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10 strategies for a cheap-o kids' birthday party

Today is my baby's 2nd birthday, and I thought I'd share some of the frugal moves that helped me throw him what was probably the cheapest kids' birthday I've ever done. Now, I don't think there's anything wrong with spending on hospitality, birthday party or otherwise. I would never get sucked into one of those kids' party arms races*, but still, nice parties are lovely and I would never tell someone they were wasting their money on one.

But yesterday we had a modest backyard barbecue that I do believe all the guests enjoyed, most of all the birthday boy. Unlike some of the other birthday parties I have thrown for my kids, I didn't spend more than I meant to and I wasn't up all night putting the finishing touches on place settings or gift bags.

That's right, I finally learned how to simplify. Again, those other parties were great, too. But simple, cheap and easy was a nice change.

SAVINGS STRATEGY #1: If your kid's too young to have friends, don't feel the need to round up a bunch of kids to invite.

My 2-year-old doesn't go to daycare or preschool, so he really doesn't have any peers yet. Instead of handing out invitations to that one kid he played near at the library once or that other kid from the gym daycare, we stuck to the essentials -- the grandparents, his cousins and a few family friends.

SAVINGS STRATEGY #2: Go easy on the theme.

We knew exactly what the theme of little Toth's party was going to be: his current obsession, trains. But I didn't get more specific than that, for instance, I didn't specify that it was a Thomas party. Keeping it loose allowed me to grab a couple Thomas items -- a balloon, a tablecloth and some whistles for the kids -- but still throw in other railroad-y things like blue and red striped paper plates from Target, a train songs CD that my sister-in-law made for him, and a little flat wooden train from Michael's, which my oldest daughter incorporated into a really cute handmade sign.

The loose theme also allowed me to order free invitations with a coupon code that Shutterfly emailed me. They had a train card, but not a Thomas card, and it turned out adorable.

SAVINGS STRATEGY #3: Skip goodie bags.

Don't get me wrong, I LOVE making goodie bags. But they are just not required. If you need to cut your party budget, here is a good place to do it. As a parent, I would way rather my kid comes home with no goodie bag than with a bag full of really cheap, disposable plastic chokeware.

I've heard some parents report that kids complained if there were no goodie bags, and the parents worried that kids wouldn't want to come to future parties is they didn't give them out. Really? I would sink into the ground in shame if one of my kids said something like that to a hostess.

SAVINGS STRATEGY #4: Take advantage of any holidays preceding the party.

For some reason, everyone in my family was born within a week of a major holiday. This is handy if you can take advantage of pre-holiday grocery sales or post-holiday clearance to shop for the party. Since Toth was kind enough to be born the weekend after the Fourth, I stocked up on almost everything for his party during the Fourth of July grocery sales: hot dogs, ground beef, beer, soft drinks and ice cream. All we really had to buy right before the party were buns, fresh vegetables and ice.

Even if there aren't any holidays before your party, it's wise to start shopping several weeks in advance, so you can pick up items as they go on sale.

SAVINGS STRATEGY #5: Have a boy.

OK, maybe you weren't thinking that far ahead when you conceived your child, but so far I have to say that boy birthday parties are turning out to be way cheaper than girl ones. I think the reason for this is that I am a sucker for cutie jewel-y girl-themed things at Michael's, but either there isn't as much stuff for the more masculine themes or I'm better able to resist it.

SAVINGS STRATEGY #6: Ask about coupons at the register.

I hated walking into Michael's this weekend with no coupon in hand. I don't know if their ad was missing from all three of my papers from last week or if they just didn't publish one, or what. But once we got to the register I shamelessly remarked to my kid that I wish we had brought a coupon. I made eye contact with the cashier, and sure enough, he dug out a photocopied piece of paper with a 20 percent off coupon bar code on it. Shameless coupon begging also worked for me at Kohl's and Carson's recently.

SAVINGS STRATEGY #7: Keep the entertainment simple.

Again, there's nothing wrong with having pony rides or a bounce house at your birthday party. It's marvelous. I hope at least once in their childhoods each of my kids will have at least one fabulous birthday party. But to me, that doesn't have to be every year, or ever if you can't afford it.

Just like adults, kids mostly like parties for hanging out with one another. I played it lazy this year and put out some bottles of bubbles and a couple packs of sidewalk chalk. Judging from the fact that we could barely catch the kids long enough to sit them down to eat, I'd say they had a good time running up and down our block, blowing bubbles, and doing whatever kids do.

SAVINGS STRATEGY #8: Make your own cake.

Kids' birthday cakes at the store or special-ordered from a bakery cost, well, I have no idea because I have never ordered one. But I'm pretty sure they cost more than $5** which is the most we generally spend making a cake from a box, frosting and decorating it ourselves. Does it look as beautiful? Not usually, especially if I'm overseeing the process instead of my artistic husband. But my daughters love helping decorate it.

SAVINGS STRATEGY #9: Babies don't know if Mom and Dad got them a present or not.

I may go to hell for this, but this is the second year in a row that I didn't give the baby a gift on his birthday. Oh, we meant to both years. But last year when the day came, what with the bustle of the party planning, we hadn't picked up a gift by his birthday. And then he had so many new things, that it seemed silly to go out and buy him something. This year I did buy something in advance, but then he got a better version of that same toy from someone else, so I just left it in its packaging in my gift cupboard.

I thought I was the only mom who could be so cheap, but Tiffany, who blogs over at My Litter, told me that she doesn't buy much of anything for Christmas for the littlest of her seven kids.

SAVINGS STRATEGY #10: Make note of when cheap is too cheap, and correct your course for next time.

I admit to going too cheap on at least one part of the party. I took advantage of a deal from Jewel-Osco last week and got a 24-pack of Miller Lite because it came with a free pack of hot dogs, buns and a bottle of mustard. I knew that Miller Lite wasn't the favorite beer of the beer drinkers there (the grandfathers, who prever Miller High Life). But I thought, "Oh, what's the difference."

They noticed, and I felt bad. Next time, I won't cheap out on the beer. Honestly, it wasn't so much cheaping out as succumbing to the siren song of the deal, because I could have spent the same amount or less on a six-pack of what they really wanted. Twenty-four beers was way, way more than we needed. Guess what we'll be cooking bratwurst in for the rest of the year?

I also made a total blunder in planning in that I forgot that I had invited a vegetarian and failed to provide any kind of vegetable-only entree. Even the salads and beans had bacon or shrimp in them! That was a major party foul.

In the end, I estimate we spent about $75 on food and drink for our party for 20 people or so (Hot dogs, hamburgers, buns, asparagus, barbecue beans, chips, guacamole, cake and ice cream. Grandma brought a couple salads which probably cost way more than any of my food.) Decor and "entertainment" (bubbles and whistles for the kids) were another $20. A birthday party for under $100? That's a first for me.

If any of these strategies sound rude or shabby to you, skip 'em. But in general, I think what saved me and will continue to save me on our kids' parties is remembering that the event is not a forum for impressing other parents. Not to me. It's just a time where we're gonna have a good time with our little person and make sure they have a good time too.

* $6,000 for a 5th birthday party?? My wedding didn't cost that!

** The mix = 80 cents to free after coupons, the frosting = $1 or less after coupons. Other decor items often cost the most, for example for the cake pictured we bought a whole package of Twizzlers and a bag of pretzels at about $2 each. But of course we have most of those packages left over for snacking. Everything else I already had in my baking bowl from previous cakes, clearance sales or whatever.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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