Birthday cards and reminder systems

I love my birthday. Honestly, it’s more of a birth-week celebration to me than an actual day. I schedule pomp and circumstance, and gather groups of people together. Knowing this about me, you would be surprised to learn that I am horrible about remembering other people’s birthdays. I have a friend I have known for more than 30 years and all I can recall is that her birthday is sometime in September. Sep. 15? Sep. 21? Your guess is as good as mine.

To solve my birthday forgetfulness issue, I opened a Plaxo account and requested that my friends update their contact and birthday information through it. There are a number of services out there similar to Plaxo (like Birthday Alarm), and all notify you of upcoming birthdays by sending you reminder e-mails. I chose Plaxo because it integrates easily with my computer’s address book program. With help from an online service, you’ll never be left apologizing for your disorganization.

In addition to a birthday reminder system, I also purchased a card organizer. At the start of the year, I print out a birthday list from Plaxo, buy cards for all of my family and friends in a single trip to the card store, and organize the cards in my organizer. I also purchase other types of cards for the year while on my trip to the store. Here is a list of what I usually buy:

  • Birthday cards for family and friends on my Plaxo list
  • Five extra birthday cards with one specific to a young child
  • Five blank interior, thinking-of-you cards
  • Three sympathy cards
  • Five baby cards appropriate for showers and arrivals
  • Five wedding cards appropriate for showers and wedding day
  • Three anniversary cards
  • Three get well cards
  • Two graduation cards
  • Five non-specific congratulations cards
  • Three boxes of 10-count thank you cards

Your needs are likely different than mine, so if you’re interested in setting up a similar system be sure to make necessary adjustments. You also might consider giving a fully stocked organizer to a home-bound family member as a birthday or holiday present.

These organization systems prevent me from having to run to the store at the last minute, and I don’t have to worry about forgetting anyone’s special day. If your cards are disorganized, this or a similar system might be for you.

40 Comments for “Birthday cards and reminder systems”

  1. posted by Betsbillabong on

    I have a similar system, but I have all my birthdays put into iCal on my powerbook (it’s the built-in Apple calendar), with either a 7-day or 14-day email alarm. I don’t have the space to store a whole year’s worth of cards, and I often want to run out and get a gift anyway, so this works for me.

  2. posted by Gail on

    I like the organizer. My husband has always kept cards in a box but some of them are really old and look it. I think I start our collection over.

  3. posted by Erin at Unclutterer on

    @Bets — The only reason I don’t do it your way is because then I have to actively seek out people’s birthdays. With Plaxo, it’s passive. πŸ™‚

  4. posted by SpiKe on

    Great idea to buy all the cards you need in one go, will have to try that come the end of the year. Currently have a big problem of having a box full of xmas cards that were bought in bulk a few years back and will probably last another 5 christmases. Me personally, I let my partner with her filofax do all the remembering of dates πŸ˜‰

    Organize IT

  5. posted by Lana on

    I do the same thing, Betsbillabog. I’ve also set up reminders at Amazon and throughout the year, I keep a running list of possible gifts on my Amazon gift organizer. This way, I never have to stress about what to buy.

    Kaboodle is great for gift organizing too, but I usually waste too much time browsing other people’s lists, so I try to stay away from there. πŸ˜‰

  6. posted by anonymous on

    Part of gift, card giving, etc. is showing that you care enough to take the time to honor the friendship. Asking them do any work to save time in your gift/card giving isn’t being “passive” it’s being an asshole.

    Note: I might think differently if you tried to get your whole ring of friends/family to use the system.

  7. posted by Lori on

    I do my card buying two or three times a year. I keep the cards in rough birthday order in my stationery box with a Post-It on each with the recipient’s name. Birthdays are noted in red ink on my calendar, with a to-do item entered five days before each to mail the card.

  8. posted by Erin at Unclutterer on

    @anonymous — I honor the friendship by putting systems in place TO REMEMBER the birthday. Not remembering someone’s birthday is a sign of disrespect. I have more than 200 people in my circle of birthday card recipients. I write hand-written letters of encouragement, congratulations, and thanks each week in addition to my birthday card sending. Having accurate address and birthday information is important to me and a passive system like Plaxo provides that. Maybe if I had only 10 people to worry about, a system based wholly on my memory like you promote would work for me. If what I do instead makes me an asshole in your opinion, I guess that is what I am. I think that most of my friends would disagree, though.

  9. posted by amber on

    i do the same thing, only i set it up in Outlook. i just choose to be reminded a week ahead, rather than a day, hour, or whatever my default reminder time is.

    i think the card organizer is a great idea, i just never get around to do it. maybe now that i’m moving into a house, i’ll have room to put this plan into action (because really…i didn’t have enough room to sort all the cards before).

  10. posted by Danny Gamache on

    Thanks for these tips. While cards are a great way to support and care for your friends and family, these tips are also a valuable way for you to build your business. Send cards to your customers, partners, and suppliers etc. It is easy to collect information today such as birth date etc. Just make sure you use that information well. In today’s email world, sending a physical card has a higher perceived value than ever before!

  11. posted by amber on

    fantastic point Danny!

  12. posted by Anonymous on

    I use a very similar system (although my target large receipt organizer for $0.99 works better for me) but instead of buying for a whole year I usually just a stock of good cards then purchase any cards that I come across throughout the year that seem to fit my loved ones.
    Strangely enough my car wash is a prime place for witty cards (although I do weed thru plenty of gag jokes) and I enjoy spending that time thinking about friends and family. Plus, I always have a card on hand when I need it.
    One final helpful step – on the first I take a look at that months birthdays, write out each card, address and stamp it. Then I just send them out roughly on time :). Its a HUGE help for me.
    Thanks for the great post!

  13. posted by Sarah on

    200 birthday card recipients! I obviously don’t know the details of your situation, but it sounds to me like that might be some emotional/social clutter. Maybe you don’t really need to keep in touch with all of those people? Just a thought.

  14. posted by Scott Jones on

    While stocking greeting cards can be a useful idea, it can also be a dangerously clutter-producing habit for others as well. My fiancee does just what you recommend, but also adds to it throughout the year. We’re in the middle of our first large purge together, and I’m flabbergasted that she has collected hundreds of cards over the years. Hundreds of dollars have been wasted on cards that might, but probably won’t, ever get used. Some fit her family/friends well, but others are just cards she liked and couldn’t leave the store without. I think a better system is to have a small (ie, 10-12) stash of blank cards available, and then purchase only what you need for specific birthdays, if you feel it’s necessary. I do one more and *only* buy blank cards, usually with some great landscape or wildlife photo on the front, and make the card more about the my words inside that Hallmark’s preprinted and generic message on the outside.

  15. posted by Erin at Unclutterer on

    @Sarah — My husband and I both come from very large families. You will probably not believe me, but 121 of those people are immediate family (parents, aunts/uncles, siblings, first cousins, and grandparents). I don’t keep track of birthdays for second cousins, great aunts and uncles, or children of first cousins. My list would triple in size if I did.

    For example: One of my cousins has 11 children (cousin+husband+kids=13), each of those children are married (13+11=24), and all have two or more children of their own (24+30=54). One cousin’s family would add 54 more people to my list.

  16. posted by Kaylee on

    Great site! This is my first time commenting.

    I keep a perpetual calendar next to my wall calendar. I don’t have to copy birthdays and anniversaries to my wall calendar year after year and I keep my e-mail inbox clutter free as well! Each month, I jot down the list of next month’s birthdays along with upcoming events & holidays and head to the store. I also keep a small stack of thank you and thinking of you notes in my desk and refresh as needed on my monthly outings.

    I can’t imagine how much cash you have to plunk down to buy a year’s worth of cards at once! (I know it adds up to the same throughout the year but my heart would break spending so much on cards at once.) 200 birthdays + thank yous + thinking of you + events + holidays?!!! Good lord! The clerk must hate you!!! πŸ™‚

  17. posted by jenk on

    I don’t bother with “specialty” pre-printed cards. I keep all-purpose note cards and write a short note for the recipient. Of course, I also figure that if I don’t have anything to say, then I shouldn’t be sending it in the first place.

    (I once got a catalog from a card company with “organizer file” with birthday, anniversary, sympathy, 1st-birthday, 1st-anniversary, etc etc cards. Seems like clutter to me.)

  18. posted by supersocco on

    My friends know I don’t like birthday cards. They are just clutter and end up getting tossed in the recycling. Give me something I can use. Alcohol is the best! πŸ™‚

  19. posted by Lana on

    @anonymous 10:59 AM: It takes a special kind of loser to call a complete stranger an asshole anonymously on the net simply because you don’t agree with their organizational methods. Lame.

  20. posted by hazygirl on

    Immediate family usually only includes ones parents, siblings, spouse and children (and those who hold the same position to your spouse).

    When it comes to sending cards, the more the merrier. But do you receive as many cards in return? If not, then perhaps you need to redefine who you are sending them to.

  21. posted by Michael Clark on

    What should we do with cards we receive? Display happily for a week or so after the event, then recycle? Store in a shoebox? Scan so you have the memory, then recycle/pitch it?

  22. posted by Erin at Unclutterer on

    @hazygirl — I wouldn’t ever make my decision as to whom to send cards to based on who sends me something. I don’t do things for people with the expectation that they “owe” me something in return. My paternal grandmother is 98 years old. She has severe arthritis and can’t hold small objects, like pens. Under your system, since I don’t get a birthday card from her, I shouldn’t send her one? That seems mean. Writing cards and letters is my way of telling others that I appreciate them and am glad that they are in my life. They pay me back ten-fold with their friendship and love. Most do send cards at my birthday, but I certainly don’t keep a list of who sent something.

  23. posted by Erin at Unclutterer on

    @Michael Clark — I display them for a week on my fireplace mantle. After a week, I scan the longer letters and notes I want to keep. Then, I shred and recycle the cards. We have curbside recycling pickup once a week where I live so the recycling aspect is very convenient.

  24. posted by JR on

    @Michael Clark: For long-term storage of cards that you’d like to keep, you might consider the Card Keeper ( It was invented by a friend of mine.

  25. posted by Debbie on

    Michael Clark – I smile when I get and read the card, then check whether the address I have for the sender has changed, then recycle the card.

    The occasional stray card gets kept. For example, every year I pull out my card with a picture of a tiny trailer outlined with Christmas lights. I love that thing.

  26. posted by Andamom on

    Paper cards are lovely — but for many people, I create reminders on — I then go into the site, choose an e-card and send it off for a birthday, anniversary, etc. My friends/family appreciate the thought and it always comes on time.

  27. posted by Anonymous on

    @ Erin – If you read my whole post you’ll see that I didn’t discourage you from sending cards to everyone (i.e., the more the merrier); and I never insinuated it had to be tit-for-tat. I was just curious whether you receive that many in return (because a follow-up question – which Michael Clark beat me to – was going to be ask what you do with them).

    I was simply agreeing with the earlier poster (Sarah) that perhaps this topic could spark contemplation of one’s social network and whether some of the card giving simply adds to social clutter and maintains relationships with people that one don’t really have a relationship with beyond card exchanges.

    Calm down. Noone is attacking you. But there is a bigger picture here beyond the mere task of organizing cards.

  28. posted by Nikki on

    I keep several blank cards appropriate for sympathy or get well in my desk at work. I also keep stamps and return address stickers attached. As soon as I get the email about a colleague’s bereavement/illness, all I have to do is write a thoughtful note.

  29. posted by Metrozing on

    I saw this article in the Wall Street Journal a few days before this post.

    Reviving the Art of Putting Pen to Paper
    August 23, 2007; Page D2

    In an age when you can email President Bush and instant-message your boss, here’s one way to make an impression when writing to someone: Pick up a pen and apply it to actual stationery.

    For the full article:

  30. posted by Lisa S. on

    Well, I suppose this is handy if you simply must be one of those card-sender-outers. I uncluttered my life by … not sending cards. It’s wonderful. I send electronic cards or personal emails to people on a regular basis, or call them. This way, there’s no clutter on either end, but there is still the connection.

  31. posted by Kirk Roberts on

    I’m very partial to using (on a Mac only, sorry) Address Book with each person’s birthday field filled in, and the simply awesome DatesToiCal (donation ware) helper to automatically set an alarm for each birthday.

    I love that it’s resident on my computer and doesn’t rely on an online source. Somehow this feels cleaner and safer (and doesn’t require access to email or the internet). To have all that data solely on someone else’s server would give me the willies.

    And for the record, I think the “social clutter” commenter is on to something. Erin has obviously drawn her line where she is comfortable. However, “uncluttering” is partially about questioning the status quo. It would be a shame to be sending out lots of cards mostly in the name of social decorum. Holiday cards, anyone?

  32. posted by disconnect on

    We’re old school with the perpetual calendar. Cards get sent as needed: Grandmas’ birthdays, parents’ 25th anniversaries, brother- and sister-in-law’s baby birthdays, etc. We do send out Christmas cards, but one decluttering step was making a holiday blog and posting our letter there (saves a lot of postage and enables us to put a bunch of baby pics up). At the same time, it’s nice to display our Christmas cards as part of the holiday decorations. Once we tear down in January, the cards go out the door (except for any really awesome ones).

    At the risk of sounding like an asshole, any requests I receive for going to and filling in my information are summarily deleted. I’ll respond to a friend’s email asking me for my birthday, address, what-have-you, but an email that says, “Hi, can you do me a favor and type in your information at this site, I’d really appreciate it,” really pisses me off. It feels like somebody else wants me to do their organizing for them.

  33. posted by AMM on

    Though I haven’t gotten it myself, I think this is an excellent way to get started with a year’s worth of cards. And for most people, though obviously not for Erin, actually might get it done (and unclutter…).

  34. posted by beth on

    Shameless promotion of my employer: offers a great reminders system, which is integrated with its ecards. You can import your contacts from Outlook and most popular mail programs. I’ve done a lot of work on this and our address book behind the scenes in the past few months, and I use it myself.

  35. posted by Kirk Roberts on

    You can use your request for someone’s birthday date as an excuse to contact them (especially if you haven’t connected in a while). As in, actually call them or send them a personal email. You’ll both be glad you did.

    I also have a dislike for people requesting my information through a website. And what’s the deal with people uploading their contact database to an online merchant? Belying the original intention, that seems very inconsiderate.

  36. posted by Sara Hurd on

    Has anyone tried SendOutCards? They have a fantastic system that requires no stock of cards and offers email reminders of upcoming events. You simply choose a greeting card from the 15,000 in the catalog, or upload your own photos and make your own design. It prints in your own handwriting and with your own signature. The end result that your birthday girl or guy receives is an envelope with a stamp on it, which contains a glossy, professionally-printed card with a personal message. It’s truly the best thing out there for card sending – both business and personal. I’ve found a lot of joy sending unexpected cards as well as birthday cards. I loved it so much that I purchased a license for my business and became an independent distributor. you’ll need ID 16629 if you choose to sign up.

  37. posted by Katie Felten on

    I have done the same thing as Sara – Sendoutcards is awesome

  38. posted by Stephanie on

    One thing Sara didn’t mention about SendOutCards is that when you import your contact list it can include birthdays and you will get reminders to send a birthday or anniversary card 7 days before the event. And you can set up campaigns to send the cards automatically for a group of people in advance. Saves a ton of time.

    Check out

  39. posted by The ShoppingSherpa on

    I use an old fashioned paper based diary (Poco Profile – similar to Filofax but Australian produced) and when I buy the following year’s refill I spend an hour going through the old refil and transfering anything in red to the new one.

    I only use red pen for things that need to be noted each year – birthdays, anniversaries etc so it’s easy to pick them out of the day-to-day black and blue pen. If I find out someone’s birthday during the course of the year and don’t have a red pen handy I write it in and put a large star at each end of it so I pick it up in the yearly translation to a new refill.

    As for cards, I resent spending $5 on a piece of paper so I bought a bunch of blanks and now make a card for each person – quick, easy, cheap and the recipient is usually oddly impressed…

  40. posted by David on

    I was a beta tester for and it is very cool. Totally free… the messages go directly to the recipient on their birthday at the date and time you specify and the messages come FROM YOU and NOT from the website. They even send reminder messages to you when your messages are sent so you wont get an unexpected phone call thanking you.

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