Dear Dot: What are Some Gift Alternatives to Store-Bought Stuff?

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Dear Dot,

While there are things I love about the holidays, the rampant consumerism depresses me. But friends and family still expect me to give them something. Any suggestions?

—Steph

The Short Answer: There are many ways to give that don’t involve buying something new from a store. Think second-hand; think DIY; think gifts of experience (like an evening at the theater). Most important: give from the heart, and you can’t go wrong.

Dear Steph,

When Dot was a poorly compensated editor early in my career at a magazine in Toronto, I loved a vintage store in Kensington Market. One day, I found a pair of pre-owned Levis jeans — heavy and thick, made of 100 percent denim that could have stopped a bullet. They fit like they’d been tailor-made.

My friend Angie coveted these jeans. But they were mine, and I loved them.

When the holidays rolled around, however, I wondered what I might give my friend, who worked at a law firm and had the salary to be a generous gift-giver. My bank balance was more depressing than a Toronto bar at 2 a.m. 

And so, in some late-20th-century version of The Gift of the Magi, I carefully wrapped those Levis and gave them to Angie. 

There are many ways in which you might enjoy the pleasure of giving thoughtful gifts with none of the ick of overspending or overconsuming. 

Let’s take our first cue from my Levis! And also consider these options:

Purchase second-hand

I recently bought a Gucci wallet featuring Disney characters for a Mickey-loving friend. I spotted it on the Instagram account of my favorite local consignment store. I picked it up — like new — for $80. (Online, even used ones go for upwards of $350.) 

You will know whether your friends will admire your ingenuity and resourcefulness, or whether they’ll wrinkle their noses at your second-hand gifts. Choose accordingly. (And incidentally, if you have a Levis lover on your list, the company sells pre-loved denim.) 

If you’ve got children on your gift list, give Toycycle a gander. Created by a mom as a shopping destination for second-hand toys, Toycycle offers only high-quality toys and baby gear. If you want to unload some of your own outgrown/ignored high-quality toys and baby gear, you can sell on the site, too. Let’s keep this stuff in circulation and out of the landfill of misfit toys.

Created by a mom as a shopping destination for second-hand toys, Toycycle offers only high-quality toys and baby gear. If you want to unload some of your own outgrown/ignored high-quality toys and baby gear, you can sell on the site, too. Let’s keep this stuff in circulation and out of the landfill of misfit toys.

Shop your home

This one requires some honest introspection. Are you giving something a friend or family member has genuinely admired, or are you just trying to offload crap you no longer want? One year my sister-in-law gave me a beautiful tea cup and saucer that had belonged to her mother, and I still treasure it. 

Make gifts

Many years ago, single and childless and with a lot more time on my hands (go figure, right?), I discovered Fimo, a modeling clay. Certain people should not have access to craft materials, and I am one of those people. Did that stop me? Sadly, no. I made Fimo earrings, Fimo brooches, and Fimo sculptures. I was enormously, unjustifiably proud of these items, and I wrapped and presented them to my friends and family, who graciously pretended that these gifts didn’t look like the work of a four-year-old with missing fingers. I shrink a little when I recall those gifts. Consequently, I don’t recommend crafting unless you do, indeed, have talent. But while my Fimo sculpting career died a necessary and rightful death, I have discovered that I can make lovely tea towels. Really! I buy plain flour-sack towels on Amazon, and I use my already purchased, patterned paint roller dipped in craft paint to make them beautiful. 

If you’re a baker, consider making people cookies, pies, or cakes. Who doesn’t love dessert, right? If you’re a gardener who had a bumper crop of cucumbers and made more jars of pickles than you could possibly eat in a year, give some away. Think broadly about what your kitchen can yield: Laura Roosevelt, Bluedot’s copyeditor, is giving people little glass bottles of homemade vanilla extract this year. 

Or support all those talented craftspeople in your community: ’Tis the season for craft fairs, artisan markets, and church bazaars. There is nary a gift more lovely than hand-knit mittens by a 75-year-old grandmother (it doesn’t have to be your grandmother. Any grandmother will do!). Find the guy who makes wooden birdhouses (I got my wren house as a hostess gift). Or the local baker who offers up edible works of art. 

Give the gift of assistance

Offer childcare to the friend with young children (assuming you’re a trustworthy sitter) or yard work to a senior. If you’re handy with a needle and thread, agree to mend a handful of items. Cook meals for a week and provide delivery. If you’re a gardener, Bluedot’s Marketplace Editor suggests creating a bulb garden. Be sure to follow through on offers! Dot’s Middle Child, frequently broke, has a reputation for both making exciting promises and flaking out. His sisters have made it clear that his prospective gifts no longer cut it.

Memberships! Subscriptions! Experiences!

Bluedot’s Whitney Multari suggests giving someone a membership for a local CSA (Community- Supported Agriculture). Or give lessons, she says, such as cocktail-making or dancing! Elizabeth Weinstein, Bluedot’s Marketplace Editor, loves giving (and getting) gifts of experiences — a concert, a museum membership, a day out at a vintage shop (where your giftee can choose something they love). Alison Mead, one of Bluedot’s production staff, used to love receiving a Steamship Authority gift card when she lived on Martha’s Vineyard and relied on the ferry to get on/off the Island. She also loved getting a membership to the Audubon Society (“It came with a cool winter hat,” she said), or a gift certificate for a massage or yoga classes. Each year, I buy my family an “experience.” So far, we’ve had chess lessons from a local Grand Master, gone to a bunch of concerts, visited an alpaca farm, had a chef teach us how to make pasta, and more.

Get creative

Bluedot art director Tara Kenny remembers a very special gift: “Many years ago, when I still lived in Ireland,” she tells me, “our mom bought us and gave us a certificate to a tree planted in the Dublin mountains with the coordinates to that specific tree. I might have been about 15 at the time but I really loved that gift.”

Wouldn’t you love to think that someone is still thinking decades later about a gift you gave? 

And we’ve barely scratched the surface. 

There are so many ways to give without going broke and/or breaking our planet. Please share some of yours — drop them in the comments. 

Creatively,

Dot

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