How Expats Go Christmas Shopping, Part 2

The “Less Is More” Edition of Christmas Shopping

In a previous post, we talked about shopping online.  Shopping online lets us buy & deliver straight to the recipient’s door.  And that’s the greatest thing since sliced bread for expats.  No sky-high postage, no language struggles at the post office and delivery time is days, not weeks.

However, for some people buying anything can be a downer because, a gift means just another thing to own, shelf and eventually get rid of.  So, let’s talk about options.

Alternative Ideas to Giving a Gift

Instead of giving a gift you wrap up and send, let’s talk about giving the “gift of giving”:

  • Lessons, memberships
  • Giving a Donation to Charity in Someone’s Name
  • Giving Yourself
  • “Buy-Nothing” Christmas (typically within family)

Before you say “Yeah, but this wouldn’t work with Mr. Sowenso,” think again. Mr. and Mrs. Sowenso are just like everyone else…they have their own illnesses, their own personal challenges and dramas (no family is flawless).  When you donate to a worthy cause, perhaps even one that they already donate to themselves, the Sowenso’s will greatly appreciate such a personal gesture.

Idea #1: Lessons & Memberships

swimming lessons

It doesn’t fit in a box, but it is super personal and useful.

Swimming lessons, gymnastic lessons, a membership to an online book club, it’s something the person wants, but -hey, you bought it for them!

This year (Christmas 2010), my parents and my wife’s parents are planning together to buy us a family membership at the city gym. That membership will serve us (family of 4) all year. Then my wife’s sister, upon hearing the membership news, offered to buy our daughter two months of swimming lessons at the same gym.   This gift will give me and the kids more to do during the week and will give us a fun way to stay in shape.  Now that’s a gift that keeps giving!

Idea #2: Giving a Donation to Charity in Someone’s Name

charityA gift you hear about, but rarely do.  Why?  Because society says if you don’t walk a mall like a credit-card-toting zombie for 3 hours, you’re not patriotic.  …well, perhaps that’s an overstatement.

Look -there are big benefits to donating to a charity in someone’s name.  These benefits do not exist when you buy them the newest kitchen appliance as seen on TV.  Benefits that outweigh any particular item on a shelf.

Benefits include:

  • You feel good
  • Mr/Mrs Sowenso feels good
  • A good cause is further supported
  • Less stuff accumulating in closets, on shelves, in drawers
  • Lastly, a tax write-off (for Mr/Mrs Sowenso)

On a personal note, my wife and I tried this approach for Christmas 2009.  We were so inspired after reading “Three Cups of Tea” by Greg Mortenson, we shipped a copy of the book to our family and close friends.  Along with the book, we also made donations in each person’s name to the Central Asia Institute.  Toward the end of January, I also sent a reminder to everyone with their respective confirmation of a donation so they could make use of it when filing taxes.

Idea #3: Giving Yourself

Now here’s an interesting slant.  You don’t give a wrapped gift, money nor a tax write-off.

You give the most personal gift of all: You.

This means you tell your friend that  you will perform some job for them, no questions asked. Perhaps you fix their broken gutter, walk their dog for them for a month, babysit their kids, make a special supper, other house repairs, etc.

Benefits include:

  • You feel good
  • Mr/Mrs Sowenso feels good
  • Stuff gets done

Giving yourself takes finesse.  Of course, any gift should be given with sincerity, but giving yourself takes some extra finesse to show it’s sincere.

Tips for Successfully Giving Yourself:

  • Handwrite a note saying this is their Christmas gift and you’re happy to do it
  • Schedule a date. You do the scheduling because it’s your gift to them
  • Know all the details before doing the job.  The only worse gift than a job undone is a job done wrong
  • If at all possible, carry out the job without the person’s intervention or help

While I love this idea, I find it a real challenge.  Mostly because I’m not sure I have a lot to offer.  I’m not particularly handy or mechanical.  I’m an decent baker (a lot of practice), but my only real “talent” is technical, computer stuff.  I could design a blog or make brownies for Christmas, but it’s tough picturing those as gifts.  What do you think?

In short, giving yourself takes creativity.  And it takes a skill which you can share and others will find valuable.

Idea #4: “Buy-Nothing” Christmas

buy nothing -agreed

So, a “buy-nothing” Christmas means what the name suggests: you buy nothing. In fact, the whole family, the group of you decide to buy nothing.

This one is difficult.  I don’t know of a family who successfully pulled this off.  If you do, send me an e-mail or post a comment.  I find the idea amazing, but ….too difficult, at least with my family.  Already my wife and I struggle with my parents spending waaay too much on our kids, despite our protests every year.  (And yes, we’ve talked about it, to the point of tears shed…what to do?)

So a buy-nothing Christmas doesn’t mean a spend-nothing Christmas.  Instead, you all redirect the gift-budget toward something else.  This requires the group to decide before Christmas together “Who’s in?” and “What are we spending on?”

Here are some ideas how to pool your money together:

  • The group takes a trip together
  • A group charitable contribution (perhaps with some PR, inspiring others to fundraise
  • The group organizes together at the local food kitchen, shelter or orphanage.
  • You all say “Screw it- no gifts at all this year!” (might as well shout “Bah humbug,” too)

Personally, I think the idea kicks ass.  I like it because instead of having one person sponsoring a good cause, you have a whole family helping a good cause (well, except for the group cruise idea).  It’s committed love on a grand scale.  But again, I find it a tough leap from idea to implementation.

What makes this idea difficult is every family has a member who struggles to not give a gift.  That person decides “But I’ll just give one teeny-weeny gift to Mrs. Sowenso.”  Then, the recipient is left feeling awkward: “Oh, but I don’t have a gift for you because…” and it’s just an awkward feeling festival.  To avoid 100% failure, everyone must be 100% committed.

Tips for Successful Buy-Nothing Christmas

  • If necessary, do a small gift (like $5 or less) exchange.  Beware: slippery slope ahead
  • “Market” it as a budding family tradition.  Thus, more motivation to stick to the plan
  • If one person is destined to fail, exclude them from the group

Summing Up

It’s not easy to replace traditional gift-giving.  But your time, your money and yourself are gifts with more meaning, more heart and more…”Christmas cheer” than the newest gadget or game.  And once you do it one year, it will be difficult to switch back the next year.

Photo credits: (me -my son), Nico Yeo, Nader Makki, Southen, Philip Klinger

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An American who likes to move around. I now live on the eastern Canadian seaboard. My job? A stay-at-home dad for two cute but demanding bosses. My wife? Also cute; not so demanding. My wife and I both love travel. We met in South Korea, travelled across Australia, India, Europe and beyond. We lived in Czech Republic for four years. Many stories to tell and experience to share. If you let me, I will help you travel as we do. Enjoy.

9 thoughts on “How Expats Go Christmas Shopping, Part 2”

  1. Hi Jeff, those are some great alternatives. Another thing we have done in our extended family is agree to only buy gifts for kids, not adults. It worked out fairly well, but like the full buy nothing, it gets awkward if everybody involved is not on board.

    1. Thanks Mike for commenting. That’s a good approach – a real compromise. I do wonder how other folks handle the piles of gifts.

  2. Wow… great list of ideas. Spent some time thinking about this one, eh? 🙂

    I love the gym membership and swimming lessons idea… gives me some thoughts for my nephew (although in a couple of years). Some other thoughts are gift cards… but gift cards with thought behind them, like a massage or a nice evening out (tickets to the theatre, nice restaurant, etc). Again, trying to be creative and personal even though a gift card may feel impersonal.

    1. Thanks Andrew. Yeah, I’m luke-warm to the gift card idea myself. For me, what makes a gift card personal or not is if it’s relevant to something the person genuinely needed or said they would like to do someday.

      Like, if someone just gives us a gift card to a home decor store, I may actually be insulted like “What, you saying my place is a dump?”

      But a gift card for a massage, with a note that says “You’re stressed; you could use some pampering…here’s a good start. Love, …” — Now, that’s creative with a personal touch, right?

      Hmmm, I hope no one gives us a home decor gift certificate this year. 🙂

  3. Hi Jeff,
    That post is really creative ! I love the idea of giving the gift of “yourself”. My most precious asset is my time , I am not good at baking or arts but I am good at listening when I am in the “now and there”. I can make 120 minutes gift cards for my family or friends, to use all at once or by small bites on phone, Skype, email, in person valid until next Christmas. What about that ?
    Thanks again for the great list.
    Happy Xmas to you and family Jeff

    1. That’s an interesting idea, Anne.

      Yes, time is precious. Speaking of that – thanks for taking time to read and comment. 🙂

      Merry Christmas,

  4. Hi,
    I am not sure my off springs, who are struggling to make ends meet, would be that impressed if I told them Mum and Dad had “Given a Donation to Charity in their name” It may make me feel better, but charity at some point has to begin at home.

    In a recession little gifts are often luxury items that the recipient would not buy themselves.

    I feel giving to charity is very personal. Good post though with some interesting ideas.

    We now tend to buy Amazon vouchers so people can have the pleasure of choosing their present and things that they ACTUALLY want.

    The spirit and true meaning of Christmas has definitely moved on which is sad. The political correctness in the UK and the “PC brigade” have overshadowed Christmas – Christmas and the birth of Christ is almost taboo. I could write a book on this…so better stop now!

    Feliz Natal

    1. Great points. One charity idea is to give your recipient a gift card to Kiva ( You donate a certain amount and then they (your gift recipient) chooses how to use that donation to help others via micro-loans. The nice thing about Kiva is that the money is a gift that keeps on giving … as the loans are repaid, the money is available again to loan to another person. My wife’s been doing this for a couple of years and has helped a lot of individuals to build their business.

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