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The Minimalists

Joshua Fields Millburn & Ryan Nicodemus write about living a meaningful life with less stuff for 4 million readers. As featured on: ABC, CBS, NBC, BBC, TODAY, NPR, TIME, Forbes, The Atlantic, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and National Post. They live in Missoula, Montana.

Minimalist Gift-Giving

Last year we visited 100 cities in eight countries during our Everything That Remains Tour, and one question arose in nearly every city, posited by parents and children, husbands and wives, even reporters: how do minimalists handle gift-giving? Naturally this question spawned other questions, which we decided to reproduce and answer below.

Before you were minimalists, how did you approach holiday gift-giving?

Ryan: Obligatorily. Many of us give material items to attempt to make up for the time we don’t spend with the people we love. I did this for years: “Here’s a necktie or a pair of cufflinks or an oven mitt because today is December 25th. Now what did you get me?”

Usually little thought went into it. I felt obligated to give something—anything!—just for the sake of giving, without understanding why I was actually giving. I purchased gifts without asking any of the important questions, such as: What’s the purpose behind giving this particular gift? Will the recipient find value in this gift? Is this something they need? How could I make this more meaningful for both of us? These are important questions, but we rarely ask them because the answers aren’t as easy as simply checking the box with a shiny new widget.

How do you handle gift-giving these days? Do you buy gifts? Make gifts? Shun gifts?

Joshua: I tend to avoid physical gifts, but I still enjoy participating in the holidays. I now give gifts of experiences, charitable donations, or, if I give material goods, I give consumables, such as a bottle of wine or a bag of coffee from a local roaster. It must be something someone can use, or, if it’s an experience, it’s a memory that can be shared, from concert tickets to an evening of watching the sunset together. It sounds cliche until you actually do it, and then you realize it’s great.

Do you have any tips for how to resist the gift-giving frenzy?

Ryan: Here are the five steps we’ve taken to make our holidays more meaningful:

Avoid holiday doorbuster sales. Whether it’s Black Friday or any of the subsequent big shopping weekends, it’s best to abstain. Consumption is an unquenchable thirst. Retailers and advertisers and manufacturers know this too well, and these sales are designed to take advantage of our insatiable desire to consume. Instead, support your local businesses; support the people in your community who are making a difference.

Gift your time. If you could receive only one Christmas present this year, what would it be? The answer for me is simple: time. The best present is presence. You see, the people I care about mean much more to me than a new pair of shoes or a fancy new gadget or even a certified pre-owned luxury car with a huge bow on top. So the next time someone asks you what you want for Christmas, consider responding, “Your presence is the best present you can give me.”

Gift experiences, not stuff. Here’s an idea: what if you decide to gift only experiences this year? How much more memorable will your holidays be? Your experiences build and strengthen the bond between you and the people you care about. Don’t you think you’ll find more value in these experiences than in material gifts? Don’t you think your loved ones will find more value, too?

Ask for better Christmas gifts. I’d be remiss if I didn’t discuss the gift of giving: the gift of contribution. The age-old apothegm is true: ’tis better to give than to receive. Last year I gave my birthday to Charity Water, and we raised thousands of dollars with friends and family to gift clean water to hundreds of people in Cambodia who didn’t previously have access to it. Perhaps you can do the same this Christmas: instead of gifts, you can ask people to donate to your favorite charity in your name. Wouldn’t that feel better than a superfluous necktie, a pair of shoes, or a piece of jewelry? (If you’re looking for a good charity, consider donating to the orphanage we’re building, or visit GiveWell for a list of other effective nonprofits who are doing good in the world.)

Have a Soup-Kitchen Christmas. You can do what we do many years and donate your time to a local soup kitchen or homeless shelter or any place that needs volunteers. Two years ago Joshua and I were in Vancouver during Christmas, where we and a local group of our readers donated part of our Christmas Day to a food bank in need of help during the holidays. You see, sometimes we have to contribute to help other people, but sometimes we need to contribute to help ourselves. When we step into our discomfort zones and contribute beyond ourselves, we grow, we experience the world in a different way, and we gain new perspectives from which to be thankful.

Any tips for great gifts that don’t break the bank?

Ryan: To reiterate my third point above, here are some meaningful experiences that won’t break the bank: tickets to a special event, a home-cooked meal, walking somewhere together without a plan, a full-body massage, a sincere handwritten letter, your time and undivided attention.

Some more ideas: hot springs, cross-country skiing, hiking, backpacking, camping, volunteering, Christmas-tree hunting, sunrise seeking.

How do your families feel about your minimalist ways? Do they expect you to buy them gifts?

Joshua: Ultimately, it comes down to setting the appropriate expectations with the people in our lives. Yes, gift-giving is a common practice in our society. Yes, many people—friends, family, coworkers—expect us to hand out gifts on holidays. And yes, it is difficult to deviate from this inveterate tradition, especially in today’s consumer-driven, heavily mediated world in which our adequacy is constantly questioned.

But if we make our intentions and expectations known to friends and family—if we explain why we’re making the decisions we’re making—then we will find that the people who love us will support the choices we make, whether that’s choosing not to participate in gift-giving, or gifting alternatively and creatively. It is support—not gift-giving—that is the hallmark of love.

There are some deep psychological issues for people around gift-giving, especially involving the idea that people are “providing” for their kids, and that the size and cost of the gift demonstrates their love. Any thoughts on how to stay focused on meaningful gifts?

Joshua: You’re right. And of course, no matter the time of year, there’s always another holiday lurking somewhere around the corner. Valentine’s Day. Mother’s Day. Sweetest Day. Birthdays. Christmas. We’ve programmed ourselves to give and receive gifts on these and many other holidays to show our love for one another. We’ve been told gift-giving is one of our “love languages.” This idea is ridiculous, yet we treat it as gospel: I love you—see, here’s this expensive shiny thing I bought you.

To stay focused, we must first focus on the right things: we must change our focus from consumption and obligation to love and support. To change these ingrained patterns, we must change our mindsets.

This is something we, as a society, rarely discuss. Gift-giving is not a love language any more than Pig Latin is a Romance language. Obligatory gift-giving is a pernicious cultural imperative, and we’ve bought it (literally) hook, line, and sinker. We’ve become consumers of love. The grotesque idea that we can somehow commodify love is nauseating. We often give gifts to show our love because we are troubled by real love. Buying diamonds is not evidence of everlasting devotion; commitment, trust, understanding—these are indications of devotion.

Gift-giving is, by definition, transactional. But love is not a transaction. Love is transcendent: it transcends language and material possessions and can be demonstrated only through our thoughts, actions, and intentions. Perhaps Jonathan Franzen said it best in his wonderful book, Farther Away: “Love is about bottomless empathy, born out of the heart’s revelation that another person is every bit as real as you are. To love a specific person, and to identify with his or her struggles and joys as if they were your own, you have to surrender some of your self.”

But obligatory gift-giving isn’t surrendering yourself to someone; it’s surrendering to consumerism and the status quo. This doesn’t mean there’s something necessarily wrong with buying a gift for someone. But we needn’t fool ourselves by associating that gift with true love—love doesn’t work that way. Instead of thinking of love as some sort of abstruse emotion, let’s think of love as an action verb. If we want to show our love for others, we must do so with our actions. Creating great experiences for the most important people in our lives—gifting experiences, not stuff—is a great place to start.

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