All I Want for Christmas is…Experiences Not Things

Map of world with camera and passport

Vanessa Weber is a guest writer for Earth Mamas International. As a Life Skills teacher and environmental enthusiast, she loves infusing eco-friendly practices into her classroom and training her students to do the same. While teaching abroad, she has seen countless environmental tragedies first-hand. This has inspired her to work towards living a zero-waste lifestyle and inspiring others to always do what they can.

The Spark

A few years ago the heartstrings were pulling me home for Christmas. So, my husband and I bought last minute flights home to the U.S. to be with our families for the holidays. As international teachers, it had been about five years since we were home for Christmas. The romantic idea of snow slowly falling around us, or an early morning Christmas yell from our nieces and nephews of “Santa came!”, and of course some home cooking were just a few of the daydreams leading up to the trip. 

Route from Malaysia to Midwest USA
The route from Malaysia back home.

As soon as we arrived we were met with that slow-falling magical snow and shortly thereafter with some mulled wine and a gorgeous cheese platter that this Wisconsin-ite swooned over. The stars seemed to be aligning with our international daydreams. That was until Christmas day arrived.

Child with many christmas gifts and a christmas tree
From Google Images

I imagined sitting around with my brother’s family and his children and watching each of them open a few gifts with most of the day centered around snuggles around the fire, hugs, cocoa, and some Ella Fitzgerald’s “Swinging Christmas”. Instead what ensued is what I now call the Plastic Armageddon of 2016.

I won’t go into details, but over the course of the day, so many presents were opened by children, parents, aunts and uncles, and grandparents that we overflowed all three city-provided trash bins in the alley. Much of what was gifted was plastic toys. On top of the sheer mass of waste generated, there was so little interaction other than the quick “thank yous” which only provided a smooth transition to the next gift to be opened. Once the gifts were opened, the children’s attention was strictly on the new toys, not family. My heart sank as I was haunted by a guilty feeling for not enjoying Christmas – especially being the first time I spent one with my family in years.  But I couldn’t help but wonder, what had happened to this family holiday? 

Once the succession of gift opening had concluded and dinner began, so many thoughts ran through my head. One thought was very clear: I was never going to buy a toy, or a non-functional/consumable gift, for a family member again. We didn’t need more stuff. Everything we needed was already present on December 24th. What we needed were more shared experiences.

The Action Plan

Child reading a book about travel fund planning

A few weeks later, I came up with a specific plan. I would create a “travel fund” for each niece and nephew. Instead of Christmas and birthday presents, I would now make a deposit into their fund each time I’d like to buy them a gift. Here’s how it worked.

How to Create a Travel Fund

Travel fund Piggy bank with money  around it

Step 1: Before creating the funds, I talked to my brother and sister-in-law about the logistics of traveling with my nephew. We decided on an appropriate age for him to begin traveling without his parents and we talked about how he would also need to save his own “spending money” – for all those junky souvenirs, coca cola’s, and daily ice creams that pre-teens love so much. I would take care of the basics: transportation, meals, and accommodation.

Step 2: Each birthday or Christmas I screenshot their account total. I print out the picture and put it in a card. Generally after the chaos of opening presents settles down, I find some one-on-one time and ask them, “So where do you really want to travel.” I love these moments…when we start dreaming together. We talk about how much it would probably cost to go there and then talk about how long it might take to save that much. Of course, this could change at any time, but it makes their fund more real and I get to touch on the life skill of budgeting.

Step 3: As the fund gains enough money to buy a plane ticket I write to my nephew/niece and we have a few video chats. For example, I share that they have “saved” $500. (Note: the money they save just has to cover their plane ticket – I take care of the rest). I send a list of places we could travel to for that much money including some travel videos so he could get a feel for what he might experience there. Then they chose a location OR they decide to keep saving to go somewhere more expensive later down the road. I remind them that when we/they decided to travel it will zero out their travel fund, but that it would build up again over a few years and once it hit $500 we’d talk about traveling again.

The First Trip

This past July the first “Aunt Vanessa” travel trip occurred. My 12-year old nephew and I flew to Reykjavik and road-tripped around Iceland for 5 nights, 6 days. My fingers were crossed that whale watching in the Arctic sea or swimming in the Blue Lagoon hot springs would become moments that would have a greater impact than the Hot Wheels or Pokemon collector cards. 

Young boy hiking
Hiking with my nephew in Iceland

It Is Not Always Easy

One thing my niece and nephews understand at the ages of 9, 11, and 13 is that their aunt wants to spend time with them. I’d be lying if I omitted the handful of sideways glances at birthday parties and celebrations where there wasn’t a wrapped “thing” to hand over. But after traveling this summer, they get it now. These experiences will impact their lives. More than half the toys they open will end up at the next year’s garage sale or the second-hand shop.

How will your Christmas be different this year? What have you done to create lasting memories with your family during the holidays?

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