40th Birthday Parties Are Becoming Wedding-Level Extravaganzas

For Eileen, the marathon event was a no-brainer: “This definitely felt like a bigger milestone than previous ‘big birthdays.’ Most of us are settled into careers, have expendable income, and for those of my friends who have children, they are old enough that their parents feel comfortable leaving them for a few days.” Plus, she adds, “40 is the new 30!”

Of course, having such a large celebration can be a considerable expense—not just for the host, but for the guests as well. “I was nervous at first,” Rachel admits. She also felt torn over asking friends to spend time apart from their families for a weekend. But in the end she felt the trip could be a positive experience for the group as a whole. “I realized that because I hadn’t married, many of my friends hadn’t met and I wanted to stake a claim that my life was worth celebrating, too,” explains Rachel. “I wanted my friends to all meet each other after decades of hearing stories and know that they were all so special to me and how much I appreciated their friendship.” After attending countless events for them—weddings, anniversaries, showers—the weekend was a chance to gather her friends to cheer for her: “I realized that I’ve been there for all of them during their life celebrations, so I knew they’d be there for me.”

Even for lifelong friends, it can still be hard to make time to get together. Meredith Fahey, a management consultant, sees her imminent 40th as a chance to reunite a group of her dearest friends—over a dozen women who became close as freshmen at the University of Wisconsin over two decades ago. “We used our 30th birthdays as an excuse to get together in Key West, and we’re using our 40th as an excuse to rent a fancy house in Mexico…and all spend time together.”

Part of the allure of the destination celebration, several women tell me, is that it gives a big group of people a chance to escape to paradise for a weekend—something that in overworked modern life is almost easier to get people on board with than a simple nighttime event. “I’ve only ever really had small, low-key celebrations,” explains Courtney, a 38-year-old in the advertising industry who has just started to plan a trip to Napa or Sonoma with her friends to mark her 40th. “It has also become difficult to see friends and family, let alone get people together for a one-off night due to careers, families, and just general life responsibilities. By making it a big event, I hope everyone can truly let loose, reminisce, and just generally have fun.”

Destinations for these parties span the globe and budgets run the gamut. But in general, according to Burton, the Texas-based travel advisor, popular locations in the United States are Nashville, Charleston, New Orleans, and parts of Florida. “I choose [the location based on] my clients’ dates and on the weather, of course!” Burton explains. “And all have unique charming areas to walk safely, great restaurants, music, spas, and bars.” And while the costs of these excursions can add up, Burton stresses that it’s still possible to hold a great celebration no matter what a person can afford to spend. “I truly think that if anyone has any type of budget, that trip is there for them,” she says.

Outside of the United States, the Caribbean and Central America are popular as well. “It had to be by the ocean,” Eileen insists of her own celebration, which is how she settled on Bermuda. Other considerations? Not too expensive for her friends, not too hard to get to, with great food and an accessible spa.

For groups where more than one woman is celebrating her 40th—as in the case of the University of Wisconsin reunion group—requirements tend to be even stricter. “A lot of thought, thorough research, opinions, and a survey were involved,” admits Patty LeBaron, another member of the cohort. The women settled on a rented house, complete with a staff for cooking and cleaning, to make sure the vacation felt as relaxing as possible. “We also looked for places where we would each have a bed as opposed to a pullout couch, because our backs are 40, too,” she adds.

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