Updated on 08.03.17

Celebrating Life Events Frugally and Meaningfully

Trent Hamm

I recently celebrated my birthday with my family and a few friends. It was a decidedly low key affair. We went out to dinner together at a pretty low-cost restaurant with some good vegetarian fare, and then we played some board games together. Yes, I’m quite the party animal, but this is actually exactly the kind of low-key event with friends that I really enjoy and prefer.

In contrast, two old friends of mine had major celebrations in their life recently. One of them celebrated the completion of her Ph. D. with a trip with her partner to Davos. Another friend celebrated her wedding anniversary by receiving a beautiful necklace with ten diamonds and four other stones (representing the birth stones of each of them and their two children) and taking a trip to a beach resort.

Don’t get me wrong – there’s absolutely nothing wrong with celebrating achievements, life events, and milestones. Celebrate your birthdays and anniversaries and successes with gusto!

The only caveat here is to make sure that the celebration doesn’t undo the successes you’ve built leading up to the celebration.

Your birthday celebration shouldn’t undo the progress you’ve made in your life goals that year. The same goes for your anniversary. Your celebration of hitting a financial goal shouldn’t involve spending a lot of money (which will undo that goal). Not only do such celebrations have a hefty cost attached, they often completely overshadow the very thing you’re celebrating and often leave you in a more difficult spot than if you’d celebrated modestly.

Not only that, many of the best celebrations in life don’t actually strain one’s budget or damage one’s life goals and ambitions. Here are five key approaches for celebrating life’s events with a frugal mindset.

Celebrate with Time (and Energy), Not Money

We have a lot of different resources in our lives. Time. Money. Energy. Often, when we celebrate, we’re using those resources for something that’s purely fun for us. We spend money on a material item. We spend money and time on a fancy vacation. We spend money and a little time on a big night out on the town.

Why not try a different approach? Rather than investing money in a celebration, simply invest some of your time into it.

What do I mean by that? Consider some of the following ideas for celebrating a life event, with ideas for both the celebrator and the celebrated.

Spend a day in genuine leisure by reading a book or binge-watching a TV series you’ve missed or working on some hobby project or something else entirely. Give yourself the reward of that blocked-off time to enjoy something that you don’t regularly give yourself time to enjoy. I often do this – rather than “blowing off steam” or celebrating by spending money, I’ll consciously block off most of a day to have a big board game day with friends or make a batch of home-brew or curl up with a book. That, in itself, is a great celebration.

Take care of a friend or family member’s obligations so they can have a day to themselves to do whatever they’d like. If you’re giving a gift to someone for a life event, rather than giving them a material item, take on some of their responsibilities. Everyone has a different story, so think about the person in question and consider what you can do to give them a day of freedom. Perhaps you can watch their children, or maybe you can do some of their chores. The end result is that you’re giving them the gift of time, by taking some of their time burden and putting it on your own shoulders. That’s almost always a great gift, and it costs you nothing in terms of money.

Give your gift with subtlety. Rather than doing something obvious, like giving a gift of “coupons” that the other person will be reticent to actually use, give your gift with much more subtlety. Simply put it in your calendar that you’re going to stop by and visit your mother each Friday and help her with some chores and grocery shopping. Simply commit, quietly to yourself, to calling up your sister once a month and offering to babysit for an afternoon so she can get some peace and quiet and unwind a little bit. On the big occasion, go small, but on the smaller occasions, go big.

Celebrate with People, Not Things

While it can often be easy to center your focus around the physical items and around the specific place you go, the truth is that the value of a celebration often comes from the people you’re with.

Take me, for example. A celebration really never feels complete without my wife, my children, my parents, and at least a few key friends. I like to have them all present whenever I can, especially when there is something to celebrate. The truth is that it really doesn’t matter what we do together. The enjoyable part of the celebration is the people.

I’m happy going on a picnic with them. I’m happy going on a walk in the woods with them. I’m happy playing a board game with them. To me, it feels like a celebration just because people I care about are together, and the actual activity doesn’t matter, nor do the gifts or the physical items.

Here are some ways to harness people power when it comes to celebrating life events.

Organize low key social events for celebrations. Don’t have an expensive dinner or an elaborate party. Don’t focus on expensive gifts or expensive accessories. Instead, focus on bringing together people you like to do something low key. Have a simple dinner party or even just a movie night. Put the effort into making sure people that the celebrator really loves and cares about are present, rather than on the specifics of the party itself. I’d far rather have a guest drive out of their way to pick up another friend than drive out of their way to pick up a gift, for example.

Intentionally pair people with low cost activities, and enjoy them together. Some of my friends deeply enjoy board games; others do not. Some of my friends love hiking; others do not. What I’ll often do for a celebration is plan a hike at 1 PM and then board games at 5 PM or something and then invite everyone to everything, giving them the times. I’ll then encourage friends who don’t like to hike to skip the hike, and friends who don’t like board games to skip the board games. That way, I get to enjoy low-cost activities specifically with my friends who also love those activities and not have to find things that include everyone. You can follow the same logic when planning a celebration for someone else, like a spouse or a close friend.

Give consumable gifts and establish that as a pattern among your group. A consumable gift – one that can be opened immediately and shared with the group – turns the focus of the event right back on the people. Rather than focusing on the item, it becomes quickly about the further shared experience. You can do this by setting an example of giving such gifts, sharing any such gifts you receive, and being open about your appreciation of them.

Celebrate with Experiences, Not Destinations

It’s often tempting to use your vacation time for travel with loved ones, which can be quite expensive. It’s often tempting to celebrate with friends to go out on the town – perhaps to a restaurant or to another place of interest. In both cases, however, the celebration involves some kind of destination – you’re going somewhere, which is inherently costly.

While going somewhere isn’t altogether bad, it really makes the most sense when done in the service of an experience. Why are you going out? Why are you traveling? What experience are you shooting for that you can’t get at home or at a nearby place or at a lower cost place? Most importantly, what local things are you overlooking?

The reality is that most areas have an abundance of overlooked options, starting at home, but extending to the local level. They’re found in forgotten things in your life, overlooked local sites, and in the passions of your friends. All of those things are wonderful sources of celebration!

Here are three ways to tap into celebrating with experiences rather than destinations.

Find local places and experiences you haven’t enjoyed. What’s available locally that you haven’t tapped into? Have you explored all of the trails at nearby state, local, and national parks? Have you visited all of the restaurants of interest? Have you checked out all of the groups of interest on Meetup? Have you checked out all of the local places of interest in your area? If you’re hesitantly answering “no” to those questions, then you have a ton of options available to you. Find what you’re missing locally and use that as a tool for celebration, preferably with friends. For example, my wife and I celebrated a life event not that long ago by simply visiting local wineries with friends and doing their wine tasting, picking up just enough bottles along the way to share at dinner together. It was a very low cost way to spend the day, in truth, and it resulted in a wonderful day together.

Dive into the interests of friends, or ask them to dabble in your interests. What do your friends like to do? There are few better ways to cement a friendship and to really maximize their celebration than by diving headfirst into one of their hobbies. My passion for home brewing was ignited by this kind of celebration, in which a friend of mine had a small birthday party that turned into what amounted to a home brewing class. It cost virtually nothing – we simply worked together to make a batch of home-brew – but it was absolutely amazing for him to be able to spread his hobby to a friend and it was fun for the rest of us to discover something new. For me, it ignited a new hobby.

Celebrate by doing something that stretches you a bit outside your comfort zone. Both of the above options will probably point you to things you would never have normally done as part of a celebration. That’s okay. Look at a celebration as not just an excuse to do the same old thing. Instead, look at it as a way to explore something new. There are few better ways to grow yourself and build relationships than by trying something new, and your local community and your local friends offer ample opportunities for that.

Celebrate the Event, Not the Prizes

A friend made a comment to me recently as he reflected on his wedding: “I don’t know why we planned so much and spent so much money. All I really remember is my wife and the people that showed up.”

The truth is that the core of most celebrations is the people you’re with and the event itself. A wedding is about a lifelong commitment between two people and the family and friends coming together to celebrate it with them. It’s not about expensive clothes or an expensive cake or an expensive band or photographers or all of that other stuff. It’s the event itself that matters and that sticks with you, not the prizes and accoutrements.

In fact, it’s often all of those extras that draw the focus away from the achievement itself. A wedding becomes less about finding the love of your life and more about the perfect cake and the perfect location and the perfect clothes. A birthday party can quickly start revolving around gifts instead of revolving around enjoying the people you’re with.

Here are three ways to turn a celebration back toward the event worth celebrating rather than the celebration itself.

Celebrate in a way that reinforces what you’re celebrating rather than working in opposition to it. If you’re celebrating a weight loss achievement, don’t go out for a giant meal. Instead, make a superb version of your favorite meal from your diet, or do something else entirely, like run a 5K. If you’re celebrating a career change, don’t use that celebration to burn bridges or make a jerk out of yourself by drinking too much. Instead, focus on cementing the good relationships you have going forward. Focus on what got you to the celebration and incorporate that into the celebration itself.

Allow the actual achievement fill you with pride and joy, not the celebration. The focus of a wedding celebration should be on the two of you, not the decorations or the locale or the food or anything else. The focus of a birthday milestone celebration should be the things you’ve done and the relationships you built, not the fancy dinner or anything else. Focus on your actual achievements and what they’ve brought to you and let that be your pride and joy.

Give a thoughtful gift rather than an easy one. If you’re giving a gift to someone, take the time to make the gift a thoughtful one that actually reflects who they are as a person. If you’re going to give something easy, make it a consumable gift as noted above, but if you’re not going that route, put thought into the gift and make the gift about the person themselves, rather than a thoughtless item.

Celebrate with Reflection, not with Erasure

Celebrations often revolve around some sort of “turning of the page” in life. You’re older. You’re now married. You’re moving on to a new career. You’re retiring. You’ve achieved a goal. Those are things that often signify moving onto a new stage in life.

Often, big celebrations turn into some kind of “erasure” of what came before. The big party itself can overshadow the achievement, or actually cause backtracking on the achievement in some cases. Often, the celebration becomes very disconnected from the event worth celebrating.

One great way to keep a celebration meaningful (and frugal) is to ensure that it remains intimately tied to what’s being celebrated. Here are three ways to achieve that.

Look for ways to help with positive connections with the past that can bring meaning going forward. Set up the celebration to intentionally highlight past events. Spend some time thinking about something meaningful to say to the person being celebrated, or to give a thoughtful set of comments if you are the person being celebrated. Orient the celebration around the achievement and the person, rather than the activity itself, and the activity becomes far less important and it becomes far more sensible to keep it low key and low cost.

Give gifts that genuinely highlight the event that’s passed, such as a memento of the achievement. The gifts that are remembered are the ones that are meaningful. The most meaningful gifts I’ve ever received were things like wall art made by the person giving it to me that highlighted some shared moment, or a large card filled out by several coworkers writing down what they had personally gained from our time working together. Those things meant something and they cost almost nothing. I know I’ve received many gifts over the years, but the ones that stuck were the ones that were connected somehow to the relationship shared, and those were almost always low-cost gifts. Focus on those types of gifts, ones that reflect on the moment rather than taking away from it.

Take the time to offer genuine and meaningful thoughts on the event being celebrated. Why are you at this celebration? Why is the person being celebrated? Why are you being celebrated? Why do you care about the people who are there? What have they taught you and brought into your life? Those questions, and how they’re shared, form the foundation of a truly great celebration. Make that the centerpiece in thought, word, and deed.

Some Final Thoughts

There’s often a big disconnect between meaningful celebration and expensive celebration. Often, the most thoughtful and meaningful ways to celebrate don’t cost much money at all. What they do cost, however, is time and thought and a bit of openness. Those are the truest gifts worth giving.

We often use money as a substitute for those types of celebrations and gifts. It’s worthwhile for all of us to rethink that exchange.

Good luck!