Last year between April and May I spent over $100 on birthday gifts.  Of course I used recycled bags from prior birthday parties, and homemade cards to save money, but 3 kids, each with their own sets of friends, we get invited to A LOT of birthday parties.

At the same time as we were partying it up, I was also spring cleaning the house.  I was completely overwhelmed by all of the *stuff* we owned.  To put it in perspective:  Our playroom is 300 square feet filled with over 20 years and 4 kids’ worth of toys.  And do you think my kids play with all of these toys?


The only time my kids go into the playroom is when I ban electronics.  In those times when they go into the playroom, it seems that the fun thing to do is to dump every bin, bucket, and tub into the middle of the room.  And do they clean it up?


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At some point last year as I was drowning in toys that were never played with and as I was buying yet another birthday present… I had a revelation:  what a waste.  What a waste of money.  What a waste of time.  What a waste of space!  I decided right then and there that I was not buying anymore presents.  And more importantly, I did not want anyone buying presents for my kids.  I didn’t want another thing I would store away in the playroom to be forgotten and collect dust.

The Princess’s birthday was in July so I decided that was the perfect time to lay out my “No Presents” plan.  Of course the Husband and Princess balked at my plan, but I stood my ground.  We invited 15 of the Princess’s friends to a pool party one afternoon at our favorite YMCA:

Come out to celebrate Sophia’s 10th birthday with us doing what tweenagers do best- SWIM!

We will have food and birthday brownies (in lieu of cake) and drinks.


Instead of gifts we invite parents and siblings to stay and play.

Of course there were some that refused to come empty handed so they brought presents.  One of my dear friends tried to compromise between her desire to bring a present and my stand against presents and brought a “present” of candy.  There were also many friends that commended me on my no present request, and asked why I was taking that stance.

The answer is pretty short and sweet.

  1.  I don’t want anyone spending money they don’t have or that could otherwise be contributing to their families to buy things for my kids.
  2. I don’t want more things that are going to clutter up my house.

But there’s a more complicated answer too.  An answer that became much clearer when Christmas came around and grandparents were involved.  The grandparents were going to have to let go of their preconceived notions about present-giving being a thing and consider that present-giving should be more about presence.

The Gift of Presence

What I mean is that the best present a grandparent (or any of us) can give is the gift of being present in the lives of our loved ones.  Experiencing life with us every opportunity.  Maybe that experience is as tangible as living with us and being an active part of our day-to-day lives, or maybe that experience is less available and it’s just being there vicariously through the experiences we have and share on social media.

Ok… I know you’re probably thinking, “You want me to not buy a present and just watch you through Facebook?”

Not exactly.

I want you to take the money you would spend on a thing and put it toward an experience.  Maybe that experience is an extended visit with grandma and/or grandpa.  Maybe that experience is a family vacation.  Or maybe it’s a membership to the museum or music or dance lessons.  Whatever it is, let it be something the kids will truly remember.  Let it be something that allows the kids to connect to you in a meaningful way.

For example, one of the best gifts my Dad has bought the kids is a guitar for each of them.  Well, technically, he got the Princess a guitar, Little Man a ukulele and the Baby got a Moana toy guitar.  Not only are these gifts wonderful experiences because the kids are all learning to play their instruments and enjoy music, but these are apropos coming from my father who is a very talented musician.

My mother-in-law, who is still sending gifts galore, has gotten us science museum memberships the last two years in a row.  These memberships have been wonderful gifts that keep on giving throughout the year.  Not only do we use these memberships regularly to get in free, but we also use them for discounts in other museums, classes, and experiences that we might not otherwise do.  And every time I break out that membership card, I have the kids say “Thank you Nana and Granddad!” out loud to remind the kids that the fun we are about to have came from Nana and Granddad.  I always send photos to Nana of our experience.  Plus, when Nana and Granddad get to come visit, they can go to the museum and experience the fun with us.


As for birthday parties, and where our friends are concerned, experiencing life with us is just as important.  I don’t expect (or want) friends to get us museum memberships or musical instruments.  I do expect (and want) our friends to experience celebrating our birthday with us.  I want our friends to go do fun things with us that we will remember long after the things that fit in gift bags have been lost to the dust in the corners.  I want our friends to save their money and give us a gift far more valuable- their time.  And in return, I want to save my money and give you something more important- MY time.

It’s not easy to say no to presents

Somewhere in our history we have become obligated to adhere to this societal expectation.  I’m not going to lie.  I’ve felt guilty about not bringing a present.  Especially for those parties where the kids take the time to open gifts and read the card.  Do they notice they didn’t get a gift from my kids?  And I’ve caved in and bought presents, especially for new friends that don’t yet know me.

Last year, when we were invited to birthday parties, I took the time to explain to friends that we would love to come, but we would not be bringing presents.  No one uninvited us.  Very few of them asked me why, although I did feel compelled to explain sometimes.  Usually when I explained, they said it was brilliant and they agreed with me.  (I don’t speak for their true feelings, just what they said out loud.)  But I still worry people will think badly of me and of my kids.  I still worry that we won’t be invited back; that we will lose friends.

But I have to stand my ground.  This is important.  I have to break the cycle of ridiculous gift giving and start a cycle of fulfillment.  I stress to my kids that they need to appreciate the time someone gives to them.  I want my kids to recognize that they can fill their homes with things or they can fill their lives with experiences.

Guess what?  I doubt my kids will remember in 10 or 20 or 50 years from now, the Mr. Potato Head they played with for less than an hour on Christmas, but they will remember the trip to the indoor water park with Aunt Anna when Uncle Tyler, Daddy, and Sophia raced down the slide.  They won’t remember that they got 4 nerf guns, but they will remember that homemade pinata I made that no one could break open so Sean had finally beat the thing off the line.  They won’t remember the 5 t-shirts Nana sent, but we’ll be talking about Nana needing “thongs” in Florida for years to come.

So yeah… don’t buy my kids birthday presents.  Just be present in their lives.  Celebrate their lives with time and love and support.