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I Love My Children's Birthdays But Not All the Gifts! So I Decided To Try Something Different.

I Love My Children’s Birthdays But Not All the Gifts! So I Decided To Try Something Different.

By Kelcey Kintner

I’ve always been a bit anti-stuff, so birthday parties give me a big dose of anxiety. We recently threw a birthday party for my 7-year-old daughter and 22 kids attended. The idea of 22 Barbie dolls and purses and craft sets made me start hyperventilating.

With five kids, my family doesn’t need any more of this stuff. (I promise you I have a million dolls, purses and craft sets.) And it just felt so wasteful and I knew most of the gifts (despite being appreciative of the thought) would end up ignored (not the gift giver’s intention) and shoved in the playroom closet. So instead we asked for money.

1. Asking For Money

I simply emailed all the parents and said my daughter was saving up for a specific toy and we were asking for $10 or $15 or whatever they were comfortable giving in lieu of gifts. Half the birthday money would be used for the toy and the other half donated to a charity of my daughter’s choosing.

I didn’t know how parents would respond. Would they think it was rude? Would they just ignore it? Would they think I was really spending the money on booze and cigarettes?

But quite a few parents actually came up to me during the party and said they really liked the idea.

I think it’s a nice option because my child still received a gift (one of her choosing), all the parents spent less than they normally would have on a birthday gift and there was a charitable component involved. If you decide to go this route, as well, the key is to remind parents a few days before the party with another email so they remember and don’t spend their time picking up a present (we are all so used to buying gifts).

My daughter Summer decided to use her birthday money to buy a refurbished iTouch and donated the other half of her birthday money to an organization that helps feed hungry children.  Also, if you don’t want to handle the nitty gritty details yourself, there are even websites like ECHOage that make it super easy for you.

2. Charitable Contributions

My children have also been to parties where the parents have asked for a charitable contribution in lieu of a gift. Maybe the family is an advocate for a  special cause like breast cancer research or the March of Dimes. So instead of gifts, they suggest donations to a specific organization.

I love this idea and the key here is to make it as easy as possible for party goers.  It’s nice to give the other parents a link and set it up so you can track their donations and send them proper thank you notes.

Another idea is to ask birthday party attendees to bring canned goods and other non-perishables to donate to a local shelter, food pantry or soup kitchen. This is a nice option because your guests still get to bring something tangible, in hand, to the party.  Also, afterwards your child can help deliver the donations to the local food bank which can be a great learning experience.

3. Book Swaps

I think book swaps are also an easy way to avoid gift madness. Just ask each guest to bring a freshly wrapped new book. Then do a book exchange. Each guest goes home with a new book so there is no need to provide a parting gift/favor either.


In the end, each family has to decide what works for them when it comes to celebrating their children’s birthdays. And yes, a child might be disappointed if they don’t get to rip open 20 gifts.

But at least in our case, my daughter Summer was fortunate to still receive a lot of family gifts. And she was really excited to get an iTouch, something that wouldn’t have been possible if she had gotten a bunch of smaller gifts from her friends. Plus, I love the idea of children getting involved in charitable giving from a very young age.

And although we asked for money in lieu of gifts, when someone brought a Barbie doll instead, we were grateful and appreciative.

I do think children’s birthdays are a magical time and I remember counting the minutes until mine came around again (not so much anymore!).  For our family, we have figured out a nice balance – a way to hold on to the magic without quite so many gifts. And that’s what works for us.

Kelcey Kintner
About the Author

Kelcey Kintner

Kelcey Kintner, an award winning journalist and freelance writer, is a fashion critic for US Weekly, created the humor blog 

Kelcey Kintner, an award winning journalist and freelance writer, is a fashion critic for US Weekly, created the humor blog The Mama Bird Diaries and writes for the Huffington Post. You can follow her @mamabirddiaries or on Facebook. She’s still trying to fit 5 kids on a Vespa. 

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  • Kaycee

    February 3, 2014 at 10:15 pm

    My sister suggested something that we enjoy doing for her young daughter. We give money that is used for specific things, such as dance lessons, a special event, etc. My niece has a savings account and they make a deal out of going and depositing the money. She also understands that Auntie paid for ballet this month or that Grandma treated her to the tickets for Sesame Street Live, etc.

    It works out great. It helps them control the avalanche of “stuff” at their house and provides extras that they might not otherwise be able to afford while living on one income. We also like that mailing a check also makes it much easier to send gifts from across the country.

    • kelcey kintner

      kelcey kintner

      February 3, 2014 at 10:22 pm

      I love that idea!

  • Maree

    February 3, 2014 at 11:39 pm

    We just keep the numbers low (5 friends to play not 25 for a party) and tell the guests ahead of time that gifts aren’t required! The fun of a ‘party’ is plenty and avoids developing a sense of entitlement. I would recoil at a child’s birthday invite which was following the wishing well model.

    • Kelcey


      February 4, 2014 at 10:51 pm

      I just wouldn’t feel comfortable not bringing anything to do party. I would want to bring a gift, contribute to a cause, bring canned goods, a book for a swap, just something to honor the day. I do think small parties are wonderful! Unfortunately – I haven’t been very successful at it. The one time I did, it led to hurt feelings. But I think smaller parties get easier as kids get older. I am hopeful for the future!

  • Diane

    February 4, 2014 at 9:44 am

    While I think this is a great idea in theory, I’d still bristle at the suggestion to give money instead of a gift. I’d rather say “no gifts please” than to ask people for cold, hard cash. (I think this stems from my discomfort in giving cash as a gift in general. I never know if I’m giving the “right” amount, where if I got a toy on sale no one would be the wiser.) Same goes for those Honeymoon Registries that are all the rage these days. It’s all very “gift grabby” and I’d have been the mom that brought a Barbie just on principle.

    • Kelcey


      February 4, 2014 at 10:42 pm

      I totally understand which is why this isn’t for everyone. But I’ve been told “no gift please” to a party and I wasn’t comfortable not bringing a gift so I brought one anyway. I think everyone needs to do what they are comfortable with with – I felt comfortable asking for money because it was less than anyone spends on a gift and we were giving half of it to charity.

  • Hi, I'm Natalie.

    February 4, 2014 at 11:01 am


    Last summer, my 4yo was invited to a birthday party where we were asked to bring a food bank donation in lieu of gifts. I thought this was a great idea, we brought a big bag of non-perishables… and my daughter was MIGHTY confused when she was the ONLY kid who didn’t bring a gift for her friend. It was a frustrating experience for the birthday parents who didn’t want more *stuff* and it was upsetting to my daughter who felt left out because she hadn’t brought any toys/kid stuff.

    Shortly after that, we held a casual backyard get-together to celebrate the birthdays of my daughters (4 & 1) – I invited neighbourhood people in person only 24 hours before the event, I didn’t mention the “party” word, and I specifically said it was just a casual/quick cupcake kinda deal… Over 20 people showed up. And we ended up with gifts from everyone. It was insane. In the end, I chose not to feel overwhelmed by all the stuff – my 4yo felt special, her friends felt good for giving, and we had a fun time donating the bulk of the gifts to a charity. I don’t really like the idea of asking for gifts (or money), so this worked well for us.

    • Kelcey


      February 4, 2014 at 10:44 pm

      I think it’s great that you didn’t get overwhelmed with the stuff. And it’s an important to remember there are so many charities that will take new and used toys!

  • Andrea

    February 4, 2014 at 11:10 am

    We have a “no presents please, your presence is present enough!” added to each bday party invite. I see bdays as a good time to stress the importance of people rather than stuff to the kids, as in bdays are a time to celebrate with the people that love you, not a time to get more stuff (that they do not even need). I just think it is really hard enough to try to keep kids from becoming too materialistic without a yearly birthday binge of stuff. (They do get a present from us, and immediate family, I am not a total meanie.) This year, my 5 year old asked for canned goods instead of presents and we were able to take an incredible amount of food to our local food pantry. It was enough to replenish an entire shelving unit, and they took his picture and posted it on their FB page. His joy and excitement at being a positive part of the community who had contributed something important was a thousand times the fleeting happiness of opening a toy that gets discarded ten minutes later. Little sister was so impressed that she is asking for diapers for our local diaper bank for her bday. So, though I am in agreement on those aspects, I would never ask for cash. If aunts and uncles want to go in together on a big gift, fine, but I think asking for cash is tacky – BUT, my tacky is someone else’s ideal situation. Sorry OP!! However you do it, it is great to teach kids about giving back. 

    • Kelcey


      February 4, 2014 at 10:45 pm

      I agree. It’s wonderful to teach kids about giving back at any age.

  • Ally

    February 4, 2014 at 11:28 am

    I think a lot depends on the kids’ invited. With the younger ones I tend to know the parents better and with our close friends I have no problem asking for something specific. My oldest is in kindergarten and for his next birthday I won’t know a lot of the kids we are inviting. I would not feel comfortable asking people we don’t know for cash or something specific. 

    • Kelcey


      February 4, 2014 at 10:46 pm

      I definitely think each person has to do what works for them!

  • Jordana

    February 5, 2014 at 7:50 am

    What great ideas! We haven’t tried any (yet) but I do think teaching (and modeling) charity is important. When my daughters did a lemonade stand on our busy NYC corner we donated half the money to charity. The Ronald McDonald house is a half block away and we walked over and my daughter handed in the money herself. The money she made is long gone, but the money she donated has created a lesson that sticks around. Also, not getting lots of gifts is very environmentally sound as well. Great ideas, thanks!

    • Kelcey


      February 5, 2014 at 11:54 pm

      I’ve done a lemonade stand with my kids and never even thought to give some of the money to charity. Love this idea!

  • Tricia

    February 5, 2014 at 3:14 pm

    I struggle with this a lot! My son turns one in a couple of months and I don’t want a bunch of crappy toys that are going to end up ignored in a couple of weeks. I think giving a fun experience to a kid is much more likely to be appreciated. I still remember my parents taking my sister and I (we have the same birthday) to a baseball game, or when my grandmother took us to the Queen Mary for the day.

    I’ll probably go the “get-together” route this year, but I can’t think of a tactful way of telling people to get us something useful (like more cloth diapers, or soft soled shoes) if they want to get a gift. I wonder if setting up an Amazon wish list would be okay?

    • Kelcey


      February 5, 2014 at 11:53 pm

      I think you do whatever feels comfortable for you. I would certainly be happy to buy someone a gift off an Amazon wish list – especially when it’s for items they truly need. I also love a baby and wedding registry! For me, it always feels nice to spend my money on something they really want. I think you should go with your gut and do what works for you.

  • […] out my piece on Alpha Mom on alternatives to traditional birthday gifts because who needs more crap?! Not […]

  • Karen

    February 24, 2014 at 6:53 pm

    hm, I would totally feel chapped about being asked for money. My neighbor, when asked what her kids would like for a gift, always suggests a gift card to whatever store has what her kids currently want. I’m so happy to oblige. But money? No way Jose.

  • Jess

    February 27, 2014 at 1:59 pm

    I love this idea and wouldn’t be upset at all if I saw this on a birthday invite, especially if it included the charitable donation part. Some places, such as the MN Zoo (where my boys and I spend a lot of time) have their own amazon wishlist of things people can buy and have shipped straight to the zoo as a donation. It includes things like enrichment items for the animals and feeding supplies (Who knew Amazon had such a large selection of zoo animal stuff?). I’ve been thinking of having my son’s next birthday party at the zoo and asking people to buy stuff from the wishlist and donate it in his name rather than buy him a gift. Then people still get to choose a gift and buy something, but we don’t end up with a bunch of toys that we don’t need or have room for.

  • LK

    December 16, 2014 at 11:34 am

    When did this ettiquette become a fad? I only ask because when I had birthdays, all relatives gave cash. Then again we’re talking the 70s. I think tons and tons and tons of toys are ridiculous. My son’s bday is the day after Xmas so even more so it’s overwhelming—us, his grandparents, then a school party then a friend party…it’s all so silly. I rather get the $10 they are going to spend on a gift so I can buy him bonds or put in his piggy bank. I’m not offended by a $7 or $10 bill in the card. Why do people get so shy about it yet we all know that their gift was probably under $10 anyway?

  • Lily

    January 29, 2016 at 4:29 am

    Hi, I am a Filipino and I just want to share my thoughts about this and our culture in the Philippines. Last week a received an invitation from a friend for her daughters 1st bday. On the invitation, she politely said that it would be appreciated if the gift is in cash. At first, I am not comfortable with it coz it’s like paying for the food ull eat in the party. I felt that if u want to save, just have a small party with ur family. But looking from her perspective, yeah it’s practical to just ask for money instead of gifts. A brief background, our community is not well off. Most wives don’t have work. Growing up when I attend birthdays, I noticed that filipinos don’t usually give gifts so if u get one, ull be more than thankful. It’s a normal thing. Lately there’s a rise in middle class, the “modern” filipinos are now giving gifts, but not all. Asking for gifts is somewhat a taboo. Hosting a birthday party is like a thanksgiving where the presence of guests is the gift itself aside from the fact that most of us are “cant afford”. That’s why when i read that “money” is the preferred gift on the invitation, i felt uncomfortable at first. Of course my friend meant it in a good way.