It would seem like saving money for birthdays would be the same no matter what the age of the birthday boy/man or girl/woman, but that simply is not the case. As we get older, it seems our priorities changes, and certainly our parties change--a party at the local pizzeria or cake, balloons, and pin the nose on Elmo might be great for the pre-school set, but in general in just won't work for adults :D. Generally, though, a lot of the guidelines are the same.
1. Know your recipient. There is a lot more room for error with a child's birthday than an adult's birthday--a child is excited to celebrate every single year, while adults sometimes would rather just let their birthday pass without a thought. If the person in question is depressed about this birthday, or just doesn't like being the center of attention, a large and loud party would be be more of a trial than a celebration. A diabetic? Then you probably don't want to buy a sugar-laden cake. A busy parent or grandparent of little ones? Then breakable knick knacks, no matter how beautiful or sentimental, are probably NOT the way to go. Just knowing your recipient can take a lot of stress out of birthday planning--and gift giving. (see Giving the Frugal Gift--coming soon!)
2. Prioritize. Adults tend to focus on different aspects of their birthday than children, but the same advice applies--don't go all out on every aspect of birthdays, just choose one or two areas to focus the largest portion of your budget and go low-key with the others. This actually tends to be easier with adults than children, since most adults will tell you point blank what they do NOT need more of!
3. Plan ahead. Yes, I'm saying it again--the best way to save money is to plan for an event rather than wait. If your mother's birthday is in April, and you're thinking of jewelry, then try hitting the jewelry stores for the after Christmas or after Valentine's day sales. Dad's a fisherman? The fishing equipment sales in my area tend to be at the end of the summer or around Father's day. Thinking of an 'over the hill' party for your sibling this year? Then pick up black party supplies right after Halloween, and grey/silver just after New Year's. And if you always seems to be the one who plans office parties, then take a minute whenever you're at the party store or a big box store to look for clearance or sales. I recently purchased a box of 12 children's birthday cards at Wal-mart for less than $4--perfect for the upcoming birthdays at my son's preschool, and a LOT better than spending $2 or more per card for each event. You can do the same for adult birthdays.
4. Do it yourself. If you're throwing a party, the more you do yourself (or get others to volunteer to do), the lower your costs. If you want to have a large family party for an adult, there's no reason you can't make it a pot luck dinner. If you'd rather do something more formal, how about asking guests to bring specific things, whether it's appetizers, wine, or side dishes? Rather than hire expensive entertainment for a formal party, find out if your local college or even high school has a string quartet or a jazz band that would be willing to play for a fraction of the cost. You could also get a tech savvy guest to make a DVD compilation of videos or photographs of the guest of honor throughout the years, and either play it as the 'big event' for the party, or just keep it on loop throughout. Or if you're a southern country girl like me, just ask your guests to bring their guitars, and make sure they have a comfortable place to get together--a porch or gazebo works great in the summer, a family room when it's cold. Your guests will entertain themselves--and each other--there will be no additional costs, and it will add a personal touch to the party.
5. Give the gift of time. Adults tend to have birthday parties only on 'big' birthdays--the decade marks, 75, anything after 80 (as well they should!). Also, there are usually more people willing to share the financial burden of the party--whether it's siblings, spouses, adult children, or friends--than you have with a child's party. However, the gifts for adults tend to be much more expensive than those for children, but they don't have to be. Thought and time tend to mean a lot more to adults than to children, and there are a lot more precious memories for adults to treasure. A scrapbook that cost you $15, but includes pictures from the person's entire life may be more treasured than an item you spent hundreds of dollars on. Parents of young children often don't get time to themselves, so offering to babysit while they have a date night costs you nothing but an evening, and will be MUCH appreciated. Perhaps your mother would enjoy just having a quiet lunch with you, or you could compile a book/cd/dvd of childhood stories and memories from your father--a gift for him AND your children. I think in our overly commercial society we sometimes forget that 'It's the thought that counts' only applies if you actually put some THOUGHT into the gift--a $50 bath set in a scent that makes the recipient's children sneeze is not nearly as thoughtful as $2 binder filled with stories and anecdotes you have gathered from her friends and relatives. (See Giving the Frugal gift for more ideas--coming soon!)
6. Get creative. Who says a birthday has to be about cake and presents? My favorite birthday celebration ever was the year our oldest was a five month old newborn--hubby took the baby, a pack of diapers, a box of baby cereal, and a 24 hour supply of pumped milk to my parents' house. He cooked me a nice dinner while I had a long shower, I had dinner by candlelight in my favorite flannel pajamas, I was asleep by 9, and I slept until 11 the next morning. To an exhausted mom, there IS no better gift than uninterrupted sleep. A friend of mine likes to spend her birthday doing volunteer work with charities she supports but doesn't ordinarily get time to work with, and any friends who ask what she wants for her birthday are asked to donate a few hours of their time as well. Instead of a gift card to a restaurant, make a few freezable dinners so that your recipient can have a quick dinner whenever they wish (just make sure you include cooking instructions!). If you live nearby, how about volunteering to do some yard work or home repairs or improvements? Then, every time your brother opens the cabinet door that no longer sticks or sees the yard he didn't have to mow himself, he'll think of you and his birthday. Again, the important thing is to let your loved one know you were thinking of them, and that you were willing to put in the extra effort to make their birthday special. The amount of money it cost you won't even be a consideration.