It was midmorning May 25 when Katy Hanson started to realize the party had gotten out of control, as parties tend to do.—
"Someone named Kallie said to stop by her place for a shot of maple bourbon," she recalled. "Someone else offered to smoke me up and give me a tamale." Total strangers pledged rounds of drinks, offered to pay for a Lyft, asked how to send her money on Venmo. Someone later offered a free tattoo.
The reason for this generosity? Hanson was, for the day anyway, a working-class hero.
It was her 27th birthday. Her boyfriend was out of town, her friends were busy at work, and, though she had the day off from her job at Whole Foods, it was a Thursday, the day before pay day. She was broke.
So, Hanson decided to celebrate for free – but to really celebrate, in style, with the most epic birthday a person can obtain for the low, low price of nothing.
Her journey in couponing, app-downloading, schmoozing, and mooching – documented on Facebook under the hashtag #brokeassbirthday – was a success: She got free breakfast, lunch, and dinner, coffee, snacks, booze, and more. And what corporate America didn't provide friends and strangers — impressed with her commitment to the project — kicked in.
"People seem excited to be a part of it. They felt like they were celebrating with me," she said. "It was like an internet birthday party."
Hanson doesn't consider herself much of a birthday person. ("I'm a person who has birthdays, obviously," she clarified.) But she thinks the idea of a day of "me" resonated with her online community.
"There is this kind of Parks and Rec 'treat yo'self' thing in our generation. There's this self-care movement," she said. "People are under so much pressure at their jobs and personal lives, and there is this expectation of being busy and productive. Your birthday is the one day of the year that's all about you, and you can do what you want."
So, she did.
She found out that doing it right took some legwork. Several websites compile lists of freebies, but for most perks, it's not as simple as showing up with your photo ID.
About a week in advance of her birthday, Hanson spent a couple of hours researching promotions and signing up for email lists and rewards programs. Some stores require app downloads or emailed coupons. And some of those coupons have fine print.
On the morning of her birthday, she printed out a checklist. And when details were hazy or she didn't receive the email coupon as expected, she called ahead.
("If people want to do this, I recommend planning a little further in advance," Hanson said. "A week was enough for most places. But some, like Hard Rock Café, you have to be signed up before the first of your birthday month." Starbucks requires you join 30 days before your birthday.)
The list evolved, though – people kept offering more free stuff.
The day started well, at Cinemug (a coffee shop/video-rental store that does not offer a birthday special), where barista Christine Veasey bought her a cup of coffee.
"There's nothing like somebody saying it's my birthday, and you say, 'I got you,' " Veasey figured. "It starts a cycle of awesome stuff."
But Hanson quickly realized it could also get awkward, as when she went to IHOP without the requisite email coupon in hand. But in the end, "they said, 'We'll make an exception for you.' " They gave her the pancakes and threw in free coffee. She left a $5 tip.
Other perks you can get (that Hanson did): A free pretzel at Auntie Anne's. A pastry at Panera. Yet another coffee, courtesy of Starbucks (the barista even drew balloons on her cup). A salad at Au Bon Pain.
For lunch, she went to Ruby Tuesday, where email list subscribers can choose a free burger or salad bar on their birthdays.
David Skena, chief marketing officer for the chain, said that the restaurant has been offering the perk for seven years and that more than 300,000 people annually now take advantage of it.
The chain's data show that most birthday celebrants are not one-off diners like Hanson.
"They tend to be people who enjoy dining with us regularly," Skena said. "We hope they come and celebrate a couple more occasions with us because of the goodwill and the good experience they had on their birthday."
Regardless, "there's definitely no negativity. We don't issue coupons we don't want people to use."
Leaving lunch, there was a moisturizing sorbet to be had from Sephora, a primer courtesy of Ulta.
And though it's not a standard birthday giveaway, a gift bag that a friend who works at Condom Kingdom put together included samples: condoms, trial sizes of lubricant, and something called sex mints that you, dear reader, can google for yourself.
There's fine print to read, here and there.
Applebee's free entrée turned out to be a buy-one-get-one. The Smoothie King coupon was only $2 off (but a friend, unsolicited, sent Hanson $4 on Venmo to cover the cost).
And there will be rejection. Hanson encountered it at Mr. Wish, a bubble tea shop, and at Johnny Rockets, where no one seemed to know what she was talking about.
But other giveaways, it turned out, were not too good to be true.
One was Nine Ting, a Korean barbecue and hot-pot restaurant, which offers an all-you-can-eat meal free, a $28 value.
Another is the standing offer at Philadelphia's most celebratory destination, Ray's Happy Birthday Bar, where Hanson finished her day.
Rose Capozzoli, whose husband, Lou, owns the place, said she was not sure how many birthdays had been marked at Ray's, but it was on the order of dozens every week. Each celebrant gets a shot of Pinnacle Cake vodka ("I buy it by the case," Capozzoli said) in a glass with a candle attached to it, a rendition of "Happy Birthday to You," and a turn in the dingy, well-worn birthday hat ("Some people don't want to put it on," Capozzoli said, "which I don't blame them. I wouldn't").
The bar was named Ray's Happy Birthday Bar in 1997, after the death of Lou's father, Anthony "Ray" Capozzoli, who had owned it, and who had a habit of greeting every customer with a, "Happy birthday!" whether it was accurate or not. After that, the birthday tradition took off – an unending party in Ray's honor.
For aspiring broke-birthday partiers, Hanson offers these tips: Take a backpack for your leftovers, and a spare phone charger for calling up digital coupons. Even if you're broke, budget to tip at least 20 percent of the original bill. And if there's a birthday perk you really want, don't be afraid to call ahead and ask – but be nice.
At least one of Hanson's Facebook friends has followed her lead. Krystal Henderson of South Philadelphia, who turned 34 on June 4, accrued 25 birthday freebies over three days. "It was like a birthday scavenger hunt," she said.
Henderson liked the idea because the previous year, she had a large birthday party but not much fun. "The whole time, I felt I had to run from person to person to make sure they were having a good time. So I didn't want to do anything stressful this year."
But, she learned, chasing down birthday freebies can be just as exhausting.
As for Hanson, she's back to paying her own way – for now.