Three Fun and Frugal Tips for Kids Birthday Parties

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!

Homemade Poster

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.

Homemade Cake

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!

Want to learn more about teaching kids about money? Check out this great page with my top articles and resources I’ve found from around the web.

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15 thoughts on “Three Fun and Frugal Tips for Kids Birthday Parties”

  1. Oh wow what great ideas! And how did you know my little one will be turning 3 in just 2 months…perfect timing!

    I agree, we aren’t ones to throw big parties especially at this age when it makes no difference to them. And given how our newborn will likely be arriving just a few weeks before his birthday, we will be doing something small with family who are coming in town and the neighbor friends.

    I love the great ideas for the home parties, the poster boards are great and simple and are always fun to look back on! I’ll be sending this post over to my wife now 🙂 …she’ll love it.

    1. Glad you enjoyed the post! We always did family/family friend only parties until my kids were old enough to want to celebrate with their friends. When they’re little they don’t even really understand what a birthday is, and they have fun with anything you do. My kids love their birthday posters – they take almost no effort but last for years.

  2. This is awesome! My wife and I are just getting started planning out our kiddos birthdays too! We like to do a combined party/get together for my wife and both kids since they are all so close (April 20, 24, and May 2nd)! I love the make your own pizza idea! We have thought about letting them have as many friends as how old they are (5 year old gets 5 friends). We often just use our back yard and invite people over and sometimes even just do a pot luck!

    1. I think that’s a great idea to keep the number of kids equal to their age.! I’ve been fortunate that my kids usually only want a few friends, and they find it much more fun than with a big group. It sounds like you get to have a nice big party at the end of April/start of May!

  3. I like the idea of asking the child about whether they even want a party. Our kids are still to young for parties, and yet we’ve attended their friends parties already (4 an 2 year old here). I don’t get it as I barely remember anything I did at 4. So why would I spend big on a party they won’t remember?

    1. That’s exactly how I feel! I think it’s reinforced by having an older child. Now that my oldest is 13, I can see clearly that he remembers nothing from when he was little. Those preschool friends are long gone. So I don’t understand why those parents spent hundreds of dollars on something their kids don’t remember. Now if they can afford to and don’t mind spending the money-that’s fine! But I know a lot of people struggle financially and those parties are a stretch.

  4. Those are some cute birthday cakes. Without reading anything else I would have guessed for sure boys! Love the birthday posters as well. I’m also glad to see there is another PF fan of Hip2Save for deals (when you do need to buy something).

    When my boys were back in kid-birthday party ages, we almost always had parties at home. With homemade cakes and fun activities like bingo (with themed bingo cards) or scavengerhunts. You can find a ton of good tips and ideas online now. The kids just really want to hang out with each other and laugh and play. That’s what is most important.

    We used to stock up on toys for our child “gift closet” when post-christmas sales meant Target would mark down overstocked toys like 30 – 50%. Stick with the classics (board games – like you mentioned) or unisex toys and you can’t go wrong. Craft supplies were always popular with the little girls in our lives. In the rare event that we seemed to be outgrowing a gift for certain age-groups, we donated from our gift closet to Toys-For-Tots.

    1. Yes Hip2Save is a great site for finding deals on things you have to buy anyway-like gifts, diapers, or paper towels. And I love the toys for tots idea, I’ll use that if the gifts start getting outgrown!

    1. Thanks! We’ve been fans of Totoro since my oldest son was small, and my youngest son has a Totoro wall decal in his room. For some reason Totoro isn’t well known in the US, but we find him so cute!

  5. Great stuff!

    The “Gift Stash” is an awesome idea. Wish we had thought of that years ago.

    I know what you mean about spending money on lavish celebrations. What’s the outcome? Money spent, not many memories.

    The memory posters are also an awesome idea. Both my kids are in their 30’s, but I’m sure that I have tons of pics from over the years. Think I need to make them a poster for their next b-days.

    BTW- Your cakes are awesome!

    1. Thanks! The posters are so much fun. For my oldest sons tenth birthday we hung up ten years worth of posters in the living room. It was fun to watch him grow from a baby to a ten year old in just ten posters! My nine year old is looking forward to us doing that for his tenth birthday

  6. Great post! To add to the “gift stash” idea: I actually “regift” some of my son’s presents, too. I know this might not work when he gets old enough to remember (he’ll only be 4 this year), but I’ll receive gifts and then put them away in the closet. We’ll select a few for him to enjoy throughout the year, but save the rest to give to others. He doesn’t miss them since he already has so many other toys, and it’s saved a fortune on buying new toy gifts. We also make birthday cards instead buying them; I give my son some markers and stickers, and he goes to town on some construction paper. It’s both a fun and useful activity!

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