The digital gift has a bad rap, and not because it’s rarely wrapped. Buying something virtual for the holidays has long been associated with forgetful last-minute shoppers or a lack of creativity.
Gifts without physical form are often better for the environment, cutting the need for a network of planes and trucks to ferry a cardboard box to someone’s door. There aren’t any surprise return or restocking fees, which are making a comeback for physical goods bought online. And a gift that exists on a screen or as an activity isn’t going to add to a the recipient’s collection of clutter.
Here are some of our favorite gifts that you can’t hold. Most internet-based gifts let you schedule a day to email the recipient, or offer an option to copy or print the information yourself. And while digital gifts no longer say “Oh no, I forgot about you,” they do make a great last-minute option.
A niche video-streaming subscription
Give someone you love the gift of absolute terror. Shudder is a horror-themed streaming service that costs $56.99 a year. It’s just one of a number of delightfully specific streaming services such as BritBox (British shows), Lifetime Movie Club (mid-budget dramas), FuboTV (live sports) Crunchyroll (Anime).
If you know for sure the person you’re shopping for is missing one of the biggies — Disney Plus, Netflix, HBO Max, Amazon’s Prime Video — there are gift options for those as well. (The Washington Post is owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.) But a streaming service that focuses on the kind of shows they love most says “I’m actually paying attention to your interests.”
If a service doesn’t offer gift options, you can make an account for them using an email alias and share the info. (If you want to share your own streaming subscriptions, read our guide on how.)
The perfectly chosen e-book
This is for anyone who isn’t a physical-book purist and reads on their tablet, phone or e-reader. You can gift a single e-book on most online stores that sell them. For Amazon, go to the e-book version of the title you want and click “Buy for others.” On Barnes & Noble click “Buy as Gift.” In Apple Books, go to the book you want and hit the share button to bring up an option that says “Gift.”
When one book isn’t enough, try a subscription or package deal. Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited ($47.86 for 6 months) covers all genres of e-books, 24Symbols has e-book subscriptions with recommendations (starting at $9 a month), Libro.fm (starting at $30) is an option for audiobook lovers that supports local stores, Amazon’s Audible has an extensive audiobook selection (starting at $15 for one title), and Marvel Unlimited ($55 a year) can please a comic book fan.
If they do prefer reading words printed on paper, consider a gift card from a local bookstore in their area or from Bookshop.org, which sells online and splits payments with indie booksellers. A great way to give books but make it personal is TBR, which lets you put in their interests to get suggested titles ($87.50 for three books and recommendations).
Relaxing apps to distract them from reality
Got a doomscroller on your hands? Give them something to look at on their phones that won’t leave them depressed, like a soothing mobile video game or creative app. Our video game experts at Launcher have rounded up a list of their favorite iPhone games, with giftable options including Dicey Dungeons ($4.99), Love You To Bits ($3.99) and Solitairica ($3.99). Games aren’t the only way to unwind on a phone. Get creative people Procreate Pocket ($4.99) to make find art or relaxing doodles. Musicians will enjoy making tunes on Abelton Note ($5.99).
You can gift a paid app in the Apple App Store by hitting the share button, or you can give them credit at the Google Play store. Most of our favorite mobile games are free with in-app purchases, such as Two Dots, but you can recommend the game and gift some app store credit from Apple or Google Play for them to spend on their games. You can also give the gift of virtual currency if you know what they play. No, not crypto, but something more stable like Minecraft Minecoins.
Activities you can do online or in real life
The pandemic forced a number of recreational real world things online, such as yoga and cooking classes. Even though in-person events are back and thriving, you can opt for online gatherings if your friend or family group lives far apart. Book a virtual tarot card reading or improv class on Airbnb Experiences, look into cooking classes from America’s Test Kitchen, or find other courses from MasterClass. If you’d like to support local businesses, see who is offering in-person classes near them that fit with their interests (pottery, bouldering, tax preparation) and buy a package online. Another great option is to buy them tickets to see a band they like or get an annual membership to a gallery, zoo or museum.
Newsletter or Patreon subscription
This is a chance to support interesting creators while getting something enjoyable for your friend. The key is to pick something or someone they’re genuinely interested in. Sign them up for a Patreon subscription, which can include anything from exclusive access to blog posts and podcasts to physical merchandise. Unfortunately Patreon doesn’t offer a way to gift a membership, so you’ll have to be creative by setting up an email address or using your own and transferring it. For newsletters, you can find people writing about a specific topic they’re into or choose something local. To get started with ideas, browse on Substack.
Fine, this is actually analog, but it fits the spirit of “no shipping, no clutter.” It is universally accepted as adorable when children give homemade coupons as gifts, but what if adults did it too? Instead of “1 free hug” or “I’ll leave you alone for 10 minutes,” these coupons can offer something a bit more substantial. If you have a friend with young children, give them one free night of babysitting. If you have any marketable skills — hair styling, bathroom re-tiling, tech support — offer it as a present by the hour or as a one-time event. While this gift can technically be virtual if you inform them by email, it’s best handwritten on paper.