Why birthdays don't have to be expensive

My mum isn't much of a baker. She never baked her own cakes when my birthday came around. She never bought me extravagant gifts. She rarely gave me a birthday party. But as a child, my mum gave me the greatest gift of all - she taught me that you don't need a party or a present to feel special on your birthday. 

When I was a child and my birthday arrived, I felt so excited. Not because I was expecting any particular presents. Not because I was expecting a party. But because I had one day dedicated to me. I liked feeling special, and hearing others say “happy birthday” to me.

I grew up believing that birthday parties are a lovely addition to your day, but they're not a necessity. As much as I enjoyed presents, I never felt upset or disappointed if I didn't get one.

What my mother taught me is that, birthdays are about making our loved ones feel important, valued and special - and a simple phone call to say “happy birthday”, a smile, a hug, a favour - is enough to accomplish that.

Now that I have three young daughters, I give them a small gift on their birthdays. I write them personal birthday cards, with words that describe how incredibly happy I am to have them in my life. Every couple of years, we might have a party. We'll invite their closest friends and we'll spend what we can afford.

The focus, in our family, is always to make each other feel loved and valued no matter what time of the year it is.

As parents, we love making our children happy. But sometimes, in an effort to do this, we might be taking on more than we have to.

We might feel pressured to keep up with other parents, we might be spending more than we can afford, we might be trying to give our children the best of everything.

Making birthday memories has very little to do with dollars spent.
Making birthday memories has very little to do with dollars spent. Photo: Getty

As often as children may ask for this or that, it only takes the simple things to put a smile on their face. 

Children feel loved and can enjoy themselves, without the expensive cost of a party.

Clinical psychologist Sally-Anne McCormack says that birthday parties are about making memories.

“It's not about the amount of money that you spend ... What we remember is how we feel about these occasions.”

McCormack, who is also a mother of four, recalls what birthday time was like during her own childhood.

“My great memories of parties are the fun times we had, the laughter that we had - how important I felt.”

“It wasn't about how much money my parents spent, how many cakes they bought, the most expensive thing that they could give me.”

McCormack says what children want most is to feel special on their birthday. To be the centre of attention.

“Children just want something that's going to make them smile, laugh, have lots of fun. It's about the memories that they can make,” says McCormack.

For many parents, birthday season can be a stressful time of the year. It might arrive when the family is already experiencing financial, or other issues. So, having to worry about a birthday party on top of everything else, can be incredibly daunting.

If you're unable to do a birthday party, then don't be too hard on yourself. You can still celebrate your child's birthday in other ways.


“It's okay not to have a birthday party,” says McCormack. “However, I think it is important to have a birthday celebration, because it's the one day a year where your child is number one.”

So, how can we make our children feel valued without a birthday party?

Jodie Benveniste, psychologist and director of Parent WellBeing says there's many possibilities.

Speaking as a mother of two, she says, “We have a family rule that our kids have a birthday party every second year.”

“On the year when there is no party, they are allowed to have a smaller special event with one or two friends. It might be going to the movies or having a sleepover. We also have a family dinner every year to celebrate a family birthday. “

“It's about creating rituals in your family that work for you.”

“Kids will feel special on their birthday every year, whether they have a party or not, if the day includes something special that is just for them - a birthday cake, a special dinner, an outing or activity with the family, or a mini special event with friends.”

Dr. Justin Coulson, parenting expert and author of What Your Child Needs From You, also has his own birthday rituals with his wife and six daughters.

“One year my family did an entire year of birthdays where everything given was home made.”

“Another year, we offered vouchers for different kinds of treats and service. One of my coupons promised a weekly date, another offered hugs on demand, and one even gave me a night off from the dishes.”

“It's about celebrating birthdays in a meaningful way,” says Dr. Coulson.

Maintaining healthy relationships is a key ingredient for a happy life, and by showing children how to value their loved ones we are equipping them with the right skills.

By placing less emphasis on money, we are teaching our children what birthdays are really about - shared experiences and lifelong memories.

“If you go to the zoo every year for your child's birthday because they love animals, they will remember this birthday ritual for the rest of their life,” says Benveniste.

“They will remember these experiences much more than an expensive toy that they play with for a month or two and then forget.”

As Dr. Coulson gently reminds parents:

“The best gift we can give our children is our undivided attention and time.”

Thuy Yau is a freelance writer and mother of three. She is passionate about giving children the best start in life. You can follow Thuy on Twitter, join her on Facebook, or read her personal development blog at Inside a Mother's Mind.