Consider how experiential gifts compare to material gifts when shopping for others

Consider how experiential gifts compare to material gifts when shopping for others

Last year for Christmas, Chris and LeeAnn Duke gave their kids a ski trip instead of gifts. The kids, both middle schoolers, got to plan parts of the schedule for the trip and each were given cash to spend on whatever they wanted.

The trip simplified Christmas in a big way and was “amazing,” LeeAnn said.

The gift of an experience is trendy today and for good reason, says Cassie Mogilner, marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business in Philadelphia. Mogilner has researched the connection between happiness and gifting, and what she’s found can help parents, grandparents and others struggling to find just the right gift in a technology-obsessed world.

“There’s been a growing body of work that suggests that from a happiness perspective, a good way to spend your money is buying experiences rather than material goods,” Mogilner said in an episode of the Knowledge@Wharton radio show.

Research suggests people are much happier when they treat themselves to a nice dinner or a vacation rather than buying the latest gadget or a piece of jewelry. So Mogilner and her colleagues wanted to see if there were any happiness benefits when an experience was given as a gift. The results were interesting.

Emotional connection

Researchers found that there was no difference in how much the recipient liked an experiential gift versus a material gift, and recipients didn’t see either gift as more thoughtful. The difference was in the emotional connection the recipient felt to the gift giver while consuming the experience.

“It’s really the emotion that gets evoked when you’re attending the concert, when you’re eating the dinner, versus when you’re wearing the sweater or the Apple Watch,” Mogilner said. “You don’t necessarily need to be sharing in the experience with the gift giver to have this connecting effect. … Because someone had given you this gift, you’re thinking of them as you’re consuming it. Those emotions lead to greater feelings of connection.”

Mogilner said people adapt to “things” really quickly — “it sort of sits on your shelf and you engage with it every day, and so it loses its shiny, bright newness.”

A memory, on the other hand, stays fresh, which is why people adapt less quickly to experiences than to material goods, Mogilner said. There may be some generational influence going on as well, she said.

“There’s a lot of talk right now about how (millennials) share these life narratives that they’re telling through their experiences, and they’re posting these really cool experiences on Facebook,” she said. “So there’s more awareness of the value of experiences.”

For those who like to give a physical gift, Mogilner suggests emphasizing the experiential aspects of the gift in some way — perhaps through a card or letter to the recipient that explains why the gift was chosen.

“So if you’re set on giving a sweater, you can highlight, ‘I’m giving this to you because it will make you feel cozy and warm when you’re walking in the winter days.’ It’s highlighting the experience of consuming it, as opposed to the fact that it’s a sweater that you have and are putting on your shelf.”

And don’t discount gifts that are useful, including books, bath and body products, hobby or athletic supplies, and even gift cards.

“In all of the hustle and bustle of the season, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that some of the best gifts you can give a loved one aren’t necessarily the most exciting or most expensive,” says Jill Nystul, editor at the lifestyle website One Good Thing. “Often the best gift you can give someone is a useful gift — one that will make their lives easier or fulfill a legitimate need.”


Gift-giving guide

And for our first TAB gift-giving guide, we’ve collected a few suggestions. Enjoy!

For the athlete
Flipbelt (a secure way to keep keys, money and identification close at hand); SOI Sensor Bag Light (hand-activated light for athletic bags or purses); private lessons to work on their skills

For the traveler
Tickets to a museum or a trip to a national park; U.S. National Parks Passport (great to give as a baby shower gift, too)

For the creative
Art kits, canvases, paints and brushes; lessons for pottery, sewing, cooking or painting; a room makeover (where you help paint); personalized jewelry, with names, favorite sayings, birth month flowers or birthstones

For the social butterfly
Large format prints or collages of favorite photos; photo books of special events or activities

For the adventurer
Pay for summer camp fees; give a special day and let them plan what you will do (such as a spa day, concert, play or sporting event); give tickets to an escape room experience

For the retro
Record players (they’re cool again) and vinyl records

For all ages to keep the fun going all year long
Subscribe to one of many available boxes that send out a new box each month. Ideas include Universal Yums! (candy), Loot Crate (for gaming), Tinker Crate (science), Little Passports (geography), GiftLit (books), Pley (toys)

For more ideas, check out for unique gift ideas for all ages and interests, including jewelry, arts and games.