Living with credit, Rewards

Birthdays can be a budget buster

Jeff Herman

Days before my birthday, the phone won’t stop pinging with offers of free desserts, appetizers, shakes and Blizzards to mark my special day. My email is chock full of similar offers, too.

Nearly all the annual freebies require an additional purchase, which could easily bloat my budget, my credit card bill and my belly.

No one, however, is offering a free side salad.

Ask yourself: ‘What do you want for your birthday?’

Eric Tyson, author of “Personal Finance for Dummies,” says I’m going about this all wrong. Instead of signing up for several loyalty programs, focus on one restaurant you really like.

“For me, it starts with ‘What do you want for your birthday?’” Tyson says. “What’s your favorite restaurant?”

Call that restaurant and ask if they have a birthday special. That way you get what you want and you don’t have a surfeit of offers of birthday freebies you’ll never use.

“If it’s just a mediocre restaurant, it’s not worth going there on your birthday for any freebie,” he says.

For parents, birthdays can take a much bigger bite out of the family budget – sometimes $500 to $600 or more for a party, food, cake, party favors and activities for the kids.

With birthdays, especially for kids, it’s all about setting limits. “Create a budget, stick to it and be creative,” Tyson says.

You may have to tell Johnny that he can’t invite 20 friends for his birthday skating or soccer party, he says.

“Unless you’re Bill Gates and can spend millions on your kid’s birthday, put a limit on it,” he says.

Birthday freebies tease us in two ways

Even adults easily could be tempted to spend too much around their birthdays.

Kit Yarrow, a consumer psychologist and expert on the psychology of shopping, says about all of the free offers we get as we turn a year older:

“Those marketing ploys are tapping into two really powerful psychological forces: the reciprocal allure of gifts, and loss aversion.

“To expand on the first: When people give us things we feel a sense of obligation, and at the very least connection,” she says. “For many, there will also be the allure of feeling recognized and seen and that’s enticing in our new era of invisibility.

“The second force is more powerful. We have a psychological aversion to losing things we own,” Yarrow says. “So, when we get a $10 coupon or even a free dessert it feels like we’d be losing something if we didn’t cash in and use it.”

Indeed, it’s a $10 off coupon for anything at Opal Divine’s that stands out from the crowd of birthday freebies. No dessert or (usually fried) appetizer. I can get the salad I want.

“My advice? Do what you’re doing,” Yarrow says. “Think hard about how much you really want that freebie and how much you have to spend to get something for free.

“Isn’t it ironic that one of our Achilles’ heels is our propensity to spend a lot of money to get something for free?”

The best – and a true – birthday freebie

“My favorite freebie was a free car wash on my birthday at my local car wash,” Yarrow says. “It was genuinely free and I never went anywhere else because I appreciated it so much.”

A car wash is a perfect birthday freebie. No cost, no charge and no impact on the scale in the morning.

See related: 4 ways to stack your rewards at restaurants, Easy ways cards can save you money at restaurants

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