NEW YORK (MainStreet) — If you're consistently dismayed at the growing pile of toys, clothes and electronic gadgets in your home, you're not alone. Since the holidays are often an unwelcome opportunity to add more "stuff" to drawers and closets, more families are getting creative with their celebrations, opting for nontraditional gift-giving and shared experiences rather than store-bought goods.
The Buy Nothing Project, a grassroots "gift economy" group that focuses on circulating goods through a community rather than buying new, had just one 400-member group 16 months ago. Today, the organization boasts more than 350 groups in nine countries and more than 80,000 members.
"More people are just saying no to the constant consumerism of the holidays," says Liesl Clark, co-founder of The Buy Nothing Project. "People have had an awakening that they own too much stuff. We're giving ourselves too much, we're giving our kids too much and we're all feeling kind of sick to our stomachs about it."
Ready to change your holiday traditions for the better? Here's how you can avoid the malls and start cutting back on expensive store-bought gifts:
Bring it up gently
If you want to radically alter the way your family celebrates the holidays, it's a little late to bring it up this year, but you can plant the seeds of change for next year.
"If you want to break with tradition, you have to do it well in advance of the holidays, because people do their shopping in advance," says clinical psychologist Barbara Greenberg. "But this year you can start talking about how nice it would be to make homemade gifts, do charitable work or cook a meal together. Those things always mean more than material gifts anyway."
Whenever you approach your family and friends with your new holiday plans, you've got to sell it.
"Say, 'We love you and we want to make this fun. This year our family is making a change, and as always we want you to be a part of our celebrations,'" she says. "It's all in the presentation."
You may find that your friends and family would rather scale back on gift-buying slowly.
"You have to honor what everyone is doing. You want to do it in the spirit of non-judgementalism. There are people who live and love to shop," she says. "If that is what they insist they want to do, then your idea might not catch on the first year. It may catch on the second or third year."
Emotions surrounding gift-giving often run high, Clark says. Some people are ashamed to say they don't want to give gifts, while others can't comprehend not showering a child with gifts at Christmas.
"When I told people we weren't giving my daughter gifts for her eighth birthday, some family friends were horrified. 'What do you mean you're not buying her a gift?' There is an expectation in these settings that you're going to give your child whatever they want," she says.
As you wait for your family and friends to catch on to your way of doing things, participate, but participate in your own way, says Marie Anakee, founder and editor of GaveThat.com.
"From an etiquette standpoint that's really the best thing each of us can do — be a gracious recipient and allow others to celebrate the holidays how they wish," Anakee says. "I think it's important to weigh their feelings. Some people are under the wrong assumption that when someone gives them a lavish gift they have to match it in kind. This is totally untrue."
Give your time or an experience
When you look back on the holidays throughout your life, you remember experiences the most, not presents, Greenberg says.
"You don't remember the stereo. You remember the time you went to a late movie, went out for Chinese food or went to the botanical gardens together," she says. "This is why experiences are such a meaningful present."
Instead of giving a store-bought gift, consider tickets to a concert, the ballet or a baseball game. If that's out of your price range, offer to babysit or cook a meal for your loved one. Any kind of service you can provide is not only a great present, it also allows you to spend more time with the recipient throughout the year, she says.
"Experiences almost always trump physical things because they really can never be taken away from someone," says Anakee, adding that an in-home movie night, baking cookies, making cards and ornaments together or putting together care packages for the elderly can be great holiday bonding experiences.
"Just taking the time to listen, laugh and catch up in a warm and loving environment can be an amazing gift," she says.
Also, don't forget about the marketable skills you may have. Your friends and family might love a lesson or two.
"Help someone start a garden or give them a knitting lesson," Greenberg says. "And this works for any age group. Young people could give their grandparents computer lessons."
Make something or give something sentimental
"I have yet to meet someone who feels that it's more appropriate to buy something for someone than to make something," Clark says. "We make candles every year, and our family really enjoys receiving them just as much if not more than something wrapped in plastic cellophane bought in a fancy shop."
With that said, it's important to be cognizant of the receiver's likes and interests, Clark says. A tween probably isn't going to want a bulky knitted sweater every Christmas, but they might be into other types of arts and crafts.
Sentimental gifts also mean a lot, especially family heirlooms. If you have a child in your family who is old enough to take care of a nice piece of jewelry, consider rummaging through your jewelry box and passing something down. Likewise, newlyweds might appreciate an old painting or vase with a little family history.
"These gifts have nothing to do with the value, and everything to do with the meaning behind them," Clark says.
— By Kathryn Tuggle for MainStreet