colorful happy birthday banner hanging on mantle over fireplace

Inside: I was shocked to learn how much parents are spending on birthday parties. Here are five really good reasons not to jump on this trend, plus ideas for how to make birthdays special, simply.

“So, what are you doing for [11-year-old’s] birthday?” my mom asked.

“You know, the usual. Cake, special meal. Oh, and his dad’s taking him to the mall for lunch and shopping. Nothing crazy.”

Brief detectable pause. Yes, mom, another simple birthday celebration, I know, I know.

“Well that’s great! Wish him a happy birthday for me!”

In all fairness, I’m sure she wasn’t all that surprised that birthdays are low-key affairs in our house. 

I was, after all, the daughter with the almost Christmas birthday who never really had parties except with family.

I mean, there was cake and dinner of my choice and presents. But very few friend parties, and only because I had this whole half-birthday deal worked out for a couple years.

(No sane parent says yes to a birthday party invite the week before Christmas.)

Simple birthdays were my normal, and I came to love them…which is probably why I was so shocked to find out just how much parents are spending on birthdays these days.

Parents Are Spending HOW Much on Birthdays?!

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Did you know that American parents spend an average of $400 on birthday parties? And that might not even include gifts.

It’s a lot, right? I know I’m not the only millennial parent who feels this way. I mean, we didn’t have extravagant parties (did we?). 

Even if I didn’t have five kids, I would still find parties equal to a car payment every single year insane. Call me crazy, but simple birthdays – as in family-only, low-key affairs, with maybe a couple friends – should be closer to the norm.  

(I take issue with car payments, too, but at least a car serves a valid purpose for that much money.)

“But they’re only kids once! Birthdays need to be special,” you argue.

You can absolutely make birthdays special without paying for a reptile show or a Disney princess character to show up in costume or renting out an entire roller skating rink for two hours (sorry, business owners who benefit from this trend).

If you truly love throwing extravagant parties, that’s great! Carry on. 

But I suspect not every parent wants to throw these expensive parties – there’s just a lot of cultural pressure to do so.

Here are several compelling reasons to rethink the extravagant birthday party trend.

Related: 7 Christmas Traditions to Skip This Year (for Yourself & the Planet)

pink unicorn birthday cake on gray cake stand on table

5 Really Good Reasons to Return to Simple Birthdays (for Kids)

Just a few short decades ago, birthdays used to be celebrated simply, with cake and ice cream and a small group of friends and family. 

It’s only in the past 10-15 years it seems that birthdays have spiraled out of control. 

Reasons to return to the simplicity of the past include…

1. You save money, and other parents save money, too.

Head to this investment calculator. Put in $400 to start. Then use a 9.5% interest rate (the average return for the S&P over time), and add $400 annually for 20 years. 

You should see a return of around $24,105.54. 

What better gift to give your child than to take that money and put it in index funds and let the time do its magic? 

You’ll also save all those parents money who would otherwise be spending $15-20 on a gift for your child. 

Related: 11 Money Lessons Kids Need (That Schools Don’t Teach)

2. It takes the pressure off of you, the already over-pressured parent.

Being a parent today is HARD. We’re up against pressure from every side of the internet, no matter what parenting choices we make. 

Seriously: just try saying how many chores you give your child on social media. The ones who are “death to chores” will come out, plus the ones who think “you’re not giving them enough chores – they’re doomed to become irresponsible slobs who never get jobs”. 

And then there’s whether or not we should ditch our gas stove. Or make our kids go outside more. And limit their screen time, etc. etc. Or keep our houses cleaner.

I could go on for hours about the lack of social supports in our society, but let’s leave it at the fact that there are next to none.

We really don’t need more pressure. Period.

3. It creates realistic expectations for past & future birthdays – for everyone involved.

The fact that 5-year-olds “don’t even want a party” if it can’t be themed and over-the-top is a bit of a red flag, right? Especially if this is commonplace.

And if they’re demanding a fancy party at five, what will they expect when they’re teenagers? 

I once knew someone (an adult) who was obsessed with their birthday. As in, eagerly awaited their friends/family throwing them an amazing party, and giving the perfect gifts, and everything being about them that one day of the year.

I found it…strange. And I felt for their friends and family who needed to do something impressive every single year.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting your birthday to be special. But expecting others to create it for you every year seemed a bit much?

4. Simple birthdays are far more eco-friendly (save the planet, people!).

All the party stuff required to throw a themed birthday party, well, it’s probably all headed to the landfill as soon as the birthday is over.

And if every child brings a gift? Every year? YIKES.

We really need to rethink our consumption habits as a whole.

Obviously, childhood birthday parties are just a small part of our overall consumerism problem. And yes, I know big corporations are more at fault, and we’re being played with recycling and all of that.

But still, maybe we can help just a little bit by choosing to simplify birthdays. 

Related: Ridiculously Easy Ways to Reduce Waste at Home (for Families)

5. Milestone birthdays can be even more special, if you like.

I’m not a total killjoy, o.k.? If you want to make birthdays like 13, 16 and 21 extra special, please do!

I know one family with eight kids who does this, and they love it. 

They take their child on a weekend trip, or to a Broadway show (just one parent and the birthday kid) for these milestone birthdays.

So if throwing parties or making birthdays extra special memories makes you happy, go all out on those milestone dates! 

small child opening present

Simple Ways to Make Birthdays Special (for $100 or less)

You can still make birthdays special without spending hundreds. 

Here are some ideas…

1. Let them choose their cake or special treat.

What’s a birthday without a cake? Or a pie, if you’d rather. Or Duck Donuts, as one of our kids decided last year.

My kids start talking about their birthday cake/treat of choice months in advance. Yes, months.

Whether it’s the $20 Costco chocolate mousse cake, or a homemade bundt cake with a reusable unicorn topper, it’s an easy way to make birthdays special.

2. Speaking of food, they get to dictate the menu for the entire day, not just the cake.

Right after they choose their cake, let them choose the menu! From breakfast to dinner, it’s all about them. 

We usually budget for one meal out on their birthday if they want it. 

Thankfully, we’re still in the stage of life where they think Domino’s pizza rocks. $20 for two large pizzas, and they’re thrilled? Yes, please!

3. Select 1-2 significant presents.

We usually spend around $30-40 on birthday gifts. It’s usually something they’ve been asking for all year or something that relates to their hobbies.

We bought my daughter a set of nice markers for her drawing passion, and my 7-year-old got a Sonic video game (he’s obsessed).

But sometimes, they don’t want anything. 

If that’s the case, don’t buy them something just to buy them something. Give cash, instead. They’ll enjoy spending it here and there all year, or save it for a future want.

You Might Also Like: 27 Minimalist Gifts for 1 Year Olds (Minimalist Mom Approved)

4. Eliminate all responsibilities for the day (no chores).

This is one of my older kiddos’ favorite parts of their birthday!

The parents take all their chores…not that we have many chores in our house, but you might? 

They get to sit back and relax. Because man, that 15-minute job is ROUGH.

5. Let them decide what to do that day, within reason of course.

Half my crew just wants to stay home for their birthdays. Could be pandemic, could be personality. 

My 13-year-old actually wants us all to leave the house for an hour, so she can have peace and quiet. I can’t make that up: she is her mother’s daughter.

Other kiddos want to get the heck out of here!

For example, my 11-year-old wanted to shop at the mall for his birthday. His dad took him out to eat, and they browsed for a while (he was given cash because he didn’t have anything specific he wanted).

My 4-year-old? She’s pretty happy to just go to a park or a museum we already have a membership to.

Ask them what they want to do with their day, and brainstorm free or low cost ideas.  

Optional: Invite friends over for cake and ice cream – with a no gifts request.

Have an extremely social child? Ask friends to come over for just cake and ice cream (maybe snacks, too?).

I’m pretty sure we feel an obligation to go over the top to feed people if they go out of their way to fit us into their calendar.

But if they really are there to celebrate your child, if the friendship matters to them, I would hope they’d show up for a low-key celebration. 

Want more creative ideas? My friend Carly came up with a ton of creative, low-cost birthday traditions HERE. Or, you could try a Fiver Party, recommended by my friend Emma.

two birthday presents wrapped in red heart paper with Princess Peach birthday card on top

Maybe This Advice Will Save Some New Parent Thousands?

Odds are, if you’re reading this, you either 1) agree with me or 2) spend tons on birthdays and are up in arms that I’d dare suggest you stop.

If you’ve done the whole huge birthday thing, and you want to change…

If your kid is a teenager, the expectations are there. Transitioning to simpler birthdays might be tough, but it’s doable!

If your child is young, they (hopefully) won’t remember the crazy parties. You could stop the insane birthday spending now and set them – and yourself – up for a brighter financial future. 

And if you’re expecting your first? Resist the urge to hop on the extravagant birthday party trend.

Even if you CAN afford to throw extravagant parties today doesn’t mean you have to. And given that the average American doesn’t even have $1,000 in savings, I’m not sure a lot of us really can afford it. 

Maybe we can all benefit from returning to simpler birthdays? Both kids and adults.

Read Next: How to Transition to a Minimalist Christmas (and Not Look Like the Grinch)


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  1. I really like this but would appreciate help in the specifics on how to get older kids to accept toning it down.

    1. Author

      I’ll brainstorm some ideas and update the article accordingly. Thank you for taking the time to comment!

  2. This is very similar to what we do but I love the idea of letting them pick the menu for the whole day. We also read The Birthday Bird by Dr. Seuss first thing in the morning and I hide their gifts. Throughout the day they find them with simple clues about where to look. I think they enjoy that more than the actual gifts. 😊

  3. Love this post. We keep things very low key. I have two boys. They each pick their own cake and an activity to do (arcade, bounce house etc) that is their gift and special dinner. They get gifts for Christmas and since they are both on feb I make the activity their gift. It’s special too. I also go to dollar tree and decorate for them. Simple is what kids crave the most. Have a great weekend

    1. Author

      That’s awesome! I love all of this. Keeping it simple and sustainable. ❤️

      We have a lot of December/January birthdays, too. And it’s all a lot. It’s probably why my 11-year-old couldn’t come up with a gift he wanted this year (his is shortly after Christmas).

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