Monday, June 22, 2015

Give More Meaning and Spend Less Money on Birthdays

I think once you've been burned you are far more wary of the flame, right?

My astrological sign is a Leo, but that is supposed to mean that I am extravagant and me loves to eat, drink and party to excess. However, I was stung seriously hard in college when I realized my ATM card was not magic. It couldn't pull out money which wasn't already there. I know. Late to the game, but that's because prior to college I lived at home and shared beers with friends.

Therefore these memories started the hardening of the wallet but many experiences since then have further petrified these spending fingers of mine. Cable bill. Weddings (of others - comparatively at $10,000 my wedding was super cheap, especially for 300 or so guests). Birthday parties for my kids (these are the worse points of flagrant disregard for money). Christmas gift exchanges (can't stand them). Door to door sales people for cleaning products. Gap clothes. (Gap - the store).

The last three years have been a struggle to re-cultivate my family's (pre-teen daughter especially) generous birthday party habits. It could be because we were accidentally running in a circle of friends who had money - or at least, spent it like they had some serious money. Bouncy houses. Giant slides. Entertainers. Heavy gift bags. Now, I never regretted the bouncy house for my Kindergarten son, that was a screaming delight for a six year old.

But we never looked back at that again. It's okay to spend three hundred plus dollars once in awhile for a special birthday - but not every year. Nope. Nosiree.

One day, I made some vague pronouncement that "fifth grade" is the time when huge, lavish, toy-filled adventures stopped. I tried to sell it like a rite of passage into teenager-hood. My daughter was not pleased.

I split the birthdays that followed into two concepts, borrowing from the traditions of my husband's family. We have a Family Birthday Dinner. We also have a Friends (and family) Day. Although we do this for everyone in my family now, I will use "her" in my descriptions, partly because my daughter was the hardest one to re-shape.

We have a "Family Birthday Dinner". It's just us at home, with homemade gifts, and a homemade cake. Well, not all the gifts are homemade, but they are deliberately un-flashy and/or small. A book. A butterfly trinket her brother picked out. A bookmark I made with a poem written for her. We spend time with her favorite foods - even if they are contrast for the taste buds. Pasta salad. Hawaiian pizza. Chocolate cookies. Sparkling apple cider. The most important thing is that the Guest of Honor feels our love and how special she is, without all the flash and gizmos. We talk about how special she is. We play a game at the table like spoons or cards. My favorite gift to give is a photograph of a special moment from the past year, and have it framed nicely for a special keepsake. One year I got "all fancy" and gave my daughter a Photobook of the past year's moments from Costco (there was a coupon). She loved it.

My daughter was especially sold to this new idea of birthdays when I announced that she would be in charge of the homemade birthday cakes. We loved all her bumpy or lopsided creations and all her inventive decorations with marshmallows and candies. It became an instant tradition.

Okay, part two, we have a "Friends and Family Day". It's a few friends, for both of my children - this relieves the stress of my youngest seeking the attention from her brother, for example, and everyone can relax and have a good time.

It's a beach day or a cheap dinner at the house (can we say pasta for everyone?) with a stay-over for the kids with a cool, rented movie and fun snack food, like pigs in a blanket and pizza bagels.

If we are feeling creative, we might include a craft, like painting sea shells or baking cupcakes together. My son is a little easier. Turn on the WIFI and he and his friends are set.

I also suspected that she translated more people and larger events meant more love and appreciation of her.

It was a gentle process of recognizing she should invite people that she likes - and most importantly - liked her back and make her feel good to be herself. Do they make you laugh? Are they always nice to you? Would you like to know them better (for newer friends)?  ... interestingly, her number of guests would drop down considerably.

It's all about her discovery - on her own, through guided questions - of who her friends are. At the moment. Kids' change from year to year, too. Don't be surprised if she is best friends again with the girl whose pigtails she pulled on last year.

You just drop in a question or a statement, "Oh, I didn't think of her. Did you guys have fun together this year?" or - for the girl who was forgotten - "That Kelly girl was very sweet to invite you to her birthday party last month. Didn't you have a good time?". It's also nice to invite someone new to the school, if you are open to that.

I also think she thought the number of gifts was important. I would remind her we 'are not opening gifts' at the party.

Do you open the gifts at a party? I find that to be a distressing tradition. Unless the birthday girl or boy is very mature, opening gifts at a party unwittingly becomes a comparison game and our guests who could afford a shirt may not feel as cheerful when someone else brings the latest-flashy-thing. Therefore, I stopped that tradition in our family early on. I think it stopped at my son's second grade birthday party. I believe I recall he was upset because he wanted to play with the toys but I assured him he could play with them later. It also wastes so much time when the kids should be playing and the adults chatting. I was at a party once when the whole ritual took an HOUR. That's a lot of me standing around and doing nothing except watching a mess unfold.

If the gift giver would secretly like to play with the gift, offer the option to invite the gift giver back to spend time together playing with that item.

I admire all the gifts with my child in private, mentioning how much this person must have enjoyed picking that out or how thoughtful this other person was to remember that she preferred blue. We are moving the identification of LOVE out of the gift into the giver. I am not sure about you, but this was something I had to consciously do.

Now, my daughter truly enjoys making her own gifts for the Family Birthday Dinners. In fact, she's a bit more cautious when she picks out her own gifts for friends, because she knows I will ask her, will they like it? Does it mean something special? My daughter initially used to try and make me spend $50 or more (!) on a gift for a friend. "I told her we would buy it!" (cry). No way. This happened in our early elementary school days. I was honest: No, honey. I am so sorry. I know you love your friend, but it would be very hard for me to spend money on that and not have money for gas to get to to work.

Therefore I started gift budgets. She has a budget of $10, maybe $15 and then, from year to year, we select gifts with more thought than dollars. If something is truly special, we talk about it, and sometimes she pitches in, with her own money. Once, we took a friend of hers to a dinner at a Chinese restaurant called The Golden Tiger... because her friend loves tigers. Now, that was definitely "over budget", but it was a nice dinner with a mom and young lady whom we just adore and love, so who's to say we didn't get our money's worth?

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