12 Ways to Save on Birthdays

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Birthdays  are a wonderful time in the life of a child. You don’t need to spend a lot of money to make it special.

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Our family has a “birthday season”. Fifty-percent of our family has birthdays in a three-week span of time. As of today, we’ve got two more to go before we start leap frogging through the year to celebrate the other four family members.

I love birthdays! And I love celebrating these sweet lives that God has entrusted to my care.

I also have a tendency to dream big when it comes to birthday celebrations. Handmade capes for 17 knights in shining armor? No problem!

And yet I don’t always have the energy to bring my plans to fruition. In fact, this post is going up later than I intended because I spent last night strolling through Walmart shopping for two family birthdays, a birthday party, and Father’s Day. Thankfully, I shopped alone, right after getting my haircut, so it was a mostly peaceful affair.

Enough is still good enough.

Years ago when we found ourselves in deep debt, I had to reconcile our budget with my big birthday dreams. I had never been extravagant; no petting zoos and bounce houses for us. Yet I needed to economize and make every dollar count.

What I found was that it was easier than I thought. I discovered what most mattered to my kids. And we’ve found economical alternatives to my late-night-sewing-knight-in-shining-armor-for-the-masses.

Here are twelve ways that you can consider to save money on birthdays:

1. Set a budget.

Everyone hates the B-word, yet having a budget is a built-in  control against overspending. It helps you prioritize and make every penny count. Whether your birthday celebrations include an elaborate party with cake and favors or a simple family affair with a few presents and a nice dinner, a budget can help you keep things manageable.

2. Don’t feel obligated.

This is huge. You get to decide what is best for YOUR family. Don’t let the PTA, the grandparents, or your social circle dictate how you celebrate your child’s birthday. Doing something under compulsion is never as fun — or as genuine — as doing something because you truly want to. If you celebrate the way you and your child want to celebrate, you’ll feel better about how you spend your budget.

3. Feel free to break the mold.

Long before debt stopped me in my Martha-Wannabe tracks, exhaustion did. I finally told the kids I couldn’t keep it up. So, we incorporated new traditions — besides the Birthday Party — into our festivities.

I asked the Birthday Child to choose an outing he would really like to do on his birthday. This led us to spend the day as a family using our passes to the Science Museum, the miniature golf course, and the pool. We had just as much fun without the hassles and high prices.

4. Combine birthday celebrations.

After several years of abstaining from parties with friends, I offered the birthday option to all my kids this year. Due to a weird chain of events, two boys are combining their party option into one raucous Angry Birds event. (Heaven help me!)

While each child gets to be “special” on his actual birthday (choosing the menu and activities, within reason), I have no qualms about the joint birthday party we’re having next week. It makes sense in so many ways, finances included.

The two boys in question have birthdays just a few weeks apart. They also share friends within the same families. Why burden those families with TWO parties? Since I want those mamas (and myself) to stay sane, we’re lumping it all together. And everyone’s cool with that.

Read JessieLeigh’s tips for success as a birthday party guest.

A close up of Indiana Jones birthday cake.

5. Decorate your own cake.

It’s not hard to decorate your own themed cake. And you will save a boatload of change. I buy cake mixes for a dollar, make my own buttercream, and throw on some toys and candy. My kids hit their sugar quota for the year, but it works for us.

Stay tuned for the Angry Birds Cake I hope to pull off next week.

6. Limit the presents.

Each family has its own unique gift-giving traditions. Some limit it to a certain number of presents or a certain dollar amount. The salient point is that it’s okay to limit it. You don’t need to go overboard. Really. I promise.

We live in a nation of abundance. Once upon a time, a little girl named Laura was content with a penny in her stocking and her own metal cup to drink from. We’ve come a long way in 200 years. It’s okay to put on the brakes.

That said, I try to include one biggish item that the kid really wants, a cool tshirt, and a book. The kids typically like to stretch their present opening out over the day, so multiple presents is still preferable with my people.

7. Shop the clearance.

Just as shopping the sales and clearance can help you save money on gifts, groceries, and household items, it can help you save money on birthday celebrations as well. Last night during my shopping expedition, I kept an open mind about our party’s color scheme. When I found party plates and napkins on clearance that were Angry Bird/boy-friendly, those are the ones I chose. I am set on disposables for less than $3.

I’ve also been able to transform seasonal baking items into birthday-friendly creations for pennies on the dollar.

8. Make your own pinata.

It’s been a few years since we included a pinata in our birthday celebrations. But they are great fun. And very easy to make yourself. Forget about spending $20 on something you’re going to beat with a stick. Use regular household supplies and make your own for free.

Check out my tutorials for both balloon-based and paperbag pinatas.

9. Include balloons for cheap-er.

Balloons are fun. Balloons are festive. I remember what a big deal it was to get a balloon bouquet for your birthday….back in the day. While it hasn’t always fit the budget, this year it worked out to invest in a helium tank. You can get these for less than $20 at Walmart. The kit comes with enough helium and balloons for thirty balloons. We stretch it to cover several birthdays, making for a fun and festive little touch.

10. Go to the park, beach, or other public space.

Renting a party facility can be costly. So can getting your house ready for a big shindig. Consider a public space like a park or beach to hold your party. Depending on the size of your get-together, you can even avoid making a reservation. Be sure to be respectful of others using the facility. Be flexible in your planning and enjoy public spaces.

11. Avoid the full meal at a party.

Food, even if you make it yourself, can cost a bundle of money, especially for a large group. Plan your party so that cake and beverages (and maybe a light snack) is all that is expected. This means avoiding typical meal times in your party planning. Scheduling a party for the afternoon allows you to do this gracefully.

12. Focus on experiences.

After years of planning in-depth activities for birthday parties, I finally realized that my kids were perfectly happy with free time to play with their friends. They didn’t need a lot of stimulation; ten boys create that all on their own. Water balloons are cheap. Give them a few resources and then step back.

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  1. I have one November birthday—Nov. 1st I hit the stores for Halloween clearance items. I can usually find some candies/trinket toys that aren’t garish (and if you don’t care that they have decoration then the sky is the limit). These can be for treat bags—or especially for the famed pinatas! We also have swapped years for parties. One year big party (on a budget) the next the birthday boy can invite one friend to go on outing with the family. Post- Seasonal stuff is great for gathering items for Operation Christmas Child boxes, too . . .

  2. Jessica, these tips are so helpful! We’re always looking for new ways to save money and this advice will come in handy, especially the “Make your own piñata” paragraph. Thanks for sharing! – Ramona from Sam’s Club

  3. We are trying something different this year for my son’s fourth birthday. I was beginning to feel overwhelmed with planning, cleaning, buying, etc. We decided to invite a few close families to meet at the Lego Store at the mall for the monthly free lego build that the host. Then we are doing a no-host dinner at Red Robin. No gifts are requested. (Birthday cake will be done at home with the immediate family.)

  4. I absolutely make my own cakes. Awesome Indiana Jones one, by the way! But I’d never even thought to make my own pinata…will have to consider it for sure.

  5. Great list of ideas! I’m almost past the ‘themed’ party age – but I agree with all your ideas. Now I generally set a budget in my head and I TALK to my children about what’s important to them. Littlest still wants to invite the whole kit and kaboodle someplace – so she just gets a few clearanced trinkets from us as well as her party [usually way AFTER her right before Christmas birthday] Bigger kids now mostly want to hang with their friends and are happy for a party at home. This year we held off the february boy’s birthday for spring, his pals came here and played like mad, ate like mad, we piled them in our cars and drove them to the nearby football field for a while – all good. Teen decided she didn’t want to even have a party if she could spend the budget going clothing shopping and have alone time with me to do it. Talk about easy peasy LOL.

  6. Right now my two girls are having a sleepover birthday party. They’ve gone swimming, watched a movie, stayed up way too late, eaten too much food (btw, it is NOT expensive to feed teen girls, compared to teen boys or younger kids), and then I’m taking them to a mall. Yes, a mall. Using their own money, but it’s a big deal for all of them and I’ve never gone. Nor has Miss 12. We’ll pack pop and granola bars for on the way home.

    I’ve also found that boys don’t like organized activities, but my girls thrived on them.

  7. Good timing: our (almost) six-year-old social butterfly’s party is tomorrow. She wanted a summer theme, so the round cake is currently cooling so that it can be frosted yellow tomorrow, then turned into a sun with pointed ice cream cones as the rays and sunglasses made from red Lifesavers Gummies and licorice sticks. Unfortunately, I forgot to say on the invitations (designed and printed for free on dltk.com) that kids should wear something they could get wet, so no running through the sprinkler — even though it will be 90 degrees.

  8. Wonderful ideas — I also like combined parties and limited gifts. I’m going to check out your pinata tutorial, as my kids love those. My sister gives her boys a set budget and lets them decide — party or outing. I also like to keep it small enough that I can use real dishes.

    For summer birthdays, we have found a hose and sprinklers to be more than enough entertainment.

  9. My boys will be 4 & 6 two weeks apart this summer. We always combine their parties. We homeschool and almost all of their friends are sibling pairs anyway. The boys love it, I love it. My husband has a problem with it and thinks that they “should” have their “own” party. Honestly, the other mom’s of the kids we invite love it too (rather than having to bring their kids to 2 parties 2 weeks apart.).

    Since we are in Phoenix outdoor parties are not a great option in the summer, and pool parties are not safe given my kids ages (in a few years they’ll rock — and we have a pool in the back yard).

    Last year we did a party in our house with games and cake. All the kids had a blast.

    I couldn’t find pin the tail on the donkey style games, so we made our own. I had each of my sons lay down on a big piece of butcher paper and traced their bodies. Then I took a close up photo of each of their faces. I trimmed the photos and glued them to the body outlines, then cut those out. From there my kids drew superhero costumes on their cutout. My oldest was Ironman and my youngest was batmat. Then I cut out some yellow triangles and bats (Ironmans triangle power source on his chest and the bat for the chest of batman’s costume.) We used those for “pin the powersource on ironman” and “pin the bat on batman”. All the kids LOVED it.

    Balls of aluminum foil, a bucket and wooden spoons turned into “Capture the Kryptonite”

    I homemade cake (from a box bought for .50 cents with coupons), some frosting and some small superhero toys and we had a justice league cake.

    Not sure yet what we’re going to do this year but I’m sure it will be fun.

  10. June is our family’s birthday month: when 3/4 of our family has his/her birthday: our soon-to-be-2 daughter, soon-to-be-5 son, and soon-to-be-30 daddy/hubby. I’m the oddball with an October b-day, but our baby boy-to-be now is also due in October, so I should have a birthday joining mine soon.:)

    I took advantage of a Groupon offer earlier this spring to BirthdayExpress: $29 for a $60 voucher. Thus, my daughter will be having a Tangled bash (just family) with all the trimmings, and my son will be having a knight bash (with friends) with all the trimmings. And I will be making the cakes with a Tangled figurine set and a Playmobil knight figurine set for props, that each kiddo will be able to keep afterwards. Which rocks.:)

    Our children’s birthdays are 2 days apart, so last year we had a joint party for friends at our (then) local Chick Fil A. We were moving out-of-state 2 months later, so it was a good time to have a big bash. And at $6 per child (birthday kids were free), it was well worth the $60 to have each party-goer get a 6 piece nugget meal and an ice cream to go with the cupcakes that I made. The attending parents had no problem with buying their own meals. The play place provided the entertainment, and I had no set-up or tear-down/clean-up to worry about.

    This year, our son is the only one having a party with friends, and we’re having a hotdog cookout at the park where his t-ball team held practices–no fees to reserve space.:) And the playground is all the entertainment they’ll need.

    For presents, we stick to a 3 gift protocol for both birthdays and Christmas, and we shoot for spending right around $100. I ordered a Kinects set for our son’s June birthday back in November during an online Black Friday sale. Both our son and daughter are getting one gift that’s on the smallish side, at least monetarily (<$15), so I don't feel bad about spending the money on the Tangled figurines or the Playmobil knight figurine set for their cakes as a "4th" gift for each. Even with the figurine sets, our total gift expenditure per child is right around $100.

    We're recent SoCal (LA area) transplants, so we'll also be trying out Medieval Times for our son's birthday–something that we've all wanted to do since moving here. And hubby gets great discounts on tickets through his job.:)

    Not the sparsest route to take for birthdays, but we budget for it, so it works for us.:)

  11. Great post! I found a Nerf battery-powered squirt gun on clearance last fall for $4. My 9 yr old was thrilled to get it for his birthday in May. He didn’t know it didn’t cost the $15+ had I bought it in-season!

  12. I’ve seen a lot of Angry Bird ideas on pinterest. I am sure you can pull a cake off rather easily. Your cakes always look great!

    1. Thanks! It’s going to be pretty simple. And hopefully won’t fall apart in transit.

  13. Perfect timing, as my baby is turning 6 in less than a month.
    A week before his birthday, we are moving into our new home.
    I’m planning to combine a birthday with a housewarming and serve a simple lunch so we can visit, show our friends/family our home and still celebrate my baby!

    I’m the midst of the Lego planning…and packing.

  14. Man, I love #11. I’m not sure why people think that they always need to serve a full meal at parties. When I was growing up, a birthday party meant there was going to be cake…and maybe ice cream if we were lucky. People go hog-wild and pig crazy these days.
    Thank you for hosting! I’ve linked up two: But I’ve Always Done It That Way – Deciding to Change….sometimes people get in a money rut and have a hard time getting out.
    Also, I’ve linked up a post about Geocaching which is a great frugal family activity for the summer.
    See you next week! Loving the 12 series. 🙂

  15. My son will be turning 8 on 1 July. So we are in the process of planning now. Lately, we have just done a special with our little family of 4. The kids seem to enjoy that more. For lil man’s bday we will be hitting the Wisconsin Dells. We are staying the night so we are looking for some cheap rates & will be bringing our own food. My husband is military so we can receive some discount hotel & park tickets. We also get each child 2-3 gifts but not costing much money. I may have to try a themed cake this year. I do not have talent in the kitchen unless it comes with directions….lol

  16. I am in total agreement with sharing parties. My son and daughter are just 5 days shy of being 2 years apart. So one year when they both were begging for a pool party for their warm summer month birthdays. I told them I would rent the Y party room with pool access just once, and they would have to combine friend lists to total the maximum allowed by the Y for the party. It cost $100 for the rental, but I had nothing to prepare, nothing to clean up, and it came with pizza and pop so all I had to bring was a cake!