Sixteen Clever, Frugal Ways to Celebrate Your Partner’s Birthday

Photo by Josh Bean on Unsplash

“Happy birthday, baby girl,” read the mid-morning text. That’s it. That’s the entirety of my boyfriend’s effort to celebrate my last birthday. When I seemed sad on the phone a few days later, he asked if anything was wrong. Well.

I suppose I should give him points for remembering the date, but I’m pretty sure he just got one of those Facebook notifications which says something like, “68 people have wished Ann a happy birthday. Would you like to write on her wall?”

Here’s where he went wrong. When prompted either by his own memory or a social media algorithm, he flipped open iMessage, typed four words, and checked me off his to-do list. No different than the greeting he sends any other day of the year. No compliments. No flowery words. No evidence of any pre-planning whatsoever.

If pressed, he’d tell you he’s overwhelmed by life. He’s busy. He’s broke. We’re long distance-ish. He has children, a taxing job, a dramatic ex putting him through legal hell, and a lovable but mischievous dog who keeps escaping. Taking that time was his way of showing he cared. Shouldn’t I be grateful he thought of me at all?

Yes, but.

Dear partners who are busy, broke, and / or long-distance-ish: allow me to fix this for you. Here are sixteen frugal ways to celebrate someone important to you as they mark another trip around the sun. Try one. Try them all. Let me know if you get better results than my boyfriend did with his four-word text.

  1. Write a Letter. Your partner won’t care whether it’s on personal, engraved stationery or college-ruled notebook paper. What you write is all that matters. Grab the closest writing implement and put words on paper. Tell her how fondly you remember the first time you met. List things you love about him. Write, “I am ever so grateful to have you in my life.” Stick a $0.50 flag stamp on an envelope and find a mailbox a few days before their birthday.
  2. Print a Picture. No one prints pictures anymore. Not even my grandma. That’s what makes this one special. Use an online service like Mpix, Shutterfly, or Snapfish. Or, upload files to Walgreens and pick up locally. Print a 5x7 of the two of you together, grab a frame at your nearest craft store, and voila. There’s a gift worth a thousand words.
  3. Ask Their Mother. If you’re close enough, reach out to your partner’s parents and find out what their favorite birthday cake was as a child. Bonus points if it’s something cute like Barbie or Spiderman. Get to a bakery or make your own, and surprise them with a piece of their own childhood.
  4. Make a Map. Print a map of your country or the world. Color all the places you’ve been. Then write a note telling your partner, “I’ve been all over, but being with you is more special than all those trips combined. I can’t wait to see where our journey goes from here.”
  5. Put Him On Your Calendar. Show your partner you’re in for the long haul — and buy yourself some time if you’re too busy to properly celebrate now. Find an event happening a few months from now and make a gift certificate telling him you’ll treat him. If you have the money, buy concert tickets. If not, find something free you’d both enjoy like a compelling lecture or neighborhood festival.
  6. Share Your Hobby. Let’s say you’re into carpentry and she’s never picked up a hammer. Give her a gift certificate good for two hours of one-on-one lessons with you. She’ll appreciate the time, the closeness, and learning about something you value.
  7. Go Public. If becoming Facebook or Instagram Official is something you’ve considered doing lately, surprise her by marking yourself In A Relationship with her on her special day. Bonus points: change your profile picture to a shot of the two of you.
  8. Show Up. Visit your partner’s workplace and deliver a card and a kiss in person.
  9. Give Flowers Creatively. Don’t just have flowers delivered to their home or office. Think about where you know they’ll be, and bring the flowers there. If you know she takes a spinning class on Tuesday nights, have them waiting on her bike. Does she always visit her grandmother on Thursdays? Drop off flowers and a card for her to find when she arrives.
  10. Express Your Love In A Lot of Little Ways. Put little notes everywhere he goes that day. Add one to his coffee cup in the morning so he sees it first thing. Tuck one in his windshield wiper. Get to his office before he does and place one on his keyboard. Make each note a different compliment, showing him not just that you care about him — but why.
  11. Plan a Long Distance Date. Call a restaurant near her and have her favorite dish delivered to her home. Grab a similar meal for yourself. When she calls to thank you, have a sappy, romantic Netflix movie chosen, and watch it with her while you both eat. Facetime was made for nights like this.
  12. Order a Drink. If you know she’s going out with her girlfriends, find out where. Have a glass of champagne delivered to her table. (If you’re able to be more spendy, order a round for her friends as well.)
  13. Take Him to the Park. Tell him how even as you get older, he makes you feel young. At dusk, take him to a playground and chase each other around the jungle gym. Swing hand-in-hand like it’s sixth-grade puppy love all over again.
  14. Make a Video. Record yourself — and maybe your family and friends, too — singing “Happy Birthday.” Send it that morning so it’s the first thing she sees when she awakes.
  15. Record a Bedtime Story. Choose one of your — or his — favorite books. Use the voice recorder on your phone to tape yourself reading a few chapters. He’ll love hearing your voice as he drifts to sleep.
  16. Text Her. Yes, I know. This is the one which got my boyfriend in trouble, right? The key here is that he stopped too soon. A beautiful good morning text on my birthday would have been marvelous had he said more than just “Happy Birthday, baby girl.” It’s a good start, but if you want it to come across as more thoughtful, make a long list of things you know she likes and say, “I wish you all your favorites today and for the whole year to come. Butter pecan ice cream, the big blue fireworks which change to sparkly gold, a walk in the woods on a crisp fall afternoon, Andrea Bocelli singing ‘Sogno’, your Mom’s pot roast, and me, running my hands through your hair as we sit in front of the fireplace tonight. Happy Birthday, my love. I am grateful for you.” That is a text worth waiting 365 days for.

Readers, what are your favorite less-materialistic birthday surprises? Feel free to join the conversation and share them in the comments. Some of our partners need all the ideas they can get. Ahem.

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