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Not-So-Traditional Ideas for Holiday Gifts

Susan Johnston
A giant Christmas tree stands in the middle of the Galeries Lafayette department store in Paris ahead of the holiday season in the French capital, November 6, 2013. REUTERS/Charles Platiau (FRANCE - Tags: SOCIETY)

Beth Pearson always liked showering friends and family with holiday gifts. But about 15 years ago, it occurred to her that everyone she and her family knew already had everything they needed.

"Why are we spending this much time and energy sending gifts?" she wondered to her husband Bob. That year, they agreed not to buy holiday gifts. Instead, the couple donated to the global nonprofit Heifer International, which brings livestock and agriculture to impoverished areas of the world, and also adopted a family through her church. Instead of buying gifts for relatives and friends, they bought towels, utensils and other items for a family that really needed it.

They've continued that tradition ever since, and Pearson, 61, of Pittsburgh, says she doesn't miss the presents under the tree. In fact, opting out of traditional gifts has relieved some of the typical holiday stress and provided more time to enjoy other aspects of the season. "The second year we did this, my husband and I went to a Target soon after Thanksgiving and we were standing in line with all these people who looked so frazzled," she says. "The two of us were humming Christmas songs."

[Read: How to Master Your Holiday Shopping List.]

Pearson isn't the only person who thinks holiday gift-giving has gotten out of hand. While there are typically good intentions behind gifts, Joel Waldfogel, an economist and author of "Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn't Buy Presents for the Holidays," says they are often not the best use of money. When we shop for ourselves, he asserts, we choose things that are worth more than the purchase price to us. But when shopping for others, we don't always know what the recipient wants.

"I might buy something that's worth less than $100 to them simply because I don't know what they like and what they need," Waldfogel says. "People are best suited to make decisions for themselves, so the challenge with gift-giving is that we don't have the person who's best informed making the decision."

Gift-givers who are close to the recipient may have a better idea of what the recipient wants or needs, but Waldfogel says buying a gift for someone you aren't in frequent contact with (like in-laws or a co-worker you're not close to) can be more challenging.

[See: Skip the Store: Buy These Items Online to Save Time and Money.]

"Those tables at the mall in those department stores are covered with gift items," Waldfogel says. "Those tend to be items that nobody wants, but they're on display because givers have an obligation to buy gifts." Pearson echoes this sentiment, adding "you go to yard sales and see the results of many peoples' Christmases. It's junk that takes up space."

Pearson does buy gifts for her grandchildren but likes to focus on experiences rather than toys. For instance, she adopted a polar bear at the Saint Louis Zoo for her granddaughter who loves polar bears. "We thought it was more fun to go to the zoo and know that she helped pay for an animal," she says.

This approach also helps instill an appreciation for charitable giving from an early age. When Pearson's granddaughter was younger, they sat down with the Heifer International catalogue and decided whether to donate one large animal or several smaller ones (the nonprofit supports sustainable agriculture and commerce by bringing livestock and other animals to poverty-stricken communities). "We'd pick geese and ducks and pigs, whatever it was, and she had a really good time helping me choose," Pearson says.

[Read: 10 Saving Strategies That Can Backfire.]

Giving to charity is one way to alleviate the problems with traditional gifts, according to Waldfogel. "I would rather receive a charity gift card [where the recipient chooses the charity] than some golf knickknack," he says. Some families exchange cookies rather than gifts, since food is consumable and doesn't gather dust in an attic or basement.

Another approach is to focus on experiences rather than exchanging material goods. Michelle Monroe Morton, 43, of Raleigh, N.C., and her family of five started using this approach a few years ago. Instead of exchanging gifts among the adults in the family, they use the money to visit in-laws living out of state. Although the grandparents still buy gifts for the grandkids, Morton says they had to adjust to not buying presents for the adults. "It was kind of hard for my parents at first," she says, "but they appreciate us coming home to spend the holiday with them."

If you'd like to rethink how your family approaches holiday gifts, consider broaching the subject when family members gather for Thanksgiving. That should reduce disappointment or resentment if expectations aren't met. "The earlier that you can start talking about it and maybe come up with an alternative, the better," Morton says. "Sometimes other people feel the same way, but it's got to be that person who's willing to step up and say something."

Also explain your reasons for changing your gift-giving tradition, whether it's belt-tightening due to a job loss or simply a desire to give back. "We told all of our family that we were doing this because none of them needed another sweater," Pearson says, "and we wanted to benefit people who really need it."

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