NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- If you've worked in an office, chances are you've celebrated colleagues' birthdays and other life milestones with expensive lunches out, cakes, gifts and more. Although it's always nice to have a chance to party, co-worker celebrations can really add up.
In a survey by staffing firm OfficeTeam, 75% percent of executives said employees are asked by peers to contribute money to pay for celebrations such as birthdays, anniversaries, baby showers and retirements at least once per year, but requests sometimes come as frequently as once a month or even once a week.
"Though it's common for employees to pool resources to plan informal events and festivities to acknowledge personal milestones like staff birthdays or weddings, it's the frequency and amount requested that may cause employees to feel tapped out," says OfficeTeam Executive Director Robert Hosking.
If you're sick of spending too much to raise a glass with office friends, there are a few alternatives and ways to bow out gracefully. Experts weigh in with five alternatives to expensive office celebrations.
1. Don't be afraid to ask your boss to foot the bill
"If you want things to change, just tell your boss nicely, 'I want you to take me out to lunch,'" says Yorgen Edhlom, CEO of Accellion, which hosts monthly birthday lunches for everyone on staff.
"Don't be afraid to ask. If your boss isn't doing anything to celebrate, then it's time for you to ask. It's not like you're asking for a $5,000 or $10,000 raise -- it's a $10 or $15 lunch," Edhlom says. "Most employers will be grateful that you asked. It's important for you to feel good about the company that you work for."
Companies are always trying to figure out the next "smart thing" to do when it comes to making employees feel special, Edhlom says. Most realize that the "small gestures" such as a birthday lunch or cake really mean a lot to employees, and they'll do it if they can.
2. Say that you want to start a tradition
If the company won't pitch in for celebrations, initiate your own ideas, says Kirk Sears, managing partner at International Executive Recruiting.
"Find an accomplice or two and say, 'I'd like to suggest starting a new office tradition,'" Sears says. "Suggest a theme of 'Gifts for $1,' which are funny and easy to give. You can go to the dollar-store and pre-buy for the whole year for $20."
If buying cakes, pizzas or other unhealthy items are the problem, it's OK to say, "Hey, I want to eat healthy, I think we should stop the whole birthday junk food thing," Edhlom suggests.
Just make sure you don't offend someone who really looks forward to having cake.
"Some people are really passionate about those celebrations, and they may want an even bigger birthday cakes with even more whipped cream, so make sure you get a group consensus first," he advises.
3. Switch from a cake celebration to lunch -- and go potluck
People are busy and they don't always have time for a cake or drinks celebration, but most everyone breaks for lunch, Edhlom says.
"What has worked for us is lunch. Everyone has some time set aside when they can eat something and have a conversation with the people they work with," he says. "If several people can gather and get a bite to eat, then suddenly it feels like there's this whole luncheon in your honor. A cake seems like a measly reward in comparison."
Employees often prefer lunches to other types of celebrations because supervisors and members of management are more likely to stop by, Edhlom says.
"This can be the kind of event where you get special access to senior people, to managers and people in other groups that you don't really know. It's an opportunity to start some conversations, and that's meaningful," he says.
When you suggest an office lunch instead of a cake or other celebration, make it clear you're looking for a potluck celebration -- that way no one person has to shoulder the burden of picking up the check.
4. Encourage your colleagues to celebrate with words -- not expensive food and drink
At the end of the day, it's the small things that go a long way, says Tom Gimbel, president and CEO of LaSalle Network, a Chicago staffing firm. You don't have to say "no" to celebration, but you can work to start traditions that honor the employee throughout the day -- such as having the staff sing happy birthday, Gimbel suggests.
"The point is to acknowledge it's the employee's birthday and show that you care. Also, it shouldn't just come from coworkers. Management can send texts or write letters, too. A text takes less than 30 seconds and in return the employee is more excited and works harder," he says.
Group emails are also an excellent way to let your co-workers know you care -- and they serve as a signal to others to wish them a happy birthday. If you're Facebook friends with your colleague, that's also an excellent way to kick off a chain of well wishes.
5. Get creative
An employee should not feel obligated to contribute funds to office celebrations, but they may want to consider participating in other ways, Hosking says.
"For example, they could offer to help coordinate the event or assist with other logistical and planning tasks. The planners of any celebration should make an effort to keep participation in the event voluntary and as pressure-free as possible."
To keep things light and inexpensive, Gimbel says desk decorating can do the trick. A few 99-cent balloons, pictures and streamers can really jazz up a person's desk and will make them feel special all day long.
To save on future celebrations, check out items that can be stored in a closet or filing cabinet until it's time to celebrate again, Sears suggests.
"Look into an imaginative reusable sign, a reusable oversized inflatable cake or a company mascot that adorns the person's desks on their birthday," he says. "People will come by their desk naturally and wish the employee a happy birthday."