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:
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?