Whether you’re faced with a ‘fiver party,’ a no-gifts party or a milestone birthday, here’s how to keep everyone happy.
Birthday gifts can present a real challenge.
Take children’s parties, many of which have outgrown simple cake, ice cream and pin the tail on the donkey. Some parents are spending thousands on their kids’ birthday bashes, which include finger foods served on silver platters and live reptile shows. So the gifting etiquette has become just as complicated. Some parents throwing “fiver parties,” for example, where each guest brings $5 for the birthday boy or girl to put toward a big gift. The concept received a lot of buzz after Canadian mom-of-three Sarah Schultz wrote about them on her Nurse Loves Farmer blog last summer, since her then 6-year-old son had been invited to a couple.
“I was an instant fan,” Schultz told Today.com. “Birthday parties can be so expensive — spending $20 on a gift — which really limits the amount of birthday parties I let our kids attend.”
Lyss Stern, CEO of Divamoms.com and a mother of three, told Moneyish she’s also been to several fiver parties with her sons. “I think it’s great!” she said. “There are anywhere from 18 to 25 kids in a class, and most people invite the entire class. If everyone chips in $5, it will add up to get one present the birthday child really wants.”
Or some parents create registries of preselected presents for guests to shop from, a la a bridal or baby shower. Still others say “no gifts,” which can be hard for some guests to accept, so they bring something anyway.
And it gets even more trickier once we grow up. Do adults still get birthday presents, or is it acceptable to take your coworker out for a drink, or to do brunch with your bestie, instead? If they ask that you donate to a charity, how much should you give? And what if you’re invited to a party celebrating a milestone year, such as a 30th or 50th birthday? Considering survey site Toluna found that 35% of respondents drop between $41 to $100 per birthday gift, these are expensive decisions to make.
So Moneyish spoke with parents and etiquette experts to sort the rules of modern birthday gift giving for kids and adults. Consider it our gift to you.
If nothing else, just acknowledge the birthday. The reason birthdays are even a thing is because we’re celebrating someone’s life, so the default, people-pleasing thing to do at any age is to simply say “Happy birthday!” and give a card. Whether or not you give a present, and how big a gift you give, depends on your relationship and what your budget allows right now.
“A gift is not an obligation,” assured etiquette expert Diane Gottsman. “The reality is, birthday party guests probably are going to bring gifts — but it’s not an obligation.”
For kids: If you and your child are invited to a child’s birthday party, it is customary to bring a small present, which can be under $20 or handmade. “You’re celebrating a child’s life, so people generally do bring something,” said Gottsman. If there’s no gifting instructions on the invitation, or you don’t know what to bring, it’s fine to call the host parent and ask for some ideas. Plus, you should check with mom and dad about which toys are allowed in their house; they may not want their child to play with guns or violent video games, for example.
Denise Albert, cohost of “The Moms Podcast” and TheMoms.com, said her sons give and receive gift cards, which are “a working mom’s best friend” as long as you make sure it’s for a store that the child will love. “My son (10) is very much in tune with what his friends like, and they give each other gift cards in small amounts from Modell’s or the Lego Store, anywhere from $10 to $25,” added Albert.
For adults: Similar to with children, if you’re invited to an adult’s birthday party, gifts aren’t expected — but it’s nice to show up with a card and something small, like a bottle of wine or a treat from a favorite bakery. Etiquette expert Lizzie Post notes that you can always call the host and ask, like, “I was calling to find out if you expect guests to bring gifts? With adult birthdays, I’m never sure!” she suggested. “Just admit this is uncertain territory, and you want to check in.”
And the reality is, most grownups have grown out of expecting gifts, or they may not even want anything else in their already crowded homes. “When we want something as an adult, we usually buy it for ourselves,” said Gottsman, who suggests reaching out to a loved one with an upcoming birthday and saying, “Hey, how do you want to celebrate? Do you want a couple of us to get together for lunch?” or “A few of us want to get you something special for your 35th birthday — let us know what you want.”
Lyss Stern, CEO Divamoms.com and a mother of three, told Moneyish she has stopped giving wrapped objects to her girlfriends, and instead gives experiences and a great card. “I spend hours in Papyrus looking for the perfect card,” said Stern. “I take friends for lunch and or dinner, or I like to give them something like a massage, a blowout or a manicure/pedicure.
Albert agreed. “I don’t think any adults expect presents; when you become a mom, drinks are more fun,” she said. “Our lives are so busy, I think it’s a gift just seeing the people that you love.” But she keeps an eye out for thoughtful little things for family and friends over the course of the year, just in case. “The best way to buy gifts is when you see something and you think of somebody. The worst time is when you have to go looking,” she said. “If I see something that I know is going to mean something to somebody, I buy it and save it for the right occasion.”
When someone says ‘No gifts,’ they mean it. Gottsman observed that some people will still think it’s “polite” to bring a present, even if an invitation or the host tells them not to. “For those who don’t have a gift, I want to let them off the hook: Please do not feel badly if you follow the instructions!” she said. Post agrees that the polite thing to do is to follow the host or birthday girl’s request (preferably phrased as, “No gifts, please,” or “Your presence is the present.”) “For little kids 1 and 2 years old, for example, you just had a baby shower, and they don’t need anything else right now,” she said. But if you do bring a gift, you risk making the guests who followed the instructions and didn’t bring one feel bad. “It puts everyone else in an uncomfortable situation,” said Gottsman.
Party planners should tread lightly with “fiver parties,” registries and charity donations. Similar to the “no gifts” request, guests should respect other gifting wishes, such as kicking in $5 apiece for a fiver party, or making a charitable donation in the birthday boy’s name, or even browsing a gift registry. But the etiquette experts agree that these kinds of gifting “rules” can make some guests feel like their invitation stemmed from them being expected to bring something off of a checklist, rather than for the pleasure of their company. So the birthday party hosts making those requests should not expect guests to follow them.
“A common question I get is, ‘How can I make sure we get this?’ Well, you don’t make sure. There is no way to enforce a gift-giving policy,” said Gottsman. “I think we need to keep focused on what a birthday party is supposed to be; a fun celebration.”
Post agreed. “Gift giving is a choice by the giver. It is not something that the receiver dictates in a single line,” she said. “Telling people that they can only donate to a certain charity or that they can only give a certain type of gift is not really in the spirit of generosity that gift giving represents.” They should be merely suggestions.
But parents like Stern and Albert said they aren’t offended by fiver parties, or being given specific directions. “You usually get a lot of toys that the kids don’t even play with (on their birthdays),” said Stern. But with a fiver party, “ the child can get one really great toy that they want.” And Albert says many working moms can appreciate the convenience afforded by fiver parties. “If you think I have time to go shopping for somebody’s kid who I don’t even know … I don’t have time to shop for my own kids!” she said.
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