The Alt-Consumer Guide to Gift Giving

One of the questions I get asked a lot is, what do I, as an ethical consumer, do about presents?

Well, here's the thing about presents. How many of you have a pile of crap that other people gave you that you never ever use?
Yeah, me too. So instead of giving people stuff they'll never use, why not give them a different kind of gift?
So without further, ado, here's my alt-consumerist gift giving guide:
Gifts for babies (Good for baby showers or early birthdays):
  • Okay, let's be honest here. These gifts are not strictly speaking for baby. They're generally for Mommy and Daddy. So one of your options here is to cut to the chase. Instead of buying the parents yet another baby monitor, consider pooling in with some people for a gift certificate for a cleaning service. Other options in this vein could include food, a gift certificate for a massage, etc. Or hey, how about offering your baby sitting services a couple times a month so that Mom and Dad can have a date night without (too much) worry.
  • If you want to get something for the baby, consider making part of the gift. If you're crafty you could knit a hat or crochet a blanket. If you're like me, and the least crafty person ever, don't despair. For my friend's baby's 1st birthday,  I bought a used copy of my favorite childhood book. Then, I recorded myself reading the book on a CD, and I sent both the CD and book to her. I live too far away to read to Bean in person, but I figured the CD was the next best thing.

Gifts for Children:

  • Have a hard time keeping up with the many, many birthday parties your child attends? Make life simple on yourself. Go to your local movie theatre, and pick up a bunch of movie gift certificates. Then any time your kid gets invited to a birthday, stick a movie gift certificate in a card, and you're done. After all, what kid doesn't like going to the movies?
  • Other good options include gift certificates to mini golf, bowling, ice skating, Chuck E Cheese, etc.
  • For a child you're close to, like a niece, nephew or cousin, or your own progeny, consider buying them a token gift (like a used book) and then taking them out as their main gift. The child would much rather have quality one on one time with Aunt Sue than another toy. You can do anything you think you'd both enjoy whether that be a picnic at the park, a fancy tea at a hotel, a trip to the zoo, or a baseball game.
Gifts for Teenagers:
  • Teenagers are hard. But gift-giving is not. Hand them cash. Trust me.
  • If you really don't want to give them cash, an iTunes gift card is a pretty safe bet.
Gifts for Friends:
  • Again, friends are pretty easy. I've done all kinds of things here. One of the most fail-safe is to take your friend out to dinner.
  • But there are plenty of options here as well. Pool together with a few friends to buy a spa gift certificate. Or take your friend out to a concert, or to a play. Again, your friend would rather spend time with you, than get more stuff.
  • And if your wallet is feeling a little light, a bottle of wine is always classy, and often inexpensive. (Try Trader Joe's or Cost Plus World Market for good, inexpensive wines.)
Gifts for Weddings:
  • I actually love buying non-traditional wedding gifts and have pretty much stopped purchasing stuff off of registries. Because frankly, I find cheese graters sort of boring, and doesn't everyone live together before marriage these days? It's not like we're all Victorians living with our parents until we say, "I do." So how did you grate your cheese before marriage? Yeah, I thought so. So instead of buying the bride and groom a cheese grater they already probably own, why not just buy them cheese? Yes, there really are Cheese of the Month Clubs. And they are awesome. Because nothing says, "I love you," like cheese.
  • In that vein, what about a Wine of the Month Club? A group of people pooled in to buy a year long membership for two of my friends, and they say it was their favorite wedding present.
  • Oh, but there's more! Spice of the Month Clubs? Tea of the Month Clubs? You name it, it probably exists!
  • Okay, I get it. You are tired of the month clubs. Do I have any other options? Why yes I do. What about a CSA share?
  • No food? Okay, how about movie passes so that the husband and wife can enjoy Friday date nights? Or a gift certificate for a couples massage? Or a gift certificate for a nice restaurant? Or how about chipping in with a few people and paying for a couple nights in a hotel so that the couple can have a little weekend get-away?
  • And if all else fails? You know what married couples like most? Cash!
Gifts for Family:
  • What does your mom want most of all? She wants to spend time with you! For Mother's Day, my sister and I flew out to spend the weekend with my mom. Now granted, that's a pretty carbon-heavy present, but on the other hand, we will all three have memories of that weekend for the rest of our lives.
  • Here's a less carbon-intense option: make a nice scrapbook for your mom filled with family pictures.
  • This one is for your brother's family next Christmas. Instead of buying five presents, one for your brother, one for his wife, and three for the kids, why not just buy them a present they can all enjoy? A year long membership to the zoo or aquarium? What about a museum subscription? In addition, a lot of theatre companies now offer a subscription specifically for families for the kid-friendly shows. These are usually less expensive than the regular theatre subscriptions, and the plays are aimed at younger audiences.
Gifts for Teachers/Coaches/Etc:
  • As a former SAT teacher, I can say hands down, the best gift you can give, is cash. Seriously. Even if you're not giving much, I would rather have $5 than a $5 doodad.
  • If you can't stomach giving $5 and a nice card, what about a $5 iTunes or Starbucks gift card? Even $5 will get you a couple coffees or five songs.
  • Still not convinced? Okay, I'll let you buy "stuff." How about a couple nice soaps from the farmers' market? At least those are useful! Or what about a nice beeswax candle?
  • There is also food. But I gotta warn you, teachers tend to get food a lot as presents. Honestly, if you feel comfortable with it, a bottle of wine would be better because the wine will keep.
Now listen. I'm not against giving "stuff" here and there. In fact, some of the best gifts I've given have been things. If you find the PERFECT gift for someone, and it happens to be a thing, go for it! But all too often, I think we buy stuff for people, stuff we're not sure they'll ever use. So on those occasions, why not think outside the gift box?