How We Keep Birthday Celebrations Sane & Affordable

The summer is birthday season for our family. From May to October, we have a birthday a month (with a break for August).

When my kids were tiny, I used to have big bashes for them every year. We’d invite all of their little friends (and their parents and siblings) and do craft projects and make fancy cakes and hang themed decorations.

It wasn’t terribly expensive, but it wasn’t always “on a budget”.  And, frankly, it took a lot of organizing and coordinating – which, as our kids got to be older, felt less and less in the spirit of celebrating. (And more and more in the spirit of “PITA for mom”!)

Over the years, therefore, we have refined how we handle birthday celebrations in our family in order to keep them both affordable – and sane – for all parties involved.

1. We balance family celebrations with peer-group celebrations

Our kids no longer have a big friends bash every year. Instead, we have started an every-other-year rotation. Even years are for friend parties; odd years are for family parties/outings.

For the friend year, we place limits to keep things under control. {Eg, Even on a friend year, we’re not having jumpy castles and pony rides for 30 kids from their class.} For more on that, keep reading.

For family parties/outings years, we involve our children in planning and picking the venue. That may mean we go as a family to a water park or the zoo — or we have a BBQ at home. Or some combination thereof. It really depends on the child’s interest, age, and, of course, our budget.

2. We put reasonable limits on the number of guests

For our kids’ friend parties, we don’t invite a whole slew of guests anymore. I found that it was too costly – and I’m not really sure how meaningful it was to the birthday boy (or girl).

I know that many parents invite their kids’ entire class, which is very generous. But our policy is that the birthday boy or girl can invite one guest for each year they are turning. When our son turns 6 this fall, for example, he can invite 6 friends.

I realize that this may seem really rigid to some of you, but it keeps it manageable for us – and ensures that our children really get to spend time with each of their guests.

3. We use home-made decorations that have sentimental value.

For each of our children’s first birthdays, I made them their own birthday crown out of felt. I use a piece of elastic in the back, so that the crown can grow with them as they get bigger.

The idea is hardly original – it’s all over the blogosophere, but I first read about it on the inimitable blog of Amanda Soule. Mind you, she could fit my craftiness in the tip of her little finger, but the crowns I have made are nonetheless very special to our kids.

Likewise, I made a very simple birthday banner — some fancy people might call it a bunting — out of felt, which reads Yom Huledet Sameach (Happy Birthday, in Hebrew). I plan to share a tutorial soon – but again, I’m not Crafty McCrafterson, so you can probably come up with something far more creative on your own. For all five of our birthdays, the banner comes out and heralds the special day.

I’m not sure if this counts as “decoration”, but I also make our kids’ cakes. I use a box mix (I find it’s cheaper and easier than making it from scratch) and make my own frosting (I love the Wilton’s Buttercream frosting recipe – DELICIOUS! You can sub margarine for the vegetable shortening and soy/rice milk for the milk to keep it pareve – and it’s equally good). I’m no Martha, but the cakes are always tasty and usually pretty cute to boot.

And finally, as for the dreaded goody bag, I still struggle with these. I really don’t like them – I think they are a waste of money and resources. The Dollar Store toys are always floating around my van for days months after a birthday party. But I also think it’s nice to show appreciation to your guests for celebrating with you. If any of you have creative, frugal ideas, I’d love to hear them!

4. We plan ahead for gift purchases – and place reasonable limits on quantity.

For their birthdays, our children tend to get gifted with one “big” gift from mom and dad. My two-year daughter recently received an easel ($14.99 at Ikea, baby!). My eight-year old wanted a “real” basketball hoop with a backboard.

To make sure we can pay cash for birthdays, we set aside $25 a month into a family gift fund to cover birthday and Chanukah presents. For three kids at two celebrations each, $300 doesn’t stretch all that far, so we definitely need to be creatively frugal to pull it off.

I’ve talked before about my dilemma with gifts from friends at birthday parties. For now, I have stopped my “No Gifts Please” stance, but it continues to nag at me.

As for the cost of the parties, we usually cash flow that for the particular month.

5. We remember – and remind our kids – that it’s a “Zero Sum Game”.

This year, DS8 wanted to have his birthday party at a Royals game. Since it’s an even year, it’s a friend party. We priced the tickets and the best deal was $12.50 per ticket. With eight friends plus our three kids, plus a few adults to supervise, the cost was adding up quickly. So we told our son that he could either have fewer friends to the game – or he could have a bigger party at home. He chose the game.

At first, I felt bad that we even had to broach this and that we couldn’t just give our 8 year-old the party he really wanted. But then I remembered my financial mantra: It’s a zero-sum game. If we say yes to a party that is beyond our means, we will have to say no to something else.

That lesson has been so fundamental to our financial recovery – and I firmly believe it’s valuable for kids to learn and understand it as well.

We don’t burden our kids with minutiae of our finances – and we certainly don’t guilt trip them. But we do help them to understand that saying yes to Option A usually means having to say no to Option B.

We have found that when we can involve our kids in the opportunity to make these informed choices (whether it’s about a birthday party or something else), they are far more agreeable to the limitations we set.

Do you have family policies on birthday celebrations? Where and how do you place limits on the spending? How do you keep them both sane and affordable?


  1. Wow this all sounds like reasonable sane advice. I was wondering, now that we are expecting our first, about birthday parties. I see some friends throw their kids outrageous bashes, and i think, there is no way we can afford to do something like that.

    I also think about gifts from friends. My concern is the type of gift, mainly, the gun toting type of gift. I don’t want my boy playing with toy guns. My friend had the same policy, which was fine, until the boys got a bit older and they started bringing them as gifts. How do you subtly hint, no toy guns or violent type of toys?

    • We are anti-guns, too. I’ve loosened my stance on things like foam swords, but I still won’t let the boys have nerf guns, etc. It helps that we usually know the parents of the boys that are invited – I think we’re all pretty much on the same page with that kind of stuff. So far, it fortunately hasn’t been an issue.

  2. The big thing for our kids’ b’days is the cake… They get to choose whatever kind of cake they want- I bake it, DH decorates it (guess which of us can draw a straight line!). We invested in a 3D pan (50% off coupon at Michaels dropped the price to under $15, which I reasoned as less than 1 b’day’s purchased cake), and for DH2’s latest, made a stand-up relief of Cookie Monster… He was so thrilled when he saw it his b’day morning, he screamed and jumped us out of bed at 6am!

    Wilton’s 3D bear (which can be made into a bunch of other characters, too):

    a (slightly better 😉 ) version of the cake we made with explanation as to how to use the 3D pan

  3. Really great tips and advice. I really enjoyed reading this post- thank you

  4. Great post! I had great success with omitting goody bags at my dd slumber party. Got darling mugs from target in dollar section, which they used all night and then took home as their souvenir of the night.
    Also I realized I did not have to spend a lot on dinner food. Kids really don’t care! The girls loved a meatless pasta bar.
    I do have to add a perspective about party size. I think it’s worth it, at least once, to include everyone in a class, or all the boys or all the girls. My children’s former day school had this rule. This is to avoid feelings of exclusion. One of my children has special needs and would have NEVER been included in a social gathering if it wasn’t for that rule. I think it is a good value to impart to the birthday child – at least once.

  5. We also do the age/# of guests rule, only half it for an overnight. So when my oldest turns 10 this year, he can have 10 for a party (plus his closest-in-age sibling gets to invite a guest) or 5 for an overnight. And we only party ON the actual birthday, so sometimes that means an after-school 2 hr party, only.
    We make the cakes and decorate ourselves- it’s a treat for the kids to try to push us, artistically! And of course they get to pick the meal for dinner, etc.
    We also don’t do goody bags. Instead, we do a craft during the party and that becomes their party favor. One year it was just a plate of left-over chocolate-dipped treats after we made chocolate bowls and filled them with chocolate mousse!
    As the kids get older we’ll out-about-the-town parties, but their guest list will be ddetermined by how many kids will fit in our cars.

    The hard party for us, thanks to my ON-the-day rule, is getting everythign in- both the kid party and the family party, since nearly all of our family lives close by! That’s over 20 people….!

    • ON the day is tough! Especially trying to do two parties on that day. Our kids also delight in picking really hard cakes. I usually wimp out. DS wanted a baseball player. I made a baseball field – and put a pitcher figurine in the middle ;-).

  6. Gator Pam says

    With my now nearly 18-year old son’s birthday being in August, and he being an only child, his birthday was easy. A pool party every year, and a Publix bakery cake.

    Goody bags were compiled via Target 75% – 90% off clearance toys I would shop for throughout the year and save for his party. Each goody bag had a budget of about $3.00, and truthfully, by shopping Target clearance year round, especially in the Dollar Spot and being creative with items I bought, such as some of the old cartoon videos, or clearance batteries for other toys, the retail value of the goody baskets many times exceeded the cost of the gifts he received. But, I found joy in being able to do that, as he attended a charter school in a poor neighborhood, and his friends deserved whatever I could manage to get for them.

    Good times, good times.

  7. I worry about kids feeling left out if we don’t invite everyone. As it was, this year for DD we “only” invited the kids in her class (30 kids!). And therefore we left out friends from shul who are older or younger or just don’t go to our school. As an example though, recently a girl in the class invited some other girls to her party. My DD wasn’t invited, but a few of her friends were, and therefore she heard about it. One even called to ask her to carpool there. I don’t think it hurt her feelings too much, but I can see it becoming an issue in the future.

    • Oy, that’s hard (the carpool call). I worry about this, too, Dara. I’m not sure that we’re doing it “right”, but I know I can’t cope with 30 kids. And you’re right, shul kids + older/younger kids also get left out. I don’t think there’s a perfect solution.

  8. Tziporah says

    About no presents, my son went to a party were they all brought a book to swap. I think this was a great idea.

    • That is a nice idea. How old was the birthday child? I don’t know that my 8 year-old would go for that.

  9. We used to do the number of guests equals age thing to, until my kids started getting older. Their school has a rule that if you invite more than 1/4 of the class, you should invite everybody, which I totally agree with. So we give our kids the option of only five or so friends, or invite the whole class, and they usually choose the smaller party.

    We also give them a budget for their party. (The older ones are 9 and 11.) I think last year it was about $40. The can choose how they want to spend it, within reason. It helps to keep the party on a more sane level. It’s amazing how much you can get for $40 if you’re not buying pizza, etc.

    • Oooh, I like the idea of giving them a budget. I think we’ll try that for the next friend party. Thanks, Mayira.

  10. Kimberly says

    We do kid parties every year, BUT we don’t do huge craft projects or expensive outings. We do a cake and game or a video. This year my oldest had a princess dress up party, we had a cake, they watched a princess movie, and got a small goodie bag. I think the whole party was like under $20 and we had 20 girls!

  11. “If we say yes to a party that is beyond our means, we will have to say no to something else.” That is so true! I find that in my life if I don’t use self-control in one area of spending, it causes another to suffer. What a great reminder!

    Living So Abundantly: Give Back Thursday,

  12. We do family parties at our house. Last year we made an exception and allowed our oldest to have one friend over for dinner, dessert, and opening presents (our party).

    I am currently working on a post about how we do birthdays at our house; it is much more modest than yours. My son has a birthday coming up in a few days, and he is getting some hand-me-down gifts (a friend is giving us an old bike, and someone gave us their old Scout shirt, as he will be starting Scouts soon), as well as some homemade gifts (pajama shorts made from my husband’s old shirts, a rabbit-skin quiver that I am making from a rabbit skin that my mother-in-law gave to me). I did buy him a used copy of a book at the thrift store for $2 this week (they had the exact book that I wanted when I got there!)

    I wondered about the other children at church, as we haven’t been invited to a lot of birthday parties. After talking to several other parents about it, I found out that they also had family parties, or else they did every other year friend parties, as you do. One family has big parties, and one family has swim parties (combined for two of her children at once).

    Our way of doing birthdays certainly hasn’t dampened our children’s enthusiasm for them! My son is counting the days until his birthday.

  13. We’ve cut back a lot on the party costs over the past couple of years, and I think they’ve actually gotten better. I bake the cake now instead of buying (I’m not so great at decorating, but they taste good and I’ve had no complaints!) When the kids were little, we would sometimes have a moonbounce or an entertainer, alternating with years without a party, or with Abba as the magician. Now we let the child decide the theme and we do our best to make it special. We had a fantastic spy party for my 10-year-old this year, with spy training exercises like laser evasion, target practice (water guns shooting out candle flames outside), codes to crack, and a mission to complete. It was work, but probably the best party we’ve ever had. All three of the boys have had lego parties at home and enjoyed them a lot.

    We have combined parties on a couple of occasions (once we had parties for all 4 on one day, even though their birthdays are not so close together!), but we’ve stopped that, since it seems to take away some of the specialness the birthday kid should get to feel.

    The school has a rule that all children in the class need to be invited, and I fully agree with that. When parents occasionally don’t adhere to that, some kids really feel hurt. I’d rather do a lower-cost party and invite everyone than exclude anyone. To be fair, the classes are not all that big, but siblings are welcome to our parties, too. I keep goody bags reasonable by shopping at the dollar stores, and I buy enough extras for unexpected siblings. Then if we end up with extra, if it’s a lot we can use them for another party; if just a few, my husband can take them to school for prizes for his students.

    The best saving I’ve discovered is that even though everyone does it, you don’t have to order pizza. That’s been a huge expense. I whip up a big pan of mac and cheese, some tomato sauce pasta and salad and everyone’s thrilled. (Truthfully, the mac and cheese would be enough by itself, and it costs almost nothing.)

    Keep those tips coming!

  14. Do you get concerned as your kids get older that they will be inviting more than half their class? I understand that want to keep numbers down, but I am always concerned about leaving out a minority. It is more tricky for me because I have girl/boy twins. We get close to half the class, so I just rent room, do an art project and buy a cake. The cost is pretty low because I don’t pay per kid except for the project, which I can usually find something reasonable.

  15. I’m not in this parsha anymore, but my kids were never in a school where people had birthday parties. We have lived in two different communities. In the first community, the tradition was to send a treat bag (very simple) and some sort of treat (candy or cupcakes) to be distributed at school. I have to say that I was a teacher at this time, and I loathed this tradition. The whole class was sugar loaded and distracted by the treat bags. The community we moved to doesn’t do even that. Of my daughter’s class of around 30 girls, only 5 had a bas mitzva party. I think it must really be a reflection of community standards. I don’t think any of these kids feel deprived, it’s what they are used to.

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