Consumables and experiences trump “stuff” on Christmas

by Phil Burgess, Unabridged from the Life section of the Annapolis Capital, Sunday December 23, 2012

Unabridged from my Bonus Years column in the Lifestyle section of The Sunday Capital, Annapolis, Maryland

Buying a Christmas gift for a friend or relative in their bonus years can be a challenge.  What kind of gift do you buy for the person who has everything or for a parent or bonus years friend who is an empty-nester and may be downsizing?  What do you give to someone who has a low threshold for deferred gratification, so when they want something they go out and buy it, not waiting for Christmas or a birthday?

Or, what do you get friends who have gone down to the bay to retire to a life as live-aboards, on boats where finding room even for the necessities of life is a challenge?

What do you get people who have arrived at that point in their life where they have “stuff” everywhere and now spend at least one day a month packaging old (but perfectly good) clothing to be picked up by AmVets or passing on furniture, appliances and pots and pans to anyone who will take them – from married kids and young neighbors to Goodwill?

When we were younger, it was always a problem to find appropriate gifts for parents who seemed to have everything.  Then, during a visit to Green Bay, Wisconsin one Thanksgiving at least 20 years ago, I was fretting out loud about this to Bernie Waldkirch.  Bernie, a family physician who worked late into his bonus years, was a delightful father-in-law who was content by reading, visiting with friends, and having his family around.  “Bernie,” I said, “I have no idea what to get you for Christmas.”

“Not a problem,” he said.  “Just get me a consumable – and one is enough.”  Consumables.  I had to think about that for a minute – and then I thought, “Wow!  That opens up a whole new world of gifting.”  Bernie loved seven-year old Wisconsin cheddar cheese, so now I could get him cheese, which would surely bring a huge smile to his face.  He was a hunter, so I could get him shells for his shotgun and dog food for his hunting dog.   He loved orange marmalade, so now we could buy him a crock of Hartley’s Olde English Thick Cut Marmalade, which he would position squarely in the middle of the kitchen table, properly placed for the morning breakfast.

Once he introduced us to the new idea of gifting “consumables,” it sparked our imagination and brought new delight to senior Christmas shopping – and birthdays and other special occasions.

Consumables, to my way of thinking, are a step up from “expressions” –  e.g., flowers (“Say it with flowers”) or greeting cards (“When you care enough to send the very best”).  I say “step up” because consumables make room for a little more imagination.  But, like many “discoveries,” the unearthing of consumables led to thinking about other categories of gifts, items that would not expand the collection of stuff that clutters the home of the typical couple in their bonus years.  The new revelation: Gifting “experiences.”

Experiences are great gifts.  Think of a subscription to a favorite newspaper or magazine – such as The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist or National Geographic.  These are all experience gifts.  I would also say a good book, but my wife vetoed that.  It’s her view that books, once read and not given away, quickly turn into stuff.

Think of an electronic gift – such as a year’s subscription to one or more premium channels on cable TV – such as HBO or the History Channel – or an iTunes debit card so that those in their bonus years can buy apps for their iPad or attend “how-to” sessions at the Apple store because they want to learn how to do computers, email and the Internet.

But the domain of “experience gifts” leads to an expanded world of gifting that we often ignore.  Some up-budget examples: The gift of an airline ticket to older parents so then can come see their grandkids.  Or, parents in their bonus years may gift a family holiday on a Gulf coast beach where the entire family might assemble for a week to enjoy each other, share experiences and relax.

For a bonus years’ couple on a tight budget or still shedding stuff, there are all kinds of possibilities.  In one case we know, senior parents, preparing to move to a smaller home, gave each of several grown children, nephews and nieces a call on furniture, silverware, art work and other valuables, using a lottery-type approach – and made a party of it.  In another case, one of our neighbors devotes at least a day a week using digital photography technologies and a computer to create customized family histories with pictures tailored to the interests of each grandchild.

And younger ones can also gift experiences, such as a large family we know where the nine kids, instead of gathering, all at one time, on mom’s birthday, decided to spread the birthday visits throughout the year – one family per month.  Another we know gives elderly parents vouchers for raking the yard, cleaning the basement, and other services that senior parents value but would never ask for.  Then, of course, there are personal services gifts such as a trip to the hair salon, the local spa or another indulgence that will be appreciated.

When all is said and done the experience gifts trump all the others.  And the greatest experience of all – and the greatest gift we can give – is the gift of unconditional love, acceptance and support.   The ancient scriptures admonish us to “honor your father and your mother.”  But for those already in their bonus years, it works the other way, too.  And the experience, especially for the grandchildren, may be nothing more than your time – what last week we called “a comforting presence” – perhaps including some good stories about their mom and dad or some growing-up morality tales that will be remembered for a lifetime.

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