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The Best Presents to Give

In separate conversations my mom and my mother-in-law recently asked me the same question: "The kids (my kids, ages 7, 7 -- yep, twins -- and 5) have too much stuff. We'd like to get them something other than stuff for Christmas. Do you have any ideas?"

I've written before about my family's war on clutter, so it's logical that both grandmothers would decide that adding to the pile wasn't a good idea. And truth is, my kids have plenty of their preferred kinds of toys -- sporting goods, books, the little toy animals my 5-year-old loves, and almost enough Legos between them to build a life-size Death Star.

While they'd always like more, and we'll surely get one or two for each of them for the holiday, few toys are likely to both keep their interest or expand their horizons in any significant way.

After some brainstorming, my wife and I came up with a bunch of interesting ideas, and not just for the young ones. If you'd like to give a gift that's about more than a material item this year -- for an adult or a child -- here's some food for thought.

  • Memberships. A yearlong membership to the local zoo or children's museum is great for a family with young children. Memberships generally include free or discounted admission, a newsletter, and access to special events. Kids love the chance to get more familiar with a favorite destination, and parents love taking the kids out for a low-cost excursion that will occupy them happily for a few hours. For an adult, how about a membership or subscription to performances of a local musical group or theater company?
  • Classes or lessons. Here's one to give someone whose interests you know well. How about membership in a karate dojo? A month of weekly lessons with an advanced bridge or chess teacher? Dance lessons? Tennis? Horseback riding? A French or fiction-writing or acting class through a local college or community program? Yoga? Sailing? Guitar? Don't be afraid to call a teacher and ask for specifics: Many teachers will be happy to work with you to set up just the right thing for your recipient.
  • Experiences. Give a memory that will last a lifetime! Concert or performance tickets are classic experience gifts (my wife gave me Rolling Stones tickets a few years ago, which was unforgettable). And with a little imagination, you can put together all sorts of things. I won't be giving my kids a bungee-jumping or parachuting excursion this year, but there are people who might appreciate such a gift. How about a helicopter ride for a young person interested in flying? These don't need to be super-expensive: If money is tight and your recipient is a child, how about a "certificate" good for a special day with a favorite grownup (i.e., you)? Another place to look is your credit card's "rewards" program. JPMorgan Chase (NYSE: JPM  ) , American Express (NYSE: AXP  ) , and Citigroup's (NYSE: C  ) Diners Club all offer interesting experiences as benefits to cardholders. Shared experiences of all kinds can be wonderful gifts.
  • Luxury services. Here's another take on the "experience" idea -- give a special indulgence. How about a spa day for Grandma? A massage? Even car detailing can be special.
  • Charitable gifts. I'm a little leery of the "gifts" offered by some charities -- the kind where you give the charity a donation and it plants 100 trees in your recipient's name or gives an African village a cow. It's not that I think the charities aren't putting the money to good use; it's that sometimes those who give those gifts are more interested in showing off their social consciousness than in giving a thoughtful gift. That said, for some recipients, a gift donation to a favorite charity might be just the thing.

What do you think? Have you given a gift like one of these in past years? How did it work out? Drop me a line and let me know -- I'll mention the best of them in another article before the holidays.


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John Rosevear
TMFMarlowe

John Rosevear is the senior auto specialist for Fool.com. John has been writing about the auto business and investing for over 20 years, and for The Motley Fool since 2007.

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