As we head into this holiday season (albeit much sooner than I wanted, thanks to the Christmas-themed coffee creamer and displays of holiday decorations in stores in the middle of August), I’m focused on setting up our family holiday traditions without the requisite piles of “stuff.” While I would not consider myself a minimalist, I do try to approach our purchases of physical items intentionally.

Our daughter is just shy of 2, and I realize we are entering the prime years of “stuff” acquisition — which will probably last until she’s about 14 when she decides I’m not cool enough to pick out gifts for her anymore.

Regardless of which phase of life you are in, it is never too early to take a reset or break from physical gifts. Here are a few ideas to help set up your holiday season with intention:

Gift a donation to a favorite nonprofit

My husband’s family has a tradition of gifting the children a set amount of money to give to a favorite nonprofit. This is a tradition we plan to continue with our daughter — and it’s never too early to start. Allowing children to participate in the selection of the nonprofit gives them the opportunity to tell you why they picked the organization and what matters to them.

They might choose your local animal shelter, food bank, or even an organization that helps kids just like them. As your kids get older, you can challenge them to do further research into the nonprofits they are considering. A great place to start is, an organization that conducts deep analyses of effective charities.

Gift a donation to a 529 education fund

When our daughter was born we set up a 529 education savings plan, making it easy for grandparents and relatives to add money directly into the account during the holidays and on birthdays. This is a great way to avoid getting “stuff” when kids are too small to understand what presents are, and it provides a runway to allow the investments to grow over time. A 529 can be used for a wide variety of educational expenses, including tuition (kindergarten through college), student loan repayment, and sometimes apprenticeship costs.

Gift an experience

Gifting experiences is an excellent way to give an awesome gift (and memories!) without the accumulation of a physical item. In fact, research shows our satisfaction from purchasing physical items wanes over time, but our satisfaction grows with experiences. Experiences do not have to be big events (like a trip to Disney); they could be coupon books filled with mom/daughter high tea lunches and son/mother day trips to hike to a waterfall — the options are truly endless. Memberships to the aquarium or the local children’s museum are another great way to give a gift that gives throughout the year.

Gift something to share

Let’s be honest — for most kids between a certain age, the excitement of unwrapping a gift isn’t about the physical item itself but the anticipation of looking at a beautifully wrapped package and then shredding the wrapping paper to pieces to see what is underneath. That glee and joy can still be captured during the holidays without the item staying in your house. Ahead of the holidays, check in with your kid’s teachers to see what supplies they might be running low on or what books they want to add to their class library. Wrap those items under the tree and create a playful label that makes it clear the gifts are to bring back to school to share with the classroom.

Create a wish list

For the family members who insist on purchasing a physical item for your kid(s), create a wish list. Amazon allows you to build a shareable wishlist that does not have to be strictly from Amazon. You can link to any external website, which allows you to support small businesses and be very specific about what lands on the wishlist.

I firmly believe we teach people how we want to be treated; this includes how you want your family and friends to interact with you and your kids during the holidays. Our dear friends started sending out their daughter’s Amazon wish list well in advance of the holidays with the explicit statement that the wish list was exactly what their daughter wanted (gifts) and/or exactly what she needed (clothes, etc).

For someone like me whose love language is gifts, receiving one of these lists can be hard at first. I pride myself on picking out the perfect gift for my friends and family, and being told what to pick from feels less personal. However, as a parent, I understand the utility of these wish lists — you control what comes into your house.

Whatever your methodology for gift management, my hope is that you find one that leaves you feeling calm and at peace after the holidays have come and gone. As moms, we have enough sources of stress in our lives — don’t let the pile-up of “stuff” be one of them.

Sarah Aspinwall
Sarah grew up in Connecticut, but Massachusetts has always felt like a second home with extended family across the state. With a master's in public health and a lifelong passion for healthcare, Sarah moved to Boston after graduation. She is a fierce advocate for better access and reducing the complexities of the healthcare system. Sarah met her husband covered in sweat and lifting weights at a local CrossFit gym (talk about first impressions!). They adopted a rescue pup from Mississippi and welcomed their daughter in 2021. After nearly a decade of city living, Sarah and her family headed to the Metro West area to start a new adventure in the suburbs. Sarah has volunteered for Community Consulting Teams of Boston (CCT), offering pro bono management consulting to Boston-area nonprofits, and she served a three-year term on the board. She is an alumna member of the Kappa Delta sorority and has served as an advisor to the Northeastern chapter since 2014.