I’m spending too much money on cupcakes and snacks for my team

A reader writes:

I work in a very large organization with many small teams. We are not allowed to use company money to celebrate — so not for holiday parties, weddings, babies, or birthdays. For bigger stuff, each smaller team usually everyone chips in a few bucks. For birthdays, it falls to each team’s manager.

This used to be fine, when my team was two or three people. Over the past 18 months, my team has grown to as large as 15 (there are many short-term contracts in our line of work). It’ll probably stabilize around 10-11 in the next year.

I was fine shelling out $40 or whatever for cupcakes when it was three to four times a year. But now, it’s about once or twice a month. And with more people, you have to buy more snacks. This month, it’s four times (March birthdays – there’s a lot of them.) And, frankly, I’m annoyed my budget for this stuff has had to increase so much. I have not received a promotion or a raise to coincide with my team’s growth. (We are a very bureaucratic, slow-moving place that leans heavily on seniority for stuff like that. My job is aces in most other respects so I just accept this and try to lobby for forward movement when I can.) I talked to my boss about it and she shrugged and basically said if I want to buy cheaper sweets or nothing at all, I could do that, but that’s not consistent with the rest of the company and I don’t want to come across as the company grinch or hurt team morale because I don’t want to buy fancy cupcakes.

I personally think office birthdays are awkward and annoying and my company’s birthday practice is lame, but I want to be a team player and a good leader. I also want to to save my money.

Basically: what should I do? Ask my team what they want? Transition to a cheaper celebration that attempts to keep the spirit of the thing the same? Just suck it up, knowing it’s the price to pay as part of being the leader of a growing team?

Does anyone have a not-terrible birthday practice at their office? I’d love to hear about what other people do that employees actually enjoy.

Don’t suck it up — that’s way too often to be shelling out your own money. A couple of times a year, fine. Monthly or several times a month, no.

And don’t look at it part of the price of being a leader of a growing team. There are lots of things that are part of that price — spending more of your time managing, having to deal with more personnel issues, having your hands in an increasing number of projects, etc. Having to buy lots of cupcakes is not part of it.

Talk to your team. They may not even know that you’re spending your own money on this stuff; they may assume it’s coming out of the department budget. Explain that as the team grows, it’s more of a strain on you to buy snacks out of your personal funds several times a month, and ask for help coming up with ideas for handling birthdays and other celebrations in ways that won’t bankrupt you.

You may hear that they’d be fine with cutting the celebrations entirely. Or they may volunteer to take turns bringing things in. They may suggest ways to streamline things, like having one birthday event per quarter, for all the birthdays in that quarter. Who knows — but lay it out for them and see what they say.

Once they understand the problem, it’s very unlikely that they’re going to say “too bad, we want you to keep doing what we’ve been doing and still have you pay for it all.”

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 429 comments… read them below }

  1. iseeshiny*

    We have a list where everyone is responsible for someone’s birthday (kind of like secret santa, but not secret and not santa). It has its own drawbacks but is lots better than one person having to do everyone’s birthday.

      1. Lo Squared*

        We had the “birthday train” where you brought treats for whoever’s birthday came after yours. There was a list on our shared drive of birthdays.

          1. zora*

            oh wow, this is genius! Opting out of both receiving and giving. I’m going to keep this in mind for future needs.

          2. Birthday Claus*

            Same here. But opting out of giving didn’t mean yours wasn’t celebrated unless you requested that due to personal wishes. We didn’t want to leave out those whose budgets kept them from giving. It was a close knit team so that (and one Jehovah’s witness) was the only opt out. No politics

        1. Workaholic*

          This is what my team does. Everybody that wants to participate provides their birthdate then follows the “birthday train” format.

        2. TheOtherJennifer*

          we do also. and one of our managers recently was promoted so everyone kicked in for that celebration – with named brand ice cream (!) and flowers.

        3. rdb0924*

          We do the birthday train, *and* we celebrate “April birthdays” once, vs. each individual’s birthday. (Full disclosure: we are allowed to use company funds.)

      2. CMF*

        We also take turns – and usually we bake something homemade – it costs a lot less and adds a personal touch. a 9×13 sheet cake can go pretty far!

        1. Dealtwiththis*

          When I worked in a non-profit where we all had extremely low salaries, we all chipped in five dollars per year to the “sunshine club”. We had a team of 15 and that money covered a homemade birthday cake for each team member on their birthday. We had one lady that liked to make the cakes so she would ask the birthday person what cake and icing flavor they wanted and then she would bake it and bring it in. Not fancy store bought cupcakes by any means but it worked for us.

    1. Daisygrrl*

      We did that at one place I worked, with the system being that the birthday person would take care of the next birthday. Once a year for each person to buy, easier to remember, and no quibbling about whether that was a convenient time for whoever had to buy the snacks for a given person. Not perfect, but quite workable.

    2. M*

      I feel like this could be problematic for people who truly don’t want to participate or can’t afford to. I’d avoid making it mandatory or automatically including everyone.

      1. JM60*

        I agree. I think there should never be expected to spend money on other employees. I think putting employees in a position where they’re expected to spend their own money on other employees to be unethical.

      2. Shark Whisperer*

        In my organization, “birthday buddies” are completely optional. Anyone who wants a treat on their birthday and is willing to make a treat for someone else signs up to be a birthday buddy. You are then randomly assigned another coworker who’s birthday you are responsible for. It works out well and no one feels pressured to participate (especially since no one really know who else has signed up).

        1. KK*

          Oh I LOVE this idea. Very nice way of doing things. In my last office, everyone would get a piece of birthday cake from a local bakery on their birthday and all the staff would gathers and sing happy birthday, but they forgot my birthday three years in a row and despite not caring about people making a big deal about my birthday, it was pretty annoying to be the only one excluded every year.

        2. Life is Good*

          In my old dysfunctional office, names were drawn out of a hat by the team leader and we were assigned a birthday buddy. The rule was that the gift couldn’t exceed $10, but the leader having done the first birthday and spending at least $25 quickly changed that rule. The team leader did all the assigning. There was no get together to decide if we even wanted to do it. I hated that forced participation. New place gets the birthday person a cake and passes around a card. Perfect!

    3. AvonLady Barksdale*

      Same here. We also have a list of everyone’s favorite treats. Some people opt out for various reasons, but they’re still welcome to enjoy the treats. Most people buy goodies, but several make them.

    4. BBBizAnalyst*

      On my current team, we all chip in for birthdays. It’s totally voluntary. You can bring in what you can from fruit to breakfast sandwiches.

    5. msesq*

      Our office does the same thing and it works out well, with the understanding that the person in charge gets a card and a treat (we’re a small office, so we usually pick out something our person likes. I have my very health-conscious boss so I got a really nice fruit salad)

    6. Emi.*

      In my office, we have a “sunshine fund” that covers food for parties, as well as baby shower gifts (and probably other stuff, but I haven’t been here long enough to know what all). It’s opt-in, with the understanding that you then don’t eat the food if you didn’t contribute. (One of my colleagues doesn’t contribute because he has picky food restrictions anyway, for instance.)

    7. Rebecca in Dallas*

      We do the same thing, each person has a “birthday buddy” (and it’s optional, we have one person who doesn’t celebrate birthdays/holidays so she’s not paired up). Which is nice, because then the onus of birthday planning isn’t all on one person!

    8. Betty (the other Betty)*

      At my old office, we had a “birthday club” for those who wanted to participate. It was like the birthday train described below where you brought treats for the birthday after yours.

      The organizing was low-key. When we had a new hire, the list-keeper asked if they wanted to participate, then sent out reminders a few days ahead of time. I kept birthday candles, matches, and a serving knife at my desk. Store bought or homemade, anything went (and most people asked the birthday-person if they had a special request).

      We never had a big problem with non-participants wanting cake (and usually there was enough that a few additional servings for contractors or visitors weren’t a big issue).

    9. ECHM*

      We bring in doughnuts for our own birthdays. I like it that way, because if my birthday isn’t remembered, it’s no one’s fault but mine!

    10. Joanna*

      We have about 40-50 employees in our department. Birthdays are recognized quarterly in the last week of the third month. A colorful birthday announcement is e-mailed out to staff- asking that we wish a happy birthday to the person(s) she’s listed. We don’t pass cards around for signing but can do individually. Our lead coordinator voluntarily handles these events-although we would not hesitate to help- as the time and energy she invests is very much appreciated! The money spent on the cake is reimbursed to her by the company. Occasionally there will be a baby shower, job transfer , job elsewhere or due to retirement; In this case people are asked to pitch in for a gift, those who threw money in for this can then express their thoughts in a card that is being passed around.

      At a very recent department meeting there was discussion about those who don’t want their birthday shared or celebrated at work or at all. Which, by the way, was hard for some attention seekers to grasp! The resolution we agreed on was this- the person for whose birthday it is can bring in their own cake if she or he desires. Spending their own money, not yours.
      In this scenerio, “What! someone forgot to bring their own birthday cake, treats, etc.?!” It’s all good, there’s always tomorrow and the best part- it’s on them to make it happen
      For holiday celebrations we do potlucks. There are a couple people who volunteer to decorate our kitchen/dining area and the money they spend is reimbursed by our coordinator who sets aside cash for these events. Last year our company surprised us and paid for the bird at our Thanksgiving potluck. Recently, we decided to changed it up a bit and had a breakfast/brunch potluck (brunch-luck!- Wait! no no, I can’t be the first
      to think up that one! or am I?) ..and people brought fresh fruit, cottage cheese, quiche, muffins, sausage/bacon, french toast and waffles. Hungry now!
      Soo there’s that!
      Aside from me cracking myself up here☺️
      I hope you’ve resolved your delema.
      Take care now,

  2. Detective Amy Santiago*

    I would suggest any combination of the following:

    – a monthly birthday event
    – potlucks where everyone contributes
    – buying cakes/cupcakes at more reasonably priced locations (WalMart has good cakes for way cheaper than $40)

    1. Savannnah*

      Yes- this is what birthday month club is for! on the 15th of every month we celebrate whoever has a birthday that month with special treats. My director buys the treats and keeps it to $30-40 a month. Pretty simple.

      1. Frosted Flake*

        OP specifically says they are currently having to do this once or twice a month and it’s too much, so I don’t know if this suggestion is helpful.

        1. TootsNYC*

          I think it’s helpful–it’s partly a suggestion to only have one event a month.
          And the other part is to have people pitch in to the birthday club.

          1. Frosted Flake*

            I was responding to Savannah’s comment, which said nothing about people chipping in, and implied that the boss should be OK with spending $30-40 once a month. Given that this is exactly the frequency and cost that the OP is trying to move away from, it seemed unhelpful to me.

            1. LawBee*

              I assumed that’s what her reference to “the birthday month club” was. Everyone chips in to a pot, and the manger uses $30-40 of that pot to buy cupcakes or whatever.

      2. Chickaletta*

        This is a nice idea and probably works well to satisfy both the type who hates to be the center of attention and the birthday junkie.

    2. MoinMoin*

      I was part of a large team (30ish) and we did a monthly potluck. Those with birthdays that month would decide on the theme (taco salads, finger foods). It worked out pretty well, but there was a lot of coordination and cleanup involved, so that should factor into deciding how OP wants to balance recognition and monetary investment, i.e. potlucks would be high recognition, low monetary investment, but require more effort and buy-in from the team.

      1. Sketchee*

        At my old office, we celebrated birthdays quarterly rather than monthly. So we’d be like “Birthday’s for the next three months are!!!” It was already celebrated by the time the day came.

        We don’t celebrate birthdays at all at my current office. Unless someone wants to go out for a drink. Everyone pays their own. Maybe treats the birthday person to a drink if they want. Not even a card and I personally like that best.

        As the leader, LW, you pretty much get to choose how much emphasis to put on birthdays. In most offices, most employees will care more about what you do to help with their core work

        I take our core job responsibilities and daily habits way more personally than personal celebrations.
        If you want, you could use the birthday as a chance to recognize their work or what you like about them.

        1. Cassie*

          My sister’s workplace does the quarterly birthday celebration thing – one cake to celebrate birthdays of everyone in these 3 months. Some people don’t want to celebrate their birthdays, so they don’t show up.

          They used to do “bring your own treats for your birthday” (like back in elementary school) but eventually they switched.

    3. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      Agreed—don’t keep shelling out for this, OP. If we go out for birthday lunch, we pay for ourselves and rotate card/treat responsibilities. We set a dessert/card/lunch limit and then reimburse whoever did the actual buying. When I was at a bigger group we did monthly or quarterly get togethers, or we’d group people whose birthdays fell within consecutive weeks. We always ask people if they want to celebrate their bday before doing it. If they don’t want to, we’ll do a card (if appropriate—some folks have trauma experiences linked to their bday, and even a card can be triggering).

      But when you pull back, definitely have a conversation, first. People can get weird about perks disappearing if they think it’s the employer being cheap—they’re usually more sympathetic when they find out someone is paying personally.

    4. Judy*

      I’ve only worked at places where you bring your own treats in on your birthday, except for maybe divide by 10 birthdays.

      But also, wow $40 for 15 cupcakes? That’s quite expensive, at least for here.

        1. Emily*

          OP here, that’s where I am at. Toronto, the land of expensive snacks. The cupcakes are Prairie Girl, haha, which is literally across the street. They are so standard at my office, and I feel like a giant jerk but CMON. That’s a stupid amount for cupcakes.

      1. That Would Be a Good Band Name*

        Even here in the usually cheap midwest, if you are buying the fancy cupcakes, it’s $3/ea.

      2. Elfie*

        Yup, everywhere I’ve worked (UK), the person having the birthday brings in the treats. If you don’t celebrate your birthday, want to keep it quiet, etc, then just don’t participate. No-one knows, and unless it’s a small team, it often doesn’t even get noticed that one person declines. The only exception in my 18-year career is when I had a boss who turned 50. Then we (his direct reports) bought a cake and a card.

        1. JB (not in Houston)*

          Yep, that’s how it works in my office, and it works great. It seemed strange when I first started here, but not having to worry about who is organizing the birthday do, and whether the treats for Sally are of the same quality as what we got for Mary, and did someone remember paper plates, and who is going to clean it up, and all the headaches that go with organizing this kind of thing is something you only have to worry about once a year. And there’s no concerns that the same few people are always getting stuck with taking care of it.

        2. Other Duties as Assigned*

          My mother worked in an office that had this system, and it’s so good that I’ve suggested it everywhere I’ve worked. It’s great for those who don’t want to celebrate their birthday…they can just chose not to mark the day. In other setups, there’s invariably someone in the group who wants to make a big deal about birthdays whether the person wants it celebrated or not. It’s also great if the celebrant has dietary restrictions…they can bring in treats that they can enjoy as well. It’s also good since there’s no need to pester people to chip in, particularly those who might be on a tight budget.

          1. Bagpuss*

            Yes, we do it this way too.
            Occasionally for special events it’ll be different – our junior admin turned 21 recently and we had a whip-round and used the money to buy her a gift, but mostly the birthday person brings treat. (And she had brought in cupcakes, so we didn’t buy a cake on the day, but there was some cash left over from the whip-round which we spent on cake 2 days later!)

            Although we as bosses don’t pay for birthday treats (except on our own birthdays) we do do Random Treat Day from time to time – for instance sending out for ice-cream for everyone on a hot summer day, or bacon sandwiches* for a late breakfast, or just provide cake or a coffee-shop run because why not?
            It seems to be appreciated, and because it’s random, there isn’t any big expectation or requirement to spend money.
            (*or other item of choice from the cafe over the road)

            Thinking about it, we haven’t had Random Treats for a while. Maybe I should send out for bacon sandwiches tomorrow morning!)

        3. Kaz*

          This is what we do too – it is completely optional, and it happened organically. If you want to share treats on your birthday, great. If you don’t want to, you just don’t.

    5. starsaphire*

      Agreed, agreed, agreed!

      “Our team is growing, and we must recognize that not everyone likes birthdays/eats sweets/can have cupcakes/wants their birthday acknowledged. Bearing in mind that there is no company funding for this, does anyone have some ideas that are more economical and inclusive of everyone?”

      1. starsaphire*

        (Hit the button too soon)

        Once you’ve gotten a few ideas and some feedback, pick the idea you like the best and run with it.

        Who knows; it may turn out that everyone really hates the birthday thing, or you may have a burgeoning star baker on your hands — anything’s possible!

    6. Cordelia Naismith*

      This is very similar to what my office does. We have one birthday celebration every two months or so — so one party for September/October birthdays, another one for November/December, and so on. We have a “birthday club” where you can choose to contribute $2 per month if you want to be included, and you can opt out if you don’t want to. It works pretty well.

      1. Code Monkey, the SQL*

        That’s where our office lands too. One celebration per month, sometimes rolled into other things like the bi-monthly meeting with the director. They buy a big box of doughnuts or cupcakes or a couple of cheesecakes and that’s the treat, rather than singling out everybody’s birthday individually.

    7. Belle*

      We do a monthly birthday event and I get a dozen cupcakes from Costco or Kroger. This is one per person — but keeps the cost down to less than $10 each month. We pick up plates and napkins from the dollar store a couple times a year and hide them for special occasions. Still monthly — but definitely cheaper this way.

      1. Aveline*

        The OP may or may not have those stores available. We don’t know where OP lives.

        I don’t think cheaper food is the correct solution in any event. The issue isn’t just cost, it’s the expectation OP pays.

        1. Morning Glory*

          I know people are saying specific grocery store names, but I think the spirit of the comments is that these are grocery store baked goods and not boutique bakery cupcakes, which would dramatically reduce the price.

          The best thing about the comments section is that everyone gets to suggest solutions and the OP can decide what would work best.

          1. Belle*

            Yes, that was my point. We only do once a month (instead of for every single birthday), only buy one per person and go to a cheap grocery store. Nice gesture without spending more than I am comfortable with.

        2. Emily*

          OP here, we work downtown in an expensive urban centre. I don’t have a car. The stupid expensive cupcakes are, sadly, the most convenient thing for me.

          Being straight with my team seems like a good idea. I want to think a bit more about the optics of the other teams that report to MY boss – who buys the cupcakes when its my birthday, which I don’t love but roll with- before I do this, but my team is reasonable.

    8. Justme*

      We do quarterly at my office: spring, summer, fall, and winter birthdays or other milestones (like retirement).

      1. Elizabeth West*

        OldExjob did this too–we had quarterly meetings and the cake would happen then. It was my job each month to announce birthdays via email and coordinate card signings (for office employees), unless the person didn’t want to have their birthday made public. The company meeting had lunch provided and I got one of those big sheet cakes from Walmart or Sam’s Club.

        If anyone wanted to share anything on their actual birthday, they brought it in themselves. The owner when I started (before the company was bought) liked pie on his birthday, and his wife would go get several from a restaurant here and the office folks would share.

        We tried to have as many treats for the shop employees as we could, so they wouldn’t feel left out–and in the other plant, their manager did stuff for them.

      1. Aveline*

        Yes, but not everyone lives near a Costco. I’m over an hour from one. Many of my friends are 5-10 hours from one.

        I know people are only trying to help, but this isn’t really what OP is asking for and if it were, we’d have to know where they live to provide any real help.

        1. Emi.*

          It’s fine to spitball ideas, though. “Not everyone lives near Costco” is pretty much “Not everyone can eat sandwiches.” If it doesn’t work for the OP, they can ignore it.

        2. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

          This is not a productive comment. Obviously, if someone’s not near a Costco, they will disregard the comment as they see fit. You don’t need to point out the obvious.

    9. Elizabeth*

      This reminds me of the episode of The Office where Jim tries to institute birthday month and cram all the month’s birthdays into one event and everyone loses their minds. That’s not to say it won’t work in other offices — everyone knows their own office culture best! — but it made me laugh nonetheless.

    10. Newby*

      We do monthly birthdays. It also prevents hurt feelings when someone’s birthday is forgotten.

    11. Bazinga*

      Maybe a monthly potluck to celebrate all the birthdays of that month. That way it’s a nice lunch, no one person is responsible, and it’s just once a month.

      1. Detective Amy Santiago*

        Honestly, you could incorporate everything that might need to be celebrated into that one monthly event. Weddings, engagements, babies, graduations, whatever.

    12. Meg Danger*

      Yup! This is what my department does… Once a month we have a potluck for milestones (birthdays, good-byes, promotions/transitions, etc.) and everyone signs up to bring something. We pass around cards for people to sign for milestones, and decorate the birthday-person’s cubicle. It’s pretty much auto-pilot at this point, and people just don’t contribute if they have a financial hardship a given month (it’s very low pressure).

      The best part? There is no specific time for the potluck, people just drift in and out of the conference room around lunch time or whenever they get hungry, so there is very little disruption or awkward-forced socializing.

  3. Leatherwings*

    I’m a big fan of the quarterly birthday thing. It’s less awkward for the birthday people because they’re not on the spot and you get to spend less money on treats.

    1. esra*

      Yea, we do a monthly thing and it’s so much easier. Just a cake or donuts or cupcakes at the end of the month.

    2. MegaMoose, Esq*

      Yeah, and even monthly parties can feel like a lot. Admittedly, I’m not a big fan of being put on the spot, either – maybe people who like to feel more special would prefer monthly?

    3. Dawn*

      Yeah, I was coming in to say this too. Everyone feels special and is celebrated but it diffuses some of the intensity of being “The Birthday Person!!!!”, and probably wards off some “SO HOW OLD ARE YOU ANYWAY????” that might come up.

      Also, maybe some people on your team like to bake and would love to make treats for those quarterly celebrations? Strictly voluntary, of course! I love baking and getting appreciation from the things I make, so I’d totally be a person to say “yes, I’d be happy to bake a cake!” That way maybe 1-2x a year you could have handmade treats and then buy from a store the other 2-3 times.

      Oh also I can totally recommend Costco sheet cakes. I don’t know how much they are but they are head and shoulders above any other store-bought sheet cake I’ve ever had!

      1. thebluecastle*

        Yes! I was coming here to recommend the Costco sheet cakes. If I remember correctly they’re around $20-25 and feed up to 50 people. I like them so much I served them at my wedding and the wedding photographer said it was the best wedding cake he’d ever had. He had no idea it was from Costco.

          1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

            And nobody has ever said no to cheap, sugary angel food cake with white frosting. Lowbrow? Absolutely. But delicious.

          2. Turtle Candle*

            I actually used Costco sheet cakes for my wedding cake, weird as that probably sounds. My mother is a cake decorator, but hates the baking-the-damn-cake part of the process, so I got chocolate Costco sheet cakes frosted white with no other decoration and she put a bajillion frosting roses on them.

            They didn’t look like your classic wedding cake in any way (they mostly looked like super fancy flower-covered birthday cakes), but I got a lot of comments that they tasted better than most wedding cakes!

            1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

              Most wedding cakes are stale by time they’re served. We did the same thing; my wife and I eloped, so we just ended up having a giant party in my parents’ back yard with Costco cake, roasted critters on the fire pit, and oceanic quantities of beer and tequila.

        1. Voluntold Volunteer*

          We served Costco cake at our wedding too and our guests kept asking where we got the cake, because they loved it so much. I believe we paid $17/per cake.

          Count me as a fan for doing a monthly or quarterly birthday celebration. At my old job, we would celebrate once a month. The birthday person/people each got to pick a dessert from a pricey bakery in town, but the company paid for it. In this case, I vote for a quarterly celebration w/Costco or Walmart cake.

      2. Kate*

        I worked at a place where we did monthly birthdays for the whole company and I baked cupcakes and was reimbursed the cost. It worked out well.

    4. Fiennes*

      My last office did this monthly, but it was for “celebrations.” So birthdays, engagement news, etc all got celebrated on one afternoon, and fairly simply, with a cake and some sodas. The gathering wasn’t mandatory; while most people came to most, there was no pressure involved. And since month-end was always when we wrapped up a certain kind of report, people usually had both the time and the need to decompress a little. Literally everything else in that office was a mess, but I though the monthly celebrations thing worked very well.

      1. JB (not in Houston)*

        This is a really good idea. If the OP did this, but quarterly, it would really cut down on things.

        1. Fiennes*

          To me quarterly feels kind of cold–“here’s the tax quartile into which your birthday fits.” Totally illogical, but there it is. In an office where people are accustomed to treats on individual birthdays, switching to quarterly might come across as stingy.

          One point in defense of the monthly stuff: Part of the hassle of doing things for individuals is keeping up with all the dates, suddenly remembering you have to add a bakery run to the to-do list, etc. If it’s monthly, though, you just put it on the last or first day of a month and set a simple, standard thing to serve, like a sheet cake. (Some stores might even allow you to put in a standing order.) It becomes more automatic, and less of a hassle.

          Of course, 12 cakes costs more than 4 cakes; no way around that. But if OP finds a more economical option (lots of options here!) they will still come out ahead of where they are now.

          1. Emily*

            OP here. I am anti-quarterly birthdays, it feels cold and weird. And the concept of gathering for 15 minutes to eat cake is fine with me. I just need to figure out a more economical way to do it.

      2. Parenthetically*

        My husband’s former workplace did something similar. People could bring in their own treats for their birthdays/engagements/going away/retirement and during morning tea people could wander in and out of the break room and snag a piece of cake. Very convivial.

        (They also had a list of “cakeable offenses” posted on the wall, which I found hilarious. If you overloaded a circuit, screwed up the print queue, various other irritating office infractions, you had to bring treats for the office within the next week. I loved that it turned what could be a morale-busting annoyance into something fun.)

    5. LQ*

      We do a combo of monthly/and birthday day. So ones that are close together get grouped up, we end up with sort of quarterly. All the May and June birthdays end up together, the March birthdays are together, the one person in December is separate from others. (We also do potluck because government)

    6. Seal*

      That’s what we do. When I inherited my department, the previous head had some ridiculous rules about which personal events got celebrated and how (e.g. cards, treats commensurate with the importance of the event). She also mandated that everyone chip in money to a “kitty” on a regular basis. Since the department was going to be expanding and because most of my new employees had always hated the mandated celebrations, all of that went out the window. Instead, we do quarterly pizza parties where I buy the pizza and everyone else brings in side dishes. Everyone loves it. The only exceptions to that rule are truly big events like weddings or baby showers, since those are rare.

  4. Horse Lover*

    At my work they do the birthdays on a monthly basis and they only buy one item. Like this month, they got bagels for everyone. Last month we had cupcakes, etc.

    If anyone wants to bring in more food or make more of a celebration out of one person’s birthday, then it’s up to them to organize that.

  5. EddieSherbert*

    You can totally cut back! That’s totally normal!

    When my team was smaller (10-20), we did quarterly birthday treats. Once we were at 40ish, we did monthly…

    And we actually cut that out recently and switched to a monthly birthday lunch anyone can choose to go to, or not. Everyone pays for their own food at the lunch (the place does a free sundae for birthdays, so the “guests of honor” get that still!), but we have fun getting out of the office.

    1. EddieSherbert*

      Oh, and the one time some people in my department decided to bring in a cake the day-of for a specific birthday… it was also my birthday. And another guy’s birthday. That exact day was three people’s birthdays, and they brought in a cake for one.

      It wasn’t awkward ;)

      But anyways, celebrating specific birthdays can lead to that!

      (And I know some people will say it’s the manager’s job to record all that – my manager that brought in the cake, so mistakes still happen :P )

  6. MWKate*

    We don’t have any kind of formal birthday celebration. Sometimes someone will bring in a treat for someone else, but it’s never expected it’s just a nice surprise.

    More often than not it’s the birthday person bringing in a treat to share with coworkers.

  7. Angelinha*

    One thing to keep in mind is that if you ask the team for their ideas, someone may speak up instantly and offer for the group to chip in financially every time and that may make it uncomfortable for people who don’t want to be chipping in 15 times a year either. I worked at a place where they’d collect money for everyone’s $30 cake or whatever and it added up and really bugged me. I did usually chip in just to keep the peace because there were other hills I preferred to die on (and…ultimately did)

    1. Dawn*

      This is a *really* good point- not everyone can afford to chip in $5 15-20 times a year for someone’s birthday celebration. At my current job we do a weekly Friday breakfast, rotating who purchases breakfast, and the policy is “if you can’t afford to buy breakfast then you cannot participate in any Friday breakfasts, it’s only fair” which is SO problematic and demoralizing. Not to mention that there’s definitely a stigma of “Oh, well, Sansa brought Aldi brand bagels and cream cheese and there was barely enough to go around but Tyrion got catering from Panera and we all had extra to take home!”

      1. Emily*

        OP here and THIS. I know everyone’s salary on the team. I know I make the most money. I know I am being a bit of a princess about this. BUT just because I have the biggest salary doesn’t mean I should shell out for this by default because my whole company does it this way. BUT I want to figure out a solution without being a stingy jerk.

        I think being straight with my team is the way to go, I just want to think about the politics of how it impacts parallel teams and my boss and her other teams.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Yes! Make sure any plan to have people chipping in is opt-in only and makes it really easy for people to opt out without awkwardness. And keep an eye on it to make sure you don’t end up with a plan that has people chipping in multiple times per year, even if they say they’re okay with it. (Even if your whole group is legitimately okay with it, new hires in the future may not be.)

    3. TN*

      Blarg. It saddens me that there are workplaces where brand of bagels is cause for anxiety and stress for people. My job is by no means perfect but I don’t ever have to worry about something like that for our team events. Nor do I worry about being pressured to participate or feel left out if I can’t. I think birthday events and such should do the opposite – make people feel good, included!

    4. PB*

      Yes. I’ve had to be the “office Grinch” before, when a colleague suggested that we all chip in $50 for our student employees’ going away presents. I thought $50 was way too much, and said so. I wasn’t the only one who felt that way, but others agreed and favored something much smaller (like buy them lunch and give them a small gift, not $75 in cash!).

      Office Grinch isn’t a fun role to play, though, and more often people will keep quiet to keep the peace. If possible, it’s better just to avoid that particular situation.

      1. Mel*

        My last office did a little whip around for me among the admin folks I worked with, as I ended up having to leave the country super quick when my visa expired (as my renewal plans were scuppered with less than 3 weeks notice). They collected £50 as a gift for me, and I was so touched that they were kind enough to do so. It was an obvious opt-in for those who felt up to including a little something. But it would have been horrifying if someone had proposed everyone ponying up a larger amount!

    5. Turtle Candle*

      Yes, the best way I’ve seen this handled is ‘private opt-in.’ So if you want to participate, you email the boss privately to say yes, put me on the list, and then you chip in–if you don’t opt in, you are expected to not eat the cake, but it’s still not super obvious who is and isn’t participating. I can say honestly that I have no idea who on my fairly small team has opted in and who hasn’t.

      1. fposte*

        Though I think in that arrangement the OP still needs to at least start with a schedule and budget that she’d be comfortable covering on her own, because in my experience chipping in is more intended than actual.

        1. Turtle Candle*

          Oh yes, that’s a good point, especially since it’d be a culture change for this workplace rather than an established system. The way we do it is that you chip in for the birthday month before yours (so if I’m a June birthday, I chip in for May), and if you don’t get around to it, that’s totally fine but you’re essentially de facto ‘opted out’ at that point. It also depends a lot on the team–the honor system works fine for us (we don’t have problems with opt-out-ers taking cake anyway; if anything the problem that we have is excess cake, because some people opt in and then don’t want cake on a particular day for whatever reason), but on other teams it might not.

    6. Charlotte*

      Yes, thank you! I once worked somewhere where it felt like every week I was being asked to chip in $10 for birthday cakes, going away gifts, baby gifts etc, sometimes even more if it was a time of the year with a lot of birthdays (Late September/Early October was birthday central, and a lot of people would leave in November/December because they were taking new jobs in the new year).

      It doesn’t sound like a lot of money, but I was a student at the time and living out of home and I was on junior wages (in my country, you get paid less if you are under 21). At the time $40 a month was a lot of money to me, it was the cost of my monthly public transport pass and my share of the internet bill in shared my apartment. I know a few people felt the same way, but no one wanted to be ThatPerson™ and be the one who complained about it.

  8. not so super-visor*

    My company is similar: no budget for any of the celebrations or recognition. If I want to do anything like that, it comes out of my own pocket. I’ve got about 26 direct reports, so it’s just not feasible. We transitioned to each person brings in a “birthday treat” on their own birthday, and we decorate the desk.

    1. MissGirl*

      I like this best. You decorate or acknowledge it in some way so they feel noticed but it doesn’t put the burden on anyone else. Then if the birthday person wants to do treats, they can. A lot of people don’t care that much about birthdays so this makes it up to the individual person. Some of the suggestions above about secret birthday or cycling it through still means someone is forced to use money.

    2. Emily*

      OP here. I am into this in theory, but my team works so closely with other teams – and my boss has 2 other parallel teams – that I am nervous about optics. (I’m also the youngest team leader in my immediate dept by at about 10 years and am female and, frankly, worried about that playing into things because why not overthink this problem right?)

    3. Parenthetically*

      I find it interesting that so many people’s workplaces don’t have budgets for celebrations, especially if they’re smaller workplaces. I’ve worked at a school with fewer than a dozen employees for close to a decade and we always get celebratory stuff funded by the school. We don’t get paid much but we always get awesome gifts at the holidays and on our birthdays.

  9. Dislike Names*

    A place I worked had monthly birthday celebrations. The celebrants from the previous month were responsible for creating the treats for the next month. So, in June, I got a cake made by the May folks, and then I baked for the July folks. I thought that was great. Everyone got super creative, too. There were people who didn’t want to participate, and they didn’t have to, and no one made a big deal if they didn’t. I realize that isn’t as easy for many places, though.

    1. Turtle Candle*

      This is how we do it (although it’s usually bought treats, not homemade). It’s also opt-in, and the opt-in is private (by email), so if you choose not to participate (either because you don’t want to be ‘celebrated’ on your month or because you don’t want to/can’t afford to chip in), nobody is likely to know except your boss.

  10. Torrance*

    A company with ‘many small teams’ must also have ‘many’ (or at least a significant number of) team leaders. It’s unclear in her letter if she’s approached any of them about this issue. Her peers might have ideas or options, or they may feel the same way. A culture shift in the whole company might go over better than one person implementing a change solely for their group.

  11. BlueSky*

    I worked at a team with 10+ and we had a system where the last person who had a birthday bought the treats for the next person’s birthday.

    1. JM60*

      I would really dislike this approach. It makes me recieve something that I didn’t ask for and might not even want (perhaps In watching my weight or have food allergies), and then manages me to open up my wallet. An employee should never be required to, or even pressured to, spend their own money on other employees. The whole point of it being their money is that it’s not the employer’s business what they do with that money.

    2. Lemon Zinger*

      No thanks. Many people prefer not to celebrate their birthdays, especially at work. This puts an undue burden on people.

  12. Pickle Lily*

    In my office, you bring your own treats for your birthday. It may sound a bit unfair to provide your own birthday cake, but it means that everybody only buys once a year and if you don’t want to draw attention to your birthday you can keep quiet and not buy anything – there’s no pressure. Also, nobody has to keep track of birthdays or go around asking colleagues for money. I think this is fairly common practice in the UK.

    1. Corky's wife Bonnie*

      My husband’s company does this (US based) and they love it. Some bring in cookies, brownies, breakfast items, etc. It’s always a nice treat for everyone.

    2. Gen*

      Yup I’m in the UK and was going to say this. We also live in an area where a lot of people are part of a religion that doesn’t celebrate birthdays so it was easier to say “everyone handle it yourself” than risk the office busybody getting hold of a list (which did happen once and was very awkward)

    3. Charlotte in Chicago*

      This is what we do (US-based). The birthday person provides treats for the 50-person office. Some bring bagels or Dunkin Donuts. Others bring homemade goodies (cheaper in the long run, I think). You can spend as much or as little as you like. The only problem is when you have multiple birthdays falling close together – the week of 3/20, we had a birthday celebration every day that week. Ooomph. Good thing my office is far from kitchen.

    4. committee member*

      We do that here in the Midwestern US as well.

      Confession: In 4 years, I brought in a treat once.

    5. Kyrielle*

      And as a bonus, for those with food restrictions, if they want to celebrate, they can be assured of getting a treat they can eat on their birthday – without putting someone else, who normally doesn’t have to deal with those and may in fact lose track of them, to the effort of preparing or buying something appropriate.

    6. JeanB*

      I work at a private school and that is how they handle birthdays in the classroom – the child brings in treats on his/her birthday. And sometimes they will have leftovers and the child will come and offer me a cupcake!

    7. Parenthetically*

      This was my favorite method in a previous job, too. I frequently (when possible) took the day off so I didn’t have to bring in anything on my birthday. An automatic day off for a birthday for everyone would solve this problem neatly.

    8. tink*

      If I wanted to celebrate my birthday at the office, I’d have no problem bringing my own treats to share. (Reminds me a bit of primary school, but I like the “opt in at own discretion” participation.)

    9. Cassie*

      This is what we used to do in elementary school – for kids who wanted to celebrate their birthday, their parent (usually mom) would bring cookies or cupcakes and we’d sing happy birthday for the kid. I don’t remember it happening that frequently but that was the policy.

      I think I prefer this method. You get to make a big deal of it if you want, or skip right over it if you want. I’d probably be in the 2nd group.

  13. Corky's wife Bonnie*

    We celebrate birthdays once a month (if there are birthdays that month), and one person keeps track of the birthdays. She picks a date, then sends us a reminder to bring in goodies that day. No pressure, but we all enjoy this and some people bring something simple like jellybeans, but others bake cupcakes, make dip, etc. It’s all put out on a communal table and people snack throughout the day.

  14. BadPlanning*

    Our office is flipped. If you have something to celebrate, you bring in treats and announce it. If it’s your birthday, work anniversary, you got a promotion, etc, you bring in treats and the department why. When I got here, I thought it was weird. After reading so many letters here on people who don’t want to celebrate, people who get skipped, etc, I feel it’s not so bad! But probably flipping your office to this would be too big of a change!

    We still do have some celebrations paid for by work — a couple milestone work anniversaries, group accomplishments, etc.

    1. Fish Microwaver*

      We have they BYO treats system too. There are no celebrations paid for by work (gov) so we have to pay .

  15. TN*

    Agree with all of the above! Admittedly, my team is smaller (7-8 people) but we chip in for birthday events with no issues. Everyone either makes something to bring on a food day (or buys, no obligation to cook) OR one person purchases (cake, flowers) and we all pitch in. If we had double that? I would still suggest everyone chip in someway. OP, you definitely shouldn’t shoulder the load! FWIW, I think the monthly birthday idea is genius. Combine this with the team also chipping in and I think you should feel some relief!

    (I know Alison talks a lot about making sure events like this are not obligatory, some people may not have money to chip in, people hate someone who’s birthday it is, etc. but I definitely would hope $5 for a team event wouldn’t be too terrible for most!)

    1. MissGirl*

      Five dollars may or may not be terrible but it still forces people to spend money they may not want to. And the birthday person may not care one way or the other. I like the idea of people bringing their own treats if they want to celebrate. I still think the company should be willing to give a small something but the OP doesn’t have that option.

    2. Rachel 2: Electric Boogaloo*

      We did it that way at some of my previous jobs: monthly birthday celebration/food day, everyone brings something in and we eat all day. : ) I’m a non-baker so I always brought something store-bought: a food item, pop, cups, napkins, etc.

    3. caryatis*

      Yes, most people can afford $5. Or less–I see no reason dessert for 10-15 people should cost more than $10-15.

        1. caryatis*

          Really? A team of 10-15 people has no more than 10-15 birthdays per year. At $1 per person per birthday, that’s a cost of $10-15 per person per year. I agree with making it opt-in, but I still think the vast majority of office workers can afford $10-15 per year.

          1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

            Irrelevant, really; I want to choose what I spend money on, not be guilted or defaulted into spending it because it’s expected.

            Frankly, if you want your birthday celebrated, why not bring in your own cupcakes?

            1. caryatis*

              I assume you don’t give your friends and family holiday or wedding gifts, either? That’s your choice, but other people often like sharing food and warm feelings with others. Leave it opt out, but no reason to ban birthdays for those who like them.

              1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

                That’s a ridiculous assumption; of course I give my FRIENDS and my FAMILY gifts. Because…they’re my FRIENDS and my FAMILY. The Venn diagram overlap between those two circles and the one representing my coworkers is a pretty skinny sliver, occupied currently by one person.

                But I’m not sure why expecting the birthday person to supply the food, if they wish to do so, constitutes a ban in your mind. It’s not.

              2. JM60*

                I’m not a fan of pressuring family or friends to spend money, but it’s different when you’re being pressured by your employer. In general, being expected to do something for your job comes with the implicit (even if unintended) threat that not doing it could hurt your career, and possibly even jeopardize your job. For this reason, any spending of money on other employees should be opt-in, regardless of the amount.

              3. kms1025*

                In my opinion that’s not really a fair comparison…friends and family seem quite separate from co-workers, who may or may not be friends also.

              4. zora*

                Actually, I was making very little money at a job I hated when my sister got married, and I did not give her a gift. Because I was saving every dime I could because I wanted to get out of that job. And my sister would have been very mad at me if I had gotten her a wedding gift, because she knew I couldn’t really afford it. So, no, not everyone can afford $15/year just because they have a job, nor should they feel obligated to spend it even if they can afford it. Because gifts are NOT an obligation, it is giving because you give because you want to.

      1. Not Karen*

        The problem is not whether or not they can afford it, it’s that they shouldn’t be required to pay for something they don’t want to pay for. The cost itself is irrelevant.

      2. Not a Real Giraffe*

        Yes, I can afford it, but do I want to spend $50-75 a year on my coworkers’ birthdays? Not really.

    4. Government Worker*

      Yes, it’s only $5. It’s $5 times 10-15 coworkers, though. And then Jane gets married, and everyone chips in for a shower gift, and Paul and his wife have a baby, and there’s another $5. And of course we all have to take Susan out to celebrate her last day, since she’s been here so long and she’s such an important part of the team. Then the holidays roll around and there’s a cost for the annual party, plus someone is collecting for a holiday gift for the cleaning staff and doing a charitable donation drive. And let’s not get into the parents selling Girl Scout cookies and wrapping paper to their coworkers, or people asking for sponsorships for their charity runs every other weekend.

      It does feel churlish to object to $5 in the moment, but the alternative in some offices is to spend a pretty large chunk of money annually on this stuff, and it’s reasonable to object to that.

      1. fposte*

        And a lot of people are in debt, so even if the amount is small, it’s going in the wrong direction.

        1. caryatis*

          But most people, even people who have debt, are spending a lot more than $5 a month on alcohol/desserts/restaurants/new clothes for themselves. It is a bit churlish to be willing to spend on non-necessities for yourself on a daily basis and never be willing to throw in a few dollars to build team spirit.

          Now, I’m seen comments from those who claim to be ultra-ultra-broke and can’t possibly come up with $5 without starving. Fine, you get to opt out. But that’s true of only a tiny minority.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            I actually think a lot more people than you’re accounting for aren’t spending money on alcohol/desserts/restaurants/new clothes each month because they’re on strict budgets.

            But also, it shouldn’t be on employees to pay money to build team spirit. If that’s important to an employer, it should shoulder the cost of that, not transfer it to employees. If the employer isn’t willing to pay for it, it can’t be that high of a priority — and if that’s the case, why should it be a higher priority to workers than it is to the company?

          2. nutella fitzgerald*

            My coworkers are the reason I already have to spend so much money on alcohol each month, so it just seems unfair that they’re reaching back into my wallet every time a birthday comes around ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

          3. MegaMoose, Esq*

            Come on now, almost 75% of my paycheck goes toward debt – if it’s churlish to want to spend my remaining hard earned cash on myself instead of random people who work for the same company as me, then call me churlish.

          4. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

            Your attitude is bizarre. What if I don’t….want….to “throw in a few dollars to build team spirit?” You don’t get a say in my budget and priorities, and you aren’t a better judge than I of whether I spend my discretionary budget on alcohol or a flat of cupcakes, and you absolutely don’t get to tell me when I get to opt out, for whatever reason or for none at all.

            1. LBK*

              Right – I was under the impression the only person on the “payable to” line of my paycheck was me. It’s my decision how I spend that money, and my employer shouldn’t be strong-arming me into allocating any part of it.

              1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

                And if it’s important to the employer to have these little celebrations, they can budget accordingly, in my opinion. I haven’t worked anywhere that couldn’t spend $40 a month on cupcakes if that was deemed a necessary team spirit-building expense.

          5. Evandarya*

            If I have 5 extra dollars in my budget after bills are paid and groceries bought, and debt is paid on, I should get to choose what I want to spend that money on, without someone trying to make me feel guilty for not spending it on them.

          6. LBK*

            Maybe there aren’t that many people who literally can’t spare a dollar beyond necessities, but there are plenty of people who have a strict budget for luxuries, and they earned the right to spend that budget how and where they want. Sure, maybe I have $100/month that I set aside to go out to a nice dinner that I could theoretically take $5 out of to put towards my coworker’s birthday cake. But why should I? I earned that money and that nice dinner that I chose to put it towards.

            If my employer feels so strongly about requiring me to contribute to team activities, just reallocate that money from my salary to a team activity budget. Don’t pretend you’re paying it to me just to take it back out of my pocket to put elsewhere.

          7. KellyK*

            I don’t think it’s churlish at all. It’s their money. They don’t owe their coworkers cupcakes, nor do they owe them a justification of how they’re spending their money. Why should “you won’t starve” be the expected baseline for when you’re supposed to spend money on your coworkers? Whether it comes out of their food budget or means they spend less on a niece’s birthday or means they don’t eat out that week, it’s still their money.

            I don’t think it’s anbody’s job to spend their own money on “team spirit” events for work, any more than it’s their job to volunteer for unpaid overtime or chip in for pens and printer paper. Honestly, if you’re friendly and easy to work with, you get people the stuff they need from you when they need it, and you don’t microwave fish or blast your music, you’re contributing sufficiently to team spirit. Anything more should be totally optional, or funded by the organization.

            1. fposte*

              Now I’m picturing some version of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs with “treats for coworkers” coming in just above “enough food to keep alive.”

          8. tink*

            Saying that someone should chip in monthly over new clothes (!!!) or perhaps a restaurant or dessert visit because they’re in debt or on a tight budget is pretty rude imo. Clothes are literally a requirement to work in almost every industry, and it’s generally expected that someone will be tidy and well-kept, and buying clothes when needed (or when they’re on sale and you can spare the money, etc.) are a huge part of that. And people on a tight budget shouldn’t be begrudged for prioritizing a small treat or ~goodness forbid~ a restaurant meal or drink of choice for themselves over endlessly pouring money into a work event that they honestly may not be interested in. Maybe they’ve got a little extra money one month because a bill is lower than expected, or maybe they were able to snag a good deal. You don’t know other people’s lives, so don’t judge them for wanting to prioritize a little bit of happiness for themselves/their families over a work event.

          9. Observer*

            I don’t know what world you live in, but my world looks quite different than yours. I’m not close to broke, but I don’t spend that kind of money on what you deem to be “non-necessities” for myself. (That’s one of the reasons I’m not near broke – we are careful what we spend…) And some people are an far tighter budgets than I am. Having to think about the $5-10 per month you talk about is nowhere near a “tiny minority”, especially in high COL areas.

            You may consider it churlish to not want to spend some of your discretionary income to build team spirit. I think it’s far worse to demand that your employees spend money on things that are not directly necessary for them to do their jobs – especially since these are items that, to the extent they are necessary – are the responsibility of the employer! In fact, I think it pushes moral and ethical lines. I contribute to office collections, but I am SOOO glad that it’s always done in a totally opt0in way that no one needs to know who did or didn’t give!

            You also take a good deal on yourself in deciding what are “non-necessities” for people. For many people, for instance, new clothes actually do happen to be necessities. It’s not your place to decide that someone is spending more than the “need” to on clothes. etc. That’s a level of boundary crossing and judgment of others based on no knowledge that goes well beyond churlishness in problematicness.

      2. Emily*

        OP here. and THIS. I want to be supportive of people’s life moments but c’mon. If it matters to the company we do this, give me the allowance to include it in my budget as team building. But the social pressure to do ALL THIS but not inconvenience my team financially because “I’m the boss and can afford it” is annoying.

    5. LBK*

      To some extent, it becomes more about the principle than the money. I get paid enough that it’s not a financial issue to chip in for this stuff, but it still feels weird to take money I got from my employer and give it to one of my coworkers, whose celebration I’m only participating in because they work for the same company as me. The company is what binds us together, so it feels like the company should be the one footing the bill for me to participate in celebrating with this person who I otherwise wouldn’t be spending money on.

      1. MegaMoose, Esq*

        I agree. I’m not big on mandatory celebrations in my private life, either – if I don’t get a birthday present for my spouse, I certainly don’t want to get one for my coworkers. Even opt-in systems have a pretty high rate of potential peer-pressure issues. If the company wants the morale boost that comes with awkwardly standing around with people you sort of know while everyone jokes about taking a break from their diet or how they’re going to have to go to the gym later, the company should pay.

    6. Broke not Cheap*

      This is hella embarassing to have to admit, but there have been many times when that $5 would have been way more than I could manage. That would have been the difference between having meals for seven days and meals for five days that week.

      I’m delighted to hear that I am in such a minority on that, but please never assume that everyone can afford any amount, however small. You never know.

      1. caryatis*

        That’s why the poster above said “most.” You can still get a dessert for everyone even if only 90% contribute money.

        1. KellyK*

          But if you’re not really careful about how it’s handled, you’ll end up embarrassing the hell out of that ten percent by guilting them over the contribution or excluding them from the celebration. That doesn’t exactly contribute to morale.

        2. TL -*

          Not to get in to “not everyone can eat sandwiches” but I wouldn’t chip in for cakes because, you know, I can’t eat sandwiches. So now you’ve got the broke folks, the folks who just don’t want to spend their money on cakes, and the folks who don’t want to pay for things they can’t eat. (And, yes, I’d be resentful).
          At some point, your team-building is really irritating a large percentage of people here.

        3. TL -*

          Not to get in to “not everyone can eat sandwiches” but I wouldn’t chip in for cakes because, you know, I can’t eat sandwiches. So now you’ve got the broke folks, the folks who just don’t want to spend their money on cakes, and the folks who don’t want to pay for things they can’t eat. (And, yes, I’d be resentful).
          At some point, your team-building is really irritating a large percentage of people here.

      2. always in email jail*

        Please don’t be embarrassed about this, I promise you don’t need to be. I know I can’t tell you how you should/should not feel, but it’s nothing to be ashamed of. And is also a very valuable reminder.

      3. tink*

        Please don’t be embarrassed to be on such a strict budget. It happens. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. I hope your situation gets better though.

    7. Amber Rose*

      I just want to note something here after reading some of the comments on whether $5 is a lot or not: consider how many people actually carry cash/change.

      Because I never do. If I have to donate a dollar or five for something, even if it’s technically affordable, what I actually have to do is go to the bank and withdraw $20 (the minimum), then have it broken. And I frequently, frequently do not have $20 to withdraw.

      1. TL -*

        In the USA most (all?) banks will let you withdraw any amount you want; it’s only (some) ATMs that deal only in twenties.
        Not that that changes the conversation, but I’ve definitely taken out less than $20.

        1. MegaMoose, Esq*

          I’m thinking that if you’re concerned about taking the time to get to a bank, waiting in line for a human being to withdraw $3 is not a super appealing option.

          1. TL -*

            That’s fair – I’m spoiled because I’ve only once waited more than 3 minutes at my bank. But I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a withdrawal minimum. And you can usually get $10 cash back at a store in any denominations you’d like, though, of course, you have to buy something to get it so it has to be timed right or you’ll end up buying things just to get the cash.

            I don’t carry cash at all so I know the annoyances of getting cash but I think it’s more annoyance than actual barrier.

  16. Kelly*

    I think once a month for anyone who has a birthday that month is more than enough. I’m sure some months will have no birthdays. You can get 30 cupcakes at Sam’s Club for around $15.00.

  17. Cass*

    Definitely mention something to your team. Reasonable people aren’t going to expect you to personally finance office celebrations this frequently. I’m sure they’d be fine with consolidating the funtivities, or even eliminating them all together if you’re lucky. I’d gladly volunteer to forego my own birthday celebration at the office. In fact I’d actually give you a portion of my paycheck not to celebrate my birthday at work. Hell, you could use that money to fund a party for someone else.

  18. Bend & Snap*

    My team has no birthday recognition and I am A-OK with it.

    The dutch optional bday lunch is a good idea too.

    1. K.*

      I don’t think my colleagues know when my birthday is. I don’t know when theirs are either. I haven’t told them and I don’t friend colleagues on social (except LinkedIn), so I’m not sure how they’d know. I’m fine not celebrating my birthday at work.

    2. irritable vowel*

      Yeah, my workplace does not celebrate birthdays at all – it’s just not part of our organizational culture (there are about 70 people on staff). I doubt most people know when my birthday is, and I don’t know when anyone else’s is, aside from a few people, and that’s completely fine. When I’ve supervised people, I haven’t been privy to any personal information about them from HR, so I think there is an expectation of privacy about birthdays. Even for coworkers who are Facebook friends, we’ll wish each other happy birthday on Facebook but not say anything about it in the office – that part might actually be a little weird, hmm…

    3. Salamander*

      Yes. I’m liking the dutch optional bday lunch, too. If folks have time and want to go, then go for it!

      Nobody ever knew when my birthday was at the places I worked, either.

  19. Channel Z*

    I used to be in a dept.of aboyt 50 and it was tradition that the birthday person brought in treats for all during break. Not everyone did it
    , and there was no pressure if you didn’t. But enough people did that it was a nice treat once in a while, and bringing in doughnuts (what I chose) once a year didn’t break the bank.

  20. ZSD*

    At my old work, my team went out to eat someplace fairly cheap on team members’ birthdays. When there was more than one birthday in a month, we did just one out-to-eat to celebrate both birthdays. The thing is, if you’re spending this fortune on fancy-pants cupcakes, you might actually be able to take people out for pizza and have it cost about the same amount of money, but they’d get a hot meal and a chance to get out of the office. So that’s something to consider. Also, at the workplace I’m talking about, the team lead generally paid for the food, and the people in the middle ranks paid for everybody’s soft drinks. You could consider splitting the cost up that way.

  21. caryatis*

    $40 for cupcakes for 10-15 people is RIDICULOUS. OP, even if you don’t bake, there’s probably someone on your team who does, and can do some kind of dessert for a lot less than $40. And then, it’ll still seem fancy and celebratory because it’s homemade.

    1. Kate*

      I’d probably charge $40 to bake and decorate 15 cupcakes. Ingredients aren’t cheap. Have you seen the price of butter recently?

      1. caryatis*

        Yes. About $4 for a standard-size box. I don’t make cupcakes personally, but one stick of butter, one egg, flour, sugar, and small amounts of salt, spices and baking soda will get you a large batch of cookies. Even if you have to buy fresh eggs, butter, flour and sugar, that’s less than $10. And I’ve never heard of coworkers charging other coworkers for labor.

        1. fposte*

          That’s because usually the company pays for their labor. It counts as a cost whether it’s paid or not.

        2. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

          You’re assuming that most people have the time and inclination to spend a few hours baking cupcakes in their off time. HAHAHAHno.

        3. Kate*

          A pound of butter in NYC is anywhere from $5-$6. And I tend to not just make vanilla cupcakes, but something a little more involved and “fancy”, like the OP is getting. Guinness-chocolate cupcakes with Bailey’s frosting, or cookie-dough stuffed cupcakes or apple pie cupcakes. There’s also cupcake wrappers to consider, wear and tear on my tools and the labor involved in decorating.

          When I baked cupcakes for our monthly birthday celebrations at a past job, I didn’t charge my coworkers. The accountant/HR person actually asked me if I wanted to do it and then reimbursed me from the company’s money.

          1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

            Also, you’re not buying the cheapo stick butter. You’re using the good Plugra stuff with a reliable and high butterfat content, because your average land o lakes or whatever has a ton of air and water mixed into it.

        4. Aurion*

          So, not cupcakes, but cake-cake.

          I’ve a friend who returned from pastry school in France. I asked her to bake a cake for my father’s birthday and charge me whatever she thought was appropriate. While there was no direct equivalent to what she made me in your average nice bakery (it was a recipe from her school), her price for a 6″ cake ended up being about the price of the nicest 8″ cake from the local bakery. Economy of scale matters a lot when you’re comparing a professional bakery vs an individual. And yes, labour hours matter.

          (I was quite happy to pay her price, because damn, the cake was tasty.)

        5. LBK*

          Because I’m petty I just went and priced out how much it would cost for generic store-brand cupcake ingredients (butter, eggs, sugar, flour, baking powder, milk, baking cups, frosting) and it came out to $17. That’s omitting vanilla (which most cupcakes have) because it has a super high unit price and salt under the assumption that most people have it on hand.

    2. Aurion*

      If you’re throwing together boxed muffin mix and Betty Crocker frosting, yeah, $40 probably seems ridiculous, but since the OP mentioned “fancy” cupcakes (which presumably tastes better) that doesn’t sound like an outrageous price. Especially considering ingredients (your average home baker doesn’t get to take advantage of volume pricing) and labour.

      1. Kate*

        This exactly. Good cupcakes = high quality ingredients. There’s a reason that chocolate cupcake tastes so good – they’re using Valrhona chocolate and not Baker’s.

        1. Squeeble*

          Right, and presumably the person making the cupcakes has been trained more than just your average person with a recipe book.

          1. Aurion*

            Yup, this. Baking involves a lot of technique, not just the recipe. Knowledge has its price and part of our price is that we’re paying the experienced person to reliably produce the tasty results. You could give me the best recipe book in the world and I wouldn’t be able to produce the tastiness that should result.

    3. Observer*

      Oh, so people should not only spend their money, but also their personal time to “create team spirit”? Is it ok for people to prioritize spending time on themselves, or do they have to justify that too, or risk being labeled “churlish”?

      1. Zombii*

        Oh come on. If you have small children or a spouse at home to take care of, you’re allowed to opt out, but single people without children have more than enough available free time to help “create team spirit.”

        It’s not about being able to prioritize your own life and time and spending, it’s about doing what’s fair according to one commenter, who no one seems to agree with (thank christ).


        1. Gadfly*

          And it comes with free cat hair! OR dog hair! Or just someone having a standard of clean sufficiently different from mine that I can’t pretend that at least a health inspector clears once in a while….

        2. SarahTheEntwife*

          That’s making an awful lot of assumptions about the free time of single people, and many of the reasons someone might not have time/energy/inclination to bake aren’t things they should be made to disclose to their employers. And then there’s things like transportation — I actually enjoy baking but don’t usually volunteer to make things for work because I really don’t feel like lugging a try of cupcakes a mile on foot just to make my coworkers happy.

          1. Observer*

            Erm, Zombii was being sarcastic. And she clearly doesn’t agree with the whole idea, either.

  22. Tongue Cluckin' Grammarian*

    When our lab starting growing, we had to end the individual birthday celebrations too. Then the group of people organizing the events started feeling taken advantage of (people can be seriously ungrateful!), so it got cut down further, and now we’re just at everybody gets a birthday card signed by their co-workers (including doctors), and on their birthday they get a couple balloons tied at their desk or work station. If anyone wants to go further, it’s all on them.
    It’s actually worked out pretty well. Nobody feels overly attended on, nor completely ignored, and we have an easier time resisting the ever-presence of sugar.

  23. Texas*

    We do birthdays by the month, and we go out for a team lunch (i.e. there were two March birthdays, but we only did one lunch). As a team, we pay for the lunches of the birthday folks, but we always go somewhere reasonable so we each only have to chip in $2-4. People can opt out of going to the lunch and then they do not have to chip in. We are a small team (10) and there a few months where birthdays are doubled up so we really only go out maybe 8 times a year. I find it nice to get out of the office and it is only about $20 per year, which gets offset somewhat by getting a free lunch on your own birthday

  24. NJ Anon*

    I currently work for a small organization. At birthday time, the office manager passes a card around for everyone to sign and it is given to the person on their birthday. And that’s it, no muss, no fuss.

  25. Morning Glory*

    I know every office culture is different, but your employees may be not too thrilled at the change of an unhealthy treat from 2-3 times a year to 15 times a year, either.

    I like the quarterly idea above, but if you wanted to recognize each person on their birthday, would it be logistically difficult to do only do a cupcake for the person whose birthday it is?

    1. Fiennes*

      This seems like it would inspire more discontent than no celebration at all. “Hey, everyone, let’s gather around and watch Wakeen eat a treat none of us can share!”

          1. LBK*

            Now I’m picturing a Ritual of Cupcake Consumption, with the honoree up in front of the room like they’re giving a presentation, their coworkers on the edge of their seats as Birthday Person takes a bite, waiting anxiously for them to deliver a verdict on just how scrumptious the red velvet with cream cheese frosting is at Katy’s Confections.

            1. Just Me and My $0.02*

              For those who don’t like being celebrated on their birthday, this could double as punishment.

              “Fergus, your deliverables were late again. If this keeps up, I will have to assign the Cupcake Tasting Presentation to you next month.”

    2. Rachel Green*

      This is exactly what we do. We get cupcakes from a local bakery that has all kinds of decadent cupcake flavors. We take individual orders ahead of time and collect money. So, if you want a cupcake you pay for your own. Someone will volunteer to buy the birthday person’s cupcake. An email is sent out that says something like: “We’re going to Sally’s Cupcakes for Patricia’s birthday. If you would like a cupcake, please tell Yvette what flavor you would like and bring her your money. Cupcakes are $3 each and here are the flavors available to choose from today.”

      I think this works well, because people can choose not to get a cupcake if they are trying to be healthy, and if you do want a cupcake, you choose your own flavor.

  26. ilikeaskamanager*

    I liked an idea someone gave me which is that it is the birthday person who brings the cake to share. This is hte way they do it in the person’s department in another company). This way if someone isn’t in to all of that they don’t have to participate, and no one has to deal with unspoken expectations of what should happen.

    Or you have one event per month that celebrates everyone who had a birthday that month, and it’s miniature cupcakes only.

  27. On Fire*

    My current job is small (10-12 people in my location; more in our satellite office), so we do a potluck around the individual’s birthday.

    At OldJob, we did monthly (potluck) celebrations, and the celebrants chose the theme – either Mexican, or cake and ice cream were the most popular. Which was good, because in my birthday month, there were 3-4 of us. Individual celebrations would have been Too Much.

  28. The IT Manager*

    #1 -Celebrate all the months birthdays at once (The random nature of birthdays across small sample sizes means that you do get clusters. The birthdays are not evenly distribute throughout the year.)

    $2 – Buy a single cake or cookies which should be cheaper than enough individual cupcakes for all your team.

  29. Cucumberzucchini*

    If you wanted to still do something (which would be fine if you didn’t) you could just do one thing a year, a team appreciation day. Something small like one nice cupcake per person with a notecard with a sincere thank you personalized to each person. Or a $5 Coffee Gift Card or whatever makes sense for your team members. It would probably cost around the same as what you had been doing with the small team birthday snacks.

  30. Karou*

    My boss brings in snacks of the employee’s choice for birthdays for the communal snack table. It’s usually nothing huge or expensive, like a couple bags of chips or a small tub of jelly beans. Boss then sends out an email that birthday treats are available so people can grab something and pop by to wish a happy birthday at their leisure. It’s casual but also nice to be able to pick a treat we will enjoy.

    1. E*

      My company seemed to be getting a bit tired of the monthly cake or cookies, so one summer I picked up a few quarts of inexpensive ice cream (and a fruit sorbet option I think). Folks raved about how nice it was to enjoy ice cream as the treat for a change. It was just as inexpensive as a medium sheet cake and there were no leftovers by the end of the next day. We’ve also done ice cream sandwiches or fruit pops once.

      1. Martin Crane*

        I like this idea. Change things up. Fancy cupcakes one month. Decent but not exorbitant ice cream the next. Sheet cake another time (even a decent quality one will be cheaper than cupcakes). Maybe something savory another month, nachos or something. You can use variety/novelty as the excuse to sneak in something cheaper.

        I’ll say that I think it stinks that you have to foot the bill for this in the first place, but since it sounds like it’s basically required, finding subtle ways to make it less expensive may be one of your better options.

  31. That Would Be a Good Band Name*

    I don’t think ours is ideal, but we do a birthday lunch where whoever wants to participate pays for their own plus we split the the cost of the birthday person (never been more than $1 per person to cover for the birthday). It’s completely optional, someone just sends out an email that says if you want to do lunch respond with your order.

    They used to have people bring in treats on their birthday and I’m not sure why that stopped or how this one got started.

  32. Kristine*

    To answer the birthday policy question: all teammates are required to chip in on the treats for someone’s birthday (except the birthday person, of course). It ends up costing me a total of $25-30 per year. Our manager does not pay anything in, but he doesn’t get a birthday celebration of his own (though he’s been known to steal treats from ours before).

    Also I agree with Alison on this. If I were OP’s employee I would be horrified to learn that my boss was spending so much of his/her own money on birthday treats. I think a quarterly birthday event sounds fun, and maybe the team would chip in to help cover the costs.

      1. Kristine*

        “Required” in the sense that it’s the norm on this team, and if anyone tried to opt out it’s very likely to become A Thing. And no, the manager isn’t part of it at all. He doesn’t come to the ‘parties’ but sometimes will sneak a treat if there are any left at the end of the day.

    1. JM60*

      No employees should be required to spend money on other employees. It’s their money, so they should be free to not spend it if they don’t want to.

  33. Trout 'Waver*

    People on short term contracts are primarily concerned about getting a long-term contract or a full position. The quality level on the cupcakes they get isn’t even in the top 100 things they care about.

    1. Thlayli*

      this made me laugh! If the team has gone from 2 to 15 then there are probably 13 people already wondering what the hell is up with the fancy cupcakes! Ive never heard of such a thing myself.

      And I would be horrified to learn my manager had been paying $600 of their own net income per year buying them.

    2. BioPharma*

      I do want to add, though, that I appreciate that the LW is treating the contractors the same way. I hate places where contractors are treated like 2nd class citizens!

      1. Emily*

        OP here. I get this, I do. Which is partly why I’ve been sucking it up. It’s a small way for them to feel valued on a team where there’s precarious work that they’ve been stars at and where I have not a ton of control over turning their short-term work into a long-term thing. (I’m at a high enough level I can hire and manage these people and make a case for they they should have a more stable work situation but not so high I can just make the work situation more stable.) I feel terrible about this, hence why I am not into asking people to contribute for other people’s birthdays – “hey Sally, I hired you for 4 weeks but can you give me $3 so Jim can have his birthday?” – it’s crappy.

        Honestly, I just want my company to allow me to have a discretionary team building budget for whatever seem team-building-y. But that won’t happen.

    1. Solidus Pilcrow*

      Previous job had a ‘bring your own treat’ setup, and some people did bring salads or veggie trays. One guy was into making jerky and brought that. I liked doing homemade bread (with a variety of spreads). Some of our Indian team members brought in burfi or treats for Diwali. The variety was nice!

    2. LizB*

      Not a work example, but last year for my birthday party I was way more excited about the spanakopita I made than the cake I also made. The beauty of birthday-person-supplied food is you get to bring whatever you personally want to share and consume.

  34. Elemeno P.*

    We do have a small company budget but are specifically not allowed to use it for birthdays, so we have a “team lunch” every month that coincidentally is scheduled right around a birthday if there is one. We also take turns buying cake with our own money and decorate the office/cube, but we also only have 6 people so this isn’t very expensive. If the team were 10 or more, I definitely wouldn’t be able to shell out for cake that often.

  35. K*

    $40 x 15 birthdays = $600/year. That’s a lot! Since your boss said doing nothing would be out of sync with the company culture, talk to your staff. Ask them for ideas of if/how they want to celebrate birthdays. A card, balloon, and some streamers would run $10. Also feel free to switch it up – donuts, cookies, and brownies are all much cheaper than fancy cupcakes.

    1. Emily*

      OP here. Being straight with my staff is probably the way to go.

      The other element here that I didn’t get at with my email is that my team is amazing, most of their work is precarious and I don’t have a ton of leverage in helping make it more stable. So buying fancy cupcakes is a small way to make them feel valued. I wish I could give them all stable employment and screw birthdays, but that’s not possible.

      I think the bigger issue is that I am annoyed I have a great team I can’t reward with more stable work and my “reward” for trying to be a boss that recognizes their greatness in ways available to me is costing me more money than I’d like. It’s not really the birthdays, it’s the personal compromises we are being asked to make in order to work that this place we believe in and value.

      1. AMPG*

        That really is crappy, honestly. At my old job each team had a discretionary budget for things like this. My team wasn’t big on birthdays but we had a lot of interns, so we had a quarterly going-away party for each intern cohort, which was plenty of celebrating for us. Other teams did do birthdays, but they were smaller teams and I think managers often supplemented the budget.

        My suggestion is that you switch up how you do birthdays to something shared and more low-key, but do a quarterly team celebration of some kind that you underwrite. This takes some of the pressure off the birthdays to do the heavy lifting on team building, and shows your staff you appreciate the work they do without bankrupting you. I know it doesn’t completely solve the problem of chipping in for a cost that the company should cover, but it sounds like that’s a fact of life at this company.

  36. The Wall of Creativity*

    People buy treats when they have something to celebrate. A simple rule that works. They also choose their own budget and what to buy (chocolates, cakes, fruit, donuts,… but not booze). With my birthday being in July and close to a couple of others, we used to club together to bring in a special treat of mid afternoon ice creams for everybody.

  37. Allison*

    I always thought I’d hate being “the birthday girl,” but actually liked it last year and got a little sad when I thought I might be skipped because the person who usually arranges the birthdays was out. That said, if I found out my boss was paying for all the cakes themselves, and we had a lot of birthdays throughout the year, I would totally understand cutting back to a monthly or quaterly birthday, or nothing at all, or having the team voluntarily chip in. Maybe something like a “swear jar” (or “late jar,” or whatever) could be a fun(ish) way to help cover it.

    But personally, I wouldn’t want to bring in my own cupcakes, unless there was a place near work that sold them. I take the subway to commute, and for some reason middle aged men looove grabbing at food going “can I have some?” or “thanks for the cake!” and then laughing their heads off like it’s the funniest thing in the world. Someone would have to be really special for me to be willing to put up with that.

    1. Allison*

      Sorry, that generalization wasn’t nice. Not all middle aged men do it. But there’s always one . . .

      1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

        Not every middle aged guy is That Guy, but if That Guy makes That Comment, he’s always a middle aged guy. Don’t be That Guy, middle aged guys.

    2. Kate*

      I bring cupcakes to work sometimes on the subway in a big blue 3-tier carrying case that I named Big Blue. I wield it as a weapon. I rarely get comments anymore. But it also may have to do with the fact that I have adopted the “I have just murdered someone and I am ready to kill again” face.

  38. The Wall of Creativity*

    Oh, and there was one time when some test results came through that I wanted to celebrate, so I sent out an email saying that I’d brought in some cakes. They were Jaffa cakes. Didn’t take people long to work out what test it was…

    1. MegaMoose, Esq*

      So I googled “jaffa cakes” because I’ve never heard of them or this association (although I assume it was pregnant because it would be a bit odd to celebrate low cholesterol or some such thing), and WOW do people have strong opinions about the “cake or biscuit” thing. VAT lawsuits? Think pieces? Actually, maybe the test results you were celebrating was a high score on a law school admissions test?

      1. The Wall of Creativity*

        In the UK, a jaffa is a semi-derogatory term for a seedless man. I’d had confirmation that my snip had been successful.

        1. Solidus Pilcrow*

          Ok, I’ve watched too much Stargate, because the only Jaffa I know are the soldier dudes on that show!

        2. Emi.*

          I can barely imagine anything more uncomfortable than being asked to celebrate a colleague’s vasectomy.

          1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

            Right? It’s like the most awkward thing I can imagine, and I’m a connoisseur of awkwardness. “Hey, I got some cookie/cake things whose name is an unfortunate double entendre referencing my recent vasectomy! Hope you’re hungry!”

          2. MegaMoose, Esq*

            Oh I dunno, I’ve always thought celebrating a coworker’s pregnancy is weird, too. “Congratulations on having unprotected penetrative intercourse or successful IVF and not miscarrying within the first few weeks! Here’s a $50 gift card!”

            1. Emi.*

              You’re not celebrating *how* she got pregnant. You’re celebrating the existence of a *whole new baby human*. That’s completely different.

                1. MegaMoose, Esq*

                  I dunno you guys – statistically, there’s a pretty good chance that baby’s gonna turn out to be a jerk.

                2. MegaMoose, Esq*

                  @Emi: For some reason, I don’t get invited to a lot of baby showers. I can’t imagine why…

          1. Ninja*

            I’m in the UK and I’ve never heard that term before to mean a seedless man. Learning something new every day.

  39. Lora*

    Holy crap, you guys are making me feel like the meanest boss ever!

    Me: how was your weekend?
    Employee: it was nice, Friend and I went out to Bar for my birthday.
    Me: oh, happy birthday! So about the technical report…

    I figure if I give them a good schedule and reasonable workload, help them think of things to do for professional development, give them flexible hours, say nice things about them to other people and try to get them raises and bonuses for good work, I’m doing enough to make them feel appreciated. But maybe I’m slacking?

    1. Allison*


      No, it’s not “mean” to not celebrate people’s birthdays. Of course things like schedule flexibility, good benefits, and opportunities to grow are more important than cupcakes. We’re not four. But if a boss does celebrate people’s birthdays with cake and people get used to it, it’s normal to worry how people will respond to you needing to cut back.

      1. Lora*

        Well, as people downthread said – sometimes it’s a thing that is important to them. I don’t personally do my own birthday and don’t tend to remember other people’s, ever, and they do get fussy with my forgetting. If it’s a thing I’ll make cake or pick up donuts or something, I don’t want people to be grumpy with me over that.

        1. Observer*

          If people get fussy about your forgetting, do yourself a favor and put the dates in your calendar. People are likely to appreciate that you say “happy birthday” or acknowledge what ever other thing it is. It makes people feel that you see them as a person, not just a cog.

    2. Kristine*

      I personally am a little sad when there’s no fun birthday celebrations, but that’s just the type of company culture I look for. It’s not for everyone!

    3. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

      This is not mean. This is, in fact, the extent to which a functional adult should expect their boss and/or coworkers to celebrate their birthday, and I find it insane that $40 worth of cupcakes and a party is even considered, much less expected.

    4. Ama*

      I honestly prefer people not make a fuss over my birthday at work — whenever possible I try to take my birthday off, so if I’m at work on my birthday (as I was this year — in fact I was running an out of state event all week) it means something is going on that requires my presence and I’d rather focus on getting that done. I don’t resent people who want to do more, but I appreciate it when I work in offices that either don’t make a fuss or give me the option to opt out of the fuss.

      I got an email from my boss and our office’s standard birthday gift, which is a small gift card to one of the lunch places near our office, which was perfectly fine with me.

    5. Turtle Candle*

      It’s totally a matter of office culture, I think. I tend to think of birthday stuff as being in the “nice but not necessary” category–I wouldn’t miss it if it didn’t happen, but I also am rather cheered by (opt-in) monthly cake. (I think this is in the category of things that aren’t a strictly black-and-white good vs. bad. Some good bosses do birthday stuff, others don’t. It’s just, I don’t know, personality, tenor of the team, workplace culture….)

    6. LQ*

      NOT MEAN! Good schedule, reasonable workload, professional development, flexible hours, bonuses? Yup. I would take that 100 times out of 100 over cupcakes. (Quite frankly I’d take that over all of that +cupcakes.) Not everyone is a fan of the shared food at work thing. But some people are really really invested in it. If you had a team full of people who are highly invested in shared food at work then you might have a problem.

    7. Shelby Drink the Juice*

      I prefer no birthday celebration. I work on a team of 12-15 people, but there’s 4 teams. We get an email nearly weekly to “bring in goodies for so and so’s birthday tomorrow”.

      First, they only give one or two days notice. Secondly, I don’t want to spend $10 every week to celebrate something. It adds up.

      One guy on my team has come up with a whole list of “donut violations”, i.e. your work anniversary, promotion, new car, etc. Which is ridiculous. I don’t participate. I also keep my name off the birthday calendar too.

  40. cathy*

    We have a birthday buddy system where the buddy 1) buys and circulates a card; 2) posts a fun sign in the breakroom on the person’s day so we all remember to wish them well. I’ve had to manage people wanting to randomly inflate the system by reminding them it causes bad feelings due to (unintentional) inequities. As manager, I save my money for one lunch out at the end of the year, and pitching in more heavily on the occasional baby shower or good-bye party.

  41. Ain't nobody got time for that*

    When I was made manager and the first birthday came up, I wasn’t sure if people wanted to continue our same office birthday traditions, so I reached out to everyone on my team and presented some options.

    I basically laid out that we could do: nothing, something where everyone pitches in, a rotating schedule, etc. and then asked everyone to respond with their vote (knowing that nothing was mandatory, everything was confidential, and that people could do nothing even if everyone else voted on something else).

  42. JK*

    We had something similar at a company I worked at– as the company grew, it no longer became feasible for them to buy a cake for everyone’s birthday. We went to the same rule they have in schools: if you want to celebrate your bday in the office, you brought in a treat to share. If you didn’t want to/couldn’t afford it, then you just didn’t bring anything in. Regardless, they did always circulate a card.

  43. Canadian J*

    I’m a big fan of birthday potlucks, done on a quarterly basis (something like the last Friday of every quarter, celebrating all the birthdays from that quarter).

    Make the birthday list opt-in, and put up a sheet that allows everyone to write down what they are bringing (in our case, we made headers like: sweet dishes, savoury dishes, drinks, utensils, music, decorations, etc… in order to ensure variety). Sing a birthday song if you want, or just a general cheers to all the birthday people.

    Everyone who participates is in charge of cleaning up their own dishes, and helping with the general tidy-up after the event.

    Don’t continue to shell out this kind of money. Good luck!

  44. Chalupa Batman*

    Another vote for a quarterly potluck. With a team that size, you probably have several people who like to cook and would be happy to pitch in. At an old job we did themes like someone mentioned (soups, ethnic foods, Mardi Gras, etc), and I always looked forward to it. I don’t like celebrating my birthday with coworkers, but I like food a lot, and wouldn’t mind being lumped in with other birthdays/good news. I would, however, be mortified to know my boss was spending outside their means to celebrate my birthday.

  45. Yet one more lawyer*

    We do quarterly bday celebrations where I work. (And I think that’s still more than some people would like.) If you must keep doing them, consider combining them. Also, NOT but if pre-sliced fruit is cheaper than fancy cupcakes, I know a lot of my coworkers preferred a healthier option at the forced celebrations.

  46. Alex "Barney" Barnaby*

    Get a CostCo membership and bring in a big quarter-sheet cake ($16, last I checked) each time. Or find cheap sheet cake at the local supermarket.

    It will still run you about $150 a year and might not be as fun and festive as cupcakes and sweets for everyone, but it’ll be cheaper and still fun. People can deal with sheet cake.

    1. Government Worker*

      Well, if that’s the only reason for the Costco membership, then the annual cost is actually $205 or whatever because the membership itself isn’t free.

      The cost aspect of all this is what the OP focuses on, but for me the hassle would be pretty significant, too. Going to Costco the night before someone’s birthday 10-15 times a year? What if that’s not a night when it’s easy for me to be away from home for an hour, or I have other commitments? Even just running to the much-closer grocery store for a cake would add up, time-wise. And I take the train to work, so bringing treats along is a pain in the butt. I’d end up running out mid-morning and carrying a half sheet cake four blocks down the street from the nearest Safeway (some of my colleagues did this and took a cart with them that they rolled down the street). In my personal circumstances it would be donuts or bagels in the morning, I think, just based on how annoying it would be to buy and transport anything else.

      1. Malibu Stacey*

        I hear that! I take the bus to work and I had a former coworker who was always planning potlucks and pressuring people to participate. I’m not bringing a crock pot on the bus or paying $25 to park that day just so I can bring something to the potluck!

        1. Government Worker*

          Yup! I’ve got a good quinoa salad recipe for that kind of thing, or maybe I’d make a pasta salad – something that can be put in a big tupperware where it doesn’t matter if it’s turned sideways to fit in a backpack. Cookies are a much better bet than cake or cupcakes for transit or bike commuters.

          My old office would get like 6″ or 8″ high-quality bakery cakes for birthdays (5-person office, and the company paid) and the honoree got to keep the leftovers. I had some very smushed bus still delicious leftover cake one year by the time my bike-to-the-train commute was over.

  47. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

    I personally find it bizarre that birthday celebrations are a feature of workplace cultures, period. My boss sends me a “hey, happy birthday, hope you have good beer” email, my coworkers will say “hey, happy birthday, Notmad, yer ooooold” and that’s about it. Elaborate individual workplace parties with fancy cupcakes are bonkers. Even the monthly birthday celebration strikes me as a little weird. I am probably pretty far on the “meh” side of the “birthday importance” spectrum, but unless you’re under 18, or celebrating a big decadal one, I’m not convinced adults should expect anybody but their immediate family and best friends to celebrate their birthday.

    1. Leatherwings*

      I agree, and I think adults who expect anyone other than their significant others and parents to care about their birthday are a little silly. I think the workplace celebration is less about “Hey, we’re all celebrating you getting a year older” and more about workplace bonding and acknowledgement though. Cupcakes once a month or once a quarter are less about caring about ones birthday and more about coming together and having treats and taking your mind off work. It’s a workplace culture thing, to me.

      1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

        I agree that’s important, but I feel like a quarterly potluck, happy hour, cookout, whatever is a more authentic way to promote that bonding. Food, preferably with alcohol as a social lubricant, promotes that. The cupcakes and singing and stuff….dunno, it kind of strikes me as a little infantile, like something one does at preschool or something.

      2. WellRed*

        SO, one year, we decided to celebrate like 3 birthdays together, they were all within a week or so. One of the celebrants complained that she didn’t get her own celebration. She was in her fifties.

      3. SarahTheEntwife*

        Yeah, we have monthly birthday cakes in my department even when there’s no birthday that month, because it’s really about the cake. (We also have department funding to pay for it, though.)

  48. Emmie*

    I think OP also has to address her differences in her new approach verses other manager’s approaches. AAM’s advice about the money is spot on. I’d also chat with other managers to see if they feel the same way. Maybe if a few of the managers do the same thing, it would be helpful too.

    1. ANewbie*

      Seconding this – it’s one thing to go to a potluck or another type of celebrating, but if OP’s team is the only one not getting the fancy cupcakes for each birthday, they are going to feel bummed unless OP specifically explains the situation (and even then, they’ll probably understand but at least one person is going to feel a little bummed anyway when they see coworkers on another team getting something their team no longer does).

      Also, AAM tends to have a lot of people who would rather not have work parties/fuss, but that’s probably not a representative sample of the population – there are plenty of people who do want to celebrate a birthday with the people they spend 40-50 hours a week with and would feel left out if other teams did it but theirs did not.

      1. Emily*

        OP here and THIS. I work in a large, connected and gossipy place. I want my team to feel valued and appreciated in ways I can sustainably provide and offer them and fancy cupcakes was an easy way to do that. I change it up – people are going to TALK. I like the idea of being straight with my team. I just need to weigh the optics a bit more.

  49. Rachel Green*

    I used to work for a division that did birthdays the secret santa way, except it wasn’t secret. It was opt-in, too. So, when I started working there, I was asked if I wanted to participate. I said sure, so I drew someone’s name and was responsible for getting cake and ice cream for that person’s birthday when it came up that year. Likewise, because I was choosing to participate, someone drew my name and was responsible for getting cake and ice cream for my birthday. It worked pretty well because I only had to buy cake once a year and I also got cake on my birthday. Everyone in the birthday group was invited to the “party.”

    In my current division, we don’t do anything for birthdays. My boss used to treat us to lunch on our birthdays, but for whatever reason, that hasn’t happened this year.

    The group that I eat lunch with will sometimes go get cupcakes for someone’s birthday. We go to a fancy bakery where cupcakes are $3 each. We take people’s individual orders ahead of time and collect money. So, if you want a cupcake, you pay for your own. Unless it’s your birthday we’re celebrating; then someone will buy your cupcake for you.

  50. Amber Rose*

    We do a quarterly birthday. Someone grabs a cake or ice cream or whatever and we all agree that it’s in honor of everyone who had a birthday that quarter. But we pay that out of petty cash, which is largely built up through the recycling program. Some of our guys drink a ridiculous amount of coke. Since you don’t have any kind of donation system currently, unless you want to try and set one up I don’t think you even need to go further than a Happy Birthday message.

    Individual birthday celebrations at work are silly in my opinion. These are coworkers, not best friends. Nobody should be expecting a surprise party.

  51. Massmatt*

    I’m surprised so many people are talking about their office birthday celebrations. I’ve never worked anyplace where having individual parties/treats for each birthday was the norm. Some places did monthly emails and maybe the person with the birthday or their manager would bring in cupcakes or something but it certainly was never an expectation for every birthday. 4-5 of these a month seems out of control, does the team drop work to gather and sing happy birthday and have cake each time? Seems weird for work.

    1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

      I’m with you. It all seems pretty weird, and I’ve never worked in an office where this kind of thing is even close to the norm.

  52. Elise*

    Your team might be a bit large for this, but my department goes out for lunch for everyone’s birthday (it’s opt-in, no shaming if you decline) and generally someone will pick up the birthday person’s tab. Everyone else goes dutch. There are only 7 of us though so it’s easy to remember who treated last, and I’ve never seen it get to a point where anyone was being stingy and always letting others do the treat. A staff member who likes to bake also makes cookies, but that’s completely voluntary on her part and no one expects it.

  53. I don't work with Martha Stewart*

    I’m seeing a lot of comments suggesting either potlucks or homemade baked goods. Am I a grinch or does anyone else hate eating food cooked by their coworkers? I haven’t seen any of these people’s kitchens, and two different coworkers have brought in “treats” with vague off-flavors suggesting less than scrupulous cleaning habits: the fruit salad that tasted like the cutting board hadn’t been thoroughly cleaned after garlic or onion was chopped earlier, and the distinctly soapy brownies. No thank you.

    1. I don't work with Martha Stewart*

      Ugh and I forgot how you always have to praise so effusively! You can’t just eat a cookie your cube neighbor made and have that be the end of it!

    2. caryatis*

      You don’t have to eat it. Anyone pushing food should take “no” for an answer, for any reason.

    3. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

      There’s a lot of awkwardness that can come about with this. There’s usually the one or two people who are legitimately fantastic cooks, and everybody just devours Wakeen’s homemade guac and Jane’s hummus, and the soapy brownies and garlicky fruit salad are just sitting there forlornly making everybody feel like a dick. There’s also usually the person who slaves over their grandmother’s cake recipe or whatever, and it’s not actually that good unless you have fond memories of eating it when you were 5, and a quarter of it gets eaten out of politeness while everybody crushes the Costco cookie multi-pack that Fergus picked up on the way in.

    4. Amber Rose*

      Yeah, we have occasional charity fundraiser/donation run thingies where my boss will bring in his slow cooker and make chili and charge everyone $2 for a bowl. I probably come across as curmudgeonly for not taking part, but I don’t even like chili that much, and I particularly don’t like chili that was made by someone when I don’t know their knowledge regarding food safety.

      I have worked in the food industry and taken food safety courses. I currently work in safety and have heard stories that would make you gag. I just can’t.

      1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

        I know a city restaurant inspector. He has seen things no man should. He can barely go out to eat anymore without getting an eyelid twitch.

    5. Allison*

      I trust some people in my life to bake yummy foods, but I’m with you, I’m always wary of homemade treats. Especially cupcakes, for some reason most homemade cupcakes are soggy on the inside. Why? Why is the cake soggy and gross and why does everyone else seem unfazed by that?

    6. Lissa*

      I don’t think you’re alone from previous threads — I remember a couple where I felt like I was the grossest here because I’ll eat any old thing that comes my way if it looks edible! I agree with the awkwardness of having to overpraise though.

    7. SarahTheEntwife*

      I love potlucks, but there are a lot of very good cooks where I work as well as no shame about just picking up a thing of cookies or whatever at the store.

  54. Sarasaurus*

    We do team lunches at the restaurant of the birthday haver’s choice. Whoever had the last birthday picks up the tab for the birthday haver. Our 8-person team came up with this system ourselves, and everyone seems pretty happy with it.

    1. Sarasaurus*

      I should mention that we haven’t had problems with anybody abusing this lunch system — people pick reasonably priced restaurants, don’t order the most expensive thing on the menu, etc. If we started to have problem with that kind of thing, I’m guessing there would be some pushback.

  55. Lily in NYC*

    Ha, my bday is next week and I noticed my boss has it marked in her calendar. I have full editing rights to her calendar so I deleted it this morning. And I just made another coworker promise to put a stop to it if my boss tries to get someone to go get cake and a card. I guess I am just missing whatever gene causes people to give a crap about the date someone happened to be born (I’m not judging those of you who do care).

    1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

      I’m with you. At most, a cheery “You’re another year closer to death, Notmad, so enjoy cake while you still can,” is entirely sufficient. But I’ve had many, many birthdays completely ignored except by my parents and my wife, and that’s cool too.

    2. SJ*

      At my old job, my boss had all his employees’ birthdays marked on his calendar (not to get them anything, just to with them a happy birthday). I had access to his calendar and noticed that because no one had ever asked when my birthday was, it wasn’t on his calendar, and I was thrilled to fly under the radar because I am not a Birthday Person. But sometime after my second year, someone said, “Wait a minute, when is your birthday??” and my boss felt all horrible that he’d never asked and blah blah.

      Of course, lucky me, in my new job, my very first day happened to be a coworker’s birthday as well, so I was immediately asked and it was immediately noted. Noooo!!!!

    3. Lissa*

      I don’t give a crap about my birthday but will take any excuse to have cake, not gonna lie. Or go out for dinner. I hate being fussed over but I love food, it’s a dilemma…

  56. ThePM*

    I hate,hate,hate being forced/obligated/whatever to cough up personal money for work stuff. We’re all adults, not little kids, and while it’s nice to be recognized, I’d also be super uncomfortable with my manager shelling out her/his own cash. If I want to take my work BFF out to lunch, that’s on me. And I think AAM is right – they probably assume that you are using a company budget for such things.

    OP – what are you willing to spend of your own money, since this seems to be A Thing at your company (from a leadership perspective, that is)? If you’re accepting that you Must Spend Something due to how the leaders view this, I think that you have to decide what your budget is and work it from there without talking to your team. For example, is it up to about $120/year? That’s $10 /month. Regardless of what the budget is, I’d go to monthly birthday “recognition” and customize from there. Say, Mary and Wakeem both like coffee and their birthdays are in March. You buy a pack of great K-cups and everyone has a great cup of coffee in the AM. Maybe Sally and Bret both like jelly beans or bagels. Same thing.

    I think that you mention at your next team meeting, hey…this is what I’m going to start doing as it’s getting to be too much time/sugar/money/whatever…and then just implement it.

    But, to be clear, I’d rather you not have to do anything!!

    1. Emily*

      OP here. I think you’re right, my team doesn’t know. Which I get, this stuff is so inside management baseball.

      Here are my concerns:

      1. Being totally out of sync with company culture

      2. Taking away an easy way to recognize an awesome team of precarious workers who I don’t have a ton of flexibility to reward – I manage them but can’t extend their contracts without a ton of clearance, can’t extend their holidays, can’t give them raises. It sucks.

      Fancy cupcakes seem easy. But I like to not spend my personal money in order to compensate my company’s challenges,

  57. Malibu Stacey*

    When I worked in govt we had the same rules so one employees kept a Sunshine Fund for the dept for funeral flowers, get well flowers, new baby gifts, etc. The person who had the $ just sent out an email when more $ was needed. We didn’t use it for birthdays, though. I liked it because I didn’t have to be seen as the person who put in $10 for one coworker but nothing for another.

  58. A7*

    We bring treats for our own birthdays. That way if you want it celebrated, it is; if you don’t, it isn’t; and nobody ever ends up with treats they dislike or are allergic to on their birthday. Also, it’s not hard to remember. It works pretty well in our office of ~20.

  59. ArtsAdmin4Life*

    We do once-a-month “birthday breakfast” for my department of 30. Once or twice a year, anyone who wants to participate donates $20 to the birthday fund and that money goes to pay for bagels or donuts. It seems to work well for us. The only challenge is that someone has to keep track of the money coming in or going out, and another someone (or the same person) has to actually get the bagels.

    I think you could explain to your staff that money for these kinds of celebrations is coming out of your pocket – which I bet they don’t even know – and ask if, moving forward, they’d want to continue and if so, would they consider contributing.

  60. Colorado*

    Maybe I’m just cranky today but can we please just stop with the birthday celebrations and all the food bringing to work altogether? I can see a potluck once in a while (maybe), cupcakes and fruit to celebrate a work related milestone/success, but we’re all adults. I certainly don’t need to celebrate my birthday at work. That is what my family and friends are for. And I don’t want to be bombarded with constant snacks, candy, baked goods every time I go into the break room to refill my water bottle. I told you I was cranky today ;-)

    1. Colorado*

      Oh, and nix the potlucks too. I got horrible food poisoning at the last company chili cook-off. My husband’s a chef and he tells me all about “proper food temps and storage”, and I can tell you, not everyone knows that stuff, nor does everyone follow “proper sanitation techniques”.

      1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

        Yeah, as a cook who also happens to be a microbiologist, I make a conscious decision not to germophobe out, but…..yeah, Wakeen, I know that chili sat on your floorboards during your hour-long commute, and I know you just plugged it in at 10, and I know it’s basically a spicy bioreactor by now.

          1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

            Baked goods are rarely a problem. It’s the seven-layer dips, chilis, and queso that gives me the screaming meemies.

            1. Morning Glory*

              My husband and I have two cats. We sweep, and wash everything often, but if you asked me to 100% guarantee there were zero cat hairs in a batch of cupcakes I made, to bring to an office where someone may be allergic… I wouldn’t want to risk it

              1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

                Usually cat allergies are respiratory, but I follow your point.

                1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

                  They’re not? Oh god, have I been doing it wrong all this time?

  61. stk*

    In my office, people usually bring in for their own birthday! Or if their team does something, it’s paid for by collection from everyone.

    And if it helps, OP, if I were in your team and knew this was happening, I’d feel AWFUL. You shouldn’t have to be straining your own finances for something like this. I can’t imagine anyone in your team expects you to, either. There are other ways to keep a little bit of celebration going without it all falling on you.

  62. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

    Here’s a modest proposal: why isn’t it on the birthday boy/girl to bring in their own cupcakes, if they want a party?

  63. AliceBD*

    In our company it is up to the department. My quad decorated the person’s cubicle with a set of decorations contributed by various people; it’s all paper, so we set it up for the birthday and take it down and store it in between.

    For the actual day, the person’s manager or coworker will organize anyone who wants to go to lunch at a nearby restaurant chosen by the birthday person and make the reservation. You’re free to go or not and no one will think poorly of you if you don’t go to others lunches. At the lunch everyone pays for their own meal (these are usually under $15 including tip — think Ruby Tuesday or Red Robin) and the manager pays for the meal of the birthday person.

    Sometimes we’ll have a mini potluck instead of going to lunch. In that case an email is sent around and anyone who wants to bring something does. We have a bunch of people who like to bake and cook so there is always enough food.

  64. Naruto*

    Tell people. I would bet your team doesn’t want you spending your own money on this, particularly 20 times a year. Either people can potluck once a month (you could do all the monthly birthdays on the 15th or something — because 4 times in March is too many), or you can not do it at all. Ask them what they want to do.

  65. Kate*

    The only issue I can see with switching up your policy is that you’ve already treated 1/3 to 1/2 of your staff one way and you’ll now be treating the other half a different way. I could see people being a little miffed if Tom and Jane and Bob and Sue all got cupcakes that they didn’t have to contribute towards and now they’ll have to contribute towards their own cupcakes. Maybe it’s better to eat the cost the rest of this year and then start over again in 2018.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I think, though, that if she explains she’s paying for all this personally, people won’t be miffed. I suspect people have no idea it’s coming out of her own pocket.

      1. Emily*

        OP here. I think you’re right. It just feels like a crappy thing to complain about, considering their employment situation is precarious and mine is not. I want to recognize them without being a cheap jerk, but also like to keep my money.

        1. Personal Best in Consecutive Days Lived*

          It’s not a crappy thing to complain about. You’re trying to control what you spend your hard-earned money on! Completely reasonable.

          (Formerly Another Emily. This thread inspired me.)

    2. LQ*

      I would be surprised if this was an issue. If you had one person who REALLY cared about birthday food and it’s coming up on April 3rd and it feels like you’re doing this right before their birthday and they already have a difficult relationship with the boss? Then maybe. But If you told me the day before my birthday that you wouldn’t be bringing food for it? Cool. Spend the money on something more important. That’s wild that you’ve been spending money on your staff. And I think a lot of people would feel the same.

      1. Squeeble*

        Yes, this. I think there’s a way to handle this badly, where someone gets their feelings hurt, like what you described. But if you’re just matter of fact about the situation and don’t bring it up at a weird time, most people are going to understand completely.

  66. Bea*

    If my manager was buying things out of pocket, I’d be horrified. Thankfully we have ownership who runs all these things through the business. I wound assume everyone thinks it’s company funded and expose this for what it is to your team.

    My out of pocket for gifts are $5 Starbucks gift cards and letters on stationary I already buy anyways. A coffee and recognition has gone a long way for me, anyone who feels it’s not enough is welcome to think what they want. Nobody should go broke because their company are cheapskates. Stop protecting the company like that!

  67. Student*

    I worked with Germans for a while. They had a tradition, told me it was cultural, that the birthday person brought in a snack to share with the team, instead of the other way around.

    I always thought this was a much better way to do it. You get to find out what kind of snacks the person actually likes instead of doing the same thing every time there’ a birthday, people who don’t want to celebrate their birthdays just don’t bring in snacks, and nobody has to take on the role of “birthday coordinator”.

    1. Emi.*

      Yeah, this was how we did birthdays when I went to school in Germany. We all sat in a circle, and they sang various German versions of Happy Birthday (one in a round!). It was great.

  68. Chriama*

    If you come to the team, you need to present a couple alternatives and be open to suggestions. Just coming and saying “I can’t afford to buy you guys cupcakes anymore” would make me feel like my manager is trying to guilt me into something. It’s an open-ended question with an implied answer. It’s better to say “With the size of our team it’s costly to do these celebrations so frequently, so I propose we either move to quarterly celebrations or a rotating system of people bringing in treats. Does anyone have any other alternatives?” And then let them email or privately tell you their preferences so no one feels peer pressured into a specific answer.

    Quite frankly, I suspect the large majority of people don’t even care that much about birthday celebrations. I’ll eat cupcakes if they’re available but if you told me the choices were cupcakes less frequently or me having to shell out my own money I’ll just quietly withdraw. I don’t like any of stuff enough to buy it for myself regularly, much less for my coworkers.

  69. memyselfandi*

    I’ve never been able to figure out why anyone else would be interested in my birthday. Maybe it’s because growing up birthday celebrations were a family event, and my mother did a wonderful job with those celebrations. Honestly, I probably wouldn’t be interested in marking it at all now that my mother is gone except that I have a younger sister born on the same day. I am not against workplace celebrations, and if someone else gets joy from celebrating their birthday with colleagues at work I am happy to contribute to joyousness.

    1. MegaMoose, Esq*

      My only sibling and I share a birthday as well, our mom is four days before us, and our dad two weeks after, so we did the big family celebrations thing, too. It has never stopped being a little odd to me when people talk about their birthday as being all about them.

      1. Lily in NYC*

        I try not to be judgmental about this but I’m not very successful – I hate when my grown-ass adult friends go on and on about having a birthday week and expect people to attend multiple celebrations (dinner one night, a play a different night, drinks over the weekend, blech) in their honor. I ended up distancing myself from a friend after she got mad that I refused to go ice skating for her bday – after I had already attended an expensive dinner out and gotten her a present. She actually expected to receive presents and was annoyed that people with little kids didn’t feel the need to attend her 5 nights of “fun”.

        1. MegaMoose, Esq*

          Good lord, I can entirely understand distancing yourself from that person. If you want to throw yourself a week of birthdays, well, I’m going to judge, but who cares what I think? But to actually get mad at someone for declining to attend all of the festivities? That’s just absurd.

        2. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

          Yeah, that’s prima facie evidence of narcissism, IMO. It’s nice when my wife gets me a present and maybe some friends wanna go get some tacos and beers or whatever, but the entire concept of the birthday week was invented by and for people who never got the message that the world stopped revolving around them at around age 10.

          1. Lily in NYC*

            Oh yeah, I should mention I’m not a total ogre and do celebrate with my family if we happen to be in the same town that year. But that’s it.

  70. AliceW*

    I’ve worked for Mega Corps and small firms with less than 20 people and everything in between and I have never seen anyone celebrate employee birthdays before. This just strikes me as a weird practice.

  71. Bazinga*

    There are a couple ways you could go.
    Celebrate the entire month’s birthdays in one day. So all the April birthdays on April 25, or whatever. That way it’s just once a month rather than multiple times.
    Or we have everyone bring a cake for the person who’s birthday comes next. So if your birthday is Jan 12, and the next one is Jan 25, you would bring the cake for the 25th. The person whose birthday is the 25 buys for the next birthday in January, and so on. I doubt your direct reports want you going broke to celebrate birthdays.

  72. Sibley*

    Two options I’ve seen:

    1. Monthly celebration provided by company (or mgr in your case)
    2. The birthday person brings in treats.

  73. Marisol*

    The OP asks for suggestions for birthday celebrations. I have a wonderful birthday tradition that I’d like to share with you. Ready? Ok, here it is: DO NOTHING WHATSOEVER. It’s satisfying for all concerned. No one gets their day interrupted by having to trudge to the conference room. No one is forced into a lugubrious, off-key rendition of “happy birthday to you.” No one gets their diets derailed by unanticipated carbs. No one has to make awkward small talk with colleagues they barely know. No one who hates being the center of attention is forced into that role. No one is reminded that they are one year closer to death.

    I am normally a pretty gung-ho, school-spirit type of person when it comes to office parties and other team events, but not when it comes to birthday parties. I have a hard time believing that they’re anything other than a burden for the majority of people. Honestly, I think there are more people out there who delude themselves into *thinking* they enjoy office birthday celebrations than who actually do. It’s an obligatory, “fun that isn’t” kind of thing.

    1. fposte*

      I’m not sure “thinking they enjoy it” is really distinguishable from actual enjoyment, though. I also think there are plenty of birthday celebrations that don’t fit your model.

      1. Marisol*

        Off the top of my head, I’m not sure how to formally argue the idea that thinking you enjoy something that you don’t enjoy is qualitatively different than sincerely enjoying it. Perhaps an experiment could be devised where dopamine levels are measured after different activities are performed, with participants first ranking their enjoyment levels of each activity. Researchers could then track how the self-reported enjoyment levels compare with the dopamine levels found in the blood. A big discrepancy between the two, i.e., ranked office birthday party as an 8 on a scale of 1 to 10, but blood dopamine levels showed only a scant increase, could indicate that the subject was merely thinking they enjoyed something, rather than actually experiencing enjoyment. (I’m making myself laugh right now, but I swear I began this paragraph as an earnest thought experiment.)

        Approaching the issue less directly, I am certain that we live in a society of unmet needs and desires, beginning with our Calvinist forebears, and that lots of people are genuinely confused about what they feel, and what they like. People marry people they don’t really love, eat food they don’t really like, pursue careers that don’t bring them satisfaction, etc. Most of this happens as a result of wanting to fulfill societal expectations, and in an effort to both meet these expectations and avoid cognitive dissonance, people lie to themselves that their choices actually bring them happiness, when that’s not really the case. Not every person lives this way of course, but a lot of us do, in one way or another.

        If you can accept that the above paragraph is true, then perhaps you can agree that it *could* apply to office birthday celebrations, with people “performing” enjoyment (to use a concept I learned from Captain Awkward) rather than actually feeling it, even to the extent that they think they feel it when they really don’t.

        1. Emi.*

          That’s assuming that elevated dopamine constitutes enjoyment, which I think is a problem.

          1. Marisol*

            Yeah, I wasn’t sure which hormone to pick, but I know dopamine is a reward hormone so I went with that one…seratonin is the other obvious choice but I think that is more about relaxation, less likely to apply in an office environment. Oxytocin, the bonding hormone, might be another possibility in some contexts…but I admit I have no real clue. Also I’m just now remembering that measuring blood serotonin levels don’t really tell you about the levels in your brain, so probably a blood test wouldn’t yield meaningful results in any case…

        2. fposte*

          Ooh, this is fun! We can’t reasonably wrestle this to the mat the way I’d like to without being too digressive, but I think that you’re overprivileging one experience as enjoyment there without acknowledging the fact that, for instance, according with societal norms can indeed be enjoyable and counts too, and that the measurement in the moment is only part of a construct of enjoyment that continues to occur and change every time memories are accessed and rewritten.

          That aside, people at my workplace all know each other and really like cake, and we’re already sitting down when it comes, and we don’t sing.

          1. fposte*

            Oh, and we’d have to test everybody regardless of their claimed level of enjoyment, to be open to the possibility that people only think they *don’t* like such celebrations :-).

            1. Marisol*

              Ha ha, I did think about the fact that conforming to norms can bring a kind of enjoyment in itself but refrained from mentioning it for the very fear of digression you mention. (Sometimes my favorite posts are digressive, alas). I suppose we could establish a baseline for how much enjoyment one gets from conforming, and then if the dopamine (or whatever marker) didn’t go beyond that while participating in an office birthday party, we could say that the enjoyment was *merely* from social conformity rather than the party itself. It didn’t occur to me to frame enjoyment as…transcending the immediate moment to include memories, etc. however. I think we’d have to leave that beyond the scope of the experiment.

              It sounds to me like what your office does though, is have An Excuse To Eat Cake, which actually is fun for most people. Not sure why that framing is fun whereas the “office birthday parties” framing is not fun. Probably the singing plays a factor.

              As for people who think they don’t like office birthday parties but actually enjoy them without realizing it?? In the interest of scientific thoroughness, sure, we could test for that, but I think the scientific community is more likely to find the loch ness monster…

      1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

        Right? I think I want to be Marisol’s friend just because she worked “lugubrious” into the post, and used it correctly. I actually applauded when I read that.

  74. Heather*

    My part of the company, the department head does a monthly lunch where he takes out all employees that have a birthday at once. Doesn’t sound like you have a big enough team for that. I definitely would just do one celebrate a month at maximum. But maybe you can do a potluck or something and everyone bring something?

  75. Big Picture Person*

    In our company there are snacks for sale in the breakroom. The money raised by these snacks pays for the birthday fun stuff, which we do no more than 1 per month. There are about 25 of us.

  76. Stephanie (HR Manager)*

    My FAVORITE birthday celebration were the yogurt sundaes. It was pot-luck, and everyone brings something. Greek yogurt (the salted caramel was always a hit), cut fruit (berries, bananas, etc.), granola (someone brought homemade, OMG), mini cholocate chips, pecans or walnuts, and we basically made healthy (ish) sundaes for breakfast as a team. They were SO GOOD. Someone usually also brought some muffins or something to go along with it, but it was interactive, you got to pick exactly what you ate, and it worked with our dieting (at least half of us were always on one diet or another) if you skip some of the less healthy ingredients. And we would sit and pass around the ingredients and chat for an hour before getting to work.

  77. Kaybee*

    We used to do a potluck for each person’s birthday, which I was never a fan of for all the reasons that the commentariat so eloquently state whenever there is a potluck discussion on AAM.

    Now we go out for dessert on people’s birthday and everyone buys their own. (The birthday person’s manager will typically buy for the birthday person, in which case everyone will kick in 50 cents or whatever is appropriate to cover their share of the birthday person’s dessert.) There is the occasional person who will ask to go to a gourmet dessert place, but most people ask to go to a nearby ice cream shop or pastry shop. Healthier folks will ask to go have tea, usually. We typically expect to spend $3-4. This may not be the most cost effective solution for you – if you did something similar and no one kicked in for the birthday person, buying ice cream for yourself and the birthday person would still run you more than $50/year. And of course it can put those who can’t afford a treat (especially in months with multiple birthday) on the spot. “Hey Lucinda, why aren’t you getting anything?” But it’s a lot easier than the potlucks were, and it’s actually really nice to take an hour out of an afternoon and go sit on a patio somewhere and just chill. Which presents possible alternative: could you send the birthday person home (paid) an hour or two early in lieu of everyone congregating to eat and socialize? Many people would appreciate that more than cupcakes.

  78. theletter*

    You know what I like on my birthday? A card. It doesn’t have to be store-bought, but I feel like genuine words and well-wishes last far longer than the sugar rush of a cupcake.

    I worked for a couple of companies that had birthday cakes for each person – one even had a special song and a stupid hat. It was pretty awkward.

  79. a girl has no name*

    I would advise against what my department does. The birthday person usually brings their own treats for the office. Everyone acted like I was rude when I didn’t bring in sweets on my birthday. I don’t understand why on my birthday I would bake (which I hate doing) or use my money to buy the office a snack. I really don’t understand this tradition.

    I would suggest the once a quarter celebrate all birthdays in the quarter, and I think you can go cheaper on the cupcakes. They don’t need to be fancy.

    1. Thlayli*

      It’s only rude if you ate other people’s birthday treats then didn’t bring your own. If you didn’t touch theirs at all then they are way out of line.

      1. Morning Glory*

        Oh I don’t know if it would even be rude in that situation!

        If I bring in baked goods for the office to celebrate MY birthday, I’m not going to keep a secret list of everyone who eats one, like they’re accidentally signing away their right to celebrate their own birthday as they choose.

        1. Bagpuss*

          Yes – I’d only think it rude if you were always grabbing 2nd or 3rd helpings when not everyone had had a chance of cake yet, or complaining bout the variety of cake other people chose to bring.
          If I bring cake for my birthday, it’s there to be eaten. Once it’s been placed in the kitchen I don’t think of it as mine any more (except my slice, obviously!)

          Although I did once work in an office where there was a small clique which spent far too much time monitoring this sort of thing, and complaining about people who (they perceived) to take more than their fair share. It was not a fun place to work.

      2. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

        Maybe, but if you’re keeping track of who’s eating your birthday treats and nursing grudges when they don’t reciprocate, that’s score-keeping on a level I don’t think is healthy.

  80. FiveWheels*

    Our standard birthday practice is that everyone brings in treats for their own birthday. It varies between expensive cupcakes and cheaper bulk buy candy, and occasionally fruit. Everyone’s free to spend as much or as little as they like and there’s no birthday list anywhere, so nobody would know if someone wanted to skip.

  81. kiwidg1*

    Our managers trade off and bring birthday treats in once a month so no one is stuck with the bill all of the time.
    To be honest, I don’t need my manager bringing cupcakes in for every birthday on the team.

  82. Applesauced*

    My birthday is next week, and the commenters saying that the birthday person brings in treat has inspired me to get munchkins for my team!

  83. Anna*

    I’m so surprised that so many people here celebrate birthdays at work. In all my years of work, I think I’ve only been to one birthday celebration, and that was a big milestone for a long-time coworker (65th birthday). I’ve been working one way or another for almost 20 years now and not once has my birthday ever been celebrated at work! I don’t think my coworkers even know what day my birthday is.

    I realize you can’t just nix birthdays unilaterally, because it is already part of your company culture, but you may be overestimating how strong the entitlement feelings of birthday celebrations might be on your team–some may be relieved to not have the birthday celebration!

    1. Central Canadian*

      I feel the same surprise! At my workplace, you might say “happy birthday!” to someone if you happen to know it’s their birthday, which some people do due to facebook or personal relationships. But I’ve never been in a workplace where people went out of their way to mark someone’s birthday, or signed cards or brought in snacks for it!

      We celebrate retirements after long careers with cake & speeches. And we’ve celebrated workplace events (e.g. project completion or workplace milestone) with food. Birthdays just seem kind of personal to me — it seems like a celebration for friends and family, not colleagues.

      We also don’t do wedding or baby showers — we just congratulate people on those events, we don’t take up a collection or buy gifts or anything.

  84. Kore*

    My office has monthly birthday snacks/treats but we have a larger group of us in the office (couple hundred?) – maybe doing a quarterly joint birthday thing would be a lot more manageable? It’s less personal, but if you have to pay for it yourself then that’s probably a decent solution.

  85. Delightful Daisy*

    Our office does a hybrid of what has been discussed. Our flower and gift committee circulates a card that people sign. If you don’t want to sign it, you can just cross off your name. Some departments bring in treats for just their department, some bring treats for the whole organization and some departments do nothing. Staff in the admin office go out for a birthday lunch- there’s four of us. I pay for the lunches since I’m the boss but it’s totally my choice to do so. Prior they each paid their own. For my BD, my AD pays for my lunch. Just because the rest of the departments do it one way, I think it’s fine to do a different way but I would have a conversation with your department. I agree with others that you may have someone that loves to bake or they may want to do potluck or whatever. In addition to the birthday celebrations, we have specific (very specific) guidelines for births, engagements, weddings, hospital stays, etc.

    We also do potlucks throughout the year that are completely optional and lots of fun. Our next one is “Mom’s Day-Bring your mom’s favorite recipe to cook or your favorite thing your mom cooks”. :-)

  86. Jess*

    In a lot of Europe, people bring in a cake or refreshments on their own birthdays. I love it. Means I get the cake I want.

  87. 2 Cents*

    One place I interned used to have a birthday celebration at the beginning of the month. They brought in/paid for the treats, which ranged from fancy cupcakes to an on-site Cold Stone Creamery stand.

    Since you’re shelling out your own money for this, it’s fine for you to make the rules. Make it monthly or quarterly. Or forget the treats, buy a pack of assorted birthday cards, and circulate them around before each person’s birthday.

  88. Dina*

    My department is 10 people and we do quarterly birthdays. Every paycheck we chip in 4$ to a pool for the quarterly birthday lunch, and it ends up covering the holiday party as well. No one is salty about it, especially considering the small contribution we make that we end up getting back anyway.

  89. JeanLouiseFinch*

    The chip-in “birthday clubs” sound like a good idea, but I think I would just as soon have everyone sign a card and get 1 cupcake or doughnut or whatever, for the birthday girl/boy. It’s cheaper than what the LW is now doing and requires less work/organization. Besides, in all offices it seems as if there is one person who totally takes advantage of group things like a “birthday club.” In my former office, the partners would contribute nothing to potlucks but would routinely load up their plates when the staff was throwing a potluck and/or would see something for everyone out in the lunchroom and simply take it all (we are talking like bags of candy, 2 dozen oranges, to the point where we knew this person was taking it home but never contributed despite making a huge salary.) I am betting that many offices have someone who has opted not to participate – at least, opted not to give any money towards a cake or treats, but always makes sure they have the biggest piece of cake or make sure they pack up so-called leftovers and take them home. The other alternative is to have an after work get together or a lunch where everyone pays their own freight and goes in for the birthday person.

  90. DiscoTechie*

    At one of my previous jobs, the office admin had a ridiculous “Happy Birthday” floor mat that was placed outside the birthday person’s cube/office. Treats were handled also by the admin as a company thing. The floor mat is a pretty low key/inexpensive way to acknowledge a birthday.

    Current company gives you the option of bagels or donuts which are provided by the company. Previous job, you were on your own to bring in treats on your birthday.

  91. Interviewer*

    I realize you’re talking about workplace and grownups – but when my children were in daycare, parents were always sending cupcakes for their children’s birthdays. So I would send in 2 boxes of popsicles. With summer birthdays, the entire class could head outside to enjoy a fun treat. Be different!

  92. Jill*

    When I started Current Job, we all got personally chosen Christmas gifts and were taken out for a group lunch at a local restaurant to the tune of a $400 lunch bill – high for my area. I assumed it was standard. Then my boss mentioned that she spent nearly $1,000 out of pocket on that Christmas but felt it necessary since we all worked hard that year. I was stunned. So I agree with AAM that OP’s staff might not even realize this is out of pocket for OP.

    I think the idea of being an adult who HAS to have a birthday celebration is a little silly so I feel bad that OP works for a place that sounds like it’s a requirement for managers. I’d rather cut out mandatory celebrations and just let those things come about organically, at employee suggestion, with the understanding that it’ll be potluck/chip-in style.

  93. Bagpuss*

    In our office, people bring treats on their own birthday – that way, each person only has to buy or bake once a year, but gets treats multiple times. And you don’t need to go overboard – at our office, some people will go to the bakery and buy cream buns for each person, so buying for the 15-18 people in the office could cost £25-£30, but others will buy a single traybake, or tubs of mini bites for £5 or so, so everyone gets to decide what they are comfortable spending.
    It works pretty well.

    In a previous office I worked at the plan was that everyone contributed £1 per birthday, and each birthday person got the money and used some of it to buy cake, on their birthday, but that was not good system as even £1 per person adds up, particularly for those on lower wages, and it led to resentment as some people ended up contributing more than they ever received, for instance if they had a birthday at a time when lots of others were on holiday. (I personally did spectacularly badly as I joined the company and paid in for 11 months and then it was abolished just before my birthday, but it was a bad system even from a more objective perspective!)

  94. Thinking Outside the Boss*

    I manage a group of about 20 and we were in the same situation of having no budget to plan events for general morale purposes. We tried the monthly birthday get together, but like others have noted, it’s somewhat embarrassing for the birthday group and just not much fun.

    One thing that has worked is a monthly donut get together in the morning. People volunteer and it’s a casual half hour where you can choose to attend or not. No one feels slighted if you don’t attend. No one feels pressured to attend or bring something in for a specific month. It has worked out great.

  95. Cheesecake 2.0*

    I like the way my work does it – if you feel like celebrating your own birthday, you bring in your own treats to share. I brought a german apple cake last time. If you are uncomfortable about birthdays, no one will ever know because there’s no tracking/paying attention. We do manager-sponsored cupcakes only when someone on the team leaves, which is only a couple times a year.

    1. Kikishua*

      Yes, that’s how my previous team used to do it – the birthday person bought in treats! Mostly cake, but sometimes fruit or savory snacks.

  96. Former Employee*

    One place I worked many years ago did a Birthday Club and it was completely voluntary. I don’t know that I would be able to participate now as I have much stricter dietary considerations, but that’s on me. And that’s the point – people decided to be in it or not. No pressure. The best part was that the cakes were baked by the daughter of a lady who worked there and she was some kind of baking phenomenon. She was one of those home bakers who was better than most professionals.

  97. Patches*

    I am a total grinch and don’t think birthday celebrations belong in the office. It’s work, not kindergarten! I think people should harden up. I once had a co-worker quit because the company gave everyone a chocolate and she was upset that we didn’t have dairy free chocolate to give her. Literally quit over it. Having said that, if birthdays had to be acknowledged in the office and I had to pay for it, I’d just be giving the birthday person a cupcake or treat, not everyone. The most I would do is an inexpensive cake once a month for all the birthdays in that month. Spending $40 on fancy cupcakes is just not in my budget once a month, let alone multiple times.

  98. Hiker 1546*

    I don’t like potlucks. Mostly I don’t like being in a sitution where I’m forced to bring something on a recurring basis (such as quarterly). My Midwest office does the “bring something for the next person’s birthday” which I also don’t like because my preference is to have the treat that I prefer on my birthday. So I opted out of the schedule and I bring a treat that I would enjoy. Usually scones (which noone else ever brings).

  99. AstroDeco*

    OP, I appreciate your intent & I understand your frustration. If I were on your team, my thoughts would be:
    Because you’re the only one who brings things in for celebrations, I’d assume these were all company funded.
    If I were told these were your personal expenses, unless you asked for donations my assumption would be that you can afford them & are willing to do this. Hopefully I’d think to ask if I could contribute, however I might not because I tend to think one will ask me to donate if needed.
    If asked, I’d be glad to donate because office party planning is not a skill I have nor do I want to cultivate it.
    I’d be horrified to learn that this is a financial hardship for you, especially after you’ve done this courtesy for so long.
    As my hypothetical team leader, you can show your commitment to our team simply by doing what you can to lead us toward success. I’m not a fan of office celebrations for personal events because these tend to take up too much work time & almost always there’s discord (eg: someone wasn’t given recognition or asked to sign the card or one who prefers personal privacy is thrown in the spotlight). To be told “Happy Birthday” is one thing, to have it recognised publicly is not my thing. If I know it’s a colleague’s birthday then I’ll wish one a Happy day.
    Please don’t feel obliged to continue this. Just explain the current system is no longer feasible & ask your team if they want these celebrations & to what extent; their are many good suggestions in these comments. Their replies might surprise you!
    Also, you might want to be prepared with a reply in case one is tactless enough to ask a variation of “Hey, it’s Fergus’ birthday! Where are the cupcakes? Don’t you like Fergus? Is he in trouble?”

    Think of it this way: By *not* providing all of the sweets, you’re contributing to your team’s health!
    (Oh, no! Now I really want a cupcake…)

    1. Emily*

      OP here. I honestly think the issue for me is not really the fancy cupcakes. It’s that I have so little to reward my team – most who are precariously employed – with any legitimate rewards like more money, longer contracts, more days off, etc. The one thing I CAN do is buy them cupcakes on their birthday, but that’s lame and also is not a tool my company if offering for team building, it’s one I do on my own. GAH.

      I’d prefer to ex-nay birthday celebrations and offer more actual employment rewards but I don’t have that power.

      1. AstroDeco*

        Emily, I’m sorry if I made the issue sound like it was only about fancy cupcakes; that wasn’t my intent. :)
        You’re genuinely concerned for your team & that is a strength! Especially with jobs that rotate, which can be a challenge.
        Possibly you can do more for your team than you realise!
        Also, talk with your team (individually, not as a group) & ask how you can assist them to do their job better &or what “perks” they might want that you can do. Requests might be as simple as more feedback, help with a particular item or even a new stapler. The latter is from my ExJob, when I requested & received an electric stapler; this one stapler did much better for my long-term morale than birthday treats!!
        Being fair & willing to listen to concerns can go a long way, especially if one knows you’re willing to act on something if warranted… a quick bravo for a job well done… being open to new ideas & encouraging innovation… giving what you can in time off, even if it’s just a few minutes’ grace… For birthdays, giving a simple card with a personal note to convey a trait or quality you appreciate in that person…
        There are other excellent suggestions all over AAM.
        Also, are you certain there isn’t any flexibility in what the company is willing to do for company rewards &or that you don’t have any of that power? I’m sorry to ask, I’m not certain if you’ve already specified this.

  100. Narise*

    What about celebrating once a month for everyone with a birthday that month? Still think it’s ridiculous that your company expects they managers to pay for the celebrations.

  101. Kerr*

    I am so happy that my company foots the bill for the monthly birthday cake or cupcakes! Anything else gets tricky to navigate.

    OP, it’s probably best to be up-front about it with your team. Instead of asking them to contribute (since this is something you want to do for them), could you let them know that you’ll be cutting back on the fancy cupcakes, but you still want to celebrate? Transitioning to a monthly celebration for all birthdays that month would at least cut down on multiple events a month. Is there a cheaper treat that’s also convenient to pick up without a car, or have delivered for a nominal price? I’m sure you’ve explored other options, but I liked the sorbet or ice cream idea someone mentioned above; it keeps, so you could buy it while grocery shopping and keep it in the freezer. Maybe there’s a food cart or ice cream cart that could come by on a planned day? If you’re in the right area, Amazon Prime might even be able to deliver grocery store baked goods or something.

  102. Enya*

    At our company, we have a party once a month for all the birthdays that month. We have a volunteer “birthday coordinator” who each month asks a different group of people to bring bought or made snacks- so it works out to each of us having to bring something 2 or 3 times a year, and it can be something small like chips or cookies. We only buy presents for “decade” birthdays and first children or grandchildren. Everyone who wants to (there’s absolutely no pressure) puts money in an envelope and signs the card. No one knows how much you put in. We’re not in the US and its customary to chip in as little as $2 a person, though people do often give more. This system has worked well for us for many years.

  103. Anna Marie*

    My department of 20 has Sparkle Club. 100% voluntarily planning committee that figures out fund raising ideas so that we can spend the profit on our department, our customers being other departments. We recently hosted a pizza party and there’s also a taco event once a month that’s really popular. We usually net about $50+ of profit which is spent on our department’s parties.

  104. No more nonesense*

    Am I the only one who finds work birthday celebrations really, really childish? I mean, it’s cute when in elementary school, but as an adult, just go celebrate with your friends. My current office does not do this. So glad about that.

  105. Belated*

    I like the ideas others have suggested, like a card/cupcake for the employee only.

    I also realy like the once a month collective birthday party. People who dislike celebrations can blend into the crowd, and those who like parties get to have an extra one. May I suggest that you do it for the upcoming month? Like, March 1st, you celebrate all the birthdays that are going to happen in March – that way, you can also remind co-workers ahead of time in case they want to buy personal cards or gifts. (Some people dislike a late celebration or card, because it feels like you’ve been forgotten or ignored? Even though that isn’t what’s happening, the feelings might still linger.)

  106. Worker bee*

    At my place of work, the person celebrating the birthday is the person who brings in the treats. You can put in as much or little effort into as you want. Almost everyone participates and no one complains about it.

  107. Maaike*

    I am shocked that everyone is actually celebrating birthdays at the office. THis is not something I have ever experienced in my life.

  108. boop the first*

    That’s a nice thing to do.
    Birthday’s just weren’t much of a “thing” in my family. I don’t even know my older family members’ birthdays because only kids got birthdays. And “kid birthday” was a cake. Some kind of gift. Or maybe more kids would sleep over than usual.
    As a result, I am usually surprised when grown adults have birthday parties, especially at work.

  109. MW*

    The practice in most offices I’ve been in has been for the birthday person themselves to bring in cakes or sweets to share. This way everyone gets a reasonable amount of birthday sweets across the year and you don’t have to worry about everyone forgetting your birthday. Plus it makes it easy to opt out if you don’t want to make a big deal of your birthday. Plus if you have the sweets at your desk people can swing by to say happy birthday when they grab something (or of course, if you wish to show your largess without being interrupted, you can put them in a communal area)

  110. JN*

    My office has the tradition of rolling birthday celebrations. That is, my birthday celebration treat is provided by the person who most recently had a birthday before me, then I provide treats for the person who next has a birthday, and they bring a treat for the next person’s birthday, etc. This way, everyone gets their birthday recognized and no one solely bears the burden of being the treat provider. I can see this possibly working for the letter writer, once the team’s composition gets stabilized, though it might be challenging with the current and constant in/out of new team members.

  111. CanCan*

    I’m in government, so there’s no budget for things like this. (There’s no coffee or tea either, and a few of us pitched in to buy a kettle.)

    Our team of about ten goes out for birthdays, to the birthday person’s restaurant of choice. We all pay for ourselves, and split the birthday person’s bill. (i.e. one person pays it, and then tells the others how much their share is). Works well for us.

  112. IAmWomanHearMeRoar*

    Thanks for apologizing for the mansplaining OP.

    So happy to see the update!!

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