I peered anxiously at my calendar, panicked that Christmas was arriving faster than my paycheck. The accusing voice in my head scorned, “What kind of mother doesn’t have enough gifts for her daughter for Christmas?” Visions of flying wrapping paper and joyful kids’ giggles danced through my head, but the joy halted as I envisioned my daughter stoically watching the fun. Her smile faded as her little supply of presents had quickly run dry, compared with the other children sharing the holiday with us. My heart filled with shame, I wrangled with thoughts that she would feel left out and less than, believing she wasn’t good enough. “Surely your daughter will be ruined for life,” the accusing voice in my head said to me.

So I prayed. In my heart, I felt my inner voice whisper, “Kelli, what presents do you remember receiving?” To my surprise, I could not remember more than two gifts (one of them being the 1988 Holiday classic Barbie) that I had ever received from my parents. I could remember only two gifts in all 18 years of my childhood.

I challenged myself a bit more: What about birthday presents? Even worse — I couldn’t remember a single birthday gift I received as a child. (Although my mom did remind me about the rad Debbie Gibson sweatshirt I received and loved when I was 10. Thanks, mom!)

My parents didn’t have much extra money either, but here’s what I do remember from our frugal family trips:

Road trips to the mountains with my family, with plenty of “Do I need to stop this car?!” moments. 

Driving to the “big city” just an hour away to spend the night in a hotel — simply for the thrill of room service and the neat-o factor of an indoor pool because you were a small-town kid.

Being good in Church on Sunday so we could take a short road trip to the next town over and eat the Italian Buffet and go to Wal-Mart. 

Countless other pile-in-the-car trips with road bingo games to go see Grandma, my cousins, and other family members.

And so, with overwhelming relief, I realized I was creating a false story of unworthiness as a parent, stressing myself out about material things my daughter would never remember. To her, my value as a mother is more likely to be measured by her memory of our experiences together.  

That “aha” moment of being broke and recalling the family experiences I actually valued changed my entire approach to holiday and birthday gifts. Since she gets plenty of gadgets and clothing from friends and relatives, I’ve stopped stressing over birthday parties and striving for a pile of presents. Instead, I now give her presence in the form of a travel getaway. No gifts, no party — just experience, culture, and insight into the world.

Some years, money was (and is) tight, and we stayed close to home. Travel experiences don’t have to be lavish or include an airplane ride to create lasting memories. The only challenges we set are to learn culture and history, try a new experience, or, as my dad would tell us, “just ponder the wonder.” Some years, a few extra airline miles or hotel points took us to the mountains, to national parks, to the beach, and even to HGTV hot spots, like the Magnolia silos.

The sights you see and the time you share is the gift, and the memories can be enjoyed again and again every time you open up the photo album.

I started this practice as a single mom with my daughter, and since I remarried, my husband and I continue to practice the “give experiences, not gifts” mindset as a family. What sights and experiences are in your own backyard, or across the country, that you and your family will remember far longer than a gift?

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