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Monday, November 24, 2008

10 Bargain Birthday Ideas

This post has been included in the 154th Festival of Frugality. Join the other cheapskates over at Living Almost Large for some great tips for putting the reins on holiday spending.


Whew! The last of the giggling gaggle of giddy girls has left the building. Birthday season at the poorhouse is officially over, and we managed to have fun and save money at the same time. Read on for ten ways to control birthday party costs without making your kids feel deprived.

1. Avoid Prepackaged Parties

Choose a theme by all means, but don't buy the overpriced instant paper goods sets from places like Birthday Express.

Every couple of years we go to iParty, buy a roll of plastic table cover in a bright solid color. It lasts us through several birthday parties, Girl Scout events, and messy kitchen crafts.

2. Try a local salvage or job lot store for inexpensive napkins and paper goods.

For our recent pirate party, we found red cups and black and red napkins dirt cheap. You may find mismatched cups and plates, but with the plain napkins and table cloth, you may find something that works.

By the way, we usually are greener than this, and don't use paper plates and cups and plastic utensils, but we make an exception for birthday parties.

3. Make your own invitations.

You can get themed printer paper, design something on the computer, and print away. We used a scroll paper for a princess party and the pirate party. For the pirate party, we saved on stamps by rolling each invitation in a cleaned soda bottle, tying a ribbon around it, and leaving it on the guest's front door. They loved it. The same paper doubles for thank you notes.

For the Star Wars party, Mr. Poorhouse made a short video with letters scrolling away from the user (like in the movies) including some home videos of the birthday boy. The DVDs were the invitations. This was probably expensive, but we already had a spindle of DVDs lying around, so there was no out of pocket expense.

4. Put together your own goodie bags.

Those preselected favor boxes in the catalog stores are overpriced. Use your imagination. You can get colored bags at your local Michaels or AC Moore. Use them plain, or have your kids decorate them with markers, stickers, or stamps. Or, use Chinese food take-out boxes for a fun change of pace. If you are having only a few kids (like for a sleepover) you may be able to get an inexpensive bag as a favor.

4. Try Mail Order for Favors

We use Oriental Trading Company. They have a lot of cheap junk, but if you shop carefully, you can get a couple of cute things. Also, we've noticed that most of the junky stuff sold for goody bags at iParty comes from Oriental Trading Company, so you might as well eliminate the middle man.

A friend of mine forgoes goodie bags altogether and gives books related to the party theme as favors.

5. Make your own cake

As Martin Short so eloquently put it in Father of the Bride "everything revolves around the cake." But that doesn't mean you have to spend big bucks on a spongy, bland, and expensive supermarket cake. You can make a cake from scratch for a fraction of the cost. If you're pressed for time, cake mixes are often on sale and taste OK.

Now before we go on, I must confess that I obsess about birthday cakes. I've been known to stay up all night on cakes in the shape of Thomas the Tank Engine, a pink princess castle, a sports field with soccer ball, a cake in the shape of Madeleine's hat, and, most recently, a pirate ship.

As time wears on, I've learned a few tricks. First, bake the cake itself a week ahead, cool it, wrap in plastic wrap, and stick in in the freezer until the morning of the party. Make your own frosting, or color canned frosting the night before the party.

These cakes don't take any particular skill to make. A number of internet sites have clever ideas you can steal for almost any theme. And the kids love it.

Try these for starters:
Betty Crocker
Better Homes & Gardens
Coolest Birthday Cakes

6. I've had parties where I cooked and parties where we ordered pizza. The fact is, the kids always eat the pizza and it's cheap and easy.

7. Go easy on purchased decorations

Try ebay for inexpensive one-of-a-kind decorations. We scored an American Idol bus poster one year. The kids sang karaoke in front of it (dressed in shades and boas) and had a blast. Another year we tried to make a paper mache Death Star. That didn't go over so well because we didn't allow enough time. We used to do balloons, but they are always a pain to pick up and half the time the guests forgot to take them home. We haven't had them for the last few years, and nobody seems to have noticed. Maybe it's just that our kids are getting older.

8. Buy fewer presents

If your kids are like my kids, they get more stuff from their guests then they need or can neatly store. So go easy on your own gifts to your kids. One nice thing they really want is plenty. If parents of the guests call to ask what your child wants, consider giving them the name of your child's favorite author.

9. Don't Try to Keep up with the Jones's Entertainers

This may be your biggest budget item. When I was a kid, we had parties at home, played pin the tail on the donkey, opened presents, and called it a day. (Well, actually, I'm a Halloween baby, so we usually went trick-or-treating too.)

In our affluent suburb, the party venues my kids have attended are varied and almost extravagent. Party places include the gymnastics school, batting cages, rock climbing walls, trapeze schools, hotel pools, the dreaded Chuck E Cheese (or Chucky Cheezits as we like to call it), bowling, and even fencing. Home parties have included paid entertainers like animal guys, the ubiquitous clowns and magicians.

But it doesn't have to be so. If you live in a warm climate, or the birthday is in spring, summer, or fall, do what my neighbors do for their athletic son: Have all the kids meet you on a neighborhood field for a day of sports, and then head home for cake & ice cream.

For winter parties with lots of little kids, I totally understand wanting to have the party somewhere other than home. We have had luck with reasonably inexpensive parties at locations like the show room for a play structure manufacturer, our local recreation department (they even provide a teenager to facilitate active games), and a pottery painting studio for kids. In the latter case, the piece they create is the favor, so the whole thing is very affordable.

As the kids get older, the slumber party reigns. Eleven-year-old Prissy Poorhouse just had three girls overnight and then went to a movie. To be honest, they would have been fine without the movie. A few bottles of nail polish, hair doo-dads, lip gloss and sparkle powder was all it took. I realize that wouldn't work for all girls, but it did for mine.

10. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Return, and Reciprocate

After the presents have been opened, save those gift bags. They are green! They can be reused numerous times. They're easy. The tissue paper can also usually be folded and reused a few times as well. Win, win, win! We also wash the candles and cake toys. They burn just as brightly a second and even third time.

When the party is over, take the unopened napkins, cups, favors and what-have-yous back to the store. Or, better yet, donate them to a local children's center where the kids might not have birthday parties without donations. Birthday Wishes is another organization that will accept such donations.

Have fun at the party!

Further Reading
Cheap Birthday Party Ideas

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