How to Help a Friend Celebrate a Birthday Without Going Broke? — A Reader Question

by Katy on May 4, 2009 · 18 comments


You guys did so great answering Jeanine’s question the other day that I thought I would put you to work again. I received this question from my college friend Georgina who lives in Southern California:

Here is a question for your website, or maybe it has been addressed.

I have some friends that love to eat and drink $$. When a birthday rolls around, it is customary to take that person out to dinner. $$. None of these friends of mine have much money, but feel deserving of a good meal and a couple of cocktails on their special day. So we take her out. A nice restaurant is expected. (You know where this is going.)

Last night was Anne’s birthday. Patsy made reservations at a seafood restaurant. $$! I was conservative and ordered a salad and a cup of soup. (15.00 total). I had one cocktail, just for fun. (10.00). Everyone else had a couple of cocktails and expensive seafood dishes. Plus, they brought their kids, who ordered off the adult menu. (I refused to bring my kids. It’s not their thing and I said I didn’t want to pay for them! I don’t even bring my husband. They are all single moms.)

The bill came and everyone’s cut was figured. Mine was 60.00. More than twice my meal. I don’t want to be stingy. I love my friends, I need my friends, I want to help them celebrate a special day. Is the only way out of this to decline going? 

This is an issue many of us have encountered. How to treat a pal without going broke? We all want to be part of celebrating a friend’s big day, but sans the staggering bill.

I suggested hosting everyone at her house. Have people bring the wine and prepare a lovely inexpensive meal. This is something I do for family members, and they’re always happy to be treated to a home cooked meal. This has been as fancy as salmon and as humble as chili prepared with pressure cooked beans.

What do you suggest for Georgina? How can she be part of celebrating her friends’ birthday without feeling taken advantage of?

Please put your thoughts and ideas in the comments section below.

Katy Wolk-Stanley

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

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

Meg from FruWiki May 5, 2009 at 7:15 am

First off, if you know what you spent, pay that amount. That’s not stingy. That’s just common sense. It is totally unfair to expect you to pay for a part of others’ meals and especially cocktails.

If people insist on going out, that’s tough and you may just have to decide not to go. Admit that it’s just “not in the budget”.

But, you first might try suggesting a potluck BBQ or something like that. Rolling your own sushi can also be fun, and everyone can bring some ingredients. Same for pizza. Have a cheese & wine tasting where everyone brings a little something to share.

The gals might like to try something new and more budget friendly, too! They might just surprise you!


Kori May 5, 2009 at 7:31 am

If these are close friends, she should be honest about her desire to minimize cost v. maximizing time together, but also come prepared with a list of alternatives. Going out for Happy Hour instead of dinner – at least where I live, most of the nicer restaurants and bar&grills have really great happy hour deals, so you get the ambience and “shi-shi” location without dropping nearly as much $$$. Check out local art galleries for openings or other events – most include wine & appetizers, for a (relatively) small fee AND you’re probably supporting a local artist. Tour a museum or historic home, then have a extra-nice potluck picnic nearby, with an extra special bottle of wine or bubbly for a birthday toast. Skip dinner altogether, and meet up for dessert and cocktails at your location of choice.

Ultimately, the goal is to have quality time together, and make the birthday girl/guy feel really special. If that is kept in mind, the options are just about endless and there’s no need to go broke, in the process.

As an aside – and this is just my opinion, based on personal experience as a mother and occasional patron of fine dining establishments, every great once in a while – if kids are going to be attending, stay away from nicer, expensive restaurants at all cost. Please! Some kids can handle that kind of environment, but most can’t, which makes it difficult for you to enjoy yourself, as well as annoying for other guests who are also trying to enjoy their special night out. If kids are invited, keep it way casual and everyone is happier!


Kat May 5, 2009 at 7:43 am

I agree that cooking for them is usually well received and during the spring and summer grilling outside usually means kids can come and run around without a problem.
If a restaurant really is necessary I recommend ( ) . The site lets you print a $25 gift certificate for $10 but there are conditions attached to many. I’m a member of a MyPoints (free) where I can “earn” enough points for one of these (and other things) so I have yet to actually pay for one.
My friends realize that I have little room for extra expenses and often let me contribute the gift certificate and tip as my share of the bill. I’ll also save other dinning coupons and gift cards when I know a restaurant outing is coming.


Jodi May 5, 2009 at 8:51 am

Ah, I had this very thing happen when I was in grad school and had NO money. I had a cup of soup; my share came to $30 or $35.

If this is a recurring thing, the important thing is to be honest about your reservations upfront. Otherwise, everyone else is operating on certain assumptions–and those include that everyone’s chipping on equally.

Another option, which requires bringing a calculator to dinner, is that everyone just split the cost of the birthday girl/boy’s meal/cocktails/dessert. That’s a great way to treat them lavishly without breaking anyone’s bank. ‘

But to make anything change, you do have to get brave and talk about it. Awkward, but otherwise it will stay the same.


Emily May 5, 2009 at 9:48 am

I’ve been to a couple of restaurants where the bill was divided based on what each person had ordered, and the cost of the shared appetizers was also divided for each bill. The bills are calculated on computers at most restaurants these days. If you could find a restaurant that would do that, it would be a way to split the birthday girl’s dinner and be fair to those who order less.


LisaPie May 5, 2009 at 10:24 am

I think if you just let your friends know how you feel, most of them will breathe a HUGE sigh of relief. I would be willing to bet most of them feel the same way and have no idea how to get out of this cycle.

If you feel uncomfortable sharing that much information about your finances, take the lead on the next get together and plan something different, like some of the above suggestions.

When we were in college we used to do egg roll parties. Everyone brings one ingredient for egg rolls and then we make them and eat them together. Inexpensive and great fun!

Good luck. And I hope Katy will post some follow-up so we hear how it goes.


WilderMiss May 5, 2009 at 10:49 am

Soooo frustrating! I had a similar things happen where I ended up paying $40 for two glasses of beer. In that case it was a work situation and it was the CEO who split the bill up equally so I think I did better to keep my mouth shut (although I did nontice that he had steak!).

But if I were out with friends I would just light heartedly bring it up. I’m sure your friends are just oblivious, not trying to take advantage of you.

I usually go for potlucks at home with friends. Much cheaper and usually more fun! But we’re a young bunch so most of us are on board with keeping costs down.


Kristen@The Frugal Girl May 5, 2009 at 11:36 am

Could you ask for separate checks, maybe?

Barring that, I’d go with Katy’s idea of hosting a get-together. You could do a potluck(friends who don’t cook could bring wine or something!). I just mentioned on my blog yesterday that we often invite friends to our home to socialize. So much cheaper than going out, and it’s more relaxed too when you have kids.


Kimberly May 5, 2009 at 5:57 pm

If you can’t afford it I would go with honesty; anyone who reacts negatively to someone saying that they honestly can’t afford to do something probably isn’t much of a friend.

If it is case of preferring not to spend the money (vs. honestly not being able to) then one has to weigh the friendships and birthday ritual and decide whether or not to suggest an alternative. This is where I end up these days; sometimes we choose to go and spend the money, sometimes we beg off. Alternatives are rarely appreciated among my family, unless I buy, cook, and clean up.


Bridget May 5, 2009 at 6:31 pm

I agree with Kimberly. I’d be honest and say I wish I could join you but it’s not in my budget. Or you could wish them a good time at dinner and then offer for them to come by your place for dessert and wine/cocktail.


thenonconsumeradvocate May 5, 2009 at 6:36 pm

Part of what makes Georgina’s dilemma difficult is that her family does have a comfortable income. (Although it does fluctuate.) But that doesn’t mean she wants to pay for everyone else.

Georgina — correct me if I’m wrong.

Katy Wolk-Stanley
The Non-Consumer Advocate


Linda May 5, 2009 at 7:39 pm

I think the idea of hosting at someones house is a good idea but that probably isn’t going to fly since they “feel deserving of a good meal and a couple of cocktails on their special day. A nice restaurant is expected.” If you don’t feel comfortable asking for seperate checks, dividing the appetizers & the birthday girls meal, but still want to join the party, perhaps showing up to have a cocktail (paid for yourself) with the group & toast the birthday girl but then leaving before food is served would offer a solution.


Lisa May 5, 2009 at 8:01 pm

I’ve had this happen to me before. The next time out with that set of friends, I grabbed the check first. I figured out what my portion of the bill was (added 25% which was more than enough to cover tax and tip) put that amount on the little tray with the bill and said “OK, I’m covered.” Then I just let the rest of them figure out what they wanted to do. (This works best when you have plenty of small bills and don’t need to worry about getting change.)
Of course, in your situation you would want to add in some to cover the birthday girl’s expenses.


Kristin @ klingtocash May 6, 2009 at 6:50 am

Since the same group is going out for everyone’s birthdays, I would suggest everyone, including the birthday girl pay for their own. When we went out to dinner for my birthday this year, I picked a place that we really wanted to go to (it was a bit pricey), I told everyone up front how much it was and I paid for my own meal. I wanted to spend time with my friends on my birthday, not make them spend money on me. After dinner, we had cake and coffee back at my house so my friends didn’t have to spend money on that.

I hate to say this, but if you have different priorities than your friends and they don’t understand your position, it might be time to find some new friends.


Jessica Wolk-Stanley May 6, 2009 at 10:05 am

When I used to live in New York (restaurant central), I had a friend who made it a point to come at the end of the evening, popping by to visit, but not eating. Somehow he managed this very gracefully. It took my husband and I a while to realize that our friend simply did not wish to be a part of an expensive meal.


Susan May 6, 2009 at 10:56 am

I’m not on-board with this idea of trying to change the already-established birthday tradition. It sounds unlikely that they will change, since the restaurant is highly important to them. It also might feel hypocrital to them that a friend who has a decent income suddenly wants to spend less money on birthdays. Are you making visible adjustments in other areas of spending? I personally have scrimped and saved in other areas –such as grocery spending and haircuts– so I could still be lavish about what is really important in life: Relationships. I have a relative who has remodeled every inch of her house and property to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars… and yet every gift from her is a “regift”– you can tell because they’re so ugly/unuseful AND her kids rat her out. It makes me feel like she values her Stuff more than she values her own flesh and blood. My husband and I sit down and logically determine how we want to spend our money each month. We have put off projects we would LOVE to do (removing our ugly, builder-standard, wall-to-wall carpeting) because we identify other areas of our lives that are so much more important to us, such as a reunion with my husbands’s college friends, and the inevitable Birthday Lunches or Dinners for my friends. As I look at the brown carpet beneath my feet, I don’t for a minute regret that it’s still in my house. I need my friends more than I need hardwood. But I digress!

A few thoughts about how to make these birthday dinners work for you:

1. Sit down with husband and budget a certain amount of money — say $25– each month for “Birthday Blow Money” and store the actual cash in an envelope. Allow to accumulate if unused. Then, you’ll be prepared for these dinners. Instead of trying to find the cheapest item on the menu and feeling distress the whole evening, you can order anything you want and truly enjoy your friends (kids and all) because you won’t have the guilt about over-spending. You and husband will have already decided the money to be used for these dinners… now enjoy them! (Note: I would do an equal amount for husband too.)

2. If eating with the kids really bothers you that much, ask your husband if he would babysit the kids at your house. These ladies are single moms, so they may not have another choice except to bring their kids. If they still bring their kids, then bring a goody-bag filled with coloring book/crayons/small toy figurines for the kids to play with (and keep of course). It’s hard on a kid to have parents who are split up; this is an opportunity to embrace and love a child. Don’t resent that chance in life.

3. Set aside emotions and make a logical choice: is this a friendship you WANT to keep investing in? If so, then now you have the money to participate. If not, then you can politely decline. It also strikes me in reading your post that there is an underlying edge of discontent with the friendships. Perhaps these friendships are not nurturing or uplifting. Perhaps they are a drain or a burden. It might be time to start building some new friendships with women who are more like-minded and authentic.

The way I see it, these dinners are going to keep happening. You can: 1. decline– save money but lose out on friendship / girl time 2. accept but fret all dinner about the kids and the cost 3. accept and genuinely enjoy your friends, the kids, and the food– knowing you’ve set aside the money for this very evening so there’s no guilt.


HiC May 19, 2009 at 7:06 am

I used to be in the same boat as the reader (allowing people to dictate how I spend my money) until one day I decided I had enough. I decided no one was going to dictate to me how to spend my paycheck (including co-workers and the boss). I started declining all holiday/fundraising shilling at work (i.e. Boss’ Day, birthdays, kids’ school raffle tickets, etc.) and stopped shilling for my kids’ fundraisers at work. I then began taking my birthday off as a vacation day each year to drive home the point that I did not want to participate in this nonsense.

Of course, I initially met with resistance (disapproving looks from co-workers, etc.) but I ignored them and went about my business. Later, they took the hint and began leaving me alone about donating. And now, two years and a recession later, my co-workers admit they are relieved that we stopped the extra nonsense.

So now, we only contribute to things we feel are important (memorial flowers for a funeral, etc.), and it is strictly voluntary.


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