Birthday on a Budget

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Birthday on a Budget

By Lisa Scarbrough

Let’s face it: the first birthday is really more for the parents than the kids. They don’t quite know what’s going on, that the day is special to them. They just know they can make as much of a mess as they want to and everyone will think it is cute (except for my dear sweetheart whose OCD almost caused a panic attack from the massacre of our son’s red velvet cupcake). I fully admit that my son’s first birthday was all because I wanted to celebrate, not just his birth, but survival of the struggles we endured through pregnancy and post partum complications. I honestly thought it all deserved a weekend at a four-star resort with lots of pampering. But that was only a fleeting thought; I am, after all, the Thrift Store Mommy, so we would celebrate in style but within our budget.


1. Location, Location, Location. Just as important in real estate is where you host your birthday celebration. Cost is always a factor. Indoor spaces like Chuck E Cheese will usually run higher than a picnic pavilion at a public park. You can also check into using gathering spaces at local churches and schools. For our birthday celebration, we sought some nepotism from the grandparents by way of their dolphin tour boat. (A word of caution: If you are doing an outdoor party, have a back-up plan in case of uncooperative weather.)

2. Entertainment. How do you keep a group of kids at any age entertained for a couple of hours? There are plenty of ideas available for free online, and you can even download and print out “pin the tail” on games of almost any variety. Again, I cheated; taking kids and their parents out on my parents’ dolphin tours provided the entertainment in itself.

3. Food. As my mother raised me in her Southern ways, feeding people at a gathering has always been a top priority, and as my sweetheart pointed out more than once this past weekend, we usually have too much food. I find that scheduling a party in mid-afternoon between lunch and dinner times helps to offset food expectations (and cost). Of course you will want to have the standard cake (or cupcakes as we did) and drinks for your guests. If adults are attending, slice some cheese with saltines or veggies and some dip. You do not have to provide a four-course meal, but be considerate of the guests, especially any parents that are hanging around that can be used as your backup in event of a mutiny.


4. Goody Bags. Again, this is something that can be kept very simple. I purchased treat bags at my local dollar store that I filled with two little bottles of bubbles and a stuffed dolphin I purchased from an online retailer that sells in bulk. You can usually find lots of filler items cheaply at those dollar stores or wholesale lots available online. (The same are great for purchasing decorations as well.)

5. Invitations. Although our Southern Proper blogger may disagree with me on this, I do not believe there is any set standard for a child’s birthday party invitations. The dollar store has several varieties to choose from, or you can make your own on the computer. As my handwriting can’t even be read by doctors, I chose to custom make mine through an online service that printed them on thick cardstock for mailing. It also makes a nice piece for the baby book.

6. Gifts. Our son was turning one and still hadn’t played with most of the things he received from the baby showers before his birth. So we asked our guests instead to make a $1 donation to the Shriner’s Hospitals for Children. Our guests were very generous with their donations, and we didn’t have to worry about the waste from wrapping paper.

7. Thank You Notes. While it is still in the finishing process from our party, it is very important that you send thank you notes to your guests. Although my little one can’t write, I am working on using a creative font to type out his thank yous and have his handprint on the cards. It is important to teach the little ones to be appreciative at an early age so it becomes a habit when they are old enough to do it themselves.


A birthday party should be a great celebration of your child, but it should not be an event that you feel you have to compete with each year. It really does not take much to make a child happy. Just show them that they are special to you and the birthday will be much more memorable than the gifts.

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Leave a Comment

Reader Comments:


awwww that was outstanding :O smile the mention of donation by you instead of gifts was great .......

By peter kenneth on December 24, 2012


For kids a little older than 2 or 3 have them help make the ivitations. It's a fun way to get them involved and build some wonderful childhood memories. For one of my sons favorite parties, he got to bake his own cake! We used heavy duty aluminum foil and fashioned an anaconda cake pan, used a couple boxes of cake mix and wha-la! He had so much fun decorating it. He's grown but still talks about his awesome anaconda cake!

By Mandy Dunlap on November 30, 2011


Lisa, you are right. Simple is better and makes wonderful memories. Your posts always inspire me. Thanks for doing what you do! smile

By Pamela Meagher on August 26, 2011


What great tips, and great pictures too! I especially like that you asked for donations rather than gifts - it is true that a one year old does not need alot, and what a wonderful cause to ask for donations for! smile Thanks for the article. My kiddos are bigger, but these tips have inspired me for future parties.

By Heather Cox on August 26, 2011


Great post! I love the donation idea! Kids these days (including mine) have more toys than they can possibly play with!

By Stacy Sturgis on August 26, 2011


Thank you for these great ideas Lisa! Wish I had read these a year ago!!! We will be forgoing the beat party this year... but will definitely employ your ideas for his 3rd bday:)

By ashlene on August 26, 2011


I absolutely love that you asked guests for donations to a great cause rather than for gifts your child didn't need! I also think it's fabulous that you had the "party" at a place where the adults could enjoy themselves as much as the kids. Finally, It's so nice to see that you are teaching your son to send thank you cards, so many people do not teach this to their children and I think it's so important!

By Jaime on August 26, 2011


Good ideas! Looks like a fun time! We went the simple route for our son's 1st Birthday last year. We wanted him to have fun, be comfortable and not overwhelmed. I agree that Thank You's are very important.

By Lynn Friel on August 26, 2011


Excellent ideas. I am somewhat of a party planner extroadinaire and tend to go way overboard. For my sons 1st birthday we had a robots and rockets theme. We partied at home so that saved a little money but I too tend to make way too much food so that was our budget breaker. I handmade everything else from invitations to toilet paper roll rockets that we hung from the ceiling to a gaint wearable cardboard box robot smileThanks for the great tips maybe next year I won't break the bank.

By Jennifer Ruggles on August 26, 2011


I LOVE that you asked for donations to be made instead of gifts, much less waste and a great cause! I also think it's fabulous that you chose a "party" where adults and kids could enjoy themselves instead of commercializing the day. Finally Kudos to you for the thank you cards, so many do not teach this to their children and it's nice to see. Jaime McAllian

By Anonymous on August 26, 2011


Reading your story makes me remember back to when my son turned 1. My daughter will be turning one the first week of September. I will be using some of your suggestions to help out with her party. Our family is so large that we don't have to invite outsiders at this point, not yet anyway. Thanks for all the tips and I love the pictures! His birthday looks like it turned out wonderful!

By Heather Lemmer on August 26, 2011


Wow could I have used this a couple months ago for my sons first birthday! Next year we are sooo taking your advise and going more low key, and if we invite a lot of people again to get together I am definitely having them donate to a charity instead of a gift if they choose because we are still saving a couple of toys (still in packaging) he got to go in the toys for tot's bag at christmas. All his gifts were greatly appreciated we just didn't have room for everything! Thanks for all the great tips! Love seeing your baby in your articles too smile

By Robin Murray on August 26, 2011


Excellent ideas. Simple is better, less stress for the mama and more enjoyable in the long run. We finger painted with pudding (vanilla colored with washable food dye)...a serious hit with toddlers and very cost effective! Thanks!

By Shannon Sporon-Fiedler on August 26, 2011


AGAIN!! Another great blog Lisa!! LOVE this site and all the wonderful ideas you can come away with... Like always...YOU ROCK GIRL!!! XOXO Andrea

By andrea lepinske on August 25, 2011


Lisa, this is great advice. We too will be celebrating a one year old very soon! =)

By Jess on August 25, 2011


Great Article! I went overboard on my daughter's first birthday, but since that was 12 years ago, I had learned my lesson when my son turned one last year. We gave him a cupcake and a few gifts and called it a night! You gave super ideas and reminders... Thanks!

By Lauri Z on August 24, 2011


Dear Lisa, I loved all of your ideas. Your blog brought back some many wonderful memories of all those birthday parties that I planned for my boys through the years. I think that your invitation ideas are perfect. Today we receive invitations via the mail, email and phone. I also like the ideas of creating your own via your computer. If you have a creative child, you might enjoy making your own invitations with construction paper, glue and glitter. The possibilities are endless and can be very economical. I especially liked your point about the thank you notes!! Thanks! Cindy

By Cindy Edwards on August 24, 2011


LOVE all the fabulous ideas. My son has a birthday coming soon, and this year ( first time ever) I am going to make a strict budget, and have to stick with it. Some of the tips may indeed let me stick to it. Thanks!!!!

By Leslie on August 24, 2011


Lisa, love all these ideas! Thanks for sharing!!! I def. do the middle of the afternoon or morning party to avoid having to provide a full meal!

By Michelle Hogan on August 24, 2011


Wonderful ideas! My kids are now 11 (soon to be 12) and 14, and we are now at the stage of "you can either have a great party or a great gift" given we are on a tight budget, and parties get more expensive as kids get older. We always have a chore-free day complete with favorite breakfast and dinner with family along with a homemade layer cake made by me, but unless they choose it, parties are pretty minimal. And I do not think Mrs. Edwards will object with your invitation idea as there is a difference between a child's birthday party and a wedding complete with a sit-down five-course dinner. I do think she will give you huge props for your creative thank you notes and for instilling the importance of writing such into your son at an early age!

By Lori on August 24, 2011

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