young girl riding amusement park swing type ride

Inside: Minimalism encourages giving experience gifts, many of which are more expensive than a physical gift. But we forget that physical gifts can be an experience, too, one that lasts for a very long time. 

As we stood in line at the local Children’s Museum with four excited kids, I got that anxious feeling.

It was the same feeling I used to have when I wondered whether my carefully plotted coupon deals would work out: would the cashier look at me with that mixture of pity and annoyance as I scrambled to figure out what went wrong and why I owed $5 when it was supposed to be free?

As the line inched forward, I braced myself for disappointment. This supposedly free excursion (a fun, memory-making, ideal minimalist experience) might not work out, after all.

When you have four small children and live on one income, you’re constantly looking for free or cheap kid activities.

The day prior, we browsed the local parenting website for ideas. It mentioned that Bank of America card holders could get into the local children’s museum for free that weekend. Score!

We (foolishly) assumed this meant that our whole family could get in for free.

Yes, it was a stupid assumption. We know.

We made it to the front desk, and my husband pulled out his Bank of America debit card. My heart sank as the man confirmed my suspicions: the card only equaled one free admission.

I had stupidly forgotten my wallet with an additional card at home. Admission for all of us would cost $25 – far more than we’d planned to spend that day.

mom hugging daughter while she opens Christmas gift, Christmas tree in background, with text overlay "when you can't afford experience gifts..."

Choosing a Physical Gift over an Experience


While I was prepared to pay the admission fee, my non-minimalist, frugal husband disagreed. After all, the museum consistently offered discounted admission once a week. To him, it just wasn’t worth the money, and eventually I acquiesced. I’m frugal too, after all. He would rather buy them a toy or a board game that they could play with for days instead of hours.

We could have paid it; we chose not to.

We walked our slightly disappointed kids back to the car, and he drove to Target. Yes, Target. That red bulls eye is probably the symbol of all things NOT minimalism.

I sat in the car with the sleeping baby, silently willing my husband not to come out with a cheap piece of junk that they would quickly lose interest in. Please, please don’t trade an experience for a piece of junk!

They came out with a new board game – one of those “8 games in 1” type of things (and a ball for the baby who loves balls). The cost? $10 less than the museum.

To further eradicate all final traces of disappointment, we drove to a free, local splash pad. As we watched them get totally soaked (in their regular clothes, no less), I sat with my questions and my own disappointment.

Experiences versus Gifts in Minimalism

You see, minimalism sold me on the belief that experiences are paramount – far more worthy of our hard-earned cash than physical gifts. Every single minimalist book and article stated the results of the same psychological study demonstrating that experiences make people happier than buying stuff.

And I bought it. Hook, line, and sinker. It sounded so awesome – and carried with the promise of not filling our house with stuff.

The problem? In my mind, these experiences often cost far more than things, at least the ones I was reading about. I heard trips, and museums, and activities, all of which can be expensive.

Yes, I know – they don’t have to be. You can find free and cheap activities. We’ve gotten pretty good at it actually.

There has only been one other experience like this one (I’m looking at you, supposedly FREE carnival in Newton. Free to walk around and watch other kids do the $5 a pop, lame rides, you mean. Grrrr.)

But in the same way that people want to keep up with the Jones’s by buying more stuff, I constantly found myself wanting to keep up with the [insert the imaginary, better off financially, minimalist family’s last name] by buying more experiences.

More on Minimalism on a Low Income:

Physical Gifts Can Give Experiences

As I sat watching my kids, who had long since moved past their brief flash of disappointment, my husband interrupted my thoughts.

“You know, growing up, I have really fond memories of playing board games with my siblings. We did give our kids an experience, and one that has the potential to build stronger relationships and longer lasting memories than a couple of hours at a museum ever will.”

We did give our kids an experience, and one that has the potential to build stronger relationships and longer lasting memories than a couple of hours at a museum ever will.

You see, when my husband was 10 years old, his dad had a massive stroke. His mom had to quit working to care for her husband and four children. They lived on disability and unemployment and food stamps for a long, long time.

Things got better for their family. They did have the occasional trip to the shore and a local family-owned amusemtn park, but their fun experiences more often looked like gifts, and those gifts were sometimes yard sale, dollar store, and Walmart offerings.

He is frugal, but he is no minimalist. He also loves giving physical gifts to his kids.

And you know what? He was right. Since that day a few months ago, the kids learned how to play chess. They’ve played that game over and over and over again. Even our four-year-old likes to play, with lots of guidance. They built memories that probably will last a lifetime.

And those memories came from buying a physical thing, from a gift that turned into an experience.

When we finally did go to the museum on discount day, they actually knew how to play with the giant chess board…how many kids their age know how to play chess?

brother and sister playing life-sized chess at the local children's museum

Am I against experiences? No. I still love giving our kids experiences, but I’ve stopped putting them on this pedestal in my mind.

And I’ve definitely stopped believing they need to be these grand, expensive things to be great gifts.

A picnic in the park? An experience.

A drive to the nearby lake? An experience.

Attending a free Home Depot build? An experience.

We are still saving for a fun (rather expensive) vacation that will hopefully happen one day. But I’ve also seen the movie Up – remember the old man and his wife breaking their savings jar again…and again, and again?

Life happens, and the grandiose experiences we plan to give our kids may not always work out. There are things like roofs to keep over heads, cars to fix, and unexpected surgeries to pay for.

That’s just life with kids and what you sign up for when you’re raising a family on one income in a two-income society.

To the Minimalist who Can’t Afford Experiences

So for every parent who has jumped on the minimalist bandwagon but can’t afford to give her children expensive experiences: take heart. I want you to know that it’s ok.

What matters more is how you see your inability to afford the expensive experiences.

Are you discontent? Disappointed? Disillusioned?

Those feelings will probably transfer to your kids.

Your kids value what you value, at least when they’re little. Do you value staying home and being with them? Give them that gift with confidence.

Right now, you’re making choices based on what you value, and it might mean trading expensive vacations and indoor playgrounds and adventure parks for more kids and a stay-at-home parent. But if you are constantly grasping for something that’s out of your reach, that will affect them far more than the lack of extraordinary experiences will.

Maybe they will complain later on about the things they never got to do. But that’s something to deal with another day.

Today, they’re still little and you know what? They really don’t know care that much at all about the indoor playground versus the [free] local park. Would they like it? Sure! But they will absolutely be o.k. if it’s a park instead.

After we finished playing at the splash pad and learned how to play chess that day, guess what my 7-year-old daughter said? “Best. Day. Ever!!”

So my conclusion about minimalist experiences? I still love the concept.

But sometimes a physical gift that provides ongoing experiences is just as good.

Read Next: How to Transition to a Minimalist Christmas with Kids (& not look like the Grinch)

white christmas present wrapped with red ribbon on white background, with text overlay "the only problem with experience gifts"

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  1. Reading another great article here today!
    I commented on your low income decluttering article.
    The age difference between my youngest and my three older children means that my older children have had experiences that the youngest has not had so much of. We were poor with three kids but we lived in a beautiful New Hampshire resort area. We were able to do lots of things cheap that our kids enjoyed and remember still today. We didn’t go to some the expensive tourist sites but we could just go to the lake and swim and picnic. Or go hiking and fishing . Since we moved, spots like that are harder to get to , take more planning. We live amongst high income neighborhoods at a rundown badly administered Church camp in our year round cottage. There were some perks esp. the pool that we made use of in the early years here. In the past few years it has not been kept up like it was. It is only made ready for the annual camp meeting. It was finally opened this past week July 23rd! Our youngest feels jipped out of the memories we have of N.H. She complains of not being able to do the things her well off class mates get to do. Vacations are few and far between and have to be planned around seeing my husband’s family in Louisiana. The last time we went was 6 years ago. We even have a hard time just getting up to N.H.
    from Connecticut . She complains she is bored. I get bored too but I find it easier to find things to do that don’t require money or very little. When I suggest any of those she isn’t interested. She just watches a YouTube video and gets influenced by the – – – – agenda . I’m afraid I’ve been venting here this article did strike another nerve. I appreciate it.
    I just wonder, what do we do now since our children aren’t small anymore ,even the youngest . How do make up for lost time? Beautiful days of spring, summer and fall – even winter – lost to lack of money or forethought and mental health issues like depression and anxiety! How do we make up for all we did not do that maybe could have done and now regret?
    Hey, I’m providing a subject for a whole new blog post! You may need a guest author seeing you’re still a mom of little children. You still have time.

  2. Wow – thank you for this! I started tearing up reading this post. You are so on point about how minimalism differs for those with disposable income and those of us who struggle to just get groceries. I do feel disappointed, disillusioned and depressed. I’m a single mom and sole provider for my son and I. I feel like I *should* be doing better than I am, that I should be able to give my son at least what I had growing up (which wasn’t much) and more. But I can’t afford the experiences I want to give him, I can’t afford even a weekend trip. And what’s worse is that I am always feeling that lack – I don’t know if I’m transferring that to my son yet (he’s only 4.5 years old) but I feel upset about it daily – especially on these gorgeous summer days when I’m stuck at work and Facebook is full of everyone else’s wonderful vacations. It breaks my heart – for me, and for him. What I want most is to cultivate gratitude and to not let it bother me that we can’t have it all, that I can’t walk into a store and buy us each the new pairs of shoes we both so badly need. That breaks my heart – I never thought that would be my life – but that’s what is. What we have instead is a dependable car, an apartment we like in a complex with a pool, internet service and three well-fed cats. Not much else. And I will need to sacrifice even more in order to begin homeschooling this Fall. I want to see the joy in the little things, not get stuck wallowing in my own stress and self-pity which then means I have no energy to actually go out and do the free things he would love! That’s what really kills me – that I don’t take advantage of free opportunities as best I could because I’m always stressed, exhausted or working, and I don’t plan ahead. Anyway, I am very thankful I found your blog and I know I will continue finding great ideas and inspiration here. Thank you!!

    1. Author

      you are so welcome! I’m so glad it helped you feel understood Heather. In our social media world, I think gratitude and contentment are harder than ever. What I remind myself of is you never know the full story behind the photo: the fights on vacation, the debt used to finance it, and whatever else. You’re providing for your son and the best gift is you. ❤️

  3. How funny, I was just saying the other day that to me, minimalism is an overstuffed cabinet full of games. I love experiences, we invest in an aquarium membership every year, but taking your kids out every weekend to me isn’t minimalist and it can also make them spoiled. They can think they have to go somewhere all the time to have fun. My nephews are like that, they constantly whine that they are bored. My kids love games and just playing in the backyard. Also, we went on a nice vacation a couple years ago. We stayed on the beach and there were 3 pools. The kids’ favorite part was the parks we had picnics at on the way up and back. 40 hours on the road.

  4. Thank you so much for sharing this! I have a strong desire for our family to have rich multicultural experiences, but travel – even a lot of local travel – is not possible for us for a number of reasons. This was a great reminder for me to be content with all the blessings we already have, including the possibility for me to stay home, and to embrace the idea that things can offer experiences, too. Like for us, books! Thanks again!

    1. Author

      You are so welcome, Bethany!

  5. Mmm, I love this! I have to admit, when someone else like a grandparent is paying, I think experiences are better than gifts 😉 But you make such a great point about balancing minimalism and frugality. We also try to take advantage of public goods like parks, libraries, lakes, and hiking areas for our experiences, but a well-chosen gift can provide an experience too. Well put!

    1. Author

      I agree about the grandparents! It also majorly cuts down on Christmas clutter when gifts outside the family are experience gifts.

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