15 Clever Ways to Give Intangible Gifts

Here are some ways to give people a digital download or other non-wrappable gift, and still have something to open.
gift card

MP3s, streaming movies, online newspapers... living in a digital world is great. But come holiday time, it makes it hard to give these things as gifts. Are you supposed to wrap a confirmation email? BO-RING!

SEE ALSO: The Best Birthday Freebies: A Complete Guide

To help you step up your game in these increasingly digital times, we now present 15 ways to add a lot more whimsy to giving an intangible gift! (Bonus: We took into account other, non-digital gifts that also leave you without a physical thing to wrap, as well.)


Find an old jewel case (one probably fell behind your desk, back in the early '00s). Print out the album art (Amazon always has high-quality images you can use), and slip that into the case so it looks like a dumb-ole physical media fossil like your parents used to give each other, back in the before-times.

The look on your recipient's face upon opening this hard copy album will say "Great, so I have to rip this myself, grandpa?!" But that will quickly be replaced by a "Oh, it's all available online, and I can throw this jewel case out!" look when they open the case to reveal it's nothing more than a confirmation email directing them where to go to download the tracks. Or, alternatively, a note that tells them to check their email, because the link to download the album was sent there.

Digital Movies

Head to your local thrift shop (try not to hum Macklemore the whole time — it's harder than you think) and buy an old film reel. There's always a bin of someone's old home movies in there, somewhere. You might have to ask. Try not to think about how weird it is to ask to see / buy some strangers once-treasured memories. Anyway, take that film home and deface it with a white marker by writing "I bought you Ishtar* on iTunes! Download the movie using code "XXXX". Your giftee will have fun unwinding the reel to see the entire message! Now that's whimsy!

*Or whatever lesser movie you chose to buy them.


eBooks are easy, right? Just stick the gift email into a hard copy of the book and call it a day. Of course, that means you're buying the physical copy of the book in addition to the eBook, which defeats the point. Hmmm. OK. Either you can take the book out of the library, which might be gross to some of you and mean that your giftee opens up a tattered, germ-covered, disease-carrier of a book on Christmas morning, or you can print out the cover of the book to be gifted and glue it onto a book you already own, ruining it forever. There are no other options.

Netflix / Hulu Subscriptions

You could gift this one in the same way as we suggested for a digital movie, but let's start exploring a less-literal, thing-inside-the-non-digital-version way of gifting these intangibles. Let's go tangential! Think about the kind of trappings that surround a movie-watching experience, and gift that instead. It's hard to gift someone sticky floors and annoying strangers checking their phone every three seconds and kicking the back of your seat, but you can pick up an old timey popcorn box and stuff it full of movie-quality candy. Nonpareils, Milk Duds, and Sour Patch Kids all work. Make sure you don't forget to put the printed out Netflix gift card in there, too, otherwise your recipient will think you're just trying to give them diabetes.

Books, Literally on Tape

Sure, we know that even if they're not a digital download, audio books are rarely purchased on actual tape anymore and are more likely to be CDs. But we couldn't pass up that headline and the chance to tie it in to the whimsical way we're suggesting presenting it. First, get yourself a roll of masking tape. Starting at the free end, write the title, author, and as much of the first paragraph as you can (until either the tap or your resolve gives out). Roll it all back up, put it in a box, wrap it, and give it to the audio-bookworm (ear worm?) in your life. When they open it and shoot you a quizzical look, say, "Get it? It's a BOOK on TAPE!" Then laugh for a while. Then say, "No, seriously, I got you that audio book, here's the download code."

Amazon Prime

Another super-easy one to pull off because, surely, you have an empty Amazon box lying around from some of the more tangible things you bought for people this holiday season. Take that and wrap it up; if you don't think your giftee will "get it," put a note in the box that reads, "This empty box actually contains 2-day free shipping. And love. And, I guess, this note... which is only here to tell you about the two other things." Or something.

Ancestral Gifts

Did you know that you can gift an Ancestry.com subscription to the geneology buff in your life? It's true, but how do you wrap that up? Simply print out an image of an old scroll (like this one) and write something ancient-y on it, like, "Let it be known that who so ever shall find this olde note shall be gifted a 6-month Ancestry.com subscription!" Then roll it up and stick it inside a fake skull. Boy will your giftee be surprised!

Full disclosure: This is one of the ideas that this writer has actually done! The recipient (this writer's beautiful wife) was amused, but then asked if she needed to hang onto the all-too-real skull, like, forever, or if it was just a gag. To be fair, the only skull that could be found was very anatomical and not very whimsical. It even included blood stains. You might want to try something more goofy / cartoony than terrifying.

Digital Music Subscriptions

Pandora, Spotify, Google Play All Access, Beats Music, and so many others give your lucky present-getter the chance to listen to all of the best music, but how can you convey that? By giving them a magazine that covers all of the day's best music! Head to the store and buy them the latest issue of Accordion News Weekly. If your local news stand doesn't carry it, we guess you could settle for a copy of Billboard. Include a note that says, "You can listen to all this music, and more, with your new subscription!"

A Fancy Dinner

You could box and wrap up a fully-cooked meal, but that'd get messy, especially if you plan on leaving the gifts under the tree for several days. ("Why did you get me a box full of maggots?") Would it be less messy to wrap up a frozen dinner? Probably, but that doesn't really convey the "fancy" that you're looking to express. It'd be best if you could wrap up the head chef, but that would get police-y, once he was unwrapped. A safe, jail-time-free alternative might be to wrap up a place setting, the plate of which you've written "Dinner at Chez Pollo De Mere" on. If it's a less-fancy place, you could just wrap up a bib.

A Holiday Getaway

Once upon a time you could just wrap the tickets, but, again, living in the glorious future that we do, even travel has gone digital. How can you wrap a QR code from your Apple Passbook? You can't, so stop trying. How about this? If you're going someplace warm, wrap the giftee's bathing suit. Sure, at first they'll wonder if you've finally cracked and are just wrapping things you found around the house, but then you say "I hope you like BERMUDA!" and all will be well. Going someplace cold? Wrap a pair of long johns! Going someplace neither hot nor cold? Wrap their passport!

All the News That's Fit to ePrint

Are your friends one of those weird-os who "likes to know what's going on in the world" and doesn't settle for just browsing headlines from blogs shared on Facebook? A perfect gift for them is a subscription to an online newspaper. The easy gift solution is to pick up a physical edition of the paper to which you subscribed them and wrap that. Done. Advanced gift-givers can print out their own headlines, too. Something like "Emily Receives the Gift of News!" But that assumes you can use a printer. Advanced.

Comic Books

First, print out a tiny version of the cover of the comic you'll be gifting (Google it to find a suitable pic). Then, buy an action figure of a character from the gifted book. Open up the package (remember, you're gifting the comics, not the action figure, so it's OK) and tape the comic into the figure's hands, as if he or she is reading their own story. (Whoa, meta!) Put that into a box and wrap the whole thing. Come gift-opening day, your recipient will be thrilled to see their favorite characters offering them their favorite title to read, digitally. (Thrilled and only slightly horrified and disgusted that you opened the action figure that they would have loved to keep "MIB" — to later flip on eBay.)

Video Games

Wrap up a package of diapers and include a note that says, "To help you with that marathon session of [name of game you got them]!"

Alternatively (and a lot less gross than implying your buddy should pee in their pants), you can modify the idea for Netflix (see above) and give them food associated with gaming. Put together a gift basket of Mountain Dew, Jolt Cola, 5-Hour Energy, Doritos, and Pixie Sticks. Include a note that says, "To help you with that marathon session of [name of game you got them]!"

Wine- or Food-of-the-Month Clubs

Monthly food subscriptions are truly the gift that keeps on giving, but they don't really give you anything to wrap as a present. Why not gift your giftee a representative sample of something they're about to start receiving a lot of, every month? For extra laughs, opt for a hilariously cheap version of whatever will be in their high-end monthly delivery. Wine-of-the-Month? Get 'em a box of wine and wrap that. Fruit Club? Wrap a box of Fruit Roll-Ups. Cheese? Give 'em a pack of Kraft Singles. It's kooky, fun, ironic, and whimsical in the exact way that snooty "foodies" might not appreciate at all, but you'll get a few chuckles out of it! Or not!

Gym Membership, Yoga Classes, or Any Other Health Nutty Type Thing

Assuming, first, that you have the kind of relationship with this person that you could even give them such a gift as a gym membership without them shooting back, "So you think I'm fat?!", your best bet is to give them some workout-related item. A yoga mat works if the gift is yoga, sure, but a better catch-all might be a water bottle. Think about it! If you buy one of those clear ones, you can even stuff their membership gift certificate in there and they can have a fun time trying to fish it out. (Be sure to empty the water bottle, first, if you used one that you took from the office refrigerator, right before you went on vacation.)

Doing any of the above is fine, but getting creative is the key. Just let your creative juices flow all over your presents (gross) and be prepared to get a lot of compliments for thinking outside of the box! (Those compliments will often sound like "Oh, how clever! Did you learn how to do this from an online gift guide?") *sad trombone sound*
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User Experience Researcher

Jeff Somogyi is the DealNews User Experience Researcher. Since working here he's written deals, features, promotional and newsletter copy, blog posts, as well as scripts for our videos.
DealNews may be compensated by companies mentioned in this article. Please note that, although prices sometimes fluctuate or expire unexpectedly, all products and deals mentioned in this feature were available at the lowest total price we could find at the time of publication (unless otherwise specified).
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Maybe also consider (beauty) subscription boxes, like Birchbox or one of the others that offer gift subscriptions. Great round-up of fun and creative gift ideas, thanks!