How to Gift Better: Rethinking Presents

Four years ago, my allergist gave me a long list of things I could try to reduce my allergy and asthma symptoms. In that list, I found one piece of advice that made me rethink my lifestyle and my approach to gifts. Rethinking presents has not only improved my health, but also my relationship with my loved ones. Let me tell you why and how I have been making an effort to gift better. Maybe this could help you too 🙂

What do I mean when I say that I try to gift better? Rethinking gifts to make them greener, useful, and more meaningful. My grandparents happily surprised when opening their Christmas presents.
My surprised and happy grandparents opening their Christmas gifts

But first of all…

What was that piece of advice that made me rethink my gifting habits?

Declutter!

Yes! It might sound silly, but it is absolutely true. My asthma is mostly triggered by my allergies, including the ones to pollen, dust, and mold. So in my allergist’s list, a lot of items revolved around reducing the possibilities of getting any of these in my apartment. As it turned out, I was already following most of my doctor’s recommendations, including dusting and vacuuming more often than a person without allergies. However, I had a lot of decorative and useless items in my home, and these items kept on catching dust. So I undertook the difficult task of decluttering my place. I sorted, sold, donated, and recycled until I couldn’t anymore.

On a side note, if you need help decluttering, you can read Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. I don’t agree with everything that is in the book, but the idea of tidying by categories instead of rooms was a game changer for me.

I know what you are thinking right now! Decluttering my home is fine, but…

What does this have to do with presents?

Well, getting rid of unwanted, useless or/and decorative items was only Part 1 of the process. Part 2 was making sure those objects wouldn’t just get replaced by new ones. Otherwise, I would have done all this for nothing.

So I started thinking about how to stop filling my apartment with items that I did not like or need. I figured out that there were two main origins to my problem:

  1. ME! (my own shopping and decorating habits)
  2. My family and friends (who would buy me presents on different occasions)

Stopping myself from bringing more “junk” into my own apartment ended up much easier than I had anticipated. Indeed, after getting rid of my original clutter, I quickly saw a positive change in my breathing. But not only that!

  • My apartment looked and felt more spacious.
  • I had less cleaning to do and so more time for myself.
  • I got less distracted by my surroundings and was able to concentrate better.
  • My mood improved since I was then only surrounded by things that “sparked joy”.

With all these newly-found benefits, there was no way I could go back to my old habits.

Now I needed to stop the “presents” from coming in! Stopping others from gifting me objects turned out to be much more complicated. From birthday gifts, holiday presents, and souvenirs of exotic trips to gifting something just because “we feel like it” and want to make our loved ones happy… Presents come in every shapes and forms. So how do you undo years of gifting habits?

How did I solve the “problem”?

I tried several times to say that I didn’t need anything, that my apartment or my suitcase was already full. I claimed that I just wanted to go out and have a good time, or that I only wished to have my friends and family around for my birthday or the Holidays. It did NOT work! Presents and souvenirs became smaller, flatter, lighter… but they still came…

And then I realized…I was doing to my friends and family exactly what I was asking them not to do to me. I was cluttering my loved ones’ homes while telling them not to clutter mine. How could I expect them to stop buying me all kinds of gifts when I was not following my own precept?

As the famous phrase goes: Don’t do unto others what you don’t want done unto you.” Confucius.

And so I did!

Me holding a huge bag of presents at the foot of our Christmas tree. I did not stop buying gifts. Instead, I decided to rethink the way I was getting presents and did my best to gift better.

Did I stop buying and giving presents?

No!

The truth is… When I started applying what I was asking everyone else to do, I realized that I was being unreasonable. There was no way I could stop buying gifts. I LOVE seeing all the smiles and happy faces when people receive presents.

So I decided that I would instead strive to gift better! That meant rethinking presents in order to still make people happy without overloading their homes with useless items throughout the years. In addition, as I was becoming more familiar with the causes and effects of climate change, I added the idea of giving priority to ecofriendly presents.

Since that time, I have made it a point to find gifts that fall at least into one of these categories: green, useful, meaningful, not an inconvenience.

So what do I gift?

1. Essentially: ME. I am the gift!

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean to sound in any way condescending or full of myself. Since I lived for many years far away from my friends and family, the best present that I can give them is to be there for them. To be present!

And you can do so as well. If you think about it, how much quality time do you actually spend with the people you love? When I started reflecting on my own experience, I realized that I had relied on beautifully-wrapped gifts to make up for my absence… When truly… people care more about you than any present you can give them.

Now with the incredible progress made by technology, you can be present even you if you are physically far away. When I cannot be with family or my friends, we organize a Zoom birthday party or a WhatsApp video call. Everyone prepares their own drink, and a little appetizer or dessert tray, and we celebrate together just like if we were in the same room.

2. Moments and experiences.

Most people need to escape their routine, so I try to offer them the opportunity of doing something different. This is something really nice to do when you want to make others happy but money is a concern. You can:

  • Take the birthday boy or girl to a park and have cake there.
  • Plan a walk or bike ride together, even including more friends and family.
  • Organize a surprise outing to a museum or a beautiful town.
  • Go spend the day volunteering with your bestfriend and contribute to other people’s wellbeing and happiness.

To gift better is also to approach presents from the receiver’s point of you, not yours. A gift that is super sweet is to pick an activity that the other person loves but never gets to do, whether they never have the time, the money, or cannot find anyone else who likes it too. I might not like watching action movies much, but if you do, I will organize an action movie marathon for your birthday, and will make sure we have plenty of your favorite drinks, popcorn and ice-cream. What is a couple hours of your time spent doing your not-so-favorite activity if you know it will make someone you love happy?

3. Food.

Food can be a bit tricky, but I find it to be a good option when I have the opportunity to offer a drink, ingredient or meal that the other person cannot usually afford or easily find.

In my family, we do not all have the same means. So being able to gift a fruit or veggie basket from your garden, or your homemade jams, cookies or pasta sauce, is a great option when you don’t have money. It gives everyone the opportunity to participate in the gift exchange.

I also like to bake my loved ones’ favorite cakes or desserts as a present, since some cakes can literally require hours to make.

Sometimes when my friends have allergies, I will put together a little box or basket of food items that are perfectly safe for their allergies. This requires however knowing exactly what the other person’s allergies are, as well as a LOT of time and concentration reading labels. So if I don’t have enough time to prepare well, I get them something completely different. That way, I do not take the risk of putting them in danger.

4. Things.

When I do buy objects, I look for something that my family or friends need, or a better and/or greener replacement for something not well-functioning or broken. For instance, last year we replaced my grandparents’ 20-year-old hand blender. This might not seem like a present to you, but these types of gifts are very much appreciated. When asked what they want or need, most people will not tell you everyday items. They might feel ashamed or uncomfortable letting you know that they need new towels or plates. However at the same time, if they are in any way like me or my family, they will most likely always spend their money on higher priorities, and never replace those items.

I also really love gifting handmade gifts, as well as handwritten cards and plants since both the words and plants will live on for a long time. I stopped bringing or sending flowers a couple of years ago. You can read about the reasons for my decision here.

How did all of this affect my relationship with others?

Believe it or not, shifting my approach to presents has changed my relationship with my loved ones for the better.

Do I mean that they have stopped buying me presents that clutter my home? Nope, although some of them have started to change their gifting habits as well.

In the end, the biggest change hasn’t been with them but with me! I believe this shift is helping me become a better person to the people I love and care about.

By thinking of ways to gift better presents, I have made a stronger effort to understand their needs and interests. I pay more attention to them as individuals, to their wellbeing, and to what makes them happy.

By picking more personalized and meaningful gifts, I show them how important they are to me, and how much I care about them. And to most people, this means A LOT!

By making time for them and/or organizing an activity, we get to bond at a deeper level.

By putting the emphasis on the moment we spend together instead of material gifts, we take money out of the equation. People with less means can get a chance of gifting something as meaningful as everyone else without having to worry about their finances. This makes celebrations much more enjoyable for everyone.

When I first started, I worried that a lot of people would not like my new presents. After all, receiving a wrapped gift is so anchored in our society that old-school people might not perceive quality time and activities as presents, no matter how much time, effort, and money might go into organizing it. But the transition was fairly smooth. As for material gifts, I usually get a smile and a bit of an embarrassed look at first, but then I hear a lot about how the new blender makes such smoother soups, and how sleeping is so much more comfortable in the new bedsheet. And the smiles are there… every time 🙂

Gift better. Family members smiling and laughing at a family gathering. Spending time together and bonding instead of focusing on material things.

What started as a way to reduce my asthma and allergy symptoms ended up giving me much more, including deeper bonds with my friends and family, and a renewed appreciation for the process of giving.

Now…

Do I always follow my own recommendations?

No. I am far from perfect, but I try to gift better presents most of the time.

Tell me! What is the best present you have ever received?

Answer in the comments below or tag me @missallergist on Facebook or Instagram with a picture of your present. 🙂