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Birthday Parties: Fun and Sanity on a Budget

Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

Family Inspiration, Money, & Jobs

According to National Center for Health Statistics, the months with the most birthdays are July, August and September. So if it seems like your child was invited to a birthday party every weekend this summer, that’s why. But, actually, the difference between the month with the most birthdays (September) and the month with the fewest (January) is so small that you might not notice. What you  might notice is that you’re buying someone a birthday present any week of the year… and that the cost of all this birthday buying adds up!

How can you help celebrate the birthdays of all your children’s friends without breaking the bank? And when your own child’s birthday rolls around, how can you throw a party and still stay within budget?

The secret is simple: try to impress only the children, not their parents.

If you’ve ever witnessed a birthday boy or girl opening gifts at his or her “kid party,” you’ve noticed that the whole point appears to be to mow through the entire stack as quickly as possible with only small attention to who gave what or to how much anyone spent. It really is the thought that counts with kids and all gifts are created equal. So there is no reason to buy the fanciest, biggest, most expensive gift or to try to match the gift-giving level of anyone else. The recipient – the only one who matters here – doesn’t notice or care.

So give gifts that are reasonably priced. Your local toy store is filled with them. If you insist on giving gifts intended to show off your good taste or the size of your bank account, then realize you do that to make yourself look good, not because the birthday-child expects it. No one’s day will be diminished because you spent $5 instead of $25.

And, when your own child’s birthday rolls around, you have a responsibility to keep things in scale. A low-cost celebration at the local playground is as much fun as taking everyone to a water park and it’s a lot less expensive and a lot less nerve-wracking. Whenever possible, host parties BYOP – Bring Your Own Parent – so you’re not alone with a screaming mob of six-year-olds. And that old rule-of-thumb “invite as many children as your child is old” is just bunk. Nine nine-year-olds is several nine-year-olds too many if you are the only grown up. Twenty one-year-olds is lovely, since they all bring a mom or dad along.

And do everyone a favor. On the invitations say something like, “If you bring a gift for Suzy, please spend no more than $5.” A birthday celebration is about having fun with friends, not accumulating a lot of swag. Start a trend and most parents will thank you for it!

Here are ten fun, low-cost birthday party ideas you might use, depending on the season.

1. Serve cake and ice cream at a playground with fun equipment

2. Screen a G-rated, can’t-miss DVD at home; serve popcorn then cake and ice cream, of course

3. Take a ride using one of the public transportation options in your town: a bus ride, train ride, or trolley ride, perhaps. Where I live there’s a water taxi from my neighborhood to downtown and back. Kids under 5 are free.

4. Have an art party and make paper bag hand puppets or something equally fun and simple.

5. Create an obstacle course and take turns trying it out.

6. Fly kites. Stock up on these at the end of the summer, when they go on sale.

7. Have a dress-up party.

8. Visit a local museum on its “free day.” There’s no reason why you have to celebrate your child’s birthday on the actual day and most museums have a free day once a month.

9. Have a game party, with board games – your own and borrowed ones.

10. Try a cooking party, with the guests decorating their own cupcakes and churning ice cream.

If you do want to have a blow-out party for your child, consider having one – just one. Make it clear to everyone that this is a special occasion, not the standard for every birthday. Keep the $5 present limit on the invitations because guests are not responsible for making up in gifts what you laid out for the party. Have a good and memorable time. Then next year back to simple and sane.


© 2012, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved.

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Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

Dr. Patricia Anderson is a nationally acclaimed educational psychologist and the author of “Parenting: A Field Guide.” Dr. Anderson is on the Early Childhood faculty at Walden University and she is a Contributing Editor for Advantage4Parents.