Celebrating a Meaningful Life Event Without Spending Money

Your best friend’s birthday is coming up, or maybe it’s your significant other’s birthday, or your mother’s birthday. Whatever it is, it’s a special event, one that in your heart of hearts you know you should be playing a role in celebrating.

At the same time, however, you don’t have a dime to spare. Your financial situation is perilous. You want to celebrate. You want to show that person that they’re meaningful to you. At the same time, you simply can’t afford to buy them a gift.

What do you do?

The first thing to recognize here is that celebrating a meaningful life event does not have to involve spending money. There are many ways to celebrate and commemorate someone’s life event without simply opening the wallet.

What’s the catch? These strategies usually require some time, and they often require some forethought and planning.

Here are twenty ways to celebrate someone’s meaningful life event without spending money, divided into five categories. Not all of these are going to work for every relationship, so pick and choose amongst them for options that will work for you and the person you care about.

Spend Time

Spend a day with that person, just hanging out. This is a great way to give a gift to a parent or a grandparent, particularly once you’re an independent adult. Quite often, the thing that your parents and grandparents want the most is simple time spent with you. It often doesn’t even matter what you do – they just want to hear your voice and know about your life and still be a part of it, even as you have grown up and built a life for yourself.

Giving this gift is easy. Just plan to spend a day (or part of a day) with them sometime in the week or so around their birthday. Give them a handmade birthday card when you show up and then spend that time with them doing whatever comes to mind. Talk about their life and listen to what they’re saying. Talk about your life, too. Just spend that quality time.

Within that day, you can probably do some of the other things listed here, too.

Make a concerted and genuine effort over the next year to spend more time with this person; mark it on your calendar and give it a very high priority. Rather than just spending a one-off day with that person, make a concerted effort to see that person regularly. Make a new pattern of stopping by on Thursday evenings after supper for an hour or so. Stop by once a month on Saturday for several hours.

The key thing is to make it regular and make it important. Don’t push it to the side because something else came up. Make that regular time spent together into a priority. You can even turn it into a ritual, where you eat ice cream together each Wednesday evening while watching a show you both enjoy, for example.

Research free events and activities in your community and plan a day centered around them. Spend some time looking for free events coming up in the next month or two on your community calendar, then plan a day with a few of those events involved (with an eye toward the other person’s interests, of course). Then, give an itinerary of that day to the person as a “gift” for that occasion.

This type of gift does take some forward thinking and planning and thought, but the result is a meaningful day spent with someone you care about doing meaningful things out in the community.

Go on an outdoor walk together. The simple act of going on a long walk together at a leisurely pace, sharing conversation and thoughts and contact, is one of the best things you can share with another person. Such walks can be friendly, they can be intellectually challenging, they can be romantic, they can be energetic, they can be virtually anything you want them to be.

A walk on a beach. A walk in the woods. A walk through a community festival. A walk through a park. A walk around the block. A long walk. A short walk. A talkative walk. A quiet and contemplative walk. They all have meaning and value and they’re all wonderful shared experiences. They just take focused and uninterrupted time with someone you care about.

Spend Energy

Take care of some undone projects that they need handled. Almost everyone ends up with a list of undone projects around their home that they should take care of but keep putting off because it seems challenging or overwhelming. Maybe they have a doorbell that doesn’t work. Maybe their computer has some kind of hardware failure. Maybe their kitchen cabinet door is loose. Maybe their bathroom sink faucet is broken.

Visit their home and take care of some of those undone tasks for them. Fix that doorbell. Fix their computer. Fix that kitchen cabinet. Fix that faucet. Clear out that brush. Take care of those undone projects that they might struggle to complete or might have to hire someone to finish.

Handle something in their life that’s causing them stress and lack of sleep, like child care or caregiving. This one goes out to the new parents out there and the caregivers out there. When you take on the responsibility of having a baby at home or are providing full time care for a person who cannot fully care for themselves, it can become a real burden that not only involves a great deal of work but also puts a burden of worry and stress on your shoulders.

If you know someone who is bearing that weight, take it off of them for a while. Take their kid for an afternoon or for a whole day. Take on the role of caregiver and let them take the stress off their shoulders for a while. They’ll appreciate it more than you’ll ever know.

Take care of a bunch of ordinary chores so that they have more free time to do things they enjoy. If you have a spouse or close family member or friend who seems like they’re always taking care of chores and never taking time for themselves, step in and handle a bunch of their chores for them. Make their bed. Do their dishes. Take out their trash. Do their laundry. Clean their living room. That way, when that person gets home, rather than facing a big to-do list, they actually have a big block of time for themselves.

This is a great gift to give almost anyone who finds themselves too busy thanks to the responsibilities of adulthood and parenthood and a professional life and community responsibilities all at once. Take away some of those never ending chores and just let that person have some time for themselves.

Be their “fitness buddy.” If you know someone who is considering making a fitness-related life change, be their “fitness buddy.” Just simply agree to exercise regularly with them, whether it’s a jog around the neighborhood or a pickup game of soccer in the park or playing a bit of tennis at the tennis courts.

Whatever their fitness goals, find something you can do together and do it with them. It doesn’t matter if you’re in better shape or they’re in better shape (in fact, the latter will probably be very helpful for you), the goal is to help that person with their fitness by making it a social event. You’ll burn some energy, bond with that person, and make both of you healthier than before.

Volunteer for that person’s favorite charity. There are some very socially minded people out there who will find few gifts more meaningful than time given to a charity rather than money. If you spend several Saturdays helping to build a Habitat for Humanity house in their honor, or take on some sessions at the local food pantry, or just step up a little bit with time and energy at a local charity that really matters to them, it’s going to mean a lot.

This is particularly true for those who want to volunteer but cannot for some reason, perhaps due to an injury or a changing life situation. If you know someone who used to volunteer once a month to build Habitat houses and can no longer do so, stepping in to do that volunteer work in their honor is one of the most amazing gifts you can give them.

Be Thoughtful

Write an actual heartfelt letter or handmade card to that person instead of giving them the “Hallmark special.” It’s easy to give someone a preprinted greeting card with a nice sentiment on it. It’s much harder to write your own sentiment… but it’s far more meaningful and impactful. That’s why it’s worth your while to write that sentiment you feel toward that person in your own words and in your own handwriting.

Just sit down with a blank card and write a genuine thanks to them for what they’ve done for you or a description of how they make you feel. Let that person know that they are important to you in your own words and share it directly with them.

Write and share a heartfelt appreciation of that person. Perhaps you want the world to know how amazing your friend or your spouse is. In that case, take the time to write a truly heartfelt appreciation of that person and share it on social media and elsewhere. Explain the things that person does that go above and beyond. Share some specific things they do, along with the bigger picture of the life practices they follow, and what that means to you and to others.

Many people who deserve recognition are humble and do not wish to pat themselves on the back, but are deeply touched when others recognize their efforts. Be the person that recognizes those efforts in a truly heartfelt way. Commemorate their day or their moment by sharing that accomplishment and the quality of that person with the world.

If this is for your partner and your partner is introverted, give him or her a big block of alone time without worries. This is particularly true for me. I am an introvert and sometimes I really enjoy time to myself, regardless of how deeply I love my family. I enjoy time to just read a book quietly or do a chore by myself or play a game of solitaire without anyone else around, but that’s hard to do when I’m part of a family of five.

My wife gives me this gift on occasion. She’ll spend the day with the kids somewhere out and about, leaving me at home (or elsewhere) to just enjoy some quiet alone time. It really recharges my batteries and I feel ready to connect when everyone gets home.

Make a video or mini-documentary about their life and how meaningful and wonderful it is. This is something that one of my friends made for her husband. It cost her literally nothing but time and effort, but it was one of the most meaningful things that her husband has ever received.

She just made a documentary on her phone in which she recorded a bunch of videos of moments when her husband was doing something for others or taking care of their kids or making dinner for the family or something like that, then she intercut it with people giving testimonials about how huge of a positive impact her husband has had on their life, from her and the kids and some other family members and friends and coworkers and community members. The only expense to her was a blank DVD, which she gave to him as a birthday gift.

Share in Their Passion

Engage in that person’s hobby with them. Whatever that person’s hobby, take some time to learn about it and engage in it with them. You don’t have to be passionate about it at all, but merely look at it as a way to learn more about it and learn more about this person you care about.

Sit down and play that person’s favorite game with them. Participate in a sport they like. Help them make something. Watch football with them and ask questions in an effort to really understand what’s happening. Whatever it is that they’re into, let them teach you about it and show you how it works and do it with them. It will build that bond and make them feel really in touch with their hobby and with you, too.

Organize a “party” or an afternoon with some of their friends who also share in their main hobby or passion and just run “support.” If your target person has a hobby or activity that they enjoy doing with some of their friends, plan a party centered around it for them. Invite their friends over and just take care of all of the little details around it. Make a pot of soup for them to enjoy during the event. Clear off the table so that they have space for whatever it is they want to do.

It might be a board game day with some friends or a crafting party or a scrapbooking party or a game of soccer at the park… whatever it is, set it all up and take care of all of the little details so that your loved one can just enjoy doing something he or she loves with his or her friends.

Let that person pick the next few movies you watch together or the next few series that you binge watch, and enjoy it with them even if it’s not up your alley. If you often watch television together in the evenings, intentionally let the other person pick the things you watch for a while, even if it’s not something you’re into. There’s probably something out there that’s in a genre that they really enjoy that they haven’t watched because they didn’t think you’d be into it. Nudge your loved one to choose that option.

Even if you’re pretty sure you won’t enjoy it, go into it with the most open mind you possibly can. Make the best effort you can to get into it, both for the other person’s sake and for your sake. It might not be your cup of tea at first, but you may in fact find some things you like about it and it might just draw you a little closer together.

Utilize Things Already on Hand

Make a cake from scratch – you probably already have most of the ingredients. Making a cake from scratch doesn’t require many ingredients and is much simpler than you think. Sugar. Butter. Eggs. Flour. Baking powder. Milk. Vanilla extract. That’s literally all you need. Here’s a recipe. You can make a sheet cake in almost any baking pan. Then, you can make a nice frosting using those same ingredients, plus powdered sugar. Here’s how to do that. There’s a good chance that you have most, if not all, of that stuff already. Add food coloring to get whatever color you like.

“But what if it looks bad?” So? Most people will appreciate a from-scratch cake with a few imperfections over a purchased “perfect” cake. The effort and love makes a real difference.

Go through your photo archives and assemble something memorable. One strategy is to find a picture frame in your own home that you’re either not using or aren’t using in a valuable way and then take some meaningful pictures from your photo collection to fill that frame to give as a gift.

Another approach is to find a bunch of good digital images of your friend and share them in a wide variety of ways – social media, group texts, and so on – including them in the sharing.

The goal is to visualize and share some of the memories you’ve shared over the years and perhaps spread those good feelings to others as well.

Contact your shared social network and plan a potluck dinner party. You don’t have to even spend a dime to have a nifty little surprise party. Just quietly contact a bunch of friends and family of the person you care about and say that you’re having a surprise potluck dinner party for that person and to bring a food item that you think the person would like (along with other guests). Divide up the requests so that there’s enough food to cover everyone and handle all of the planning yourself.

This works best with a collaborator or two who can get your targeted person out and about for a while as you’re setting things up.

A party like this enables everyone to bring a “gift” of a shared food item that the person would like, but it also results in a big shared meal that everyone will enjoy.

Ask their social network to help with a shared contribution gift. Several of the gifts above might work even better if you get lots of people involved in the gift. For example, if you want to make an amazing documentary about the person, involving several of their friends might help if they have video clips or are willing to share a story on camera. You might be able to track down lots of cool pictures for a photo collage, or you might be able to track down help for a project of some kind, like getting several people together to fix your grandmother’s deck.

Not only does such an effort enable you to pull off something even bigger than you could on your own, it gives those people the chance to connect with you a little and also build their connection to the person that the gift is for.

Final Thoughts

Money should never, ever stand in the way of a thoughtful and impactful gift. There are a multitude of ways to show someone that they mean a lot to you at a key moment in their life without dumping out the money. It just takes some time, some thought, and some energy.

Good luck!

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.