Becki Svare has made a radical decision: She won't buy any more Christmas presents.
It started a few years ago as an experiment with her extended family. The holiday season began as it often did, with a dozen family members drawing names out of a hat. But instead of buying gifts for each other, they had to come up with a meaningful experience to share with their designated person. Suggested price: $20 to $25.
Svare's children took their aunts kayaking. Her brother took his 9-year-old nephew for a ride on his Harley-Davidson, then out for sushi and a trip to the local reptile center. Others went to the zoo.
"You had to be somewhat creative with it," said Svare, a blogger who lives in DeLand, Fla., near Orlando. "But we all agreed that it was better than buying things people don't need."
Across the country, families are hearing a similar refrain: Fewer items, please. More experiences.
It's a movement that has picked up steam in recent years, as part of a broader push away from consumerism. And even retailers are taking notice. Major chains like Best Buy, Apple and Nordstrom now incorporate cooking classes, photography workshops and even manicures inside their stores as a way to attract customers who want to do more than just shop.
This holiday season, retail analysts say there has been a discernible shift in gift-giving as Americans think beyond traditional presents. Nearly 40 percent of shoppers plan to give gift cards, event tickets or other "intangible" gifts, according to market research firm NPD Group. And although overall holiday spending is projected to rise about 4 percent to $680 billion this year, Americans say they will spend less on presents: an average of $608 on gifts for family, friends and co-workers, down from $621 last year, according to the National Retail Federation.
"We live in a world of abundance, where most of us just have too many things," said Jeffrey Galak, a professor who studies consumer behavior at Carnegie Mellon University. "People are starting to realize that items really aren't that important anymore."
Also helping the movement: the lack of novel items at the store.
"A lot of retailers are carrying the same old stuff that they've been hawking for five years," said Mark Cohen, director of retail studies at Columbia Business School. "People are saying, 'Uncle Henry's already got a black sweater — in fact he's got two that still have the tags on — so why should we get him a new one?' 'Let's do something else instead.' "
And, academics note, there has been no shortage of research in recent years to back up the idea that people derive more joy from experiences than goods. The trend has been good for the likes of StubHub. The online purveyor of sports, concert and theater tickets says sales of gift cards are up 50 percent so far over last year.
Celebrities, too, are increasingly speaking out against holiday consumerism. The actress Mila Kunis said in a recent interview that she and husband Ashton Kutcher wouldn't be buying gifts for their children this year.
But vowing to cut back on presents is one thing — actually doing so can be a years-long process. It can be tough to get family members on board, and even the most dedicated of gift-boycotters can feel a tinge of panic when, a few days before Christmas, there isn't much under the tree.
"Social norms can be a difficult thing to overcome," said Ross Steinman, a professor of consumer psychology at Widener University in Chester, Pa. "If there is an understanding in your family that there should be a tower of gifts under your Christmas tree every year, it's really hard to change that."
Some adjustment necessary
It's taken nearly two decades, but Alethea Smartt says her family has (mostly) stopped buying Christmas gifts.
The effort started back in 1999, she says, when she moved to New York to take a job as a flight attendant. She had a tiny apartment and traveled often, which meant she didn't have room for extra items.
But convincing her family in Tennessee, where she grew up receiving a whopping two dozen gifts each Christmas, was a different story. She started slowly — or so she thought — suggesting a limit of one gift per person.
"I knew we couldn't go cold turkey, but it was still a total disaster," said Smartt, 43, a travel writer in Portland. "There were a lot of hurt feelings and tears. Even though we didn't have money, it was really important to my parents to be able to buy us material things."
Her mother, in particular, was crestfallen, she says.
But lately, she said, they've found a groove — and her mother, Diane Campbell, agrees.
A few years ago, Campbell surprised the family with new luggage — and a cruise to Alaska. Last year, she took her grandsons on a four-day trip to Chicago. She makes photo books for her daughters, and bakes cookies for her son-in-law.
"At first, it almost felt embarrassing," said Campbell, 67, who works for a tour company in Nashville. "I'd always been so proud that I was able to give everyone so much during the holidays.."
But it's getting easier, she said, although she does sometimes stash a couple of last-minute McDonald's gift cards under the tree for her grandsons.
"I do still worry about it," she said, "about finding ways to create that 'Oh, wow' moment."
(Smartt's husband, too, says he sometimes has trouble adjusting to the arrangement: "Around Dec. 24, I'll start to think 'Wait, do I have enough? Maybe I should go buy more,' " said Greg LaRowe, adding that he now stocks up on extra items like lavender soaps and other locally made items.)
Smartt, though, said she has no complaints.
"It's gotten better every year," she said. "We've gone from what I'd call excessive materialism to a few thoughtful gifts."
Finding a happy medium
After years of experimenting — dozens of gifts one Christmas, none another — Christi Chartrand, a home health-care worker in Brantford, Ontario, said she's finally found a happy medium for her brood of eight, which includes three biological children, four adopted children and one foster child.
On Christmas morning, each child receives exactly three presents worth a total of $100. On birthdays, they get to choose between a birthday party or a $150 outing with mom or dad.
"Almost every single time, the kids ask for a date night," she said, adding that they've gone shopping in Buffalo, visited CN Tower in Toronto, and taken a half-hour airplane ride near Niagara Falls. "They don't even think twice about it anymore."
Back in 2010, though, it was a different story. For years, she and her husband maxed out their credit cards to buy mountains of toys.
"We had to unbury the tree on Christmas morning because there were just so many gifts piled up around it," she said. "And we found that our kids were just so ungrateful. It never seemed to be enough. They would open their presents and then say, 'Now what?' "
The turning point came, she said, when her son unwrapped a present from an aunt. "He looked at her and said, 'A book? That's it?' " she recalled. "I was so mortified and said, 'This has to change.' "
The following year, she and her husband took the family on a road trip to Florida and didn't buy a single present. The kids were irked at first, she said, but quickly got over it. The following year, they settled on the three-gift compromise.
"We're not trying to be radical," she said. "We just want them to realize that it's not a life requirement to open 1,000 presents on Christmas morning."