The buy-nothing gift guide that will get you through 2021
Grist / Amelia Bates
Keep It Simple

The buy-nothing gift guide that will get you through 2021

The holidays are here. Let’s think about what we can give in the year to come.

on Dec 3, 2020

If you’re one of those people who have been looking forward to the winter holiday season all year and takes special joy in the act of curating the most perfect, unforgettable present for each of your nearest and dearest, congratulations! It’s your time. But I also understand if you’re not really in the mood to put together a gift list: Even in years that aren’t torn to pieces by a global pandemic, December can come with its own emotional weight. And as for 2020, well … you know.

Last December, I put together a gift guide with 79 climate-friendly, mostly material recommendations, many of which still apply to our new COVID-tainted reality. But this year, there’s something about buying or even making objects that doesn’t feel as meaningful as it normally might; it’s been a lonely year in which a lot of comfort has been derived from objects in lieu of people, and unsatisfyingly so.

Generally speaking, we spend all year at Grist reminding people that one of the best things you personally can do for the climate is to only buy what you need and make use of what you have, to prevent the influx of unnecessary products and the propagation of consumerist ideals into your daily life. And then the holidays come around and you panic and express-ship a 40-percent-off cashmere sweater to your mom because that’s what you do at Christmas!

But eschewing unnecessary shipping and manufacturing doesn’t mean you need to squash your giving instincts. On the contrary, we need connection more than ever to get us through the days and months ahead. To that end, we put together 12 ideas — one for each month of the coming year — to help you share more kind acts and experiences with people in your life. This gift list doesn’t require the opening of a single online shopping cart, refuses to abide by the idea that presents are just for December, and will hopefully make you and the people around you genuinely happier.

It doesn’t require much, though I have suggestions if you are able to set a little money aside every month. Of course, that part is completely optional and only suggested for those who are able to do so. And I’ve even included a bonus action you can take this month to help you get prepared.


December 2020

If you are anything like me, you buy some kind of planner or journal at the beginning of every year and then keep up with it for exactly four days. Tragic. Well, this year you can fill up the first day of every month with your plan to execute each of the following suggestions, and you can even track how well you followed through them if you want. But you don’t have to! Anyway, that is your only assignment for the end of 2020. Please don’t buy the planner on Amazon.

January 2021

I think it’s apropos to kick off the new year with a general gesture of goodwill and generosity toward everyone, which is why I’m recommending donating what you can to a local mutual aid fund, which is a cash reserve for a community to distribute to households in need.

No matter what kind of stimulus plan Congress passes (probably) this month, a lot of people have needed a lot of help for way too long and will for the foreseeable future, so giving cash to funds that are directly distributed to people in need is very, very timely. Here’s a more in-depth argument for the effectiveness of mutual aid programs, if you need to be convinced.

Struggling cash-wise yourself? Take care of yourself; it’s gonna be a hard winter. But if you have a car or a reliable way to transport things, mutual aid funds often need people to deliver goods to families, so you could contact yours and see if they need an extra set of wheels.

Set aside: Nothing or whatever you want — you already donated this month!

illustration of a piggy bank being smashed by a hammer

February

The winter months of 2021 are more or less guaranteed to be hard, so sign up for a volunteer service that makes regular calls or runs errands for the elderly. Getting Harold on the horn every few days just to make sure he has someone to talk to might not be the sexiest Valentine of all time, but it might be more appreciated than the standard ones. Another useful bit of intergenerational information exchange: You could teach seniors how to text to be able to keep in touch with the younger people in their lives, and it’s also a more reliable form of communication in the event of a disaster.

Set aside: $29. A dollar a day for the shortest month — with Leap Day!.

March

There’s a very real possibility we will still be grappling with lockdown measures and social distancing in March, aka the emotional trough of the winter (because yes, March is still winter). You’ve slogged through at least three months of cold and gray and little light, probably in a great deal of solitude, and yet the light at the end of the tunnel refuses to approach.

Everyone has that friend or family member who has had a really, really hard pandemic.

Voilà: March has four weeks, and each one can be devoted to sending that person a little message of care via a different medium. It’s 2021(!), so take your pick: phone, text, Zoom, letter, postcard, flower delivery, singing telegram, FaceTime, Voice Memo, a phone snapshot of a Post-It, etc. Whatever it is, send a message that’s heartfelt and lets the person know you really care about them and want them to be happy.

Set aside: $3.14, $31.40, or $314, whatever you can afford, in honor of Pi Day. What! I was in Math League.

Animation of a sad woman who becomes happy as she gets messages
Grist / Amelia Bates

April

Do you know someone who has been craving some real outdoor time but simply doesn’t have the means — a personal vehicle, a nearby bus line, or money to rent a car — to get out into the woods? Consider paying for a rental for a weekend or, if you have a car, acting as (mask-wearing, COVID-tested) chauffeur for a regional hike of their choice. They may ask you to join them for the hike itself, or they may not! After all, solo time in the woods is deeply therapeutic and good for the brain!

Set aside: $22, for April 22, which is Earth Day. What! This is an environmental magazine!

May

Adopt a teen! Not, like, legally unless you’re ready for that. Even if we have a vaccine by this point in 2021, most kids will still be reeling from the transition to or from remote classwork, and, unfortunately, finals wait for no pandemic. Offer what you can to help the youths in your life — be they a sibling, a friend’s kid, or a neighbor — study for finals: the promise of snacks or a nice incentive to get them through, even just offering to sit with them outside or over Zoom while they study. Or if your calculus skills are still up to par, consider hosting some regular remote study sessions.

Don’t give teens any more reason to believe that older generations have spectacularly let them down, because the whole climate crisis thing is a pretty strong argument for their side.

Set aside: $18.86, for the year of the first May Day to commemorate the labor movement.

June

I had parents in mind when I thought of this month’s act of giving, but it can apply to any older family member with whom you have a close relationship and who can receive photos or videos on their phone. Send the recipient of your choice a photo, short video, or even just an audio recording of some minor detail of your day every day this month. Don’t post that content anywhere else on your social feeds. In the era of nonstop-updated Instagram stories, sharing these little vignettes of your life with just one person can feel uniquely intimate and special.

Set aside: $21.28, for the number of hours and minutes of daylight on the summer solstice in Nome, Alaska!

July

One summer when my dad was traveling a lot for work and my mom was working full time, she commissioned my 11-year-old brother Jesse to organize a week of “Jesse Camp” to keep 5-year-old me occupied. This was a big time commitment, even for an 11-year-old, and I imagine most of the readers of this column have full-time jobs. But I would still challenge you to take the kid(s) of a sibling or cousin or friend for an afternoon or weekend (pod restrictions permitting) and do the same. Parents have been under A LOT of stress these past few months, and anything you can do to give them a break in childcare will be so much appreciated.

Some ideas from Jesse Camp, circa 1994: long nature exploration walks in a local park, drawing sessions, the construction of Lego cities, racing each other on Big Wheel versus on. foot. Still remote? Offer to put on a 20-minute play of their favorite book or teach them the choreography for “Rain on Me” over Zoom.

Set aside: $2.45, $24.50, or $245, in honor of America’s 245th birthday. Wow! Looking… alright for your age, baby.

animation of a woman readiing a book to a child over zoom
Grist / Amelia Bates

August

We’ve talked a lot about parents, kids, and elders here, but your horny single friends matter too. Look. If you’ve been single during the pandemic, you know it’s been a long and bizarre stretch. Whether you, reader, are yourself single or partnered or it’s complicated, but I’m asking you to take on the role of matchmaker and offer to set a (willing) friend up on a date that won’t drive them to finish a bottle of Pinot Grigio before 9 p.m.

August is the sexiest month — hot, languid, not a lot of obligations — so please help out a friend who’s endured the least sexy year in modern history. And then — just a little extra effort! — organize the date for your friend yourself; save them a lot of wearying back and forth. Don’t be shy: You know your friends better than any apps and you want to see them happy. So channel your inner matchmaker, Yenta!

Set aside: $7.00, in the spirit of the 1955 Marilyn Monroe film The Seven Year Itch — the sex-starved theme of which also describes the lockdown experience for millions of people.

September

At some point, most of us have declared: “Boy, if I only had the free time, I’d do (this one thing).” But while coronavirus forcibly dealt most of us a hefty hand of free time, it also came with some serious existential angst, societal upheaval, and for many, a fairly potent cocktail of isolation and depression. Not the best recipe for productivity or creativity! But it’s really hard to finish a creative project without being accountable to anyone but yourself.

So be the person your loved one needs to be accountable to their DIY dreams: Set up a schedule to check-in with them, and deadlines (if they’re into those). You could even offer to cook for them or run errands or support them in whatever way they need to have the time and headspace to finish the thing they’ve longed to finish.

Set aside: $11.14, in honor of the day (November 14) that Ruby Bridges became the first Black student to desegregate a Louisiana elementary school in 1960.

October

Fall is a good time to get to know your neighbors better, and not just because it’s election season. Political scientist Robert Putnam has written at length about how the collapse of neighborhood ties in the U.S. has hurt civic engagement levels, which are key to any kind of political change. So yeah, the block-level relationship-building does come in handy for local-level climate organizing, but it’s also just good practice.

With winter weather just around the corner, people tend to need a little more help — cold! Sadness! Weird and arduous household chores! Consider setting up a neighbor email chain (like NextDoor, but less racist) where your neighbors can keep in touch. And be proactive about making those connections in real life too: This can be as simple as raking a neighbor’s leaves, or taking their trash to the curb, or clearing out their gutters a la Tim Riggins in Friday Night Lights … minus the seduction.

Set aside: $6.66, $66.60, or $666. Honor your inner goth.

November

I’m an advice columnist, not a psychic, so I have no clue what Thanksgiving is going to look like in 2021. What I do know is that you know at least one person who will have a complicated holiday, and you can be there for them. Take some weight off of Thanksgiving Day itself by scheduling simple, safe, and drama-free weekly get-togethers between the two of you. This will help November feel less like “the month when all the emotional weight of the holidays sets in” and more like “the month I’m spending more time with my friend.”

Set aside: $16.21, to commemorate the year of the first Thanksgiving, which was actually kind of a disaster, much like Thanksgivings in the era of a pandemic.

December

And now we have come full circle. Remember all that cash you set aside this year? You now get to donate it to the cause of your choice, or to a loved one who you know could use it. Even if it’s not a strictly environmental cause, you can take some solace in the fact that your acts of kindness didn’t require buying into our consumerist culture.

That’s it. 2021 is done, and hopefully it was a hell of a lot better than 2020.