Mar 19

Throw a Birthday Party on a Budget: 5 Tips

birthday cakeSpringtime means very busy birthday months in my family. My grandfather, step-dad and two step-sisters all have birthdays within 1 month of each other. While that could be a real budget buster for me, none of them live close enough to celebrate with 🙁 But, “back in the day” when we did live close to each other, we were able to celebrate everyone’s birthday (on a budget).

Here are 5 tips for throwing a rocking birthday bash without all the expense.

1. Bake the cake.

Store bought cakes are expensive and don’t always taste that great. Bakery cakes, although delicious, are even more expensive. Skip the designer, “Cake Boss” creation and make your own at home. If you’re not a baker, that’s OK. It’s pretty hard to screw up a box cake mix (even I can do it!). These days there are even a bunch of all-natural and organic boxed mixes-love that!

2. Use your dishes.

Yup, you’re gonna have to wash them at the end of the night, but guess what they cost you? Nothing! If you’re really on a budget, you don’t need to buy fancy paper plates and matching birthday napkins. The cake tastes just as good on your Corningware, I promise! Enlist your significant other or kids to do cleanup at the end of the night.

3. Serve only the basics.

Get rid of the “hostess with the most-est” attitude and stop going overboard with snacks and drinks. Nobody is coming to your house for a 3-course meal (unless you stated you were serving one). I used to worry that some people wouldn’t like the chips and guacamole and Corona that I was serving. So I bought cheese and crackers and dip and veggies and Sam Adams and Harpoon. Before I knew it I had a bar’s worth of beer varieties and enough snacks to feed a football team. Now I only serve a few basics. If your guests won’t eat what you provide, they can eat at home.

4. Skip the party favors.

Most parties I attend these days are just for adults. So I don’t give, or except to receive favors. I sometimes send my friend’s home with extra food, but I don’t go out of my way to buy little trinkets that nobody needs or wants.

5. Decorate minimally.

Some people go, “all out” with the fancy decorations and centerpieces. I’m not one of those people. My friends don’t care about fancy fruit arrangements that look like flowers or florist made centerpieces (in fact they’d probably think I’d gone mad if I had either). A simple vase of flowers and some balloons are perfectly adequate decorations for adult birthday parties. When I was in college we had a simple “happy birthday banner” that we hung for every birthday. We reused that banner probably 20 times over the course of 4 years. A pretty solid “investment” in my opinion.

How do you throw a b-day party on a budget?

Image: Will Clayton


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  1. These are good ones! I always bake the birthday cake or cupcakes for my kids. Paying for a fancy cake is a total waste! I’m glad that my kids still have fairly low expectations for their birthdays =)

      • KK on March 19, 2014 at 8:51 pm
      • Reply

      I think if you don’t set them up to have big expectations, they don’t know the difference. I was perfectly happy with small, at home parties until my friends started having big pizza hut parties when I was a kid. Then that’s what I wanted.

  2. As an adult, I don’t really throw birthday parties anymore…might go out to dinner or something. But my son’s first birthday will be this summer. Other friends/relatives with kids have set the bar way too high. Having it at nice restaurants…even a catering hall (which I have gone to for a wedding!), they have kid-friendly entertainment, favors…bouncy house…one family had a DJ and photographer! It’s like they’re throwing a wedding. Insanity. My one bedroom apartment is too small and messy…not sure what we’ll do.

      • KK on March 19, 2014 at 8:53 pm
      • Reply

      Catering halls? Wow that’s serious! I don’t know why people feel the need to get so spendy with birthdays. A simple party at home with spaghetti and meatballs and iceskating (my parents live on a pond) was what we did when I was little.

  3. These are great ideas! I have a bday coming up soon and where I used to go crazy, I now definitely take a more subdued approach to my own and others. If you are with people you like, beer and pizza is all you need. Plus, I think that people really appreciate seeing a home made cake because they know that you actually took the effort to make something for them.

      • KK on March 19, 2014 at 8:56 pm
      • Reply

      I’m lucky that my friends these days are really low-key and down-to-earth. Nobody judges and everyone is thankful for whatever I serve (even if it’s pizza and beer). I love a home made cake. My grandma makes the best home made buttercream frosting.

  4. Seems like favors are becoming all the rage at the parties we attend, especially for the kids. When did that begin…that being invited to a party meant you received a gift? We just had our daughters 13th birthday party and didn’t do favors. I had enough other things to plan for. 🙂

      • KK on March 19, 2014 at 9:03 pm
      • Reply

      We don’t have kids yet, but I think it’s nuts how big and expensive kids’ parties are getting. Renting out halls, catering, favors etc. When I was a kid we had tons of decorations that we made. I vividly remember my mom drawing dalmatian spots on tons of white solo cups for my 101 dalmatians party.

  5. These are all good ideas and ones I use often. Friends don’t really celebrate birthdays anymore, but my family does. Baking a cake is very simple, I never buy one. I think banners work well, but we aren’t into decorating very much. Only for big events do we buy balloons.

      • KK on March 19, 2014 at 9:07 pm
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      I have a lot of really nice memories of the cakes my mom made when I was little. I really need to be better about baking cakes for other peoples’ birthdays. Last year I didn’t bake Eric a cake, so this year I want to bake a really special one.

  6. Good tips that I could do better on! Especially making cake!

      • KK on March 19, 2014 at 9:09 pm
      • Reply

      Thanks 🙂 Homemade cakes are my fav.

  7. Great tips KK! The only time I say it is allowed to buy a cake is if it is DQ ice cream cake… I can’t properly replicate that cookie crumble, fudge and chocolate ice cream ratio (okay, who wants to go split on an ice cream cake with me?).

    Honestly, we don’t really do birthday parties anymore, but this is definitely how I’d do it if I did throw parties.

      • KK on March 19, 2014 at 9:10 pm
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      I love ice cream cakes, so I’ll definitely make an exception for ice cream cakes. We had one last summer for a group birthday party we had for my parents and grandparents (to make up for all the b-days we miss being so far away).

  8. We used to go crazy at birthday parties for our kids, KK – major decorations, bakery cakes and the whole 9 yards. Now it’s homemade cakes that the kids decorate, kid-made decorations and the like. I don’t even want to know how much money we’re saving. 🙂

      • KK on March 19, 2014 at 9:12 pm
      • Reply

      Homemade cakes are much more special. Plus it’s way more fun for kids to decorate their own then to have a store bought one. It could even be part of the party. Everyone decorates their own cupcake sounds like a great party theme.

  9. Best way to throw a birthday party on a budget is to do what my parents did when I was growing up: not throw one. Always the most frugal choice, I think.

  10. I don’t do many parties as many of my friends live in Queens and the commute is too long to our place in Brooklyn, but a friend of mine does parties and she used to go crazy over the top with food but has since stopped.

    Also, I would add that if you don’t want to do disposable plates but you don’t want to use your fancy china, you can always add some mix-matched plates to your collection from a thrift store for 50 cents or so a piece. Still need to be cleaned at the end of the night, but more environmentally friendly and you don’t have to worry if someone breaks a plate. Plus, once they’re purchased, you can keep them for future parties.

  11. I really like to bake my own cake for parties. Although it may not be super fancy, it saves money and is a bit more heartfelt. Thanks for the great tips!

  12. Generally we just go out for birthdays, and invite the birthday boy or girl. Each guest pays for a couple of drinks and no gift is required. It also removes the cleaning part which is good.

  13. I love to throw imaginative parties for my family, but I’ve never spent a ton of money. One of the ways I save is by keeping the guest list small. For my boys I invite close family (only a handful live in the area). When they’re very young, kids won’t remember who was there anyway, and they can easily become overstimulated (and miserable) from too much commotion.

  14. I use some of these strategies myself. I go minimal on the decorations and I don’t make a huge meal. Whenever my family has birthday parties everyone always brings something, making it more affordable (and easy) for the host.

  15. I rarely, if ever, throw birthday parties. I don’t have kids yet, so that contributes to it, but also none of my family members seem to like celebrating their birthdays with parties. I do think that your tips can apply to other parties (ie dinner parties), too though. I try to make the dessert myself when I have big dinners, and serve the basics (both because everybody likes the basics and it’s cheaper/easier).

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