Frugal Birthdays, Part 1--Children's Birthdays

It's been LONG time, but let's see if I can't get back in the swing of things :D My oldest just turned 5, so we've been thinking a lot about ways to cut costs for birthdays without reducing the celebrating. Here's some of the things we came up with. This post will be focussed mostly on children's birthdays, and I'll do one a bit later on adult birthdays.

1. Prioritize. Just like any other aspect of frugal living, it's imperative that you know what is important to YOU about birthdays. If it's the gift, then put the largest portion of your budget there. The party? Then splurge on decorations, favors, or location. The cake? Then give yourself free reign in the cake department, and cut corners elsewhere.

2. Ask the birthday boy or girl. A teen or even tween will be able to plan their own party within a budget--and if they can't, then it's a great chance for you to teach them budgetting skills. But even younger children can tell you what's important to them. At 4, my oldest didn't care about anything other than having balloons and a Thomas the train cake. This year, he didn't care at all about the cake or the decorations, as long as the party was at the local kid's pizza place. The place charged about $10 per person, but since that included cake, drinks, pizza, game tokens, plates, cups, hats, and a small favor or two, we cut out a lot of extras (we brought our own ice cream and bought a $2 pack of balloons that we blew up ourselves) and still managed to stay within budget.

3. Plan ahead. I know I say this on almost every post, but there is NOTHING that will save you more money than planning ahead. I can promise you that every single person you know will have a birthday within the next year, so do not wait until the week before to think about parties, gifts, or other things birthday related. Right after Christmas is a great time to buy red and green party items (which can be used both for birthdays and for Valentine's day and St Patrick's day, respectively). If you're pretty sure your son wants a spiderman party, but his birthday isn't for another three months, then pick up some plastic spiders for the cupcakes right after Halloween. Many stores have large clearance sales on toys in January (just after Christmas) and in September or October (just before they get their Christmas stock in), so be sure to stock up for upcoming birthdays then, too. And not just for the birthday child--a $3 doll at 90% off in late January might make an excellent party favor for a March birthday, at only $0.30 a guest. On an off-topic note, this is also a great time to stock up on toys to donate to Toys for Tots or other programs during the holiday season.

4. Do it yourself. It costs less than $5 to buy a cake mix and icing and make a cake yourself. Even if you want to do a character cake, you can buy cake kits online or at any party supply store for only a few dollars, as well, depending on the character or the intricacies of the kit. And I recently discovered that a local party store RENTS those expensive shaped pans than you use once and then never use again for less than $5 per pan for a 3 day rental. Some paper, markers or crayons, and tape or glue can go a long way towards activities for kids at a party, whether it's a craft or art project for them or a 'pin the wheels on the engine' game you made before the party. And if you're eyeing a particular craft kit for your child's party that looks like it might be a little over your budget, take a stroll through your local craft store with a list of materials and see if buying them in bulk and putting the kits together yourself would be more cost effective. I recently saw holiday craft kits for $2 each that I thought would be nice for my son's preschool, but two dozen of them would cost almost $50. Looking through the SAME craft store, I can buy enough craft foam, googly eyes, chenille stems (pipe cleaners to us old people who remember pipes :D), and glue to make three dozen of them for about $12. Sure, I might have a little more prep time putting them all together, but no more than a half hour, and a half hour of my time is certainly worth almost $40 in savings.

5. Go generic. I don't mean buy the store brand cake mix (though feel free to do so :D). But for a child's party especially, those character plates and napkins can really add up. Focus on what you think will make the most impact, do those in your theme, then fill in with generic items. For example, our twins' second birthday was a Sesame Street theme. I bought a Big Bird pan at a yard sale for $1 and rented an Elmo pan for the second cake (it's really important to me at their age that they get their OWN cake to tear into). Three cake mixes, four tubs of icing, and some paste food coloring, most of which I already had, brought my total cake costs to around $12, plus about two hours of my time. While I was at the party store renting my pan, I also bought some Sesame Street party blowers that were on sale ($2 for 2 dozen), a giant Sesame Street pin something on something game ($3), a pack of 24 sesame street cupcake picks (those little things you stick into the tops of cupcakes, $2), a pack of generic cupcake liners ($1) and plain yellow and red mix and match cups, plates, napkins, table cloths, and cutlery. (another $10 for enough for 30 people, with extras). I then raided their room for stuffed elmos, big birds, and anything else Sesame Street. The gift table got an Elmo bedsheet as the tablecloth, and we pinned an Elmo toddler-sized comforter on the wall behind it, with some of the Sesame Street toys sitting on and around the table. The game I bought went onto another wall as decoration (I thought maybe the older kids would want to play the game, but they didn't :D). The red and yellow theme looked awesome with random Sesame Street toys as centerpieces, and there is nothing easier, in my opinion, than cupcakes for the guests. All the decorations, the cakes for the boys, and the cupcakes cost us just over $30-- less than the price of a large sheet cake-- everything looked great, and the boys had a great time.

6. The cake. I have seen cakes at birthday parties that cost $50 or more. If it is ultra important that your child have a certain cake or their birthday will be ruined, then by all means, make sure they get that cake. But if you just need a cake--even a theme cake--there are ways to cut the costs. Check into doing it yourself--it may be easier than you think. If you absolutely do NOT want to do it yourself, then how about a smaller cake with some cupcakes? A 1/2 sheet or 1/4 sheet cake is usually significantly less expensive than a full sheet cake, and you can even buy the cupcakes from the same place if you don't have the time to do them. You can also do PART of the cake yourself and save some money. My mother in law was having a small party for my oldest, and literally two hours before the party he decided he NEEDED a Thomas cake. Since he had his 'official' birthday party the week before at home, we hadn't been planning on a cake at all. My ever creative mother in law hit the grocery store for a ready-made birthday cake ($8, I think) and a tube of brown decorating icing ($2), then the toy aisle for a small set of Thomas toys ($5 or so), took off the Happy Birthday sign, put the Thomas toys on the cake, and used the icing to draw tracks all around the cake. It took only a few minutes to put together, looked great, and was at least half the price of ordering a character cake from the store. Plus, he had the toys to play with later.

7. Get creative. If you think of a birthday as an extra special play date, it's a lot easier to plan--and a lot less stressful. Some ideas that don't take a lot of time or cost a lot of money:
A. Tea party. Use your child's tea sets or your own (if you're brave!). Serve different types of tea for older children, or juice for younger. Either ask the guests to come in 'fancy dress' OR set up a 'dress up' station for the start of the party, complete with clothes, shoes, hats, and jewelry. Serve sandwiches cut into small, fun shapes, cookies, and miniature cupcakes. Add some crowns and you have a Royal Tea Party, crazy hats and playing cards and it's a Mad Hatter tea party. Be sure to use nice tablecloths (even plain white sheets can look nice if you pin some bows or flowers on to the edges) and place settings (paper plates are fine, but try to find metallic ones--just after New Year's is usually a great time to find these on clearance) to make the party feel extra special. Other Fairy Tale Party ideas
B. Building party (great for a child who likes Handy Manny or Bob the Builder) Use purchased pound cake and other candies to make an Edible Excavator Cake (instructions from Family Fun Magazine). You can also serve 'dirt cups'--small cups of chocolate pudding with crushed oreos on the top, with or without gummy worms for decorations. Activities may include providing paint/other materials to turn a giant appliance box (ask at your local appliance store) into a house in the yard, using legos or other building blocks to build structures, or even just a play-doh building table, with play doh toys or cookie cutters. Other ideas for Car or truck Themed Parties
C. Race Cars. There are SO many things you can do with a race car or car themed party. Give a group of kids a box of blocks and a box of matchbox or hot wheels cars and they'll be busy for hours!! You can also build ramps or race tracks in advance, and then have the children race their cars (giving away 'racing cup' favors or prizes). Or you can use boxes to make 'cars' before the party, let the guests decorate their cars, then have them wear their cars for a giant race. If you have the space, make sure you set up 'pit stops', either with refueling centers and/or mechanics for the cars or snacks and drinks for the drivers. Put a few adults in mechanic overalls and you've got a party theme!
D. Sleepovers. Children love sleepovers almost as much as their parents dread them :D. Press a couple of teenagers or pre-teens, depending on the age of your guests, into service as both supervision and entertainment, and your night will go a lot easier. Choose a couple of age appropriate movies, set up sleeping arrangements in one large room or in a tent or two for a camp out, and plan a couple of activities such as manicures, facials, or game playing (board games, darts, twister, karoake, whatever you have and is safe/appropriate for your group). A word of caution, though--no matter what the age of your guests, do plan to supervise closely, and even after all of the children are asleep, make sure you have another adult who can switch off checking on them every hour or so, both to protect them from bad choices and to be available should they need something, whether it's to call home, get a snack, or just to be reminded where the bathroom is. Other Sleepover party ideas

8. Don't have a party at all. I put this one last because many people can not imagine skipping a party for their child's birthday--and to be honest, I'm probably among them, as the days my children were born are among the highest of holidays in my mind. However, just because you skip having a party does not mean you don't observe the day. Perhaps you could take a trip--either a day trip, to a zoo or other attraction, or even a weekend camping trip. You could have 'your child' day, where the birthday child gets to choose everything for the entire day, possibly including what everyone wears (pre-teen girls seem to have the most fun with this one), what foods are served, and what the family does with their time. Or just have a quiet family day at home, marveling at how you managed to create this being whose day you are celebrating. After all, birthdays should not be about the cake, or the presents, or the party, but rather about celebrating the day that the birthday boy or girl was born. And if I've learned anything from my children, it's that counting your blessings doesn't cost a thing.

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