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.
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.