As anyone with younger kids knows, birthday parties seem to be a must. Your child (along with the whole class) is usually invited to many, many parties over the years-starting in preschool. And you may feel obligated to throw your kids a nice birthday party and invite the whole class back. Well, today I’m going to help free you from feeling the obligation to throw a big expensive party for a three year old and share a few tips that will save you thousands of dollars over the years.
When this birthday-party fun started up ten years ago, my oldest son was just 3-4 year old. We didn’t have a lot of money back then-in fact for many years we qualified for the retirement savings credit you can get when your income is low. So going to these kids birthday parties a few times a year was a stretch, because each time we had to buy a “nice” gift. This was especially true when the party was somewhere expensive, which it always was. Not only did we have to buy a nice gift, but we also had to bring lunch and dessert for my oldest son. He was allergic to dairy and eggs – which was pretty much what was for lunch (pizza) and dessert (cake). So every single time we had to pack him up something he could eat at these parties, in addition to getting a gift.
Confession time: I’ve never understood the urge to throw an expensive party at a museum, the YMCA, a gymnastics hall, a trampoline place, or any of those other seemingly normal birthday party venues for kids. Whatever happened to birthday parties at home, which were the norm when I was a kid? (queue me feeling old for saying that). I’ve checked into the cost of having a party at these places, and it’s always hundreds of dollars to rent the place and provide the food. That three year old I used to have is now 13, and I can tell you with 100% certainty that he remembers exactly zero parties he went to at age 3. Sure, the kids had a fun time, but they also had a fun time playing with boxes. And those are free.
So if you’re feeling caught up in the young-kid birthday party trap, here’s three frugal tips that have helped me over the years.
Keep a Gift Stash
Believe it or not, it took me a while to develop this strategy. For years what I would do is head over to Target the day before the birthday party and have my kids pick out a toy for the birthday boy/girl. The trouble was always that they would pick something expensive – and then I’d have to explain again what our budget was – or they had no idea what to get their classmate.
Finally I got smart and developed a gift stash. Although I’m not an extreme couponer by any stretch of the imagination, I love a good deal. So I keep a close eye on a few deal sites like Hip2Save and Krazy Coupon Lady. Every few months there will be a great deal on toys or board games – either a coupon plus Cartwheel at Target, a bargain on Amazon, or something else. When I see those deals I pop on over to the store and pick them up. I then put those gifts into my stash. Whenever a birthday party comes up, I have my kids “go shopping” for a gift for their friend.
This strategy not only saves money, but it also saves time and stress. Birthday parties always seem to pop up at random throughout the year, at the busiest times. Having a gift stash keeps me from being stressed running around trying to find a gift at the last minute, and saves me from needing to trek on over to the store for a present. It also ensures I’ve picked up that present at a good price-instead of paying full price at the last minute I’m paying a bargain price ahead of time.
Focus on Fun Homemade
Back when my older kids were younger, there was no way I could have afforded several hundred dollars a few times a year to throw them parties. It would have been a huge strain on the budget for an event that they wouldn’t even remember the following year. So when my kids started wanting to have their friends over for their birthdays, I developed traditions involving fun homemade food and activities.
Homemade Pizza Fun
Using my homemade pizza recipe, I make a double batch and get an assortment of kid-friendly toppings. The kids then roll out and assemble their own pizzas, putting as much-or as little-of each ingredient on top as they want. It’s an activity and lunch, and it can scale up to as many kids as you invite.
My oldest son had food allergies for several years, but he still enjoyed making a cheese-less pizza. You used the same recipe for the dough, just hold the cheese and make sure the sauce doesn’t have any cheese in it. Easy dairy-free pizza!
Another tradition I started back when my kids turned one was to make them a birthday poster every year. Back when my oldest was born we got our first digital camera, so I had a lot of pictures I wanted to show off. At one, your child has changed from a baby to a toddler over the course of a year, and the transformation is amazing. There’s a lot less change from 12 to 13, but I’ve found it’s still a fun way to capture highlights of the year. I keep all the birthday posters upstairs in a closet, and the kids like to take them out and look at them once in a while. The fun part about that is that I can hang them all up on milestone birthdays (like when they turn 10), and you can see them transform from a baby to a ten year old over the course of ten posters.
Making these is very easy. The simplest posters are just a poster board, a bunch of pictures, and some writing. Later I added in a few packs of stickers picked up at JoAnns or AC Moore with coupons. I like to let the kids pick out stickers that represent something about their interests, which it’s fun to watch change over the years.
The tradition of making homemade cakes started accidentally. As I mentioned above, my oldest son had food allergies when he was young. He was allergic to dairy, eggs, and nuts – two of those three are key ingredients in every single store bought cake. We also had no extra money, so I couldn’t just go to a fancy bakery and buy a vegan cake. So for years I made cakes out of necessity, not because it was a fun hobby. I can now make a delicious cake with no dairy or eggs that you would never dream is completely safe for kids with those food allergies.
As time went on, the kids started looking forward to my homemade cakes at their parties – first their family parties, and later on their parties with friends. Even when my oldest outgrew his food allergies, I had to keep making cakes. Now it’s somewhat of a hobby, and the cakes range from the simple – with a printed edible design from one of the grocery stores – to the complex.
Throw a Party When They Want It
This last tip is the biggest one for me. When your kids are young, they likely don’t want to have a party. The party is for the adults, not the kids. Heck, kids have meltdowns and scream/kick/cry at half these things. My rule about friend parties has always been that when my kids ask for one, I’ll throw one at home for them. The kids can come over, make pizzas, eat cake, and do fun activities in the house or in the yard. All in cost for one of these parties is well under $50, and that’s if we get balloons or some other decoration. The kids have a great time, and since they wanted the party, they really enjoy it. Heck, I once had a party for my oldest where he took all his friends to see a movie in the movie theater and it was still under $50 for the whole thing. They all came back to the house for pizza and cake after the movie.
What age have I seen my kids ask for parties? My oldest didn’t want to have friends at a party until he was around 9 or 10. At that time, he wanted only a few close friends to come, and he continues that to this day. My middle son asked for a friend party starting at age 7, and also only had a few friends he wanted to come over. Back when they were young this was out of necessity, because there’s just no way I could have afforded the kind of parties that seem to be the norm in our town. Nowadays it’s because this is what they’re used to and they look forward to it.
What frugal tips do you have for kids birthday parties? Do you like my cakes? Let me know in the comments!