No Gifts, Please: How to Prevent Birthday Present Overload

Tired of piles of birthday presents that your kids just forget about? Here are some tips to get more meaningful gifts when "no gifts, please" doesn't work.

Metro Detroit mom Sarah J. Perry wrote a small note on her daughter’s birthday party invitations one year, one she thought would be easily obeyed, preventing her guests from wasting time and money: “No gifts, please.”

But despite that request, Perry’s get-together ended in a mound of superficial plastic and a graveyard of gift-bag carcasses. What went wrong – and how can you get guests to honor your request?

A common problem

In Perry’s case, she rolled out a simple plan for all those presents her daughter had received.

“The smaller things that didn’t take up extra space, she kept,” says Perry. “But the larger toys were given a couple weeks for her to play with, then they moved into the basement briefly. (Then) I donated them to my church’s outreach center. She never even noticed.”

It’s a relatable parental predicament. Part of planning parties is preparing for the onslaught of gift glut. What starts as a fun and memorable occasion ends with a slew of forgettable toys soon to be stored in a closet or stowed under a bed.

Breaking through to guests that their presence is present enough might be tricky. But as for coming up with alternatives to honor their generous spirits, it’s anything but hard.

Really useable ‘stuff’

So how can you throw no-gift birthday parties – or at least a party with more meaningful presents?

You can request non-perishable goods, pet-care items and toys that can be personally donated by the guest of honor to those in need. Politely pose that patrons all pitch in for one big thing like a Wii, a trampoline or a trip to summer camp. Or ask for gender-neutral gifts and hold a “white elephant” exchange among all the guests.

Plan on starting a garden in the near future? Have a farm theme party and ask guests to bring seedlings for your little tyke’s own slice of the plot.

Ever wonder how many toys it takes to get through college? Find out. Ask guests to donate to a school fund instead of the usual plastic plaything. Have a special piggy bank they can sign after stuffing it with education-bound dollars.

Or amp up your home library and hold a book theme party. Ask attendees to bring a gift-wrapped book, dress up as their favorite character and participate in a wiggle-bookworm race. The winner gets the first pick from the pile of new or previously enjoyed reading material.

Money-free fun

Kids love to do it themselves, so let them have at it – at an ice cream sundae party. Each guest brings a favorite topping, parents scoop – and deliciousness is had. Or check in with your local independent ice cream shops and have them do the hosting.

Foster some childhood creativity in your “no gifts, please” approach and ask guests to make a page for a “birthday book” instead of buying a gift. Send out pages with invitations and encourage the use of confetti, sparkles, paint and pictures. Put the book together during the party so everyone can see it before they leave.

Or ask guests to donate to a local zoo, like the Detroit Zoo here in metro Detroit, or a charity in lieu of bringing a gift. The World Wildlife Organization offers tigers, sea turtles and pandas for adoption in exchange for donations. Or ask guests to contribute to Trees for Life International, which will plant a tree in their name.

Check out our guidelines for giving to discover tips on finding the a reputable charity that’s a good fit for your birthday kid.

The bottom line

But what about those guests who just aren’t willing to let the gift-giving die? Combat their efforts with an invitation that clearly states all gifts will be donated, and choose a hospital or charity that will be happy to accept kid-oriented donations.

Any way you spin it, make sure guests know you’re really grateful for their presence – and it’s the memories you’ll treasure for years to come. That’s why metro Detroit mom Gloria Vettese says she only holds “no-gift” parties for her son.

“Good times, happy memories, self-confidence, strong friendships will always mean more than a pile of junk – and the sooner he starts to appreciate that, the better,” she says.

This post was originally published in 2010 is updated regularly.


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