(Carrie Kirby)

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.