Dear Penny: Am I Cheap if I Refuse to Attend Co-Workers’ Birthday Lunches?

A business person wears multiple birthday hats on his head.
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Dear Penny,

I work in a relatively small local community service organization in a small building. We have a few co-workers, a manager and a director. On a few occasions, our manager has invited everyone to attend a birthday lunch for one of the three of us. 

I love my co-workers, but I live for my lunch hour. We're hourly, so not only must we forfeit our own time, but we must pay for lunch for ourselves.  

I can afford the lunch, but I have other plans for my money (and my time) during that hour. I'd rather contribute $5 for breakroom cake. I feel obligated to attend because it would feel rude to my co-worker to bow out. Am I a sour pickle for not wanting to participate in lunch hour birthday (work) events?


Dear D.,

I agree with you in principle. You should be free to use your unpaid time however you want. Situations like these can get awkward, especially in small offices. These events may technically be optional, but they feel mandatory when your absence would be noticed.

So no, I don’t think you’re being a sour pickle. The question is, will your co-workers and manager think you’re being a sour pickle? They’re the ones you have to deal with on a daily basis. And if you think they’ll think you’re being rude by refusing to attend, you’ll have to decide whether you’re OK with that.

Dear Penny

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If this were a larger office where these events took place several times a month, setting a limit would be imperative. Regular attendance could take a huge toll on your time and budget. Not attending in that scenario would be easier, of course, because your absence wouldn’t stand out as much in a bigger workplace.

Your attendance is a lot more noticeable given that you work in a small office. But the bright side is that because you’re a small office, it sounds like you’re only being asked to attend three birthday lunches a year.

You’re clearly worried about hurting a co-worker’s feelings. Might it be easier to simply sacrifice three lunch hours and the cost of three meals a year? I hate that managers put their staff in these uncomfortable situations. But maybe it’s worth participating to preserve your workplace relationships, given that these are relatively rare occurrences.

But if this is important to you, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with politely declining to attend. You could say something generic like, “I have a lot going on right now, so I won’t be able to make your birthday lunch today. But I hope you have a wonderful birthday!” You could even show your sincerity by using the $5 you’d be willing to chip in for breakroom cake and buying them a birthday card instead.

You could also try to start a new tradition. Obviously, it would be tacky to try to change things right before a co-worker’s birthday. But maybe next time your birthday rolls around, if your manager suggests a lunch in your honor, you could say, “I know everyone is busy and a lot of people are on a budget, so let’s skip the birthday lunch. But I really appreciate the kind offer.” Maybe your reasoning will catch on.

Or if no one’s birthday is in the near horizon, you could email your boss and co-workers and suggest replacing the lunch outings with cake. You can give the same reasoning: People are busy, and everyone’s grappling with rising costs right now. It wouldn’t surprise me if your co-workers don’t exactly live for these office celebrations either.

I really hope that any manager reading this will take note of your dilemma. What can seem like a fun office celebration can be taxing on employees. Rethink any workplace events where attendance is more or less expected if your staff has to use their own time and money to participate.

For you, what this boils down to is how much you care about what your colleagues think. You’re not doing anything wrong by declining these invitations. But there’s the possibility that your colleagues will think you’re being stingy with your time and money. You also can’t control other people’s opinions.

If you tend to agonize about what others think, rocking the boat may not be worth it. Your lunch time is valuable. But we’re talking about three lunch hours a year. If taking a stand costs you many more hours of worrying about whether your colleagues think you’re a jerk, it’s not worth it.

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Robin Hartill is a certified financial planner and a senior writer at The Penny Hoarder. Send your tricky money questions to [email protected].