Tacky or brilliant? Parents ask for college fund contributions in lieu of birthday presents

An etiquette expert weighs in on this trend

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Ja’el and Cesario Mendez were planning their son’s 2nd birthday party when they began toying with an idea. What if guests could donate to their toddler’s college fund instead of buying presents? 

“We want to give our child what we didn’t have. Our families didn’t set us up for success. We weren't taught the importance of saving and investing," Ja’el, 33, tells

Ja’el’s husband, Cesario, adds that their little boy has “more than enough stuff,” most of which is collecting dust in their Virginia home.

So this year, the Mendezes sent out birthday invitations that included a link to their son’s 529 plan. A 529 plan is a tax-free education savings account.

“College is so expensive,” Cesario, 32, says. “We’d rather people take the same money they were going to spend on a toy, and put it towards his education. Our ultimate goal as parents is for our son to have a promising future.”

“We want him to have more options than we did,” Ja’el shares. “So if someone asks for a gift idea, I’m always going to respond, ‘Donate to his 529 plan.’”

Many parents want to do the same, but are worried about how others will respond. 

Earlier this year, Reddit user Motiv8_mee asked if it’s in poor taste to include a college fund contribution link on a kids’ birthday invitation. In the post they noted that their child has “too many toys and plenty of clothing.”

“We don’t need anyone to contribute and I do NOT want this to come off as us asking for money. The thought is just to give people another option for a gift, if they feel the need to give one,” the Reddit user wrote. “My spouse thinks it’s tacky, I’m on the fence, and two people close to me think it’s not tacky at all.”

The responses were mixed.

"Ughhhhhh I totally, completely understand where you’re coming from but yes it’s tacky. I’d just leave it at 'please no presents,'" one person commented.

Added another, "I don’t think it’s tacky, you’re planning for your kids future. Nothing to be ashamed for ... and frankly if anybody has a problem with it, why care at the end of the day ya know. You’re being a great mom."

Catherine Newman, an etiquette expert and author of “How to Be a Person,” has mixed feelings.

“There’s this way that childhood can skew from the present to the future. And I feel like we need to let kids be kids. We don’t need to orient everything towards the life they might have one day,” Newman tells “But at the same time, a gift towards education is very practical. And if you invite the class, you’re going to end up with a lot of stuff that gets opened and then ends up in a landfill."

Newman is also concerned that some people might feel pressure to give more than they can afford. 

“You might feel comfortable gifting someone a $15 dollar origami set, but totally embarrassed to contribute $15 to a college fund,” Newman explains.

Ultimately, it comes down to the kid, according to Newman.

“A 5-year-old might be so crushed to hear, ‘Well, so, you’re not getting any presents today, but one day you’ll go to college.'" Newman says. “There’s something overly pragmatic about it that pains me a tiny bit."

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