Shopping for gifts as an expat is a little different. You need have limited space and weight allowance in the suitcases. You need to buy gifts ahead of time. You need to figure out what people might want or need when you’re not involved in their daily lives because you’re living hundreds of miles away. These are my tips to expat holiday gift shopping and giving.
This December will be our third winter living in California. This will be the third year that we will be travelling back to Toronto for a real winter and to spend the holidays with our friends and family. It will have been a whole year since we’ve been back and I can’t see everyone! I always think I’ll have plenty of time to catch up with everybody but once we’re there, time just goes by so fast and it’s never enough (isn’t it always the case when you’re having fun?). One thing I definitely don’t have time for when we’re there is shopping for gifts. We will be arriving in Toronto just a few days before xmas and the last thing I want to do then is brave the malls.
Now that Halloween is done and November started I am finally getting to my holiday shopping list. I am actually late compared to some friends (seriously, who completes their shopping before Halloween?). The first step for me is figuring out who we need to get gifts for. Once I figure out the who, I can figure out the what. This is the guide for doing your holiday shopping while living far away:
Make up your giftee list
I actually make a mindmap of my holiday shopping list. I first started doing this a few years ago when I was learning about mind maps and trying them out. But after that first year I realized how much better this was than just a list. I usually group giftees by family. Doing it by family helps me later on during the holidays themselves. Since we rarely see everyone on our gift list at the same time, I can easily see which presents to grab on the way out based on these groupings rather than scrolling through the list to make sure I’m not forgetting anyone. Doing it this way also works better if you do family gifts because then the whole “island” is done.
Pro Tip: If you are not familiar with mind maps, you can learn more here and here. Mind maps are a tool for brain storming as well as information retention (and more). I started using it as a way to study better but then I saw that it can be a useful tool for figuring out and planning day to day things too!
I love doing family and experience gifts
Instead of spending $25 on each person in the family to get the adults another bottle of wine and the kids another lego set, I prefer to give combined gifts where I can. Unless I know for sure that the bottle of wine or legos is exactly what they want. I really do my best to give people gifts I think they will love and maybe be surprised by. I’m also a fan of experience gifts. A family pass or gift card to a zoo, museum, aquarium or science center is always great experience gift. Even the local mini-golf or trampoline park if you know the family is into that. If I know the family’s favourite restaurant I might get a gift certificate to go there. For the nerdy couple in your life, a gift card to the local escape room will be always be welcome. If there’s a board game they can all play together, that makes a great gift. A subscription to something the family can enjoy together is another great option – especially now that there seem to be subscriptions boxes for every hobby and interest imaginable. The best part about these kinds of experience gifts is that they don’t take up any space in my suitcase (except the board game one I guess) and they are still thoughtful.
Pro Tip: If you plan the subscription gift ahead of time, you can even time it so they get a delivery in time for the holidays!
Disclaimer: Often kids don’t appreciate family experience gifts because there is no physical gift for them to open. I’ve had kids ask “where is my present?” and the parent having to awkwardly explain that this piece of paper in the envelope is the present for the whole family. Personally this doesn’t bother me too much. I think kids already get too many presents during the holidays (the kids I know definitely do) and it won’t hurt them to learn that not every good present is something you can hold and unwrap. But if seeing the joy on the child’s face as they open your gift is important to you, family gifts are probably not the best idea.
Disclaimer #2: Even though I try to get everyone unique and thoughtful gifts sometimes a great bottle of wine or legos are the best I can come up with. And those are pretty good gifts too, even if they’re not the most unique.
This is a no brainer but I do most of my holiday shopping online. Since we’re going back to Canada I try to shop online on Canadian sites and ship the items to my parents’ house (our holiday headquarters). My favourite Canadian sites for gift shopping are amazon.ca, well.ca, indigo.ca (am I missing any? Leave a comment below with your favourite Canadian online stores!). They have a lot of gift type stuff and free or cheap shipping when you spend a certain amount. Sometimes it’s easier to get something shipped to the giftee’s house directly. If I do that, I usually end up printing out the description of the item and putting that in a small box for them to open. Obviously this is great because I don’t need to wrap and lug a suitcase full of presents with me on the airplane. It does however mean you have to get your act together in advance. Most retailers will have a last date by which you need to order gifts to guarantee shipping by xmas.
Pro Tip: Make sure you keep track of who you’re buying for as you’re purchasing. The last thing you want is to get to your destination a few days before the holidays to a pile of boxes and no idea which item was for whom.
Pro Tip: Plan to shop online at the end of November. Even in Canada many retailers are starting to have Black Friday sales. Figure out what you want and save it until the sale. Last year Indigo had free shipping for purchases of any amount around the week of Black Friday. It was great and I ended up shipping a few gifts to different addresses.
Give books instead of cards
This is something I do for kids especially. I sign the inside of a kid’s book instead of buying a card. I do this for birthdays as well as the holidays. Often you can buy kids books for the same price as greeting cards. I do believe that kids can’t have too many books (though we are definitely getting close to too many in our house). It works well for adults too, if there is a small and inexpensive book that you think they might like. I’m a fan of giving books as gifts in general, even if it’s considered only a tad better than giving socks according to some.
There you have it. My expat holiday gift shopping guide. Do you have any tips that make gift shopping around the holidays easier? Please share in the comments!
Kristen Raney says
I love this post! I’d like to add Mastermind Toys and Toys R Us to your online shopping list if you have kids. A lot of local independent stores now have online stores that ship within Canada, so if you know of any that are in Toronto, which I’m sure there are lots, that is always an option. Sorry I’m no help with that one, I’m from Saskatoon.
Thanks! I forgot about mastermind, that’s a great one. Good tip on finding local stores that have online shops. I actually know of a couple mom stores, I bet there are a bunch for every thing.
Thanks for sharing. These are great tips for everyone. I especially like the experiences suggestion and the recommendation to give books instead of cards. When I had baby number two, my friends all wrote a special message for me in the back of a board book they included in my gift. Whenever I’m reading the book to my little ones I read the messages too and it always brings a smile to my face.
That sounds very sweet! What a great idea to use board books for that.
I have never heard of well.ca! I’ll definitely explore that site. And I love your idea of giving books instead of cards. I may just try that this year (especially with those close to me as I know their taste 🙂 )