How to give "Experiences" that matter to long-distance family and friends

When your loved ones live far away and you want to gift them something to show you're thinking about them. But you don't really want to add to the number of things they have to maintain, dust, clean, or move. What do you do? Focus on giving them an Experience.

(This is Part 2 of my series on experiences-based holiday gift-giving. Part 1 can be read here.)


I was preparing to hit “publish” on "Why and How to choose Experiences over stuff this holiday season", when my husband read through it (as per my request) and voiced a stunning caveat to my argument.

“What about people that give others a physical gift in order to give them an experience? Especially for loved ones who live far apart from each other. Sending a gift creates a shared experience because they cared enough to select and send something they thought the receiver would enjoy.”

I had to stew on that idea for a few days. He has a really good point. And I knew he was thinking of all our family members who live over 1000 miles away from us. His mother, my parents, siblings, cousins, even extended family.

We both come from large families. He has 6 siblings, I have 7. With the respective spouses and children included, the size of the clans approaches 50 on both sides of our family. Reunions are a riot and usually require some tolerance and a large venue. And food, lots and lots of food!

At the holidays our family focuses on gift-giving as a way of bridging the distance. Gifts that arrive in boxes or envelopes become a physical representation of the affection, care, and commitment of the giver to the receiver.


So how do we give and receive these critical relationship-building emotions without adding to the quantity of items that we have to maintain, clean, organize, and move?


Implementing my 4-part gift strategy

In my 4-part gift giving strategy I talk about limiting the amount of “stuff” we bring into our homes every holiday season by sticking to a really simple formula. The 4 parts are:

  1. Something you want

  2. Something you need

  3. Something to wear

  4. Something to read

I don’t know if it can be usefully applied in the scenario posed by my husband, but let’s dig into it and see if we can find a meaningful solution that honors both our need for emotional connection across the miles and our need to focus more on experiences over gathering possessions.

Again, if you’re not sure why we should focus on experiences over stuff go read Part 1 here. Why and How to choose Experiences over Stuff this holiday season

We can probably eliminate #3 and #4 from this discussion because sending a gift the receiver can wear or read requires having more intimate knowledge of the persons size or genre preferences to pull this off successfully. That complicates a person's gift-giving, particularly when the two people in question spend little time together.

Let’s focus on #1 and #2 instead.


For long-distance friends and family what would they need and want most from our relationship?



To see and hear us

Well then, an obvious solution would be to Skype, do a Google Hang-out, or use What’s App video calls.

My mother calls each of her children every Sunday (usually). Lately she has wanted to do Skype calling which is most conveniently done via laptop, but that poses a problem when all of my children are scrambling over one another to see and be seen by my computer camera. I proposed that for the next call we use the app on our phones, then I can wander through the house letting each person interact wherever they’re at with whatever they’re doing.


Use your TV for a more "surround" experience

Being able to sit and visit as if you were in the same room would be the most natural way of bridging the distance. We’ve connected computers or tablets to our television via a VGA cable and “watched” and talked to each other via our computer cameras. Both devices need an HDMI port to connect the cable.

In the future, this might become even more natural. Corning is developing some impressive "futurist" technology. Check out their video here:

Since this technology is likely decades away from being technologically and financially feasible for the average home, our best option for giving our family what they want and need from us is to plan that video call, then gift them something we can all share.


Experience-based gift giving ideas

My family goes to the movies over the holidays. Usually a big blockbuster. We can plan to go on the same day then “discuss” movie details on a video call later.

Or you can do any of the following:

Give season passes to a local museum, theater, swimming pool, rock-climbing gym, or venue
Give concert tickets
Give tickets for an Escape experience or similar event
Give day passes to a nearby National Park, National Historic Site, or National Forest

An additional idea is to record your weekly/monthly "video call" visits so that people can revisit them at any time in the future. Skype doesn’t necessarily accommodate video recording, but you could do it on FB Live.

Simply invite someone to join the Live once they are watching. This currently only works when going Live from your mobile device, however. Still, if you do it in the privacy of a family or friends’ FB group, you can rewatch it at any time to enjoy the memory of those moments!


The cons of long-distance experience

The only down-side to these types of gifts is that they are not physically tangible and therefore can’t trigger memories in the same way, even when we take photos and share/post/print them to be enjoyed for years in the future.

Again, this goes back to the core problem my husband mentioned.

If the purpose of a physical gift is to trigger emotions and memories by creating an association between the object and the giver, then no intangible object will ever fit the bill.

So we’re right back to where we started.


The ultimate experience

Then as I was driving around town running errands and thinking about this problem, (which is a real problem that I’m facing with both our families), I had this huge a-ha moment!

If we really value these 3 things:



To see and hear each other

...then instead of giving gifts at Christmas time (which feels like I’m trying to assuage a guilty conscience for not being physically present), why don’t we all put money in a pot to fund an annual get-together? 

Our family has done reunions in the past, and people have been willing to pay for it (after considerable arm-twisting in some cases). But if we’re funding it throughout the year then it doesn’t feel like a burden.

And because we’re not gifting Christmas presents then we can save on buying and shipping an item. Or if I'm receiving a gift, to hope it makes sense in my home so I don’t have guilt about not being ecstatic about it. I’ll admit it, I have totally done the Amazon gift card in years past because….well, I just can’t….

In the interim we can plan weekly or monthly video calls to catch up on news and share what’s happening in our lives.

Then we can still have that amazing, massive family get-together where we spend time visiting, playing, and eating lots and lots of food. That’s enough “experiences” and picture-worthy moments to carry us through the months apart.

I've visited with a few families who fund their annual reunions/get-togethers this way. One that I particularly liked was where each family's contribution was based on a percentage of their monthly income, rather than a set monthly sum.

One family contributes 0.75% of their Net monthly income. Another contributes 0.50% of their Net monthly income. Every other year one of these families does a more extravagant reunion, with the opposite year doing something more frugal so that a "travel stipend" can be given to those who have the furthest to go. 

In my family this would allow those furthest away to attend this once a year get-together without the added expense of paying for flights or multi-day road trips. So, really, a very balanced approach.

The memories we've made at these annual events are worth the expense and planning involved. And they're far more valuable to me, my husband, and my children then an Amazon gift card or even the most thought-filled gift wrapped under the tree.

I guess the only thing left to do is to bite the bullet and get a Chatbooks subscription so that my kids actually have something tangible to remember their memories! ;)


How do you do long-distance gifting for loved ones? What kinds of gifts do you prefer to give, and to receive? Share in the comments. (Because if I can't convince my family to do the Fund, then I need some inspiration asap!)