What We Spend On Our Own Birthdays: A Friday Chat

Ester: Happy birthday week, Nicole! How was it, overall?

Nicole: It was TWO DAYS AGO, Ester! I’m still getting used to thinking of myself as 34 years old.

Ester: I can’t understand which direction your energetic response is coming from. Are you in disbelief that I would mention your birthday, when it was already two days ago, or are you still adjusting to the fact that it was your birthday only two days ago?

Nicole: More like the assumption that my birthday week is over, when it is really just getting started.

Ester: Ah! That makes sense. So what are your plans for birthday week in progress?

Nicole: I bet savvy Billfold readers can guess my plans in about 2.5 seconds. I’m having a party in my new apartment, and I am cooking up a bunch of food. That’s really the only plan. The rest of the week is work as usual.

Ester: How much do you ordinarily spend on your own birthday? Is it an occasion for which you’ve ever gone all out?

Nicole: Rarely. I mean, I might buy the premium brownie mix for the s’mores brownies I plan to make, but most of my birthday celebrations have been pretty low-key. I have hosted the Birthday Dinner at a restaurant, the one that everyone hates in theory (we all remember Slate’s Happy Birthday, You Bastard), but it turned out okay because we all had separate checks.

I really prefer doing something like this, where I can make the food and people can come hang out and they don’t have to spend $40 or whatever on dinner. So I’m very glad I have a space to make that happen, this year!

Do you spend a lot on your own birthday?

Ester: No, I don’t, though I do know people who take their birthdays really seriously. Some of them expect others to shell out for them but some are just as happy spending the money themselves as long as it means lots of people they love get to get together to celebrate.

Nicole: For me it’s an interesting balance of trying to figure out how much money, if any, I’m going to spend on myself. Like, I might think, “You deserve a treat on your birthday,” but then I’ll think “THE HOLIDAYS ARE COMING, SAVE EVERY PENNY.”

Ester: Oh gosh! Don’t think that way. The money-spending part of the holidays is supposed to be about giving joy, right? Why shortchange yourself in the now, on another occasion that’s supposed to be joyous, so as to theoretically be more prepared to give joy to others in the future?

Nicole: Because I’ve done the math. I need X dollars for Christmas, and Y dollars for Thanksgiving, and there are two weeks during the holidays where I’m pretty much going to earn nothing, freelance-wise. So I have more expenses on smaller paychecks. I could have been pro-active and started saving for this back in January 2015, but … yeah, that didn’t happen, LOL.

Ester: But do those estimations include present-giving or just travel? I guess what I’m arguing is, don’t not give yourself a present so as to be able to maybe later give other people nicer presents. That just feels kind of sad to me? Especially if, as a single person, you really are responsible for taking care of yourself, you know? You don’t have some romantic other to swoop in and make you feel special with something inside a big bright box. Or am I overthinking / being presumptuous?

Nicole: I mean, my Love Language isn’t gifts. It’s attention. (Again, this should surprise NOBODY.) So the lack of the big bright box isn’t — I mean, it doesn’t feel like a loss. And I would rather give a nicer present to someone else than — and it’s weird to say “nicer” because I am also fairly cost-conscious on gifts, I mean, I give people used books — but I’d rather be able to give someone else a present. Because technically, I have everything I need.

Ester: Fair enough. And you know yourself well. I guess I was just responding to the idea that you’d want to treat yourself to something and then not do it. Maybe a “treat” is different than a “gift”? Or maybe the distinction is a semantic one.

Nicole: For me, a treat is that $5 bottle of sweet red wine that has glitter on the packaging. A gift, if I were to buy one for myself, would be something like that projector that I want to get for my apartment. Which is on the list of things to buy, but it feels like an arbitrary amount of pressure to have to come up with an extra $100 or so just because it’s my birthday.

Ester: Totally, that makes sense. It is also funny when Ben and I buy “presents” for each other, since all our money is pooled. We could just as easily discuss whether it’s actually worth spending that $100, or whatever, and make a sensible joint purchase, but we hew to the more traditional methods of gift giving as a surprise. I’m curious how other couples who have joint accounts do it.

Nicole: This sounds like an excellent question for our readers. I’m also curious how many single Billfolders buy themselves presents on their birthdays. What if everyone else does it, and I’ve just been depriving myself all these years?

Ester: Well, I’d argue that it still doesn’t matter as long as you don’t feel deprived. But I’m curious too! When you’re too old for your parents to buy you a birthday gift — unless you’re lucky enough to have parents who continue to buy you gifts every year no matter how old you are — and you’re not coupled up, do you feel weird not getting a birthday present? Do you get one for yourself? Do you think birthday presents themselves are kind of juvenile? It seems like there are lots of different ways of thinking about this.

FWIW, I wouldn’t look askance at anyone who bought themselves a birthday present even if they have parents and partners to buy them gifts; but I also don’t think presents are mandatory, and it’s kind of too bad how much weight our society often puts on them as physical expressions of love.

Nicole: When it comes down to it, I don’t think of myself as a particularly good present-giver. I do the best I can, but I often feel like I’m just blundering around, thinking “will they like this thing? maybe???” I don’t even buy myself good presents, as we’ve seen with that essential oil diffuser debacle. But the thing about making s’mores brownies for people is that they taste amazing, and people generally like them, and if they prefer salty foods there’s also a bag of chips.

So I’m perfectly happy to be celebrating my birthday week this way.

Ester: HURRAH!

This story is part of our Holidays 2015 series.

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