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Birthdays On A Budget

So, having just survived both the twin’s first birthday (January 31st) and my daughter’s fifteenth birthday (February 25th) on a limited income, and successfully managing to give them both a special day, I thought I should write an entry on it.

Trying to celebrate any special occasion like a holiday or a birthday when you don’t have a lot of money can be difficult, and it wasn’t easy, but it can be done. Of course planning a little bit ahead and setting money aside a little bit at a time during the preceding months seems like the most obvious solution, but since my children’s birthdays are fairly close together, and right after the Christmas holidays, having three gift-giving occasions three months in a row really tapped me out.

For my kids I planned for their gifts months ahead of time. I put an item on layaway for my daughter in September, so I could spread out the payments and have plenty of time to finish paying for it. For the boys I was able to buy their gift when I was out doing Black Friday shopping before Christmas, so I got a really good price by taking advantage of the huge sales at that time of the year, and just holding on to it for a little longer.

I realize this isn’t the fast, convenient solution everyone wants, but we all know when the important dates are for our family – it’s not something that sneaks up on us – so it can be planned for well in advance. If money is tight, and not spending a lot is important to you, start thinking about these dates three or four months ahead of time. Try to decide what you want to get for your kids well in advance so you can set a little bit of money aside each check so you don’t have to pay for everything in one big chunk during the month of the birthday and break your budget. Since you’re planning well in advance, you can also look for a good sale and save money by purchasing the item(s) you want ahead of time and just holding on to them so you don’t have to pay full price later. If there isn’t any good deals for the items you want, or you can’t take advantage of any sales, then if possible, put the item on layaway so you can pay over time. The key here is to plan ahead, and make sure you’re not stuck at the last minute having to pay for gifts and a party all at the same time.

For the party itself, keep it simple and have it at home or at a local park. Don’t spend a lot on decorations either, they’re really not all that important, and you can buy basic items (like streamers and banners) cheaply at most dollar stores. They even usually have matching party supplies like cups, napkins, and paper plates if you feel the need to get these. I bought streamers, a big birthday banner, a table centerpiece, and 1st birthday candles at the dollar store for the twins party and spent a grand total of $7 on everything, and was able to decorate the entire living room and get that special “party” feel.

For older children go over their guest list with them and invite only the friends they really want to be there, not necessarily every single kid in their class or everyone they know. Making it more personal with a smaller number of friends is actually usually a lot more appealing because they’re spending time with the people they really want to hang out with, versus socializing with a lot of guests that really don’t matter to them as much. By not having a lot of extra guests, you save a little extra money on food and drinks.

If you’re having a party where you’re inviting other parts of your family, consider a potluck so you don’t have to do all the cooking (and shopping) to feed everyone. Relatives usually don’t mind pitching in to help out a little by bringing a dish, plus it can add extra variety to your spread.

You might also want to consider planning your party at a time of day when a meal wouldn’t be expected, like morning time or after lunch, and let everyone know that you’ll only be serving refreshments such as cake and ice cream and beverages, if you can’t afford or don’t want to cook or buy something to feed everyone.

Skip the party bags for guests, these are entirely unnecessary and can add up quite a bit if you’re not careful. Your guests shouldn’t expect to receive something when coming to a party other than a good time, but if you absolutely feel like you have to give out something to the other kids, than consider buying generic cellophane bags (you can get 20-40 for about a dollar at Walmart or your local dollar store) instead of the more expensive party favor bags that usually only have 8-12 in a pack, and then fill them with homemade cookies or some sort of cheap treat that you can buy in bulk or large packages like animal crackers or non-individually wrapped candies. Then just pour a little in the bottom of each bag and tie it off with some ribbon like a little satchel to make it look cute, versus stuffing it to the brim.

Whether you’re having a meal, or just refreshments, plan your menu ahead of time and shop smart. (See money saving tips for grocery shopping here.) Try to keep drinks simple by offering something you can make large quantities of such as punch for the kids and iced tea for the adults instead of soda, or if you must, buy generic and opt for 2-liter bottles and cups instead of individual drinks. If you are serving a meal, go for something you can make a lot of without spending a lot like hot dogs or hamburgers, and don’t feel the need to offer a lot of extra sides or condiments – just get the basics.

Finally, make the birthday cake yourself. Even the most inexperienced cook should be able to follow the basic instructions on the back of a cake mix box. If you’re still worried about it not looking right, try cupcakes instead, and you get the added bonus of them being extremely easy to serve and you don’t have to worry about forks. If you’re a bit more of a skilled baker or feel adventurous in the kitchen, and your kids have their heart set on a novelty cake or a certain theme, you can still try to do it yourself. They sell lots of different types of decorative icing and frosting in various styles, textures, and colors depending on your needs, they even sell prepackaged rolled fondant at many stores if you want that smooth “professional” look, or are trying to make something with a different shape. A little creativity can go a long way.

I made this for my kids:

TARDIS Cake with Rice Krispie Daleks

The cake I made (above) is the TARDIS and two Daleks from the show Doctor Who on the BBC. The Daleks were shaped out of Rice Krispie treats and covered in fondant, the base was chocolate cake with butter cream frosting and food coloring, and the TARDIS was white cake (stacked) covered with fondant. Then I decorated the designs and everything else with icing and edible dyes, and used a few marshmallows for accents. I’d like to note that this was my first time working with fondant, and although the process was a little time consuming from start to finish, it wasn’t that difficult. Altogether I didn’t spend that much money on the components to put this together and make it myself, probably about $10-$15, and since they were all unprepared food items, I was able to pay for everything with food stamps. A more generic, prepared cake from a bakery or store would have cost $20-$30, and a complicated cake like I made would have been a special order from a high end bakery that would have been much, much more expensive – and I would have had to pay cash for either option. Not only did I save money, but I made a one of a kind creation that everyone remembers, and it was an extra special effort that I made for the kids, which I think means much more in the long run.

I’m not saying you have to go to these kinds of lengths, a regular birthday cake with icing that you decorate yourself serves the same purpose, and can usually be made for ingredients that cost less than five dollars. The purpose is simply to show that a regular person is capable of doing much more at home than most people realize, with just a little extra time and effort, and it needn’t be expensive.

In the end, all of my children had nice birthday parties, special cakes, and a nice gift, and with a little planning ahead and smart shopping I was able to do all of it on an extremely limited budget without spending a lot of money, and you can too.

What other party planning tips or advice to you have? How else can you save money on birthdays and special occasions?

 
6 Comments

Posted by on March 7, 2012 in Budgeting, Family, Holidays, Shopping

 

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Money Saving Tips For Grocery Shopping

Now, I am not an extreme coupon shopper that tries to buy a thousand dollars worth of groceries for less than five bucks. I’ve watched the shows (and been amazed), I’ve read and learned about all the techniques on the various websites and forums that exist for this purpose, and I know the general principles fairly well. But let’s face it, for the average woman or family, this type of shopping just isn’t practical. The amount of research and preparation that has to go into each shopping trip, plus all the time spent collecting and amassing the necessary amount of coupons to do this to begin with, is simply beyond the scope of most people.

I’m not saying it can’t be done. It is possible and there are plenty of individuals out there who do it all the time, I’m just saying I don’t think it’s useful information that a lot of people hoping to save a few bucks on their regular grocery bill can put into immediate use. If you’re looking for that type of information, there are plenty of those websites out there already – and I can even refer you to some if you like – so I’m not going to talk about those techniques here.

With that said however, cutting and using coupons is still very useful and can save you a lot of money, and I highly recommend it, I just don’t feel it has to be taken to extreme levels to be successful.

Besides, I have twin infant boys. I can’t cut out coupons half of the day. Do you know how hard it is to clip coupons with two babies trying to crawl on you?

So, I thought I’d put together a more practical list of shopping techniques. Most of these things can be put into practice immediately, and overall they require only a small amount of  pre-shopping planning to be effective. Best of all, they work. I use these methods all the time, and I can usually walk out of the grocery store with an overflowing cart of quality items for less than a hundred dollars.

It’s also worth noting that I don’t live off of beans and rice (or the like). I do buy fresh meats and fruits and vegetables. I buy the normal things that most families would when doing their shopping, I just do it a little better – for less.

  • Buy fresh ingredients whenever possible instead of pre-prepared meals, or “heat and eat” dinners.
  • Look at the weekly store ads they send you in the mail and see what items are on sale, then try to plan meals around these. Keep this in mind for side dishes as well.
  • Make a list after you look at the ads and stick to it, trying to buy only things that are on sale each trip.
  • If you want something in particular, try to wait until it goes on sale. If possible buy a little extra to last until the next sale, so you don’t spend full price and waste money inbetween sales cycles. Most items (or types of items) will usually go on sale at least once every few months, though some items go on sale every few weeks, so try to keep track of the items you buy the most. (The period can vary depending on the item and where you live.)
  • Buy fruits and vegetables that are in season and priced lower.
  • If you eat a lot of a certain fruit or vegetable, and it’s on sale at an extremely low price, consider buying a little more and freezing the extra for future use so you won’t have to pay top price for it later on.
  • Do the same thing for meats when there’s a really good deal on ones you buy all the time or use a lot of.
  • Compare prices at your local supermarkets and farmers markets to find the best prices.
  • Typically certain items will go on sale at several stores at the same time, but  each store will have slightly different prices/offers on each item, some which are better than others. Go to the store that has the best overall deals for the items you will be getting.
  • If a different store has a much better price on one particular thing you want (or only a handful of things) – like the meat you really want for dinner, for example – whereas the vegetables and pantry items and everything else are better priced at the first store, buy everything at the first store and stop at the second store (if not too far out of the way) and pick up just the meat (and handful of other items that were priced better) on the way home. I only recommend this if it’s a significant price difference though, otherwise it’s usually not worth the extra gas and driving time.
  • Try to limit grocery shopping trips to twice a month for your main shopping, where you buy all the primary items for your meals and stock up your pantry, and once a week (on the weeks inbetween your main shopping trips) for incidental and fresh perishable items that you use more quickly. The less trips you make, the less you will chip away at your food budget with little purchases here and there. I find that it’s the little trips that tend to add up more, because you’re less likely to keep track of what you spend during these visits, and it tends to add up quite a bit more than you might realize over the course of the month.
  • Look for combined values and savings. Sometimes stores run specials that will take $5 or $10 off your overall purchase if you buy a certain amount of items (usually 10) from one section of the circular. Look through the ad and see if these are items you might be buying anyway, and make sure you have the proper total amount. Sometimes grabbing that second extra box or jar of something makes the difference between 9 and 10 items off the list, which can save you more than that last item would cost on it’s own.
  • Don’t be conned into buying more of an item by “10 for $10” and similar ads if it’s not something you need a lot of that you will use before the next sale cycle. Unless it says “must buy 10” to get this price, it still means they’re only $1 each, whether you buy 1 or 10. If you only need 3, only buy 3. Don’t buy 10 just because the sign says so.
  • Don’t be fooled by “fake” sales either. Sometimes a store will list an item as “2 for $3” for example, which means $1.50 each, but the regular price may only be $1.29. If you keep track of how much the items you buy generally cost, and how much you usually pay for them, these bumped up prices disguised as “deals” should stand out.
  • Check the unit prices on items – that is, the price per pound, or per once – and try to buy the size that is the cheapest per unit. This is not always the largest size! Many people assume the biggest size is the biggest value, but this isn’t always the case. I often come across items where it’s cheaper to buy two medium sized (or smaller) units than one large one, and sometimes you even get more of the product overall for less.
  • Do clip and use coupons and combine them with sale prices for maximum savings, but only on the items (or types of items) you would regularly buy anyway, and only for the amount of food that you actually need and will use.
  • Consider buying a different brand if it’s on sale, or if you have a coupon, of something you would already purchase if it’s cheaper that way. Only do this if it’s really something you would buy and use though!
  • Consider buying value brands/generic items when possible. Many items there is absolutely no difference between the generic brand and the regular one. Sugar anyone? Could you tell the difference between store brand and name brand flour? Salt? Spices? Be practical and ask yourself if it really matters and save yourself the markup for a label.
  • Check the clearance bins and daily specials in the store. Most grocery stores have a bin, shelf, or rack somewhere in the store (usually in the back) of items that are still perfectly good but are priced to move because they have to rotate their stock. These items aren’t usually advertised, so you have to look for them.
  • Look for other sale prices and deals in the store that aren’t advertised on things you regularly buy and use.
  • Try not to buy extra snacks and junk food! It’s okay to treat yourself to something extra here or there every once in a while if you must, but limit these purchases to one or two items per shopping trip. Try to focus on what you need for your family’s meals.
  • Buy in bulk if the unit price for that item is cheaper that way, but only if it’s a product that you use regularly enough that a bulk purchase makes sense – and only if you will use all of the item before it goes bad.
  • Make sure you sign up for, and use, the store rewards card for the places you shop if they have one. These are free and save you a lot of money, and sometimes the stores even have programs that give you a certain amount of store credit back off future shopping trips based on how much you use your card in a given period, so keep your information up to date and use your rewards when you earn them.
  • Also look online at the store webpages for extra electronic coupons and deals that you can load to your store rewards card before your shopping trip. These extra savings will automatically come off your bill during your checkout when you swipe your store card.
  • Finally, don’t go to the grocery store hungry! You’ll be much more tempted to buy extra snacks and goodies that you don’t need or wouldn’t regularly buy.

Was this list helpful? Was there anything you saw here that you might not have thought of before? or that you don’t already do when shopping on your own?

What other tips and money savings techniques do you use when you go grocery shopping?

 
5 Comments

Posted by on January 27, 2012 in Budgeting, Family, Money, Shopping

 

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