Experiences Over Stuff – A Birthday Day of Adventures

by Katy on October 24, 2016 · 24 comments

Birthday movie

I started a new tradition in my family a few years ago where I give experiential gifts to most family members who actually live in town. We all have enough stuff, and there’s not one among us who doesn’t struggle with keeping clutter at bay. I started doing this a few years ago with my now young adult sons, but  it’s since spread to my mother, sister, niece and husband. I call these my “Birthday Day of Adventures.”

Here’s what that means. The entire day is a surprise to the recipient, as well as all others who are lucky enough to tag along. (This is key, as the anticipation is a key part of the fun.) I generally include an anchor activity, a meal, a treat and one other thing. I’ve learned through the years to group everything to a single area of town, which helps to minimize time spent in the car.

It’s important to point out that the Day of Adventures is designed to be centered around the birthday person’s interests. Not what everyone likes to do, but what the recipient likes to do.

Giving experiential gifts can seem like a big splurge, but with some careful planning it can actually be quite frugal. For example, a few years ago my husband’s day was simply hiking and a lunch at Ikea. (He loves those Swedish meatballs!)

Friday was my mother’s 74th birthday, so I planned a special day of adventures for the two of us. Here’s how our day went.

  1. We went to see a matinee of the movie Florence Foster Jenkins at a cute second run theater, which set me back just $4 per ticket. I knew she’d been wanting to see this movie, and it was the perfect choice as neither of our husbands would be bummed to have missed this wonderfully hilarious Meryl Streep performance.
  2. My plan had been to go to lunch after the movie, but my mother wasn’t hungry, so we hit up the closest Goodwill which very much aligned with my mother’s interests. (I get my love of thrifting from her.) My mother bought a 99¢ frame, and I bought a $6.99 vintage Descoware pan to resell.
  3. We then drove over to a Vietnamese Pho restaurant that had excellent Yelp reviews. Neither of us were disappointed as our delicious bowls of beef pho filled us up at a mere $8.50 apiece. I was tempted to order an appetizer, but I knew that our generous entrees would be more than enough. I highly recommend the Pho Oregon Restaurant on S.E. 82nd Avenue for those looking for an authentic Vietnamese dining experience.
  4. We then drove down Hawthorne Blvd to The Maple Parlor, which is a gourmet sundae bar owned by my mother’s friend. I accidentally saved a few dollars here, as the owner treated my mom to a free dessert when she learned that we were celebrating her birthday. I chose a small maple flavored ice cream with candied bacon and ginger on top. The owner who is half Vietnamese heritage wanted to know which pho restaurant we’d chosen, and gave her full seal of approval as it happens to be her mother’s favorite. (Thank you, Yelp!!)
  5. Our last activity was to hit up the main Goodwill on S.E. Grand Avenue, which turned out to be mobbed by costume seekers and general bargain hunters. Neither of us bought anything.

We finally made our way back to my house where I served hot tea while we watched a half episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which is my new favorite TV show. (Seriously, so smart and funny!)

In all I spent $30.00 for the entire Day of Adventures, which is quite a bargain especially since research has shown that experiences make us happier than stuff. My mother and I now have the memories of our time spent together, which is 1000% better than any scarf, candle, teapot or random dust collector.

Here are some example of the other activities from previous Days of Adventure:

  • Bowling
  • Arcade
  • Comedy show
  • Play
  • Museum
  • Hiking
  • Behind the scenes tour of Goodwill’s operations
  • Trip to the Oregon coast
  • Roller skating
  • Movies

Many of these activities were kept frugal using coupons or hoarded gift cards, and a couple of them were simply free.

Experiences really are better than stuff. Happy birthday, Mom!

Katy Wolk-Stanley

“Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.”

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{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

Betty Winslow October 24, 2016 at 12:49 pm

I love this idea…. will have to think about something for hubby, in December.


Katy October 24, 2016 at 12:50 pm

Yay, let me know how it turns out.


Amy K. October 24, 2016 at 1:11 pm

I’ve started doing this for my kids. Their holiday gifts is usually a trip to Disney or Universal (we live three hours away, so we drive.) We can take advantage of resident pricing, and I use Groupon for hotels. We also pack food. Disney’s rules are more lenient that Universal. I’ve packed full-on picnic lunches in a backpack cooler.


Barb @ 1SentenceDiary October 24, 2016 at 1:28 pm

Hubby’s birthday is coming up… must start thinking and planning. 🙂


Jennifer October 24, 2016 at 1:32 pm

Katy, your mother is beautiful at 74! Apparently, she has taken good of herself and you all have good genes so lucky you.
1. I repainted my front door. It looks so much better. I only wished I would have done it sooner. This mini facelift for my door cost nothing since the paint was in my closet.
2. We ate at Captain D’s yesterday. I used a coupon to buy a meal for the price of one for my husband and I. I then split mine with my younger daughter.
3. My older daughter cut my hair for free yesterday. She is in cosmetology school so it’s good practice. I will make a meal for her and her husband later this week as payment. I really am enjoying my haircut as it’s probably been 6 months or more since the last one.
4. I purchased a big pack of chicken thighs at Sam’s club. I broke the pack down into four meal sized packages and put them in the freezer. They came out to less than $2 per meal.
5. No Lear jet for me.


Su Mama October 24, 2016 at 2:15 pm

Thank you again, Katy, for our lovely day together!

I highly recommend “Florence Foster Jenkins,” though I thought Meryl Streep’s performance was more touching than hilarious. And the Junior Mints were divine as ever.


Katy October 24, 2016 at 2:36 pm

Okay, the movie was hilarious, and Streep’s performance was touching.


AmyWW October 24, 2016 at 2:20 pm

I think this is a great idea! And happy birthday to your mom!


Linda October 24, 2016 at 3:02 pm

What a great day! We don’t buy gifts anymore, unless there is something that is needed and the need coincides with the birthday. Sounds like you and your Mom had a lovely time.


janine October 24, 2016 at 3:04 pm

Love to read about your birthday adventures!
I have on occasion, cleaned and straightened out the den/bedrooms of my family members for their special day. They loved those clean sheets! Unfortunately my immediate family members are all guys and their taste in movies runs counter to what I can stand to see. I may buy them gift cards so they can enjoy their “bad taste” at their leisure.


Katy October 24, 2016 at 5:00 pm

I’ve taken for the team a time or two on these days. #Spiderman


Tammy Brackett October 24, 2016 at 5:20 pm

Your mom is 74??? Holy cow! She looks fantastic! Ok. I know that is off topic but darn!!!


Katy October 24, 2016 at 9:19 pm

All that Oregon sunshine keeps a gal looking young. 🙂


Denise October 24, 2016 at 11:20 pm

And you both look so alike too! (My autocorrect tried to change that to “alive”, which certainly would be true but not the compliment to you both that was intended!).


kathleen October 24, 2016 at 8:36 pm

Happy Birthday, Katy’s mom!


Bobbi October 24, 2016 at 9:22 pm

Loved reading about this birthday adventure, especially the Pho recommendation for us Portlanders. Thanks! <3


Mand01 October 25, 2016 at 12:49 am

Your mum seriously does not look 74. I hope I look as amazing as she does in another 30 years!
I’m with you on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend – that show is hilarious.


isabelle October 25, 2016 at 5:31 am

Those are my favorite kind of days!
I love doing all kind of (free) stuff on my birthday as well, and my daughter has the same birthday as me,o bonus! I keep her with me and we treat ourselves with experiences on that day (and a physical gift for her as well, she’s only 6).
With Christmas coming I am also looking at giving my husband an experience instead of stuff. He’s been really stressed out lately, so I’m offering him 2 days at a retreat center.
No clutter!!


Sandy October 25, 2016 at 9:10 am

Happy Birthday, Katy’s Mom!
I will be enjoying an evening at our renowned Zoo just a couple of days before my birthday next week. It is an employee event for my sister by her employer. I don’t think my sister is thinking this is a birthday gift for me, but, I see it this
My husband and I will be going to IKEA next month to purchase our kitchen cabinets to take advantage of a special promotion. Next to visiting a quilting/fabric store, IKEA is a favorite for me!
Two of our grandsons will will be with us for Thanksgiving. I have packages of supplies to make ornaments (bought on clearance last year!) with the boys. I’ll have cookies already baked so we can decorate together. And, 4 of us have birthdays, so I will bake a cake for all of us to celebrate.


Jen T October 25, 2016 at 4:54 pm

It was my mothers 75th birthday on Friday! Happy birthday to your mom!


Heather in L.A. October 27, 2016 at 7:53 am

I do the same with my family!! You inspired me a few years back, we have gone to the minor league ball games for my youngest boys..ages 9 and 11 and their birthdays are one day apart. My husband I sent fishing with friends on the coast and our daughter and I have gone scuba diving for her birthday. I stopped the big ole parties and Christmas when a couple of years ago I asked what they have received the previous year and what was their favorite gift…none could recall. That sealed the deal on experiences over presents(they still receive token or small things). My vote is always smaller, sweeter, more personal and bonus if it is homemade.


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