Episode 123: Simple Birthday Celebrations

Focusing on special treatment (instead of lavish gifts) and managing expectations are the keys to making birthday celebrations simpler and more meaningful.

Show transcript:

Welcome to the SimpleMoney Podcast, where we make personal finance less intimidating. I’m Dawn Starks, a financial planner and lover of the simple life. I’m here to talk about money and simplicity. Let’s dive in. This is Episode 123: Simple Birthday Celebrations. So I know it’s February now, as I’m recording this, but in January I wrote a blog post about birthdays. January’s my birthday month, so January is the month that I always look forward to with regard to celebrating. So I am one of those divas, I’m sorry to say, that likes to spend the entire month thinking about my birthday.

And so one day is not enough. I want to think about my birthday week and sometimes even my birthday month! So, that’s right. I am that person. But what I wanted to talk about was about what we can do to make birthday celebrations simpler, and probably less expensive also, because even though I’m a diva about wanting to spend the month celebrating my birthday, I don’t want lots of gifts and expensive things, and outings and all of that. At most, maybe a card would be nice. Acknowledgments

great. Or, you know, maybe a dinner out with my family, something like that. But really, I don’t want lots of things. I don’t have desires for material things. So I’m not completely a diva, I guess. I’m not expecting to have, you know, wine and roses and you know, diamond bracelets and all of that sort of nonsense. So, but I do like to lord over the household when it comes to decision-making. So I’ll make the announcement,

you know, “Well, it’s my birthday!” when things come up like games we’re going to play, or if we’re going to go out to dinner or something like that, I want to call the shots. And so I’m going to definitely lord it over my family that it’s my birthday, or my birthday week, or my birthday month, and that I get to choose those things. And I afford my family members the same courtesy in their birthday months, just so you don’t think I’m completely selfish about it! So last January, in 2019, I turned 50 and that month felt to me like a much bigger sort of deal.

And it was a bigger celebration and I wanted a little bit more hoopla, but still not a gift, you know, not a big party or anything like that. But this year, of course, I only turned a boring 51. So there was not really any sort of hoopla, and I didn’t need any sort of hoopla about it. But what I did is, it really got me thinking about birthdays and simplifying and how we think about our celebrations and what really matters. And so I wanted to talk about some ways that you can simplify your birthday celebrations. And I’m going to talk about it kind of in the sense of for adults or,

you know, grown-ups, versus children. So the first thing is, is that I think that to simplify birthday celebrations, we just need to focus on special treatment. And again, special treatment doesn’t have to mean money. It can mean decision-making in the household, especially when you think about kids. They love to be able to be kind of Queen For The Day or King For The Day, and make the decisions about what they’re going to have for breakfast, or what they’re going to have for dinner or what

fun activity you’re going to do as a family for their birthday, or what kind of cake that they want to have if they have a birthday cake, that sort of thing. But it’s that special treatment, treating them like it is their special day and letting them make decisions. So that doesn’t have to cost anything. It can just make them feel good because you’re treating them in a special way. Another thing to think about is managing expectations, because that special treatment can mean different things to different people. Right? Some people are going to think,

“Oh, well, that means, you know, buying me lots of stuff and taking me out to really expensive meals,” and all of that. And it doesn’t have to. It can mean different things to different people. So with kids particularly, you just need to manage those expectations. So you could ask them questions such as, “Hey, for your special day, you get to choose the meal we’re going to prepare at home. So what are your favorite things? No matter how weird the combination is,

we will make your favorite things for dinner.” Or you might ask them “What one special gift would you like to request for your birthday?” So managing those expectations. “You’re not going to get, you know a table full of gifts. You’re not going to have a huge party with tons of kids coming over. What one special gift would you like to request for your birthday?” Another question you could ask would be what game or movie, or you know, activity would you like to do for your birthday celebration? And then relatedly

you can say, “Would you like to choose one friend to share that birthday celebration with you?” So I think that it’s easy for adults to think about this, to manage expectations. And I think also the older that we get, the less we really want to have material things for our birthdays. Could be that, you know, the younger you are as an adult, that maybe you still feel special when you’re given flowers, or chocolate, or gifts, or jewelry, whatever. Maybe that is important to you.

And if you know anything about the love languages, some people really enjoy receiving and giving gifts, and that is their love language. So I don’t mean to make it sound like I am criminalizing gift giving at all, I’m not. What I’m trying to do is focus on how can we make it simpler. How can we make it less expensive, potentially? How can we really zero in on what it means to have a birthday celebration, as opposed to getting sucked into all the consumerist trappings?

Because that’s of course what happens, you know, short of any other guidance or thought about it,

you’re going to fall into the trap of buying a card, buying a gift, buying the wrapping or a gift bag to go with it.

You know, expensive meals, expensive treats and gifts, and things like that. So it doesn’t have to be like that.

So, really, it’s all about expectations. Even as adults, you might want to rein in expectations.

If you have a partner or spouse who routinely likes to have big birthdays, and you would really like to kind of curb that and bring it, you know rein it back in,

then maybe you need to have a conversation with that partner/ spouse way before the birthday month is arriving, because you certainly don’t want to have hard feelings

and hurt them by not acknowledging them in the way that they would like it to be done.

So again, a lot of it depends on also the household budget, you know? I mean, if there is a budget to have an expensive gift and that’s what you like to do,

there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just that I’m trying to address the issue of managing the expectations and sort of the assumptions that happen in the consumerist society that we have that,

you know, you kind of have to go all out to celebrate somebody for their special day, and you really don’t need to do that.

So the main thing here is that you’re just trying to get on the same page with the birthday girl or birthday boy, to make sure that there aren’t going to be hurt

feelings or you know, crushed expectations. You want to set those expectations up front. All right,

so another thing you can do to simplify birthday celebrations is to give gifts of time. So this also again speaks to the budget issue or trying to be more frugal about birthdays, but giving gifts that are not material in nature.

So giving gifts that are, “Hey, let’s go and spend a day, you know, visiting a museum together. Or taking a walk through,

you know, the park or the botanical gardens or something like that. Let’s play a game or I’ll prepare you a meal,” or something like that.

Something that is you’re giving your time, so you’re showing your love through the giving of your time,

but you’re not spending lots of money necessarily to do that. So think about ways that you can give gifts of time instead of money.

Another option is to share a special meal. So this is what I’ve been saying. This is one of my examples.

They don’t have to involve a restaurant meal. They can if you want, if that’s important in your family or if that’s your special thing,

by all means do that. But it doesn’t have to be that way. It could be just a special meal at home.

So for kids, there might be something that you only make for birthday celebrations. Something that the kids really love that you don’t make regularly,

and it’s just a special thing that’s for the birthday. So that might not be a dinner-time, that might be a breakfast-time.

Maybe you never make pancakes in your house, but you decide that for birthdays, the birthday kid is going to get special pancakes, because maybe they want to have chocolate chips in those pancakes, or whatever.

So there’s a variety of things that you could, you know, cook up, literally and figuratively I guess,

to celebrate the person without it having to blow your budget. So thinking about it and making it special by making it scarce, by picking something that doesn’t happen all the time.

So for adults, that might be something a little bit more on the high end of the scale. So maybe you never buy expensive cuts of meat,

and for birthdays, you decide you’re going to have filet mignon. You’re going to have a fancy steak dinner, which would still be cheaper at home than it would be at a restaurant for sure.

So it could be that you go in that direction, something fancier that you never would have at home normally.

But that you do for the special birthday celebrations. For kids, you could make personal pizzas and let them decorate them at home.

Something special. But the key is to try to think of something that you don’t ordinarily prepare so that it’s not just,

“Oh well, this is just one of our normal meals.” It is something special that brings that sense of celebration, and specialness, and separateness

to the event. All right. Then next, I have on my list to beware of the trappings of kid birthday parties,

so this is specifically for kids. But it could also apply to adults, if you’ve gotten roped into having big birthday celebrations with your group of friends.

I think adults tend to do this when it’s centered around a milestone-type birthday. 50 is usually a milestone birthday that gets celebrated with a party, or often does.

But I’m thinking right now about kid parties in particular, because one of the ways that birthdays can get out of hand is when you’re planning those parties for kids.

Because it’s not just, you know, the event itself, and the meals, or the gifts for your own child,

now you’re thinking about other people. And so then you can think that things would kind of rapidly spiral out of control in terms of the number of gifts and the expense of preparing all of this extra food or party favors and that sort of thing.

So when Rowan, our daughter, was small, and I mean really small, like her first and second and third birthdays

I want to say, we had very small birthday parties that were really mostly family members, because both sets of Rowan’s grandparents lived nearby.

So we invited a few friends along, too, and it kind of became more of a party and a gathering for adults than it really was for the kids

that came. Of course, the kids had fun playing games and whatnot, but you know,

we had some appetiser-type food and of course birthday cake. But we never really fell into the trap of kind of the major big birthday parties for kids.

And I think partly that was because we were homeschoolers. And so we kind of missed out on that obligation of, “Oh,

well, no, you gotta invite your entire class if you’re going to have a birthday party, because otherwise kids would feel left out,”

which I agree with. I’m just saying that we didn’t have that to worry about. We didn’t have a class full of 30 kids that needed to be invited to something.

So we still did though, fall into the trap of some of the things that go along with kid parties.

So, for example, each time I would let Rowan pick out a theme. So the memorable one that comes to mind is one year she was really into,

she was into dinosaurs for a lot of years, but this one particular year for her birthday party, she wanted it to have a dinosaur theme.

So you know what that means. Then you have dinosaur plates, and dinosaur tablecloth, and dinosaur party favors, and that sort of thing.

So even while I was doing it, I thought to myself, “Ugh, I just, I hate all this. I hate that I’m spending extra money for special plates that we’re going to eat off of one time,

and it’s just it’s wasteful.” Um, and then, of course, the silly party favors that, you know,

because I think that we feel like guests who come to the party need to be rewarded for coming to the party, as if coming to the party was not enough reward.

So we make these little gift bags for kids. So even though we tried to be careful about the things we put in those gift bags,

it’s still it was an extra expense and it’s, I mean the number of times that Rowan went to a birthday party and got one of those little bags of goodies,

and it was stuff that was just junky stuff that, you know, ends up sitting on the counter and then eventually getting chucked in the trash.

So it’s wasteful and can be expensive. So after a few of those years, and because of,

you know, scattering of family members and whatnot, I decided, “Let’s not do it this way anymore.

Let’s let Rowan choose an activity, and then she can invite a friend or two along” depending on what the cost of the activity was.

So this was not only less expensive than throwing a bigger party, but it was way less hassle, and way less waste.

I mean, just getting pizza out with, you know, one or two kids, as opposed to,

you know, feeding, you know, maybe 15-20 people, including all the family members,

it was a big difference. So Rowan never really expressed dismay about not having what we would call quote,

“A Real Party.” But really, she, you know, I guess in addition, she actually started not liking going to other kids

birthday parties. She would get invited and she was like, “Oh, do I have to go?” She didn’t really want to go because she inherited from me, for better or

for worse, and also, I guess from her dad, that we’re just not party people. We don’t like to go and

be around tons of people, you know, maybe one or two people fine, but not around tons of people.

It’s just not our thing. And she has always been very introverted in that way also. So I think for her it was just not that big of a deal.

So when she decided she didn’t want to go to kids parties, that was like a, that was a huge thing for me because then that got me off the hook for having to do that also,

which was great. So that invite-a-friend part of it that that we kind of morphed into,

we’ve mellowed that even further because we had a few years where we were RV-ing, and we were on the road frequently in the summer when Rowan’s birthday occurred.

So that took away the opportunity for her to have, you know, an activity that she invited friends

to. So instead, what we would do is find an activity while we were traveling, and that was sort of a special thing.

We let her pick something out, and then we would, you know, let her have her gifts in the RV and she thought that was cool,

too. So, the year that we were in Canada for her birthday, this wasn’t an RV trip,

this was another trip, but I packed her gifts so that she could open them in Canada. And that was really, she thought that was really great.

So in essence, what we did is we practiced Queen For The Day, but on the road while we were traveling. Next on my list is to spend wisely on greeting cards.

Have you noticed how expensive greeting cards are? Holy smokes. I still like paper cards as opposed to E-cards.

I’ve never really warmed up to E-cards. I mean occasionally they’re cute, but I really, I just don’t like them.

I really do prefer paper cards, but holy moly, are they expensive! Years ago I had this great experience that, looking back,

I should have taken even more advantage of. But we had a Hallmark store that was going out of business,

and I just happened upon it, it wasn’t a place that I normally would shop, I would normally just get greeting cards at a grocery store,

which is probably why the Hallmark went out of business because of all the competition. But I just saw that they had this sign that they were going out of business.

So I wandered in there, and everything was like 75% off or more. And so I just stocked up.

I probably spent a couple hundred dollars on cards, but I got more than a year’s-worth of cards there that day.

I just picked out any cards that seemed, you know, that I liked, that were funny, you know,

that were appropriate, and I just had a stash of cards for the longest time, and that really was very economical in the end,

because of all the money I saved, not buying those cards throughout the year. But that was a one-time thing.

You know, nowadays, it’s so expensive to go get a card, and if you factor in, you know,

“I’m going to get in the car, I’m going to go to the store, I’m going to get a card. And if I’m getting a gift or even if it’s a gift card,

then, you know, I might have wrapping paper or bags to go with it.” And all of a sudden, you kind of have this,

you know, small-(maybe)-in-price gift, and it balloons up because of all the add-ons.

And I think that, you know, again, that’s the marketing that we have that encourages us to to celebrate in a certain way.

And so that’s what I’m sort of, I’m rebelling, I guess, against that. So what I would say is to reduce the cost of greeting cards,

what I have often done is I’ll buy sets of cards. They might be blank cards, sometimes they’re sets of cards for a specific holiday.

So they might be a generic “Happy Birthday” card that is just kind of neutral on the cover, in the sense that it doesn’t have to be masculine or feminine in its look.

Or I’ve done Valentine’s this way before. When I used to give Valentine cards to the folks that I worked with,

I would buy a package of them that were all the same. But it was less expensive that way than buying individual cards. So you can use blank cards or

occasion cards, but you can buy them in sets and then that can actually save you money.

And then you’re writing your own message inside rather than just relying on whatever message that the greeting card company has come up with.

Related to cards is the cost for wrapping. So I mentioned this a second ago. This is part of the schtick,

right? It’s like we got to get a gift, and then we have to have a card, and then you have to wrap it,

and it’s all these things that add on and add up in terms of the cost. So if you’ve ever read anything or heard my podcast when I’ve talked about holiday wrapping,

you know that I simultaneously think gift bags are the devil and also the greatest thing since sliced bread. Because when I get a gift that’s in a gift bag,

I get a secret thrill because I know I’m going to re-use that gift bag, so that’s savings for me in the future because now I suddenly have a free gift bag.

But I also shudder because I think about that person going and buying a gift bag just to stick a gift in for me,

and it just feels wasteful to me. Now the side-note on that is that I know a lot of my friends do this

also, they recycle these gift bags, which I think is great. So if we’re all just trading these gift bags back and forth,

that’s great. We’re saving, we’re saving money and not wasting paper. When it comes to gift wrap or gift bags

you can easily add $10 or more to the cost of your gift by having to buy the cards, and the tissue paper, and the bags

or the gift wrap, depending on what you choose. And maybe that’s okay with you. Maybe that is what excites you.

Maybe you love to wrap gifts and make them beautiful, and that’s part of how you show your love for the person.

That’s great. I’m not here to say that any of these practices are wrong. I’m just saying that some of them are practices that I think a lot of us have fallen into because of kind of that societal pressure.

Or that marketing pressure, Madison Avenue with their advertising. It informs us of how birthdays should look and therefore we feel like we have to do these things in a certain way in order to live up to the expectations of society.

So all I’m suggesting is that you question those assumptions, and feel for yourself what are the things that are most meaningful to you.

And maybe the things for birthdays that are most meaningful for you is to buy a very special gift for a person and wrap it beautifully,

and no matter what that costs. And that’s totally fine, everybody has their own way of doing things, and that’s totally fine.

I just want you to be mindful about it. I want you to think about it and make,

you know, a mindful and conscious decision about how you’re celebrating and what you’re spending. All right,

so then the last thing I have on my list is to not forget charitable donations. So this is my favorite thing.

So as adults, I think that, you know, sometimes we forget that maybe somebody would feel happy if you made a donation in their name instead of providing a gift to them.

So if you’re a person who’s into minimalism and simple living, you probably have friends who are too. So you probably run in a circle of people where everyone feels the same way about gifts.

And so none of your friends are going to be offended if you stopped giving them a gift, and instead switch over to something that’s more experiential, or a gift of your time, or a charitable gift.

You could ask your friends or family members what charity they prefer, you know, is there something that they especially love to support,

and you can give a donation there. That’s my favorite thing. And so any time anybody is

wanting to provide a gift for me, and they won’t accept my “Please don’t give me a gift,” then

I would always suggest charitable, because that is really meaningful to me. So I would always suggest that up for people.

But I think that, you know, it boils down to ‘it’s the thought that counts’. You’re thinking about the person, you’re trying to honor

the person with a gift, or some sort of thoughtful thing. And I think that that’s what it really boils down to.

You know, and if you have people in your life who are just, you know, that they just want to have gifts and they just

are not prone to think, “Oh, it’s the thought that counts,” and they would be offended by a smaller gift, or less expensive gift, or a gift that didn’t have wrapping, or a gift of charitable donation or something like that,

you know, I don’t know. Maybe those are not people that you really want to hang out with in your life.

You know, I’m thinking that people probably tend to gravitate, especially as you age, more towards people who are of like mind,

and you’re not going to hang out with people who you have to impress by buying expensive things or spending more than you really can afford.

So that’s it. Those are my ideas about ways to simplify birthday celebrations. I would love to hear your ideas.

If you have them, you can email me at dawn@simplemoneypro.com.

You are also invited to join our Facebook group. So, the SimpleMoney Community on Facebook.

It’s a free Facebook group. You can join, you know, like-minded friends. We talk about various things in there.

So come on over there if you’re a Facebook user. So that’s it for this week.

I’ll see you next time. Thanks for listening. If you enjoy the SimpleMoney Podcast, be sure to subscribe on your favorite podcast player.

We’d love it if you would leave us feedback and a review. And don’t forget to check out my blog at simplemoneypro.com.

There you’ll find dozens of posts about financial issues that matter to you, as well as thought-provoking pieces about simplifying your life.

Bye for now,


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