How We Do Frugal Birthday Celebrations For Infants and Toddlers

The past week at the Steward household, we’ve been celebrating Bean’s third birthday. We had two small celebrations. The first was on her actual weekday birthday, with cupcakes and treat bags for her daycare friends. At home there was a banner and a pumpkin balloon, ice cream for dinner, and a few presents to open. On the following Saturday, our family descended on our house for a lunch of buffalo chicken sandwiches, sides, and strawberry cake.

Our birthday shenanigans were a success. Bean grinned from ear-to-ear for almost a week, repeatedly telling us the story of her birthday events. And, despite this year being the spendiest year yet, we spent very little on the celebrations:

Decorations: $2 for a Mylar pumpkin balloon and paw print wrapping paper from the Dollar Tree, supplemented with a banner and pack of birthday candles on their third year of use.

Food: $13 for 24 Paw Patrol cupcakes from Wal-Mart. The costs of feeding our guests, including ingredients for the homemade birthday cake, came from our usual grocery budget. We spent maybe $30 scaling up what we normally would have eaten that day for lunch, with lots of leftovers.

Treat Bags: $16 for 24 treat bags. The Paw Patrol bags were $4 from Amazon. The play dough and plastic dinosaurs came in packs of 8 from the Dollar Tree, while raisin boxes were 6 for $1.50 at Aldi.

Birthday Present: $60 for a dollhouse and family to live in it. For this one, we grant ourselves one major mitigating factor: This is actually the first birthday we have ever bought Bean a present. What?! Keep reading.

The total we spent outside of our normal budget for Bean’s two birthday celebrations: $91, $31 sans present.

Birthdays Are About People

Our belief is that birthdays are about people. Obviously, birthdays are foremost about the person whose birthday it is. For us, that means involving Bean in her own party.

I chose the bones of what things we would do this year (cupcakes, cake, treat bags), taking my cues from what other parents in Bean’s daycare class are doing that she has enjoyed. She took it from there. She chose the Paw Patrol theme, the design of her cupcakes from the bakery display, and her birthday cake from a cookbook with pictures. She not only hand-picked the trinkets for her treat bags, but was (to my surprise) so excited that she assembled them herself. (I seriously just put on the twist ties, y’all.) Handing over creative control helped Bean to feel like everything was special, since she picked it all to align exactly to her taste.

We also try to verbally emphasize not only that it is Bean’s special day, but also why everyone is celebrating with her. We tell her, “Your family is coming to visit this Saturday, because they all love you so much that they want to see you and have a party with you!” I think that piece stuck this year. For days leading up to the event, she would list off everyone coming to the party, asking, “And Nana will come? And Papaw will come?” through the list. One downside was that when everyone left, Bean seemed a little blue. “Why did they all have to go home?” she asked, pouting. Be still my heart.

A Little Stuff Goes a Long Way

You know what’s just as awesome to a three-year-old as a room full of balloons? A single balloon. We’ve found that, for little kids, the “stuff” of birthdays is really overwhelming. The pressure to move on to the next thing before they’re done processing the item in front of them was really confusing and intimidating for Bean. Because of that, we have taken to keeping decorations light but impactful. It works–she cheered when she woke up and saw the birthday banner, and gave me a huge hug when she came home to her balloon.

For the Paw Patrol “theme,” we spent our money where it counted. We used some money her great-grandma sent to buy her a Paw Patrol stuffed animal to open the night of her birthday. Bean’s cupcakes had cheap plastic rings with the characters on top. (The daycare kids love those rings, bless ’em.) The treat bags also had the characters. We forewent the licensed (cheap, easily breakable) stuff for the treat bags, as well as the disposable tablecloths, cups, and plates. Nonetheless, if you ask Bean, she emphatically had a “Paw Patrol party.”

When it comes to presents, we spread them out as much as possible. We let Bean open them throughout her party at her choosing, allowing her to play with each a little before moving on to the next.

So, back to us not having bought Bean a birthday present before. I promise we haven’t cackled at Bean’s piteous state over a pile of birthday money in our evil lair for the past three years. We have historically decided not to buy her anything because she was already receiving massive amounts of stuff, and to the grandmas be the glory. We instead focus on buying her many small, random things throughout the year. (This is also our Christmas philosophy.)

As for the change this year, Bean took a liking to a very expensive toy at a local toy store. We couldn’t find it used, but we did eventually find it and the accessories for 70% off on Amazon. Reviews say that kids play with it through age 9, so hopefully we will get a lot of bang for our buck with the gift. We couldn’t resist, for the price.

An Uncomfortable Truth

I feel comfortable and pleased with the celebrations we’ve provided Bean. Nonetheless, I have come under fire for our frugal birthday celebrations from coworkers in the past. “Would it really kill you to buy a few more balloons?” they ask. “Why don’t you check Pinterest for ideas?

And in response to those people, I pull out the big guns, the uncomfortable truth that everyone seems to forget: If your kids are three or under, they will not remember their birthday.

Bear with me a minute while I step on my soapbox. I have noticed, with the advent of Pinterest, an increasing expectation that every element of a party be thematized. I did not turn to Pinterest for ideas ahead of Bean’s party because I value my sanity. I did check just now, though, and there are pages of pictures for how one can DIY Paw Patrol-themed goods. My personal favorite is a jar of blue punch labelled “toilet bowl water.”

If party planning is your jam, you do you. If it brings you pleasure to mix up drinks and give them “punchy” names (see what I did there?), that is money and time well-spent. If you invite me to your party, I will ooh and aah over just how darn cute everything is along with everyone else. The fact remains, though, that toilet water punch isn’t actually for the kid, because they are literally incapable of “getting” it or remembering it. It might be funny for older guests. It might have just been fun for Mom or Dad to do. Those are perfectly valid reasons. You party planning types should go on with your bad rosette-making selves.

I am pretty much the opposite of that person, though. I find crafting and party planning boring or flat-out stressful. I have to be careful to not let Pinterest make me feel like a garbage parent because I don’t care to do those things. Realistically, I can’t possibly be depriving my kid, because even the most lavish celebration I could throw a one-year-old won’t be remembered by the child. Bean did not come out of the womb with a frame of reference for a killer party. I get to set that expectation, and I do not need to spend eleventy-billion dollars or hours on stuff that won’t bring me or my child happiness.

This is, realistically, probably our last year to get away with such low-key events for Bean. She received her first few invitations to other kids’ birthday parties this year, which means we’ll soon have to find ways to include “friends” more heavily into the birthday equation (and all the comparison that brings). Nonetheless, the sweet simplicity of the past three years has been really enjoyable for us, and something we hope to mimic a few more years once Baby Squidge comes along.

6 Replies to “How We Do Frugal Birthday Celebrations For Infants and Toddlers”

  1. Emily

    I literally had two “friend” parties growing up. 5th grade and my 16th. Everything else was just family. I don’t feel like I missed out. But, introverted bookworm even then. 😂

    We were watching the episode of “Friends” with Emma’s first bday last night. It ends basically the same way: life is about the people.

    • Ms. Steward

      You have me thinking back to my childhood, which was really similar. I can remember only having 3-4 “friend” birthdays–8, 12-13, and 16. Before college, of course, when friends become your key social group rather than family. As you know, I’m a bookish introvert sort, too, but that does make the case for “friend” parties, at least historically, not having been as common as they are presented now. And there are ways to do them cheaply, of course. Sleepovers, day trips to the zoo with 1-2 friends, etc.

      I’m not familiar with that episode of Friends. I’ll have to check it out.

  2. Mrs. Picky Pincher

    I never understood why people are so judgmental about parties and birthdays. You’re right–little kiddos won’t even remember their birthdays. Hell, I can only go back as far as *maybe* my 8th birthday? I have no idea. And even then, I don’t remember the banners or balloons; I remember having fun with my friends.

    • Ms. Steward

      The competition is inexplicable to me, too. I think it’s plain old competition, but I also think it’s rooted in insecurity. I think people are afraid if they don’t go really over-the-top, it won’t be good enough or a good time won’t be had.

      In my experience, the best parties have to do with getting the right people in the same room, and keeping the food and drinks coming, though.

  3. the Budget Epicurean

    Rock on lady, this is exactly the right philosophy. It’s only with the advent of Pinterest and Facebook and “FOMO” that party competition has taken over. I say “ridiculous”, the best parties are the ones where you sit around talking and laughing for hours in the backyard, with nothing more than your friends to entertain you. All the flashy stuff is for the parents, not the kids. Every party memory I cherish involves people, not ‘stuff’. Good for you to ingrain that in your little ones too, so they will hopefully value the same as they grow.

    • Ms. Steward

      I definitely agree that those are the best kinds of parties. Honestly, I think parties are more simple than people think. You just need the right people together and to keep the food and drink coming, usually, and that’s really all that’s necessary.

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