we could go hammocking together—a thing AND an experience. Win-win!

But next time you’re stuck looking for gift ideas…consider making a memory, rather than taking up space.