This past weekend, my daughter celebrated her birthday in a relatively quiet and subdued fashion. Some of her friends who have reached the same age (my daughter is the youngest in her social group) have had extravagant birthday parties with tons of gifts.
Our daughter, on the other hand, celebrated her birthday differently, one that was still full of fun and joy but which cost our family only a tiny fraction of what the other parents must have spent on their parties.
Our philosophy is that a child’s birthday should be a fun moment, but not an over-the-top expensive moment. Thoughtful gifts and activities should be the order of the day, not expensive ones.
Here are some of the things we do for our children’s birthdays that retain the fun while keeping costs low.
We don’t ‘keep up’ with the other kids.
This is first and foremost on our list. We simply don’t bother to keep up with what the other parents are doing for their parties. Frankly, we just don’t care what they’re doing.
Over the years, our children have been invited to birthday parties with inflatable slides and bouncy houses and pony rides and balloon animal makers and all kinds of crazy things. Their children have received amazing gifts, like an enormous handmade dollhouse, an Xbox One very close to its initial release date, and a drone that cost well over $1,000.
That’s simply not happening with our own kids. In our family, it doesn’t matter what kind of party the other kids have or what kind of gifts the other kids receive. Those are decisions made by the other families, not our family.
Instead, we have a handful of principles that we stick to and that we often discuss with our children so that they understand those principles as well.
For starters, spending time together is far more valuable than buying “stuff.” Time is the truly valuable thing in our lives, and there’s nothing more worthwhile to give others than your time. This doesn’t just mean having your body be in the same location as someone else. It means paying attention to the other people, talking with and listening to them, and engaging in some kind of activity together. Distracting devices are turned off unless the focus of the activity is on those devices (like when we’re on a family geocaching adventure and need a device to help us find geocaches).
Another principle that we often talk about with our children is the idea that we focus on the long term with our money use. Talking about the long term can be kind of difficult with children, but we focus on the idea that our day to day life is happy and that we want to preserve that happiness over the long term. We talk a lot about long term goals, like college and having a car and even about careers. We make it clear that spending a lot of money in the short term takes away from those long term goals.
We strictly limit the number of gifts from us.
Rather than receiving a mountain of gifts, our children usually just receive two or three gifts from us for their birthday, along with a small gift chosen by each of their siblings. There are several reasons for this.
First of all, fewer gifts mean less expense. It’s a lot easier to keep spending under control if you’re giving a relatively small number of gifts. Even if each gift is relatively inexpensive, having a big pile of them really adds up.
Another issue is that once you get past the third gift or so, each individual gift begins to seem less important and interesting. They get lost in the mix. After a gift-giving event, people tend to gravitate toward just a few of their gifts even if they liked all of them. In other words, once you get past the third gift or so, the rest are overkill. They aren’t enjoyed much by the recipient.
There’s also the issue of possession “overkill.” The new items they receive are going to be in direct competition with the stuff they already have. Adding a lot of new items means either you’re going to have to get rid of a lot of items that you already own or you’re going to have massive accumulation of items. Those items take up lots of space, which means either a lot of clutter or a need for a lot of storage. You can just avoid all of this by keeping the number of gifts under control to begin with.
So, just stick with a small number of gifts. We’ve found that three is, yes, a magic number when it comes to this, though we don’t count obvious accessories for other gifts against that number (a charging cable, for example). It’s hard to accumulate too much when you’re only receiving three gifts for your birthday. Plus, with that number, gifts tend to not get overlooked and everything gets enjoyed, and it also keeps our expense relatively low.
Typically, birthdays at our house involve our children receiving three gifts from their parents and one gift from each sibling. Usually, three of the gifts “go together,” meaning that they accessorize each other, so there’s essentially just three gifts there. (They often receive additional gifts from grandparents and aunts.)
We usually make one nice gift the centerpiece.
Our children are like any other children: They have gifts that they want and that they request. Often, those gifts are expensive, so even if we keep the number of gifts low, it can still be expensive if we buy three high-priced items.
Our approach is to simply give one nice gift that they request, with the other gifts either being smaller in scope or complete surprises. Sometimes, the other gifts will blatantly be compatible with the main gift, like a game for a video game console or a gift card for a new Kindle.
Again, there are a few reasons to do this.
First of all, people tend to appreciate receiving the one thing they want most even more than receiving most of their wishlist. This seems counterintuitive, but it’s been true over and over again in our experience. Our kids tend to be thrilled when they receive the main thing they wanted, so their other desires tend to fall by the wayside in comparison. When you really nail something that they want, nothing else really matters.
Second, the main gift actually gets used a lot. If you give them five extravagant gifts and cover the top five things they want the most, their attention and time is split amongst all of those things and none of them is truly appreciated. (Usually, it’s split among two or three of them and the rest are basically untouched, as I noted above.)
For example, my daughter (who is an incredibly avid reader) received a Kindle for her birthday. Most of the other gifts she received were either credit for her new Kindle (so she can get some books), specific books, or a subscription to Kindle Unlimited for one year. (She did receive a few art supplies and a couple items of clothing from grandparents.) That was her entire birthday – it was mostly just one gift. She’s barely put it down since receiving it and seems thrilled with it.
For Christmas last year, our main gift for all three of our children was a Wii U. We got them each a couple of minor gifts (clothing, a book) and then gave them each a Wii U game that they opened last, telling them that they could play it on our old circa 2006 Wii. Our oldest child understood that this wouldn’t work and was pretty disappointed. Well, it turned out that there was one more present under the tree, hidden under a blanket in the back, that had all three of their names on it. Again, the main focus was on one single gift.
We have a very simple party for only a small number of friends.
Rather than having an over-the-top party with a petting zoo and a merry-go-round and pony rides and a mime, we try very hard to keep any birthday parties we have very simple. We stick to a few principles when it comes to planning these parties.
First of all, the invitation list is short. There are two or three neighbor children that are invited pretty much by default to our children’s birthday parties. We then extend that list to two or three more kids. It’s never a large party of any kind, because we’ve found that not only are large parties expensive, they usually end up excluding some of the children from playing with the birthday child.
Second, we center the whole party around an “activity” that we can pull off easily. One year, we made superhero costumes for everyone out of a bolt of cheap cloth from a fabric store and they “fought crime” together with a scavenger hunt that led them to cans of silly string which they then used to fight the “villain” (aka Dad with a mask). Another year, we had a geocaching party. We’re going to have a camping party soon.
Using my daughter as an example again, she’s having a simple “art party” for her and three of her friends, plus three kids that live next door to us. They’re simply going to work on a few art projects together and each child is going to get to take home a painting they made on actual canvas. All this really requires is a few small canvases that we bought as a bulk purchase for about a dollar each – we already have lots of paints.
Finally, we host the parties at our home, at a local “free to reserve” park shelterhouse, or another zero cost location if at all possible. That way, there’s no cost to simply use the location for the party. Parties that involve having to pay to use space to simply slice a birthday cake and open presents are unnecessary; if we were going to have such a birthday, we’d open presents and have cake elsewhere.
We make a homemade birthday cake.
Speaking of cakes, rather than buying a birthday cake from a bakery, we simply make the cake at home ourselves. Again, there are a number of reasons for this.
For starters, homemade cakes are far less expensive than bakery cakes. Even if you just stick wholly to a kit for the birthday cake, the cost of that cake is going to be far, far lower than that of a cake from a bakery. The cost is even lower if you measure and mix up the ingredients yourself rather than using a cake kit. Making a simple chocolate cake or white cake or angel food cake isn’t hard.
Another advantage is that everyone in the family can be involved in making it. Whenever a child in our family has a birthday, the other members of the family – both parents and siblings – are involved in making the birthday cake. It becomes a family activity of sorts. The cake is mixed and baked, the frosting is prepared, and the cake is decorated, with everyone working together on it.
Yet another advantage is that it becomes very easy to make it ultra-personal. We can make the cake and the frosting match their favorite colors with ease. We can choose pretty much any type of cake that the children desire, even pulling off things like a “blue velvet” cake (red velvet cake with a blue coloring instead) that a bakery could do but would often charge extra for. We can make pretty much any color of frosting, too. We also can add personal messages and elements to it, such as frosting drawings of our family.
Not only is a homemade cake less expensive, it ends up feeling much more personal and special because of these touches. Plus, it ends up being a family activity for everyone but the birthday child, which makes them feel very involved, too.
We do a thoughtful family activity on their actual birthday.
It’s actually pretty rare that a birthday party works out on the child’s actual birthday, so we usually want to find a way to celebrate their birthday on the actual day. For many families, that means eating out or something akin to that, but we use a different approach. We usually just have a nice family activity of some kind and then make a homemade supper of the child’s request. Again, there are reasons for this.
First of all, it’s less expensive. Taking a family of five out to eat is pretty pricy. It’s far less expensive to just make a meal for our family at home.
Second, it allows the birthday child much more flexibility in choosing their birthday meal. Between Sarah and myself, we can make pretty much anything, which means that our children can pick whatever their heart desires. Usually, their choice is simple, though – a homemade pizza with certain toppings is usually their pick – but they can pick anything and that’s very fun.
Finally, doing a family activity lets us focus on time together rather than physical items. The goal of the family activity is to let the birthday child pick something to do, but that we’re all doing it together. If another child is disappointed, we just remind them that they get to choose a family activity on their birthday.
In past years, these family activities have involved things like geocaching, trail walking, a family board game day, family miniature painting (this wasn’t quite free, but we had the stuff on hand already), and even a family tennis tournament. We weren’t going around buying stuff, we weren’t opening gifts… we were spending time together doing things together.
We use the birthday as a way to introduce the next steps in “growing up.”
In our home, a birthday is a celebration, but it’s also another step in their growing maturity. That growing maturity is acknowledged in several ways that are intended to lend some importance and meaning to the birthday celebration – again, without adding cost.
First of all, we revisit chores. Birthdays usually mean a change in household responsibilities for the birthday child, which comes as a result of growing older and thus growing more responsible. This is a great way to acknowledge their growing maturity.
We also revisit the things they’re allowed to do. Bedtimes, for example, are revisited. Where they’re allowed to go without parental supervision is revisited. Allowances are revisited. These changes add a lot of meaning to a birthday, casting it as a day of growing maturity.
Parents usually have a one-on-one conversation or two with the child about different aspects of growing up. Not only is this an opportunity for focused one-on-one attention, it also maintains the sense that this day is a day of growing maturity.
Here’s the thing: many families substitute spending for “meaning” when it comes to birthday celebrations. An expensive party and a pile of expensive gifts might be exciting for a child, but does it really mean anything? It might be memorable, but is it something that lasts and really helps build familial and friendship bonds?
The thing is, building those bonds and creating memorable moments doesn’t happen with throwing money at the birthday. It happens with time and attention, which are always the best gifts you can give to your child, period.
Give your child time. Give your child attention. If you give those gifts, then the physical gifts are secondary. Time and attention will trump them. Plus, time and attention don’t require you to open your wallet.