Your non-material gift guide for 2021

Your non-material gift guide for 2021
An aerial view shows the Santa Claus Village in the Arctic Circle near Rovaniemi, Finland, December 3, 2021. REUTERS/Attila Cser

With the Christmas season quickly sneaking up on us, it’s time to pick out those last-minute gifts. And, with the supply chain shortage making gift-buying all the more stressful, 2021 may be the year to forego traditional gifts altogether and look into non-material gifts.

By doing this, you can also help the environment. In fact, according to Stanford University: “Americans throw away 25% more trash during the Thanksgiving to New Year’s holiday period than any other time of year. The extra waste amounts to 25 million tons of garbage, or about 1 million extra tons per week!”

In total, Stanford finds that “​​We will generate an additional 7 million pounds of waste between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day.” Most of this waste is attributed to gift-wrapping, cards and food waste.

So, instead of spending hours at the mall or browsing online retailers, why not invest in some non-material gifts this year? By “non-material,” we mean gifts that aren’t necessarily objects but that are still kind offerings of warmth and generosity for those you care about. Often, you can make these gifts far more personalized, and you’re guaranteed to get them in time for Christmas Day, even if you start entering your card information five minutes to midnight.

To help you brainstorm the perfect non-material gifts this Christmas, we’ve broken down the best gifts you can get without relying on e-commerce giants or getting stuck in mall traffic. We even got some expert input from Jean Gregoire, the founder and chief executive officer of digital love note messenger Lovebox, to aid in the gift-buying frenzy.


One of the best gifts to get someone is a ticket to something you know they’ll love. Now that vaccinations against COVID-19 are widely available, many venues for events and experiences have opened up to guests. Gregoire explains: “Experiences are a great way to show your love in a non-material way this holiday season. Bonus points if you give an experience that you can do together with your loved one.” So, getting your gift-ee a couple of tickets or offering to take them to the experience is a way of making experiences with them, not just for them.

Do you know this person’s favorite musical act? Concert tickets could be on sale! Or, are they into theater?

Whether it’s Broadway or a local performance company, seeing a live show is always a treat. A sports event, too, could be a once-in-a-lifetime memory for the right person. Or maybe even a surprise trip to a new city for your significant other. Taking a moment to think about the interests of friends and family is a great way to get a good brainstorming session going.

Of course, some experiences won’t necessarily have available tickets. Say you want to take your favorite person to a museum you know they’ll love, or you want to gift them a night of dinner and drinks so that you can catch up for a few hours on your dime. These things are more flexible, and you don’t need to know anyone’s schedule before presenting your gift. You may have to get creative in how you “wrap it,” because you won’t really have anything physical to show on the day of your holiday celebration. You can keep it classy and simple by divulging it in a card, or you can go bigger by making your own “tickets” using Photoshop and your art skills.

Memberships and subscriptions

Another type of non-material gift is a membership or subscription to a service that you know can be useful to and appreciated by the person you get it for. You can go old-school by shelling out a gym membership to present to an athletic friend or an aspiring athlete. Or, you can check out some of the newer digital memberships on offer.

MUBI is one option for film lovers; it’s a curation and streaming service of artistic movies new and old. They’ve featured films like “Bacurau,” “I Like Life A Lot,” and “Sweet Thing.” Plus, each membership comes with a free ticket to see a hand-picked movie in the theater every week. This is the kind of gift that’s thoughtful as well because it’s not just a gift card to the local AMC, it’s not for the casual moviegoer – it’s for the cinephile.

Along that same line, there’s membership to The Criterion Channel, which is a major curation and streaming service of movies dubbed culturally significant. Currently, they have almost 3,000 titles available to enjoy, including “The Beaches of Agnés,” “Rat Film” and “Jennifer’s Body.”

Gregoire has even more suggestions. “For your kids, consider giving them an annual membership to your local zoo or children’s museum.” Memberships like these are fun, support nonprofits and can be extremely educational. In fact, purchasing memberships to “adult” museums are great gifts for other non-children. Have a friend who loves art? Get them a membership to your local art museum. Is your sister a history geek? Memberships to historical museums or sites are in abundance.


The gift of learning is priceless. And now, with the internet making all kinds of information widely available, you can give that gift without even leaving the house. When we mention gifting a class to a loved one, we aren’t talking about math or English classes. Instead, we’re talking about other creative options.

Two great platforms for various courses and classes are Skillshare and MasterClass. Skillshare’s platform relies on project completion and interaction rather than a lecture format. MasterClass, though, is a service featuring major artists and experts in their fields who offer lectures on specific subjects.

Uncommon Goods has an array of one-off, virtual courses and materials for creating experiences for more specific classes. For example, they offer classes in mixology, mapmaking, tarot reading, astrology, flower arranging and a raindrop cake-making class. These classes are best for someone who prefers to learn how to do one thing at a time and who enjoys interesting creative endeavors.

Other, more traditional options are language-learning courses and classes offered by your local community center. Some community colleges even offer night courses in certain subjects, which could be an option if you’re looking for an accredited course. Like spin and CrossFit, fitness classes are also an option.


There’s always someone on your list who doesn’t “want anything” and who “already has everything they need.”

One of the best gifts to get someone who already has everything or doesn’t seem to want anything is to give a gift to someone else. By that, we mean that you can take whatever money you’ve budgeted for their gift, and use it to donate to an organization that supports a cause that this person cares deeply about. You can even put it in the gift-ee’s name!

There are guides to help you find the right charity for you. For example, Charity Navigator is a great resource for assessing whether or not your donation is going toward a worthy cause. Charity Watch is also useful in gauging “the effectiveness of every dollar contributed to charity by providing donors with the information they need to make more informed giving decisions.”

To make this gift individualized, a little bit of brainstorming is required. Scrolling through the gift-ee’s social media is a bit of a shortcut for this one. Do they have a link to a GoFundMe on their Instagram profile? Do they often repost political infographics on their story? Did they use Facebook to raise money for a specific charity on their birthday last year? Do they ever tweet their support for a particular issue? These online spaces can offer clues about what they’d like to see more funding for. Then, when it’s time to open presents, all you have to do is hand over an envelope with the printed donation receipt inside.

Keeping an eye out for non-material presents is just another way of showing your support and love for those around you this year. And, regardless of the route you choose to take, an abundance of appreciation is bound to come your way.

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