Christmas at Grandma's in Alaska, 2010

One question that people often ask us in regards to our simplified life on the road is "What do you give your kids for birthdays or Christmas?"

They realize that we have limited space on our truck (about 321 things), that is all organized with a place for everything (and everything in its place), so naturally they're curious about whether we add to it or not during those traditional gift giving occasions.

Our personal lives have swung from one side of the pendulum to the other. In the past, we were big consumers. We lived in large houses, drove fancy cars and bought lots of things.

When we began traveling in 2007 (driving from the U.S. to Costa Rica where we lived for a year), we simplified some at that time, but still hadn't caught hold of the whole idea (or reasoning) behind minimalism.

Today, we have swung to the other side. Rather than a 6500 sq. foot house, we live in Ford F250 (sorry, don't know the sq. footage on that one).

Instead of closets full of clothes, a room for every child, piles of toys, fancy furniture and doo-dads on in every nook and cranny, we live with what we need and what actually adds value to our lives - our roof top tent and annex room; one change of clothes for each day of the week; a handful of small toys; my cameras; our laptops; and some books.

But the extreme isn't entirely a result of our intentional homelessness. Behind it lies a recognition of the power of living with less.

While recently exploring the massive ruins of Teotihuacan in Mexico, we were approached countless times by peddlers trying to sell us souvenirs so that we could 'remember our visit to Teotihuacan.'

Quite honestly, what they were selling was very attractive - silver bracelets engraved with symbols of the sun and moon (for the Sun and the Moon pyramids); jade masks; sun stones; obsidian daggers; and cool whistles that made the sound of a jaguar (my boys really liked those).

Perhaps if we had a place to call home with a shelf waiting to be filled up with stuff, we might of bought some of it. With our limited space, it just wasn't an option. But more importantly, we realized that we didn't need to buy any of that stuff to enjoy our visit, or to remember it.

That's the principle behind minimalism, and that's what we've learned to live by. Too often, things are purchased on an emotional 'spur of the moment'. We see it, we like it, we want to own it. Humans are very much like this (even as children).

But the more we own, the more of our time and attention is required to care for it, maintain it, move it, clean it, organize it. In reality, we give up some of our freedom to pursue other priorities, because of the 'burden of possession.'

We realized that although intriguing and attractive, if we had a home to place these souvenirs, all they would really end up doing is collecting dust.

Does minimalism require that you don't own anything, that buying stuff is 'bad'?

Not at all. What it does focus on is buying things that you actually need, or that will add real value to your life.

If my flip-flops break, buying new ones (or getting them fixed), adds real value to my life, because then I don't have to walk barefoot.

If I love taking pictures, then upgrading my camera from the Rebel xTI to the 60D or Mark II, adds real value to my life (still saving up for that one).

And contrasted to the souvenir experience above at Teotihuacan, while visiting the city of Cholula, we hiked to the top of the biggest pyramid in Mesoamerica. At the summit was a women selling handmade beaded jewelry. I purchased a beautiful bracelet because it was a souvenir that I would use, that I could wear everyday. That, to me, is a lot better than a 'dust collector'.

So then, back to birthdays and Christmas presents. Even in our non-minimalist days, we didn't believe in showering our kids with hoards of gifts - I just don't think it's good for them. We focused on making the day special, and on the emphasizing the uniqueness of the child (or the reason for celebrating Christmas).

Now that we live minimally, and have limited space, will we give our kids anything this holiday season?

Yes, I think we will, but we'll follow a few specific guidelines:

1. Give what they need

Underwear starting to look like rags? Shoes got holes in them? Then this is an obvious gift that can be given which is needed and useful. Of course we don't wait for special occasions to purchase needed items like that, but if it happens to coincide, then all the better.

"But how can your kids get excited about underwear?" I hear you saying.

I've actually been surprised. When you purchase few things in general, it's amazing how excited my kids will get over buying something simple like underwear or socks (even if it's not plastered with Lightening McQueen or Spiderman - yes, it has really happened to me).

2. Give what they really want

Every time we visit a market or store, I have a son who sees something that he really wants. An action figure, sling shot, or other little doo-dad.

Following the rule of not buying things on impulse, we explain to him that he has to wait at least a week before we'll consider purchasing anything he wants.

Most often, the impulse will pass, and he'll forget all about it. But if it doesn't, and he continues to remind and pester, then I know that it is something he really wants, and that he'll thoroughly enjoy.

Being a minimalist doesn't require that you deprive your children and yourselves the joy of owning things. It focuses on discovering which things really do bring you pleasure, instead of indulging in all things to the point of excess and annoyance.

If I only buy those things for my kids that I know they'll really treasure, then they take better care of them, and they play with them more often, for longer periods of time. These make perfect seasonal gifts.

3. Focus on Giving

It's fun to receive gifts, and it's fun to give a gift to someone, especially when you know it's something they'll really enjoy and use.

I personally have a difficult time purchasing presents for others (parents, grandparents, siblings), if I just see it as another 'thing' to clutter up their life. Do they really need another 'dust collector', even if it's from Mexico?

But if I find something that I know they'll truly use or enjoy (even food), then it's a joy for me to share with them.

This is the principle I want to teach to my kids. I want them to find joy in giving appropriately to others, and to recognize that even though they receive 'less', it's actually more - more in the pleasure it will bring, more in the appreciation it will elicit.

Giving and receiving are enjoyable activities. Our goal isn't to eliminate those activities in the name of minimalism, but to enhance them and make them even more meaningful by owning less stuff.

It's an irony I know, but try it. It really works.

What are your plans for gift giving this holiday season?


Here's what other family travelers have to say:

Family Trek - How to make Christmas special while de-cluttering your life

The Nomadic Family - Poverty for Christmas

New Life on the Road - Dear Mr Santa Claus Whats For Christmas

With 2 Kids In Tow, It's Backpacking We Go:  Dear Santa, For This Christmas We Wish...

Living Outside of the Box -  The Best Christmas Presents

Presence vs. Presents - Christmas Time for Traveling Families

Bohemian Travelers- Gift giving while living a simpler life

Family Travel Bucket List - Feliz Navidad Without All the Stuff

Livin On The Road - What Our Kids Think About Christmas on the Road:





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21 Responses

  1. Brandon Pearce

    I love the principle you outlined, that while you’d probably buy stuff if you had a place for it, your current lifestyle reminds you that you don’t actually need it to enjoy or remember your experiences. So true! Thanks for the great post.

    • Rachel

      Thanks Brandon!

      I’m disappointed we’ll miss you in Costa Rica. Guess we’ll have to meet up somewhere else in the world! (My sister’s in Thailand, maybe when we go visit her??)

      Thanks for your comment.

  2. Lisa-Marie

    We always give experiences instead of things. This year we are giving our daughter a trip to NYC with a show. Of course you are giving your kids a lifetime full of experiences in their youth – but I read in an interview with you Rachel that you would love to be able to do some more experience stuff that was more expensive. How about giving each kid a coupon for an experience of their choice (with price limits) to use with one parent throughout the year (they could either choose from a selection or you could see what they are interested in as you travel)? They get alone time with Mommy or Daddy (which our daughter loves and she is only ONE not five) plus the experience itself. Plus then you guys only spend the equivalent of taking the whole family on one of those experiences ONCE per year.

  3. Sheila

    Wonderful posts. Times have really changed, and the focus now is materialism when it comes to Christmas. My husband and I dont have children yet, but we would love to one day when we’re ready. We are preparing ourselves and have talked about how we would raise our children. As much as we would like to “spoil” our children, we really want to make sure we don’t give in to every impulse. I love how you mentioned waiting for a week before buying something they ask for. Overall, you are right and the most important lesson to teach your children in Christmas is the lesson of giving.

  4. Justin

    Again, love what your doing. I have been viewing all your Mexico pics and just loving the possibilities.

    “Give what they really want” This is perfect.

    My kids have never wanted much more other than THAT PERFECT toy and for me to play with them.

    So often I get in my own way around the holidays, thanks for the reminder.

    Have a wonderful Christmas, wherever that mey be.

  5. Susan

    We just got back from a trip to Granada, Nicaragua and were also faced with those vendors, some of whom were quite aggressive! We ended up purchasing 4 small bird whistles (for about $6 USD) and that was it. It was hard to not buy anything, but the first 24 hours resulted in 2 broken birds. And the ones that didn’t break are already cast aside.

    However, the memories of the trip linger on in our minds and our photos. Just like Christmas memories of years past…it’s not the gifts we remember (usually), but the times spent with those we love and the traditions.

    • Rachel

      Susan, how true that is. So often the case. Even the coveted, waited for slingshots that my boys HAD to have (and earned), are now just cast aside and forgotten in the back of the truck. The fascination passes.

  6. Lisa Wood

    I like the idea of giving a gift at Christmas with love and something they need. Nomrally we buy far too much for our boys and they play with the boxes that the toys come in!
    This year we have limited space in our Motorhome, so we are going to be looking at doing things differently!
    I want to have xmas being about “Giving” instead of about gifts

  7. Diya

    I like the suggestion about giving what we need. On the road, even buying that replacement pair of shoes or underwear becomes an exciting experience! And we’ve seen too many families without shoes that it does add meaning to everything we own.

  8. Mary

    Great post! I agree especially with the concept of waiting to see that you really want something! Usefulness is a thing I have taught myself and my children to really use as the gauge to whether to buy something or not!

  9. Stuart

    I like the way you distinguish between want and need. And how giving the want impulse a little time helps distinguish deeper wants from passing interests. On the road we find having no TV and less media reduces the want urge anyway. And we have similar space issues cycle touring… there’s nowhere to carry or hide gifts. One fun way we tackled giving was to visit a local market, give everyone a dollar or two, then all wandered off to buy each other gifts for each other. With some very entertaining results.

  10. Clark Vandeventer

    I know what you mean when you say you find it difficult to buy things for other people. Do I really want to buy them more clutter? It can make for some awkward family interactions around the holidays when others have different expectations.

  11. with2kidsintow

    Great post, especially love the comment on ‘the burden of possession’. We too have always tended to give our kids ‘what they need’ and ‘what they want’ for birthdays and Christmas if it coincides. But the problem we have is that when these occasions occur and there isn’t anything that they need or want! Our kids are young (4 & 5) and have never asked for anything (beyond the impulsive item that is), so we have been very lucky so far. yet we also want to give them ‘a little something’ yet not add to the clutter, whether on the road or back at home. I definitely like your suggestion of focussing on the giving though!


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