There's nothing to squelch the holiday spirit like plunking down your credit card for a stack of Game Stop and Old Navy giftcards. It's not what you want, it's probably not what they want, and it's probably sending that message: I don't understand you.
We all want to give personal gifts that show our love, that speak a friend's dedication or a child's unique qualities.
But let's face it: some people are really hard to buy for. Sigh. The thought of buying another scented candle or a snowman figurine is, frankly, a downer. That's why this year, forgo the generic toys and trinkets and forget about the impersonal gift card.
Go instead with what psychologists say makes people happier than material things: experiences.
To help you along, we've collected a nice list of experiences you can buy for your loved ones that say, "I love you too much to give you a Christmas sweater."
- Until Dec. 31, Sea Bright is offering half-price beach passes for its public beach. For $50, your favorite beach bum will get all the vitamin D she can handle. Just stop by Borough Hall on Ocean Avenue weekdays from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. with cash, check or money order.
- - For about $250 you can give a group of your favorite beer enthusiasts the chance to brew their own batch of beer at, with six cases to take home. Up to four people can brew together with their own choice of recipe and ingredients. Not a bad way to reward a group of brothers, coworkers (or Patch editors) for all their hard work this year.
- - Hours of pinball play and no quarters required at this arcade and museum rolled into one. Anyone alive today can relive the games of their youth on pinball machines from the 1931 Baffle Ball to the 2005 Sopranos machine, which gave this reporter carpal tunnel pain for three days. There are specials on Tuesdays and Sundays but a regular two-hour pass is $10.
- - Pass on your love of Asteroids and Ms. Pacman with a pass to this classic arcade. The hourly rate is about $8.75, but you can contact the arcade to find out more about specials. YESTERcades has games from 1979 to 1999, (like Frogger!) which makes it the perfect place for your sister or brother-in-law still stuck in the 80s.
- - Like Chucky Cheese for big kids and grown-ups, iPlay America has indoor bumper cars, laser tag, arcade games, mini-bowling and more. Admission starts at around $20 which includes points for games and attractions. Reward points can be redeemed for swanky prizes.
- The Community YMCA of Red Bank - With the high unemployment rate, many families have had to cut their gym memberships. The Red Bank Y recently renovated its health and wellness facility and is celebrating with a promotion: two months for the price of one, no joiner fee. For $69 for adults or $92 for a family, you can help your loved one stay on track in 2012. The offer is good through Dec. 24.
- Elevate Yoga in Holmdel - Twice a year, at the holidays and in May for its anniversary, the studio offers a nine-class package for $108, which works out to $12 a class. You can purchase gift certificates via email, which might just save you enough time for your own practice.
- - Massages at this spa range from 50 minutes to 3 hours and cost between $80 to $265. You can purchase gift certificates online and print them out at home.
- Massage Envy Spa in Holmdel, Shrewsbury, and Freehold - Massage Envy offers hot stone massage, Swedish massage, and the ultimate: the monthly subscription, $59 a session for 12 months. Yes, please.
- The ART Room in Little Silver - This store offers art classes for kids, teens and adults. Reserve your little Picasso a spot in the winter session, which runs from Jan. 9 through March. Cost for the session is $250. You can also purchase gift certificates for private lessons ($50 an hour) or for special Saturday events, which run for one to three hours and cost between $25 and $50. Call or email for more information.
- Small Factory Productions in Fair Haven - What's wrong with sneeking in a little edu-tainment with a Christmas or Hanukkah gift? At Small Factory, kids can have fun making music and movies while learning about computers and technology at the same time. Most six-week classes range from $160 to $240, but you can buy your child or grandchild a one time spot in the factory's Friday night movie night and after party for $25.
- A Time to Kiln in Red Bank - Resist the urge to buy the messy, junky pottery set and instead spend an hour messing up the bright and cheerful space at A Time to Kiln, where your kids can choose their piece and six colors of paint with free refills. Pieces average about $14 and the hourly rate to paint is $6. When your artist is finished, the nice folks there will fire the piece for you and you pick it up in a week, to the oohs and ahhs of adoring fans. All this without scraping clay out of your carpet. And if you are really clever, you'll find a way to turn that masterpiece into someone's birthday gift.
- Fred Astaire Ballroom Dance Studio of Red Bank - Someone you know get engaged recently? Why not reward the happy couple (or punish the future groom, depending on his perspective) with a gift certificate to the dance school. You can use Paypal to purchase gift certificates from $50 to $500 for lessons in ballroom or Latin dancing.
- - Give yourself and your best friend something you both could use: some new moves. Icon Dance Complex, (the dance studio who trained the ICONic Boyz) offers open classes three nights a week for those who want to give hip-hop a try. A one-hour class costs $15 or try an hour and a half for $18. You can also purchase class cards for more than one class, and now Zumba classes are being offered on Thursdays.
- Red Bank Armory Ice Complex in Red Bank - Buy your family an afternoon of laughs watching each other slip and slide all over the ice. The armory offers public skate for about $9, plus $4 for the skate rental. There are even separate classes for those who always wanted to learn.
- Bounce U in Morganville or Eatontown - Those grandkids are going to be bouncing no matter what this Christmas. Why not give them some place other than your new sofa to do it? For $8 ($32 for 5 sessions) your bouncing boy or girl will get a Costco-sized bouncy playground in which to run and scream for two hours straight. Or bring the whole family: Tuesdays are family nights when parents can join in on the fun with music and games. For about $4 more, Bounce U throws in pizza and a soda. You supply your own post-bounce antacid.
- Brookdale Public Radio's 90.5 The Night - The radio station is offering a CD of the month club for a $120 donation. Ok, so this one is actually buying a thing, but music is an experience. Plus, then your friend will get to experience being a member of the station with all its discount perks and the satisfaction of supporting quality, commercial free programming.
- Celebrate family time old school style this year, with a family gift pack of tickets to see The Muppets at , and Rave Motion Pictures at the Hazlet 12.
- The serious movie buff will appreciate a gift of the Director's Club from Rave. With a minimum purchase of 50 tickets, holders of this club card get an unrestricted ticket at $7.50. Tickets have no restrictions or expiration date.
- If your movie lover is up for a trek, take her to Fork and Screen at AMC Loews Theaters in Bridgewater and Edison, where you can dine on beef tenderloin ($16) while you contemplate the hair styling choices of the girl with the dragon tattoo. The popcorn is still outrageously priced, but at least here you can cry about it in your beer.