What If: Our Family's Decision to Buy Less and Travel More

As I watched my kids dig in the dirt, unearthing the bones of some poor zebra who had likely been consumed by lions in this very spot, I couldn’t help but reflect on all the places these little people have been. They have stood on the hallowed ground of ancient churches and seen views from the tops of buildings that some people only dream of visiting someday. They’ve walked with Maasai warriors and visited children who have no toys to call their own. They've made gnocci with an old italian woman in Tuscany and their collection of seashells they’ve collected comes from beaches on three continents. 

All of these experiences can be traced back to one question - “what if.” 


Minimalism, Gifting, and Travel with Kids

My husband and I are far from what you might consider “Minimalists” but, we hold values that align well with the idea of consuming less. I myself am obsessed with eco-friendly alternatives and reducing our carbon footprint. My husband is focused on cutting back on unnecessary expenses so that we can spend where it’s most important. And so a few years ago, we found ourselves discussing the future of children’s gifts and where our values aligned. We were living in an apartment in Frankfurt, Germany and due to his job in the Foreign Service, we knew we would be moving again in a few years, having to move all the "kid stuff" with us. 

As we ran some numbers, we realized we averaged about $1000 per year on birthday gifts for our immediate family, and nearly $4000 on Christmas gifts and shipping. 

As we contemplated all of this, we said “what if…we focused less on material gifts that we have to move around the world, and more on experiences in new places.”

Now, I’m not even going to pretend that I came up with this idea - the idea of experiential gifts has been around for a while. Zoo passes, concert tickets, and gift certificates for pedicures have been staples in our family’s gift arsenal for years and experience gifts are oft-touted around the holidays as a cure for the overwhelm of toys. But by committing to the idea as a long-term plan for our family’s future holidays changed the way that we approached both Christmas and birthdays. 

Making Travel Plans

We sat down that December and looked at the year ahead, considering both our budget and our desires and trying to mesh ideas with available vacation time. Our daughter was turning two years old in March, and as the second child, there were very few toy items we were lacking. My husband and I thought a city-break from Frankfurt to a quiet town with lots of space for the kids to run around would be a good fit for all of us, considering that March isn't a great time for a beach weekend. The idea started percolating to take a quick trip to the Alscacian region of France - just a short drive from Germany - to explore a new place together. (The actual trip didn’t quite play out the way we hoped, but that’s a story for another day.) 


A quick note for my American friends: this may seem a bit exotic to go to another country for the weekend, but it’s the Europe equivalent of going the next state over for a weekend getaway. Had we been living in the US, we might have opted for a weekend in the Poconos or Asheville, North Carolina - or even renting a cabin in the woods for a staycation.

 Laura and her baby girl stand in front of old buildings in Kayersburg, France


We also looked at the rest of the year, and after considering several options, we decided that we would visit Disneyland Paris at Christmastime. Because we were booking nearly a year ahead, we were able to secure a significant discount on a package deal. We would travel the week before the holiday - one of the quietest weeks in Paris with fewer tourists - and return on Christmas Eve, combining a few days in Disneyland with time in the city as well. Something for us, and something for the kids - which as I have mentioned before, is one of my favorite ways to plan a trip.




These two experiences created lasting memories for my husband and I and our older child, and the youngest had so much fun in the moment - moreso than she might have had with a new toy. While they weren’t our first trips with the kids, they were the some of the first where we intentionally chose travel over purchasing gifts, and these two experiences began to change our perspective on what was possible for our family culture.

We’ve worked this into other trips too. We always knew that when we had the money and the time, we would want to go to Italy for a two week trip around Tuscany. The stars aligned, and we began planning the trip when we realized it was the year of my 30th birthday.  Hear me out on this one because this was definitely a longer more extravagant trip than the others. It wasn’t planned *because* it was my birthday - it was a trip we wanted to take for a long time, we budgeted and saved for it, and when the time came we chose to go at my birthday - as a special upgrade to the trip if you will. And because we were in Italy, it didn’t matter what we did that day, how simple it might be, because we would be in Italy and that’s all that mattered to me more than any material thing.


Blending Travel and Gifting

Now don’t get me wrong - we haven’t stopped buying gifts altogether or depriving our children of opening a special something on Christmas morning. We’ve just made sure that what we do give them is more meaningful or perhaps part of the trip itself rather than just buying into the latest trend. While at Disney, we picked up a an Elsa gown for J to open on Christmas morning, and L received a remote control version of Lightning McQueen. One special item picked up in our travels, something they could actively use and also remember the fun we had together. As our life abroad and travels have evolved, we’ve worked the travel plans and gifts together - now it’s not uncommon for them to receive items to go on weekend safaris in Kenya (like kid binoculars, wipe-off activity boards for travel days, and kids cameras) and these are options for grandparents too! Someday, when we return to the United States, books about national parks, or new hiking boots might be a gift if we plan a trip to Acadia or the Grand Canyon. There are so many ways to gift within the theme of any trip you want to take.


When you think about the time you have with your children at home - the short 18 years you have with them - and realize how much of what we buy is given away or put in a yard sale within a few years, it really can change how you approach your time and decisions to spend money. Trips with your family don’t have to be extravagant - tent camping is a favorite in our house - and if you are able to use airline points and credit card rewards, you could save some money along the way. Our decision to travel comes from a desire to show our children the world we live in and reduce our consumption of material goods. Maybe, just maybe that’s something your family wants to consider too. 


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And by older I mean 3 and 5!


I love this!! Now that our kids are getting older I really want us to do this!


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