Ruined Friendships & Destroyed Savings Accounts: Why We Secretly Hate Celebrating Each Other's Birthdays
Any email that begins with “hey ladies” should be viewed as a harbinger of taxing social obligations to come. While bachelorette parties can be credited as the original cause for ‘hey ladies’-ing, there’s another, less talked-about — but actually far more common — reason your inbox is regularly flooded with these groan-inducing missives: the birthday extravaganza. Or, as we’ve christened it, the Big Deal Birthday (BDB).
Whether it’s an out-of-your-price-range dinner with a group of people you haven’t spoken to since college (for very good reason) or just a forced-fun night out at the klerb, you’ve likely been a victim of the BDB. Perhaps you’ve even sent an awful “hey ladies” invite of your own.
29-year-old Chastity, for example, admits she “used to be ridiculously over-the-top” when it came to her birthday, going as far as to create special hashtags to be used during the festivities, much like many couples do for their weddings. While she says she’s since chilled out, she told Refinery29 via email: “I hired an event planner to bring my dream of a sit-down dinner with friends to life. There was a photographer, cupcakes, special menus — the whole nine. On top of that, my friends did have to pay for their meals (which, in my defense, was outlined in my invitation) but as I found out later, that didn't make too many people happy.”
Chastity, while seemingly far more self-aware than many, is not the only person to get extra about their birthday. Thanks in large part to social media, there’s an increasing need to top whatever you did last year, not to mention what others on your feed might be doing. A writer and influencer recently chronicled for The Cut how she managed to throw an entirely sponsored birthday event for herself that included free booze, a custom dress, and a stay at the trendy 11 Howard hotel in Manhattan. Meanwhile, party promoter services like New York-based Birthday Bottle Service ensure that anyone willing to throw down enough cash (bottles at the venues they work with tend to be in the $300-$500 range) can party in the luxurious, premium vodka-soaked manner of a tabloid sensation circa 2007. No high follower count necessary.
21-year-old Brooke, who spoke to Refinery29 over email, tells the story of a college pal who not only took her birthday way too seriously, but expected everyone else around her to do the same. "She began planning far in advance, assigning different roles for friends, ordering custom decorations with her name, renting professional cameras, a Snapchat filter, and custom dessert. I volunteered to help let people in, make sure music was playing, and just in general ensure the party was going well. However, the rest of our friends weren’t filling out the 'expectations' of their roles."
Brooke says the group was yelled at during the party by the birthday girl for not fulfilling their duties, but that she assumed the tension would then blow over since, you know, it was a party. It didn't exactly pan out that way, though. “For the rest of her party, which I spent months enduring endless questions about guest lists, party themes, catering and more, and spent hours helping to plan and set up, she was ignoring me," she recalls. "She had the photographer take pictures of her with all of our close friends except for me and was gushing to everyone about how some of these friends were so great and helpful, while I was in the background helping clean up. It was probably (definitely) alcohol-induced, but I left early with a friend so I could cry."
Birthdays are a big deal for small children, largely, I would wager, because they’re still coming to grips with the passage of time and their own existence within the cycle of the universe. A year feels unfathomably long when you’re ten. But when you’re 26? Or 35? Not so much. I don’t know about you, but it feels like yesterday to me that Lemonade dropped. Guess what: That was over two years ago! Anyway, when you’re a kid, birthdays are huge, but they’re also relatively low-commitment (unless, of course, you’re the adult who has to throw one, but that’s another story). You do an activity, you sing a song, you have pizza and soda and cake, and then you go home with a sugar high and a goodie bag. It’s a great deal for all involved (minus, again, the adults in charge). And since time feels to you like it’s slowly lurching forward rather than slipping away with each passing minute, and you don’t have anything else to do except youth sports and homework, you really don’t mind going to a different one every weekend.
But once you and your pals leave behind your teenage years, where slumber parties and Sweet Sixteens abound, and then pass through the foggy threshold of legal drinking, it starts to get repetitive. Not only can your own annual celebration begin to feel like it’s occurring exhaustingly often, but you really can’t believe it’s Megan’s birthday again and you have to drop another $150 to fake laugh your way through another dinner with her cliquey work friends.
In addition to the forced socializing — often with people we may not know very well — a primary complaint about BDBs is that they get expensive. A weekend away or a dinner at a fancy restaurant plus a night of raucous drinking afterwards adds up quick, especially if you have multiple friends with birthdays that fall around the same period. “My roommate wants to go on a trip to a five star resort in Florida for her birthday this year and wants us to all split the cost of the resort, rental car, and gas. I want to go and be there for her but I honestly can’t afford it,” confesses Syrena, who spoke to Refinery29 via email “I’m not sure what I’m going to do yet. I’m sure she’s going to be pissed if I don’t go so I might just have to dip into my savings.”
"It was probably (definitely) alcohol-induced, but I left early with a friend so I could cry."
Surely you aren’t obligated to attend these events every year for people who aren’t family or very close friends, right? Well, that depends on how much you value those relationships. According to etiquette expert Myka Meier, who was trained by no less than trained by a former member of Queen Elizabeth II's Household: “It’s absolutely fine to tell the person you are unable to attend, and it’s up to you and your relationship with the person to decide if or how you want to communicate the reason why.”
“A distant friend might be fine with an RSVP that simply says you are sadly unable to attend without giving a specific reason, but a close friend may ask why,” she tells Refinery29 by email. “For a close relationship, hopefully, you can be honest and say it’s hard for you to take off the time from work or that it’s out of your means.”
And yet, it’s not always that simple. A millennial named Lauren told Refinery29 via Twitter: “I have people in my life who insist on celebrating their birthdays like 3-4 times a month. And I've caused irreparable damage by missing one and I DON'T GET IT.”
Meanwhile, Shakira, a 22-year-old who spoke to Refinery29 by email, thinks the worst birthday demand one person can make of another is not forced spending or multi-day celebrations, but “expecting them to bake a cake when they cannot even boil water!”
It’s hard, because for those of us who don’t have an abject hatred of our birthdays, when it’s our big day, we want to feel special and celebrated — and probably also get a few really good Instagram shots out of the deal. But when it comes to celebrating others, particularly people we’re not as close to or who tend to be especially demanding, we often find we just don’t have the time, money, or energy.
“I think any situation where your friends have to spend large amounts of money is unfair,” Syrena added. “So, trips, music festivals, anything that would cost a lot for them to participate. Also expecting them to be able to dedicate multiple days/weeks to celebrating with you is too much. People have lives and things to do.”
Meier echoes this sentiment: “It is presumptuous and can be considered rude to plan an event with the thought that your friends will chip in. I recommend planning a celebration that you can afford so that you don’t put your guests out of pocket.”
To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with having a BDB for birthdays that are actually, you know, a big deal. If you’re turning 25, 30, or 40, for example, those are major milestones that are worth celebrating, and the people who care about you will probably want to help you do so. After all, most of us enjoy an excuse to put on a cute outfit, eat a nice meal, and get a little drunk. People just don’t want to feel obligated to do it once a year for every single person they’re sort of friends with. And they definitely don't want to be forced to help plan a big party, only to be yelled at during the event for not doing enough.
As long as you're being relatively chill about it, there's an argument to be made for leaning into a little birthday extraness while you can, before kids and work schedules and all the other boring trappings of adult life begin to get in the way. But as with bachelorette parties and other events, it’s crucial to be respectful of varying financial situations. Just because you can afford to spend three figures on dinner doesn’t mean everyone in your social circle can (or wants to). So unless you’re in a position to pay for everybody or are okay with certain people not being able to swing it, maybe pick a spot or activity with a more reasonable price tag.
While it’s tricky if you and most of your friends have tiny apartments, one formula that rarely falls flat is the house party. Not only does it allow for flourishes like cute decorations, a customized cake, and special cocktails, but it’s rarely expensive and allows people to come and go as they please. If that doesn’t feel special enough, consider adding a theme: “We decide to throw a glow in the dark house party and it was LIT *no pun intended*,” recalls Chastity of her cousin’s 24th birthday party. “So much glow in the dark paint. So many people. So much music.” Now that sounds like a BDB we can get on board with.