A birthday alternative: less stuff, more fun

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About Megan Tietz

Megan Tietz wants you to join her on the front porch for some long talks and iced tea. She lives in the heart of Oklahoma City with her husband, two daughters, and twin sons. Catch up with her at Sorta Crunchy and join the conversation in her Facebook community.

September brings a birthday celebration in our home. Our younger daughter turned two this month, so I have had birthday parties on my mind. As I purged the toys in our playroom before her birthday arrived, I thought about how quickly we accumulate stuff.

Thinking about all that stuff reminded me of The Story of Stuff, a short but powerful look at consumerism and consumption in Western culture.

At the close of this short film, the audience is challenged to consider doing things “another way”. I realized it was time for my family to have an alternative approach to birthday celebrations.

Here are nine ideas for “another way” to celebrate birthdays.

Invitations

1. Go handmade.

Rather than purchasing pre-made, impersonal party invitations by the pack, personalize the invite by sending invitations created by your child. Most families have some child-created art around the house—this is the perfect opportunity to repurpose it for new life. Drawings could be mod-podged onto cardstock and slipped into envelopes, or you could turn your children lose with some glitter, glue, and paper and let the festive muse inspire.

2. Go electronic.

Create and send online invitations via Evite. Of course, if you wanted to really go back-to-the basics, you could rely on good old-fashioned email to spread the word about your child’s party. This is a great waste-free alternative to the mailed invitation.

sprinkle heart cake
photo by D Sharon Pruitt

Activities

3. Give back.

Plan activities that will honor a person, group, business, or service that brings happiness to your child.

If your toddler delights in story time at the public library, have the guests create a giant card to say “thank you” to the librarians and library staff. If your preschooler is fascinated with fire trucks, invite party guests to make several batches of cookies or other sweet treats to deliver to the local fire department.

Be creative. This is a wonderful way to celebrate the little things that bring joy to your child without bringing more stuff into your home.

4. Bless others.

Pick a charity or relief organization focused on children, and at the party, create something to donate to your chosen organization.

For example, find a simple stuffed animal pattern before the party, and gather the materials needed for each guest to create one (repurpose material you already have around the house). Party guests can each create one of the stuffed animals.

While they create the animals, talk to the guests about the organization you and your children have chosen to bless.

Ideas for simple projects include these wee easy stuffed animals or one of these stuffed animal crafts.

5. Go simple.

Really simple! Don’t buy a single thing for any of the party’s activities. Encourage adults at the party to teach the guests some of their favorite and “vintage” party games. Turn everyone loose outside for freeze tag, or have the adults create a scavenger hunt. Challenge yourself to cut out any unnecessary stuff when it comes to party activities.

Food

strawberry cake
photo by ilkerender

6. Celebrate local food.

Shop the farmers’ market, food co-ops, roadside stands, and local farms for fresh produce, and plan the party menu around whatever is in season. Sweet potatoes in season? Why not serve sweet potato pie? Summer birthdays can be celebrated with a blueberry cobbler made from blueberries gathered at the local U-Pick. Orange ginger cookies would be wonderful for a winter birthday.

This is a sweet and inviting way to advocate buying locally and eating seasonally.

Gifts

7. Ask for handmade well wishes.

If your focus is on less stuff, the issue of gifts will have to be addressed. To take a really bold action against consumption, you could ask guests to forgo traditional gifts.

Rather than showering the guest of honor with toys or clothes, ask each guest to bring a letter-sized paper filled with words and pictures that celebrate the birthday child. Collages, poems, songs, inside jokes, and favorite memories could fill pages that you could slip into a photo album after the party.

Rather than bringing in more “stuff” that will eventually be tossed or outgrown, your child would have a tangible reminder of his value and worth.

8. Ask for a gift to donate to charity.

When my friend Angela’s youngest daughter turned one, she asked guests to bring a donation to the local crisis pregnancy center in lieu of more toys for the birthday girl.

Consider the organizations that are in need of donations in your community, and invite party guests to partner with your family in meeting the needs of others.

9. Give gift ideas to the insistent.

Some guests will insist on bringing a gift for the Birthday Girl. If a friend or family member really wants to buy a present for the child, the most loving response is gracious acceptance.

When someone asks for gift suggestions, let them know you’re open to pre-loved toys or clothes from resale shops. Those who want to buy something brand new could be directed to local merchants and small businesses, or to online venues which feature handmade toys and clothes (such as Etsy or Hyena Cart.

In some social circles, birthday parties can turn into competitions of extravagance and—ultimately—waste. It takes courage and conviction to stand apart from the crowd and choose to celebrate another way. I can’t help but believe the alternative path here is one of deep satisfaction and meaningful reward.

What are your ideas for avoiding birthday party insanity? Do any of these suggestions sound extreme to you, or do you feel like a different type of party would be a welcome relief?

This post was first published on September 16, 2009.

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Comments

  1. This sounds great!
    I don’t know if it’s going to work (because our son is only six month old), but I’m planning to ask all his grandparents, aunts, uncles etc. to write down some of their favourite memories of their own childhood for his first birthday, so when he is older he has some really unique piece of family history.
    .-= Nora´s last blog .. =-.

  2. My little daughter will have her third birthday on Friday. So I stick right in the middle of planning. She will get a few nice presents, but not the present overkill, because with presents from grandparents, friends and aunts it will be more than enough. I think, the most important thing is, that she’ll have fun and a great day at home.
    .-= Micha´s last blog ..Schwedisches Möbelhaus / IKEA =-.

  3. We held my 3 year olds party at the park and couldn’t carry stuff there so I just took the cake and asked eveyone to bring as plate of party food (and the ones who asked I suggested savoury or sweet etc) in lieu of presents – she had so much fun playing games on the grass that she didn’t care that she didn’t get presents – start this while they’re young though, before they’re influenced to want whatever the latest craze is!!
    .-= Kirsty-Abu Dhabi´s last blog ..Future Surfer Girl * Abu Dhabi Maternity Photographer =-.

  4. We aim for simple parties around here, too – but I’m always surprised at how even ‘simple’ can become a bit ‘complicated.’

    We do serve healthy, homemade food at our parties, and my biggest challenge is always finding favors that are not completely plastic junk.

    My kids are not overly materialistic, but they are at the age now where they know friends coming to the party bring presents. So I don’t think I could curtail that part of things. We don’t really even have a party for a child until he/she turns three years old – until then it’s just family celebrations.

    Great ideas, Megan!

    Jamie
    .-= steadymom´s last blog ..An Announcement and A Delay =-.

    • My kids love to draw so we liked to use little notebooks, pencils or fun pens in the “party favor” bags for friends. At least these are useful. My kids do like getting gum in these bags too :)

      • I do only useful comsumable things in fvor bags and stockings. Like band aids, bubbles, sidewalk chalk, bathtub fizzies, dollar store school and art supplies, etc.

  5. Great ideas – birthday parties stress me out, mostly because of the amount of STUFF that comes into my house.
    .-= Christi´s last blog .. =-.

  6. Wow. I’ve heard of the over the top birthday parties before but I thought they were only celebrity doings….your saying this is normal?? Almost everything you’ve listed is something I remember doing at someone’s birthday party (but especially my own) growing up. I thought your list of “alternative” birthday parties was the blue-collar normal?? My invitations were always homemade (as were my friends), we had cake but the moms always made it (in my case I always asked for ice cream cake), and we only played ‘games’ like tag, pin the tail on the donkey, bear are you awake & kick the can. It was also encouraged as we got older to ask for a donation to a charity not a toy.
    I grew up as a child in the 80′s (the age of excess) and my family & town are all ‘mainstream’ it wasn’t like I was living with hippies….so I can’t believe that this stuff is considered alternative now?? I have a 2 year old and as of yet we don’t play games at his parties (he doesn’t understand them & it’s mostly family right now- not many kids), I always hand-make all cards/invitations, and even the decorations, and I make cakes so his cakes are homemade too.
    Wow I just can’t get over that bouncy houses & horsey rides are now the ‘standard’ parties?? really?? Am I that out of touch?
    .-= Kristi´s last blog ..8 years ago… =-.

    • Well, I think a lot of it depends on the community in which you live and the social circles in which you travel. I hope I didn’t make it sound as if over-the-top birthdays are the norm everywhere. In some communities, I think it does become a competition to outdo others on birthday party extravagance.

      And for some, it’s not just about the parties, it’s about intentionally teaching our children to avoid the excesses of consumerism and to be joyful in things other than receiving lots of gifts.
      .-= Megan´s last blog ..What We’re Reading Wednesday: September 16th =-.

      • My 9yo was invited to a party last year at which all the gifts “seemed” to cost at least $35-50 (ouch!). Also, the young girls were dressed in trendy clothes and a couple even had their hair foiled. I just felt that this was ridiculous – and we live in a small town, not a super trendy place. Recently I took my four year old to her friend’s party and although it wasn’t over the top, the mom did express that it is important to her to “go all out” because she wasn’t allowed to have parties herself when young (so she’s living vicariously through her daugher?!). I do find that even simple parties can be quite expensive and actually offer extra $ to my kids to put toward something they’re saving for if they forgo a party. The idea of adding more pink plastic to my home just drives me crazy!

  7. Megan, your simple party ideas are great! With three Littles under the age of six, we are huge fans of sweet and simple celebrations. We do small family parties (usually just us and maybe a visiting grandparent or two as we live far from our extended families) until they are five. I blogged about our “birthday party policies” back in the spring if anyone is interested……. http://pashnenah.blogspot.com/2009/04/party-hardy.html
    .-= Kim´s last blog ..Introducing…… Jake! =-.

  8. We tend to skip birthday parties and focus on family dinners. Sometimes we get to include Grandparents in those, but they live out of town, so that’s not always possible. Now that we have teens who are always on the run, it is a special thing to have dinner together with all of us. Not having parties cuts down on the gifts too. Just a gift from parents and grandparents. We’ve got 2 birthdays this month – mine and our youngest daughter’s.
    .-= Tiffany´s last blog ..East Meets West Burgers =-.

  9. Bounce houses are the norm where we live for sure, or expensive “princess spa” parties…it can get really crazy. I’m the only person I know who handmade the invitations for my girls’ parties instead of having them professionally printed. No kidding!

    I like some of the ideas, but I’m a little hesitant to ask my guests to do anything extra or bring food…IMO a guest to a party should be just that, a GUEST. I love love love the idea of bringing donations for a shelter and as my older daughter gets old enough to understand how charity works, I think it would be a nice addition to her day.

    I like the idea of making things at the party in lieu of party games, and we’ve found that sending our guests home with something they made is SUCH a nice alternative to those bags of candy and “cheap plastic junk” that we seem to always come home with.

    Thanks for sharing some good ideas! =)

    • I guess the way I look at it is most guests would be expect to bring a gift. Perhaps some would be relieved to bring a plate of food for a community-style celebration rather than trolling the toy aisles at the local big box store. But on the other hand, there are people who genuinely delight in picking out just the right gift for the birthday child, so there’s always that perspective, too.

      I think you can’t go wrong with finding the balance between what you know will work in your family/community and giving others (and yourself!) a little push in finding some alternative ways to celebrate.
      .-= Megan´s last blog ..What We’re Reading Wednesday: September 16th =-.

  10. I love lots of these ideas, esp for my older kiddos who “get” the idea of sharing and honoring others! Thanks so much.
    .-= Gretchen´s last blog ..Church Picnic by the Bees =-.

  11. What amazing timing! I was just last night planning my little girl’s 7th birthday party (actually only her second actual PARTY). I had all these covered until I read the part about her gifts. I hadn’t thought of that yet! Thank you for the ideas.

    In years past I’ve told people not to bring gifts at all and then everyone brought a little something anyway with a silly grin and “I just couldn’t help myself” (oh brother). This year I may just suggest they donate, or we will (take their gift and donate it). ;)
    .-= Natalie Jost´s last blog ..Consider Others Better =-.

  12. It’s crazy how obsessed people get with planning a party, getting all stressed out for something their little ones probably won’t even remember. I like all the handmade ideas, especially for gifts. I always love it when my mother in law knits or sews something for the girls’ gifts (like baby doll clothes, barbie clothes, clothes for them to wear)! Those are the best kinds. I plan on making a lot of the girls’ clothes for Christmas this year. We don’t even do b-day parties here for our girls. They don’t need so much stuff or people; we like to do fun things as a family, like visit a pet shop or a petting zoo or park. The girls get free ice cream coupons so we all go out for that, and they have TONS of fun! Plus, then I don’t have to plan a party with a bunch of crazy kids! (a big plus for me!!) One family I know, the kids honor their mom on their b-day, because she did all the hard work getting them into this world! Haha!
    .-= Jessie Stimpson´s last blog ..End of Summer Sundress =-.

  13. The “local food” one kind of makes me laugh. While it sounds like a noble idea, I think there might be mutiny if you had a bunch of five year olds at a party and told them you had “orange ginger cookies” for them instead of cake and ice cream. Maybe the cultured and polite five year olds would pretend to like them. :-)

    Maybe this is a no-brainer but “simple” or “environmentally friendly” are not necessarily the same as frugal. “Simple” might be buying the local foods. Frugal is spending $2 on cake mix and frosting from the grocery store. For me as a guest, “Simple” is the donation to charity. Frugal is me feeling the freedom to shop ahead for generic gifts and buying them on clearance, so I am able to spend $5 out of pocket but bring the child a gift that would originally have cost $20. I would probably feel guilty only giving five bucks to the charity of choice if a donation were requested, but I don’t feel bad at all bringing a toy to the party that I know is worth more than the $5 I spent on it.
    .-= Kirsten´s last blog ..Menu Plan Monday for September 13-20, 2009 =-.

    • Okay, maybe orange ginger cookies wasn’t the best example. :) And maybe serving alternative menus might be better for when your children are babies or toddlers and don’t yet know that they are “supposed” to have cake and ice cream served at their birthday parties.

      Good point, too, that sometimes simple and frugal go hand-in-hand and sometimes they are different. Again, my intent here is to motivate all of us (myself primarily!) to try new ways to celebrate!
      .-= Megan´s last blog ..What We’re Reading Wednesday: September 16th =-.

      • actually that again depends on the circles you’re in. There’s always a craze for fresh strawberries, stone fruit, melons etc here (and my eldest is 12) and they know how they feel after too much sugar so they don’t do it. We have a little bit of this or that, mostly home made or additive free but no one feels they miss out, they all have plenty to eat and enjoy it. Gingerbread is another hit here!
        I also once made an entire ‘cake’ out of watermelon and fruit… it was a HIT!

        http://seemyfootprints.blogspot.com/2010/02/1st-birthday-quinns-all-fruit-cake.html

  14. Great ideas for birthday celebrations. I remembered we DIY most of the stuff at our 1st boy’s 1st birthday party. They were really special memories.
    .-= Dominique´s last blog ..WW- Panda Me =-.

  15. Wonderful. This really is wonderful.
    .-= Lu´s last blog ..Wordless Wednesday **Contemplating** =-.

  16. My son, Noah’s, fourth birthday is tomorrow, so this came at a great time for me! We’re really downplaying the ‘party’ aspect this year, so we’ll see how that goes over. There will be cake, of course!

    Great post, thanks Megan!
    .-= Aimee´s last blog ..The Beef Chronicles: Sesame Beef Lettuce Wraps =-.

  17. YES! I would definitely do all of these things! I don’t have children yet, but I am going to print and save these ideas to start them out EARLY on this kind of a Bday party. I think it would be hard to make a sudden switch to this from a traditional birthday party if the child is already accustomed to the traditional parties and all th STUFF.

    It would be fun for a mother’s club to get together and go over these ideas and agree to follow these guidelines. That way, the children will begin to see this as the RIGHT way to go, since their peers have these kinds of parties, too.
    .-= Scattering Lupines´s last blog ..Pieces of Hatchechubbee, Alabama =-.

  18. Our daughter just recently turned two also. We kept things really simple for her party. We took cupcakes and a few snacks like goldfish and animal crackers to the playground at local park and just let the kids play. We asked that the party guests bring food to donate to a local food pantry rather than bring gifts.

    Another gift idea that is not “stuff”: ask for a membership to a local children’s museum, science center or zoo.
    .-= Elizabeth´s last blog ..September Specials & Holiday Mini =-.

    • once the kids are in double digits here, they get to pick a friend or two and do an activity – horse riding, baking whatever. Rather than a ‘party’ as such. We have a nice lunch or dinner of some choosing, perhaps a sleepover but there’s less ‘party’ and more of ‘fun and enjoying a good mate’s company’.

  19. Great suggestions!!!!!!! I especially love the gift suggestions! It would be wonderful to have a book of “sentiments” from your children’s friends over the years. Love it!
    .-= Jessalyn´s last blog ..The Sorrows and Joys of Miscarriage =-.

  20. When my twins turned four they had a large party. In lieu of gifts we did a book exchange. Every child brings a wrapped book. At the end of the party, the birthday child gets to pick a wrapped book first and then all the other kids get to pick. It was great! I loved it!! It took care of the too many toys problem and also served as a party favor/take away for the guests. Plus, no thank you notes required. It was win-win-win!!!

  21. The most successful children’s birthday party I have ever given was to let the kids decorate their own cupcakes. Two per child – one to eat, and one to take home. The guests loved it so much, they asked if we could do it again the following year!

    These days, we, too, generally have a family celebration (with a large family it gets complicated to have friend-parties…), but when there were fewer of us, it was cupcake parties. And I’m all about the “no traditional gifts” ideas. We have enough stuff. :)

    Great ideas, Megan! Thanks!
    .-= Karen´s last blog ..Wordless Wednesday – In The Sun =-.

  22. The more kids we have the simpler our parties have become. We simply adore parties but we have managed to reduce them to minimal preparation, fuss, presents, catering, party packs whatever… I guess it is the lots of party experience that does this!!! We discovered that kids like doing stuff (what a surprise!) and if they are busy doing stuff they don’t need to eat the entire time… So our catering is often just a quick snack on the run and a cake to end off on – they always remember the cake. And if you make a good craft with them then you have pretty much covered the party pack nightmare as well because they will have something to take home with them…and everyone is a winner!!!
    .-= se7en´s last blog ..Challah, Traditional Jewish Festival Bread in Se7en Steps… =-.

  23. We love to make a big deal out of birthdays, but we usually invite 15+ kids to the party and I can’t stand all the stuff. A donation in lieu of gifts is a great idea for those that really want to bring something.
    Another thought I had recently was to request grandparents to give vouchers for dates, instead of gifts.

  24. I love this! For my daughters 2nd birthday last year we invited some friends to join us at the Science Center for the day and mentioned “no gifts please”. We do allow grandparents to buy gifts but it’s a good feeling knowing that we are not headed down the path to bigger and bigger birthday parties with a spoiled birthday girl who always wants more. Thanks!

  25. We recently had my son’s 3rd birthday. On the email invite I sent out I simply stated that gifts were not expected as we were inviting everyone to spend time with them and because we have already been blessed with so much (stuff). I like the idea of simple parties- I refuse to buy into the excess!

  26. What a timely post! We’re heading into birthday season at my house. For the last few years, the parties kept getting bigger and bigger. I think this year, we’ll focus on a nice dinner or a simpler activity. Thanks for the ideas!
    .-= Amy Reads Good Books´s last blog ..BBAW Reading Meme =-.

  27. I love this! After inadvertently planning a small, and pretty green, birthday party for my daughter’s 4th birthday, I wrote a post about it for 7th Generation: http://www.seventhgeneration.com/learn/blog/simplest-way-green-birthday-party-plan-small

    I love all of your suggestions!
    .-= Jennae @ Green & Gorgeous´s last blog ..Feeling Bookish? Check Out These Great Green Reads =-.

  28. Our children (we have 5, 6 in the spring) have 2 milestone birthdays. The first is the 5th, otherwise known as the Gum Birthday, which came into being quite accidentally. Child #1 somewhere in the range of 2-3 years old was pestering me for gum and without much thought I told him, “You can have gum when you’re 5.” Hence a long-standing family tradition was born. The other is the 10th where they can choose to have a big-deal, “real” party, like other kids do. All the rest are simply the family, brownies, cool whip, candles, singing, a couple gifts from family, and for breakfast, the cereal of the birthday child’s choosing…usually Cocoa Puffs or Cap’n Crunch.

  29. How timely! My daughter is turning 5 tomorrow and this weekend we are having a green/giving party for her with the theme “Right To Play.” I sent out invitations on Evite and asked guests in lieu of a gift to bring a donation for the charity she chose, Right To Play. (We gave her choices of helping animals, Mother Earth or children and then narrowed it down to two choices from there). Half of the donations will go towards her being able to choose a nice gift for herself – this really combats receiving the plastic commercialized crap that so many kids receive nowadays. IN the past we have had twoonie parties where each guest brings two twoonies ($2 coins) – one for the child and one for charity. While there won’t be any gift opening at the party she is receiving presents from her family, toys she actually wants, made ethically, and clothes she needs.
    For activities we will play musical chairs and pin the tail on the donkey. I’ve attended at least 20 parties for young children in the past year and NO ONE has played these. I grew up playing them at most parties so I am so excited to do this for my own daughter. Party games are under-rated! We will also make playdough and each child will be able to take it home with him or her and a real cookie cutter to play with. That will be our goodie bag. Homemade cupcakes and snacks will be served on real dishes because that’s just the way I am. I hate disposable dishes!
    I’m glad posts like these get written. It’s so important to show parents that things can be done differently and parties still be enjoyed.
    .-= Melodie´s last blog ..The Most Bizarre Case of Almost-Undiagnosed Herpes and My Cesarean Birth Story =-.

  30. Another ‘gift’ idea that wont add to toy clutter is a Savings Bond. My parents encouraged our extended family to refrain from toys and give bonds instead and I had a really nice deposit to put down on my car. My sister used her Savings Bonds for her (no debt) wedding and my brother used his to help him get through college without debt. It also gave us a tangible way to SEE our savings and a basis to understand more complex financial products.

  31. I think these are great ideas, especially about the gift ideas. My youngest will be one in a few weeks and I’m not having a party but people are still asking about gifts. To be honest he doesn’t need anything at all, I still have his brother’s toys from this age, so I haven’t known what to say.

    I’m going to use some of these ideas instead of shrugging my shoulders.
    .-= LaToya´s last blog ..Getting Melted Crayon Out of My Mei Tai =-.

  32. We have too many toys in our house, plus I specifically prefer the wooden toys or the little tikes sets because my daughter plays with those the most while using her imagination.
    For her 2nd birthday party, I requested that in lieu of gifts people bring a food or monetary donation for a local homeless shelter. My husband and I have agreed to do this every year – we only have one kid, and odds are not in favour of us having much more (although odds and the Lord’s will aren’t necessarily the same thing, but still.)
    We can provide any and all toys she needs (which we like to keep to a minimum). And for the insistant, I tell them that clothes is fine.
    (and the plan is to let my daughter pick her own charities when she is old enough.)
    .-= lorchick´s last blog ..Two Chalkboards, A Refashion, And a Toddler Sleeping On a Ball =-.

  33. For my son’s birthday, I partnered with a friend (with a son 2 weeks older) and we hosted their joint birthday party at a local toddler gymnastics play place. We had many mutual friends with TONS of little kids, so neither of our homes would accommodate a large party, plus it was in June in Phoenix…100+ degrees isn’t comfortable for an outdoor event. We cut costs by asking each child to bring $5 to contribute to the cost of renting the gym in lieu of a gift. The parents were thrilled ($5 gifts are hard to find), our cost to host the party was minimal, we weren’t concerned with decorations, set up or clean up and my son didn’t come home with gifts that would clutter our small home.

    It was the simplest, cheapest party we’ve had to date!
    .-= Intentionally Katie´s last blog ..Tuesday’s Time Saving {Post-Vacation} Tips =-.

  34. Two ideas building on yours:
    Our local (suburban) firehouse hosts kids’ parties. They move a truck out so there is room for plenty of seating at a long table (or two!) plus another for cake, presents, party bags, whatever. They give the kids crayons and coloring books (fire safety themed) when they arrive, give you time for games if you want, you decide on the food, etc., and after a brief talk about firefighters (suited to the age of the crowd; for little ones, it’s watching one get dressed in the full gear, since kids often are afraid of firefighters with all the garb; for older ones, it’s a little more safety based)–then they go on a fire engine ride! All the kids also get hats.
    All this for a donation of your choice. They suggest donating to them what you would have paid at an alternate party place. Let me assure you I would much more happily support the fire company than the local…well, I won’t say. But other Kids Party Place of my least favorite choice.
    Also: my four year old wanted to go bowling. It was excellent. Quick, easy, not overly expensive, active, fun for kids of a variety of ages and parents too, and not dependent on weather. I hope he wants to do this every year.
    .-= MemeGRL´s last blog ..It’s Official =-.

  35. One more: One of my best friends’ family had a great tradition where they would write “Happy Nth Birthday YourName!” with big poofy stencils on white posterboard. Then the party guests would each decorate some letters and the birthday girl had it on her door all year. Brilliant. Don’t know how it would work with boys but honestly, we did those posters well in to high school, they were so much fun.
    .-= MemeGRL´s last blog ..It’s Official =-.

  36. For our son’s fourth birthday just a few weeks ago, we had family and friends meet us at a local park for pizza and car-shaped cookies. Entertainment was easy and the adults could all mingle. It was like having a big play date (with family too!).

    My dad always struggled with gift ideas until recently. Now he gets the kids magazine subscriptions like High Five (Highlights for preschool age kids), BabyBug, and Click. We LOVE having new reading materials and my son gets extremely excited to have mail with his name.
    .-= Julie´s last blog ..Painting =-.

  37. I love the idea of making gifts to share with a charity or bringing gifts to donate to the less fortunate! Even though Anja has had but 2 birthdays, Husband complains each year about how much stuff she got and how it’s taking over our home. She doesn’t have b-day parties with friends yet, but when she does I think this will be a great project for the kiddos. Since I’ve asked my mom for years to donate the $ she spends on our Christmas gifts to charity and she refuses, I doubt she’ll be willing to give up the practice of giving extravagant gifts. I try to direct her to things Anja needs that are more sustainable options (like this year she got an all-wood kitchen set).

    As for decorations, I do buy a clump of balloons each year (she loves them), but otherwise, I make one new handmade decoration each year that can be kept in a small box and used again year after year (such as as cloth banner).
    .-= Minnesotamom´s last blog ..Sunday Sunshine 09.13.09 =-.

  38. For my son’s second birthday, we bought cheap t-shirts online and had all the kids decorate their own – activity and party favor in one. We’re also lucky to have a group of friends that really honor the “no gifts” concept, so the kids (hopefully) won’t come to expect gifts as part of the party.

    Another idea: join together! Our playgroup has a bunch of fall birthdays, so 6 families are doing one party all together – renting the local pool for swimming, and then bringing in cupcakes. Easy, inexpensive (splitting the cost), and all us other parents are thrilled to only be scheduled for one party!
    .-= Alissa´s last blog ..Yea Seattle! =-.

  39. Well-timed! My middle child is turning 5 next month and I am desperately searching for ways to avoid “birthday excess.” She has never had a “friends” birthday party and desperately wants one, but I find myself dreading having to invite her entire preschool class and handle the influx of well-intentioned but un-needed gifts. I know she will get plenty of gifts from her family party alone, and honestly do not want to burden twenty families with the social obligation of buying a toy. I am thinking of having the guests bring coins to add to a jar that will be given to a charity of my daughter’s choice — maybe our local horse rescue, since my daughter adores horses. That way there’s no pressure, since no-one will know exactly how much money each guest brought, you know? I dislike the idea of monetary donations precisely because it puts families on the spot, but I think this might be able to be done graciously….

    Anyway, thanks for all these great ideas. It’s nice to know I’m not the only mommy who not having pony rides or a moon bounce…
    .-= Laura´s last blog ..Breakfast Reading =-.

  40. Some lovely ideas. However, it is sometimes the guests to parties that are most reluctant to change to a simpler party theme. My daughter’s best friend recently had a party and the (handmade) invites that were sent round asked for donations to the local children’s hospice rather than presents for the birthday girl. Out of around 20 families attending the party, we were the only ones who adhered to the host’s wishes. Every other guest turned up with a present. We felt really awkward having nothing to put on the overladen gift table.
    .-= 280 Days´s last blog ..10 Things You Discover When Weaning =-.

  41. I know people tend to be divided on this issue but I want to put it out there and see what others think: last year, for my daughter’s ninth birthday, she was saving for a Maplea doll (like American girl). They’re very expensive but that’s all she wanted and she was willing to work at saving until she could afford it (which I totally support). So on her homemade invites she wrote “I’m saving for a Maplea doll”… which was our way of suggesting that cash would be a good gift. I love giving cash, myself, and wouldn’t feel offended by this. I’d simply give whatever I’d normally spend on gift – which is $15 and its not easy to find a decent gift for this price so cash is definitely easier for me. I feel this is also encouraging my daughter to save for what she really loves as opposed to having her life and bedroom cluttered with stuff she doesn’t care about. Anyways, my impression was that one of the mom’s was offended by this. So this year I’ve convinced her to forgo a party and I’ll help her buy something she really wants (which in her case will be more Maplea doll clothing)… what do you think?

    • I love the idea of this, and personally would have no problem giving cash. I’m always reticent to give a gift that I’m not sure the kid even likes anyway.

      That said, I’m sure there are some parents who feel “put off” by this. I’m not sure why, though.

  42. I have four children between 5-11. Rather than have 4 birthday parties with gifts and loot bags, we have one big family bash. We celebrate in the winter when it’s snowy and cold and folks don’t want to go anywhere and host a big sleigh ride for families and toboganning. The children can invite anyone including the parents and siblings and it’s pot luck. We cover the cost of the sleighs which is still less than four big parties.

    We bill it as a family party (not a birthday party) and no one brings gifts. We spend time with everyone and it’s lovely. For their individual day we have a special dinner with family.

    the only draw back is that we all have to drive to a farm which isn’t very envir friendly.
    Erin

  43. One birthday tradition we love at our family birthday parties is this: we ask everyone to think of something to share about the birthday person. It can be what they like most about them, their favorite memory with that person from the previous year, or how that person has helped them in the past year. It works if the birthday is for an adult or child, and children just soak up what others have to say about them. You can tell it means so much to them.
    I’ve read over and over in etiquette books that you should not request specific presents at birthday parties, but just graciously accept what’s given and move on.
    One family recently invited us to a “Help us celebrate the return of “lola’s” two front teeth” party. It seemed like a very gracious way of avoiding unwanted gifts, while still celebrating their daughter’s milestones.

  44. I’m always amazed at my friends (who are just making ends meet, as we are, or sometimes not even that), whose standard protocol for birthdays is to pay $150-200 at Chuck E. Cheese or a bounce house center or other retail/activity venue for kids. I’m grateful to be invited, but part of me feels a little guilty accepting their generosity.

    For our kids’ birthdays, we either have a party at the house (or a park) or they can invite a friend to go on an outing for the day.

    This year my seven year-old had a Calico Critter (CC) themed party. I ordered a kit that had everything (favors, decorations, plates, etc.) for only $20 online. She got the CC townhouse for her b-day and we put it out at the party with the stuff she already had for it, so the girls played with that for a while, then we did some games, had a kid friendly lunch, then cupcakes, and ended with presents (some were CC stuff–$8-15 range–but not all). It was a whirlwind 2.5 hours of easy, relatively inexpensive fun. Btw, CC is her (and her little sister’s) one collection (and it can get pricey) but it’s worth the imaginative play it brings out.

    The handmade theme idea makes me think of my favorite baby shower. Each guest brought a favorite children’s book and wrote a note about it inside. Over seven years later, I still have those books and they have been enjoyed more than any of the gifts from all the other baby showers I had.
    .-= Myrrh´s last blog ..The New Name =-.

  45. My only question about the donation to an organization is: what if the guests disagree with the organization’s aims? I would never donate to a crisis pregnancy center. Some of my guests might never donate to Planned Parenthood. I did attend one child’s birthday where they asked for donations to the Red Cross. So maybe the key is to keep it apolitical.

  46. My son was born on Jan 7th and my daughter on Dec. 23rd (almost two years apart). Neither date is really conducive to birthday parties, plus I just don’t see the point in birthday parties for 1 and 2-yr-olds (_they_ won’t remember and at 1 they don’t even really have “friends”). So we just haven’t done a birthday party yet (we’ve gone out to dinner or celebrated within our immediate family, but no big party).

    The plan eventually is to have one in late June (near my birthday) as a family birthday and “half birthday” party. We’ll invite all of our friends to a cook-out and ask that no gifts be brought, but instead bring a donation for our local pregnancy center (if someone objects, they certainly have my blessing just to bring themselves and no gift at all) and a side dish to share.

    My circle of “mommy” friends all seem to go “all out” with the parties and decorations and favors. It just doesn’t make sense to me. For gifts to them, I’ve been tending toward gift cards (at least then they get “stuff” that they actually want/need) with a drawing by my son in the card.

    I guess I just figure that my kids would/should prefer (in the long run) that we get our debt paid off that much sooner than to have a party that they’re not even going to remember and get stuff that we don’t need or have room for.
    .-= Princess Leia´s last blog ..Pictures! =-.

  47. i love, love, love this post and some of the suggestions in the comments, especially the book exchange idea!

    i will have to stand firm, though, on mailed invitations. while i like the idea of handmade (especially handmade by the kids), i still can’t get on board with the email or Evite invites. i’m too obsessed with pretty things in the mail!
    .-= laura @ peacoat´s last blog ..the fanciest baby shower =-.

  48. I LOVE #7 – Having the guests bring a special page all about the child that would later go into a birthday album is a fantastic idea! The birthday boy or girl would cherish that album for years to come, I’m sure:) I think I will try that with my daughter.
    .-= Tashia´s last blog ..Free Printable Budget Worksheet =-.

  49. My brother’s family had the birthday person pick a place for the whole family to go that they normally wouldn’t go to (pizza parlor, arcade games…) instead of hosting a birthday party for friends. They still have a mini celebration at home with the family with a homemade cake and presents but the cost is about equal to what a party would have cost but are building family bonding time and everyone has LOTS of fun.

  50. I really love that you put this list together. I am a “less is more” mom and keep our toys and consuption to a minimum. I struggle with birthday parties because it swamps our lives and homes with “stuff.” Kids don’t need all that stuff, the just need encouragement to create and pretend! So, thank you. I especially love the idea of others creating a page for our birthday children to hold onto and cherish!
    .-= SimplyFeather´s last blog ..Show Me Some Mercy! =-.

    • I too am a less it more type mom. Although I don’t mind putting a little thought into my daughter’s parties and especially love making/decorating a fun cake for her, I really hate the idea of giving out useless plastic gifts (an hate it when my daughter receives them).

      For her 4th birthday party last year, instead of a gift bag of cheap plastic toys and candy, I made a mixed CD of a bunch of her favorite kids songs and then burned one for every child to take home. I made a nice label for the CDs and tied them with a little ribbon. A year later, I still have many parents tell me they listen to the CD all the time in their cars…really, truly!

      I must add, that over my daughter’s four years in our lives we had taken kids music CDs out of the library and either bought our very favorites or burned them to our computer, so we had quite a list of good songs to put on the CD.

  51. my daughter just turned 6.
    i made invitations – markers and white paper.
    we invited 6 friends to bring their bicycles to the park of maddie’s choice.
    the girls rode bikes and played on the park.
    maddie wanted meat and cheese sandwiches, grapes and cheetos for supper.
    i made cupcakes and frosting (find the recipes on my site today!)
    i made the party favors – a little zipper pouch for each girl with a lip-gloss and some stickers inside.
    simple.
    fun.
    :)
    .-= elizabeth´s last blog ..4 Bits of Nobleness =-.

  52. I set a budget for my daughter’s birthday parties. Even at almost 5, she can help me make choices to stick within our budget. If she wants to MAKE her own invitations, for example, we can spend the money elsewhere.
    For her 5th birthday party this year, we’re having a Pancake Party. We’ve researched ideas online and we’re going to play games: a cold pancake toss and a pancake/skillet race! How fun does that sound? I’m also printing out coloring book pictures of pancakes for the kids to color.
    Any more ideas for me???
    .-= Parenting Ink´s last blog ..South African Pancakes and Other Lies We Tell Our Children =-.

  53. We go very simple around here. An idea I got from another friend, in lieu of gifts…

    In the invitation we wrote, “No gifts please. Instead, please put $1.00 or less in a card for the birthday girl to “go shopping.” We got the cutest, most creative cards I have ever seen with 10 dimes taped all over or a shiny silver dollar coin. A few put more than a dollar in but that was their choice as no one felt pressure to include more than $1.00. The birthday girl got to go pick out something at the store of her choice. No clutter and easy on the budget for parents! Everyone loved the idea.

  54. We actually don’t celebrate birthdays in our home (no, we are not jehovah’s witnesses like my mother accused me ;)). One of the reasons is because of the crazy expectations and selfishness that can stem out of them. I think that we should express our gratitude for the loved ones in our life, but I believe birthdays foster a sense of entitlement and self-love that while not extreme still take the focus off of the only reason that we were born – God.

    So on birthdays we sort of “recognize” them as having come, and praise God for His gift of another year. We do not hold celebrations for each other or our boys, but only explain to them that we should thank God for the gift of life he has given them.

    We also make a point of daily expressing our love to our boys and tell them that they are a blessing to us and that we are thankful for them.

    • I can relate to your faith completely, as I am a Pentacostal “Old Time Religion” Christian. However, celebrating a child’s birthday is when you, others, and GOD celebrate…God blesses the gathering…and honors that it is fellowship HE Enjoys being present at. GOD delights in Christian fellowships/gatherings and especially HIS Childrens’ childrens birthdays. It is ok to give honor to whom it is due, speaking of man, in its proper place and respective. We do not idol our children, but reconizing their worth through God’s eye is what we are called to do. Our little children are not saved yet. They do not know God yet. But as the bible’s theme from Gen-Rev. we see that God is trying to tell us ” Love and do good to your children” because we are their gods ….they look to us from infanthood as their god, their everything. God entrusts these precious souls to us that in due time they will experience such love and care from us, in essence, to let them know how God loves and takes care of His children. If God gives us the desires of our hearts (within His will) celebrating a child’s birthday is so so special to them. At my church, God is ever present at these fellowships. He enjoys that these children are being raised by HIS children. The fellowship is sweet. Imagine how God feels at a Christian’s kids birthday…He can be there and has no worries of cursings, blasphemies, drinking, adulteries, etc… but I imagine He relishes those times, especially with little innocent babes running around having Good wholesome fun! Have one for your boys..Invite a minister over to hold a Q & A..invite boys of all ages. Let them pick scriptures out to read..find godly ways for your kids to celebrate birthdays..Do a bible scavenger hunt. God delights when our kids can have good fun..and it instills that even when we celebrate a birthday…”we are Glorifying Mommy and Daddy’s GOD, and we want Him to be your God, son”…and if you get so out there and strict, and do things that are not in Bible (as this is not, but celebrations were made for many reasons in the Bible) they will be gone from you and your God so quick as soon as they are old enough. Don’t listen to others–PRAY and let God answer you! May God Bless you and your Family!

  55. avatar
    Emily Guthrie says:

    We hosting a party this weekend for my oldest — he just turned 4. So, I bought inexpensive fire truck invitations, this is my inexpensive party plan:

    Kids play at our house. No bounce house, nothing fancy. I’m planning on having a fire truck drawing from a coloring book xeroxed and set out with crayons for the kids.

    Food: I’m making PB&J and Fluffernutters (no one has peanut allergies), and other sandwich options for parents (though, really, I expect most of them to want Fluffernutters). I’m going to attempt to convert a homemade sheet cake into a fire engine. I found directions online … wish me luck!

    Treats: I am anti-favor bags. I hate getting bags of junk for my kids, so I’m going to pick up helium balloons and tie a box of raisins at the bottom. That’s what each kid will go home with. The raisins will be a healthy snack and will prevent the balloon from floating away on the way to their car. And the balloons are fun for the kids but won’t turn in to clutter!

    Activity: This is the best part. We’re having a show-and-tell at the fire station a few blocks away. It’s free! As long as the station doesn’t have an emergency call, the kids will see the truck, slide down the pole, try on helmets, etc.

  56. This is really great as we have birthdays nearly every month until April (although I guess I really only have to worry about my boys). Since this year Chance is in kindergarten, we just HAVE to have a party (Hmmm…he’s never wanted one before for his friends…) and it’s Aidan’s first birthday. Great tips for keeping it simple, because it is true that simple parties are the most fun and memorable parties.
    .-= Amanda´s last blog ..Weekly Routines =-.

  57. I love this post! When my daughter turned three we started a new birthday tradition. Her special day is in Nov- just in time for Christmas. After she unwrapped her gifts we took them all into her room. I asked her to donate half to Toys For Tots. At first she picked out her least favorites. When I encouraged her to think about the fact that this may be the only toy someone gets this Christmas she re-evaluated and ended up giving away her favorite toy of all- before it was opened and played with or anything. The look of joy on her face when she put them in the Toys for Tots box was priceless- true joy and happiness. She still loves opening birthday gifts and I can tell she’s already thinking about what things she can give to other little girls. Thanks for the great ideas!
    .-= Erin´s last blog ..I can do it myself =-.

  58. We love making and receiving personalized birthday cards. The kids enjoy decorating them and it saves money.
    .-= Party Cupcake Ideas´s last blog ..halloween-cupcakes =-.

  59. Two of our favorite birthday celebrations around here were when one child turned 4 and another turned 5. For the 4 year old we filled up an old plastic swimming pool that had been passed along from neighbor to neighbor when their kids outgrew it with whole kernel feed corn. We then tossed in all sorts of fun wood and metal implements (spoons, bowls, sieves, etc.) that I had picked up thrifting and let the kids play. It was a hit with all ages and entertained for weeks after the party (until it rained and the corn started to get funky after squirrels has chewed through the tarp covering it to get to the food). For the 5 year old we had water games in the backyard, made tie dye shirts (that was the “treat” to take home, if you will), and piled empty boxes on the back deck. The empty boxes became cars, a tower to build and knock over, etc. What a blast!

  60. I wrote a post about this very thing before my oldest’s birthday last year. I got some GREAT tips about how to make a birthday special without spending money.
    http://www.5minutesforparenting.com/40/how-to-make-a-birthday-special-without-hiring-hannah-montana/
    .-= Kelly @ Love Well´s last blog ..What I Did on my Summer Vacation =-.

  61. This is the perfect opportunity to teach your children not to be materialistic…and it seems a good idea to start them while your child is young so that each year reinforces the concept.

    On a side note, my husband and I just spent the last two weeks settling his father’s estate and sorting, donating, and throwing away a lifetime’s accumulation of stuff. The whole experience was sobering to say the least. We’ve committed ourselves to decluttering our lives immediately and making conscious efforts not to bring anything else into our home.
    .-= Mary R´s last blog ..Reverse Culture Shock =-.

  62. When we had kids my husband and I dreaded the idea of birthday parties. We decided to only have one party every other year. On even numbered birthdays the kids get to have a traditional birthday party with family and one or two friends. (Lots of family makes for a large party) On odd numbered birthdays (starting at age 3) we take a family trip to someplace fairly local. I bake a small cake for just the 4 of us on the actual birthday and we give two or three gifts (something handmade by mom, something small from sibling, and maybe one other store bought gift) on the actual day. Then on the appointed day we travel to the destination picked by the child and make a day of it. We may pack a picnic or go to a restaurant for dinner. Sometimes we may pick up something from the gift shop of said destination, but more often we just take lots of cameras to capture memories. We get to check out some of the sites we might not otherwise even know were there and we only have to suffer through the big party every other year.

  63. It is so competitive out there when it comes to birthday parties! Almost every party my child gets invited to is at one of those big party planning venues with 25 kids. In which the birthday child ends up with a toy store in gifts. It’s incredible how wasteful it is. The party costs $300, not including the food and cake. I insist my daughters parties are simple, only a few good friends and homemade party decor. I usually make the cake myself. The kids don’t eat the cake anyway, only the icing, so why spend $25 on a professional cake? But, I do feel the peer pressure when it comes to parties. I just have to keep reminding myself what a birthday is really about…celebrating my child’s life, not who can out-spend who.
    .-= jeri´s last blog ..is saying “sorry” enough? =-.

  64. I’ve enjoyed reading many of the comments to your post – All wonderful.
    A trend that I am resisting to fall into is the need to invite every student in your childs classroom. Many parents fork out gobs of money to host their party at the local pizza & game facility, indoor bouncer centers, etc …all in order to house the excessive number of children AND parents. What does this teach our children? Cater to aquaintances rather than spend their day with close friends?
    Before our children were in school, keeping the number of guests down was no problem. However, now we only allow our children (dd 8, ds 6) to invite their closest friends. And they are limited to the number of guests as the number of years they are turning. For example; for my sons 6th birthday, he invited 6 friends. We do not feed the multitudes with a buffet spread. We do games, organized play/free time, dessert and gifts. Parents can stay or leave their children. When did children’s parties become more for the adults?
    Less is more! Nobody remembers cookie-cutter parties. Make them personal, minimalistic and unique. That is what makes memories…And doesn’t break the bank. :)

    ~Kim
    Phoenix

  65. My kids aren’t in school (beyond part-time preschool) yet, so I’m sure this will change, but for now, we mostly have family parties with a couple friends. We live in a pretty small place (so parties at home are out) and have winter babies (which means park parties are out), so we have to do venues most of the time, but we do try to keep it simple.
    I’ve started using electronic invites and while evite is perfectly fine, pingg.com is AWESOME! I really recommend checking it out. There’s even a print invite option and an event website option….so cool!

  66. great ideas for little kids birthdays parties :) but… I don’t think an older child would care for your gift policy that much :P

  67. My daughter turns 3 next month. I am thinking of inviting around 6 of her friends. How does the following idea sound?
    Each child gets a gift (under $10, wrapped in newspaper). The girls sit in a circle. An adult reads them the story of the ‘Wright Family’. Every time they hear the word ‘left’ they pass the gift to the person on the left. Same thing when they hear the word ‘right or wright’. In the end everyone goes home with one gift !! No party favors.
    After this we dance to kid music or do yoga with a yoga dvd (Yoga Kids).
    Will this work for 3 year olds? Will they be able to follow the story?
    When my daugher is older I want to involve her in choosing a charity etc.

  68. I like all your ideas, and reminders of simpler times.

    I thought of this blog post that I’ve bookmarked. Even though it’s about Christmas gifts, there are good ideas on how to simplify and get rid of excess.

    http://dandeedesigns.blogspot.com/2008/10/want-need-wear-read.html
    .-= lauri´s last blog ..The old Dextor Highway =-.

  69. All the ideas are excellent & innovative,but the special one is “sending invitations created by your child”.It’s a great one.Thanks .

  70. avatar
    Moderate Mama says:

    I am fairly anti-clutter, but I feel very uncomfortble making unsolicited suggestions for gifts or kinds of gifts, prepared food (a chore), or donations to causes. It does not embody the virtue of graciousness. Also, I really prefer the focus of a child’s birthday to be about fun, not my philosophy/politics/neuroses/gift aesthetics, etc.

    Extra gifts can be packed away to be brought out a few months later. Gifts that don’t get played with can be discreetly collected and carefully wrapped and taken to my local food pantry/assistance center for clients who need gifts for their children.

  71. Great post. These all are the perfect ways to celebrate frugal party. Thanks for sharing, it will surly help me a lot.
    .-= frugal party ideas´s last blog ..By: Harris =-.

  72. sorry…the website is http://www.kidscangivetoo.com

  73. Simple and home made is absolutely the best when it comes to children’s parties. I think kids like getting their hands dirty more than adults, no way, they actually relish it…and making snacks, playing in the park or garden, doing arty-crafty things would go down much better and make for a successfuly children’s party anyday.

  74. What a great list! I usually ask for “no gifts” but many people want to bring something! Asking for a small handmade/homemade gift is a great way around that (especially for kids–my kids always want to make cards and tiny little handmade treasures anyway).

  75. We have 5 kids ages 5 and under and there’s no way we want (or could afford) throwing huge bashes for each birthday. So we’ve decided to celebrate milestone birthdays (5 and 10) with parties with invited guests. All others we celebrate with “just” the 7 of us, which still makes for a lot of fun!

  76. This is a great post. Excellent suggestions. Thanks Megan and Tsh!

  77. I love so many of these ideas. We don’t yet have kids, but for our birthdays (and my birthday is a big day for me), we ignore the gifts and go straight for the experiences: the last few birthdays have been hotel getaways just relaxing and having fun. I’m really happy to know that our kids will never know their birthdays to be piles of Stuff because we’re not going to expose them to that. Thanks for the ideas!

  78. Love all your ideas–especially those tied to giving back. Another great electronic email service is paperlesspost.com. Great blog!

  79. I really hope moms will stop these huge birthday celebrations at fun centers. Kids birthday parties have gone so far overboard with location, gifts, number of guests (the entire class?).

    I do the party at my house with a homemade cake and an activity: sledding in the winter & swimming in the summer. I also tell my kids they can invite 3 friends. That’s it. The decorations are re-used each year.

    I love the idea of making it a giving back occasion….we do this at Christmas, but never thought about it for birthdays. Can we start a campaign for simple kids birthdays?

  80. The way we solved the birthday dilemna was with a double pronged approach. The kids are allowed one party that is the traditional bring the gift etc. etc., but nothing too over the top. After that, it’s a one friend affair. For example, my 6 year old girly last year took one friend with Mommy and have the pedicures and manicures done and just have a girls day. She *loved* it and felt like a big girl. The friend was a non-school friend that lived next door. Simple, elegant, and not wasteful and ridiculous.

  81. Many parents in our community struggle with the problem of too much stuff. Recently, families have begun to send out $5+$5 invitations – five dollars for the child to use to buy a treat, five for the charity of choice. I like this idea since it offers the best of both worlds and doesn’t leave us with a pile of plastic at the end of the party. Our daughter has also asked for ‘experience’ gifts – movie tickets, a playdate, even donations towards classes from grandparents.
    I love the idea of asking guests to bring a craft or words that describe how they feel about the birthday child – this will be remembered far after a toy would be broken and forgotten.

  82. Wow! so many creative ideas! Just want to note that I realize my family’s current situation isn’t the norm. We live an extremely rural, remote, conservative lifestyle. Growing up, I sometimes had a friend party, but always had a family party with grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins. I am from a small family so even with almost everyone, it wasn’t many. My favorite parties? The family ones. Due to a number of factors, only the oldest of our six children have ever had a “friends” party and then only three other girls were invited to a simple party of homemade games and food. It has been 15 years since a birthday was celebrated with anything other than a family gathering. The birthday boy/girl/mom/dad gets to choose the menu for the meal of their choice along with the treat or cake they desire. One year, our daughter chose funnel cake. That prompted a menu of homemade fair food: corn dogs, nachos, etc. Since our children hadn’t ever been to a fair, I set up homemade versions of fair type games. Toilet paper rolls stack beautifully for knocking over with a nerf ball. Styrofoam cups weighted with dried beans are fun to shoot at with rubber balls too. Then of course, the ring toss is tricky and you never know who will guess how many gumballs (leftover from who knows when) are in the jar. We spent the evening “at the fair” playing games and eating popcorn. It was really, really fun. So much so, that after attending the fair for the first time this summer, our three oldest children thought mine was way more fun. Grandparents do bring/send gifts. However, we live so simply that if it weren’t for gifts at birthdays and Christmas, our children would be living a stark lifestyle for certain. Even if we were able to endulge in extravagance, we would still DIY our celebrations. There is such satisfaction in taking basic items and creating a beautiful and/or fun celebration of life. Usually, my husband also prays a prayer of blessing over each child as well. Thank you to all commenters for sharing so many creative ideas. Many of them can be adapted to celebrations and gatherings of any kind. It makes me want to have a party.

  83. a neighbor started a tradition that I intend to keep going for as long as possible where every kid brings a book (new or used) as their gift. then we do a present exchange at the end (each kid draws a number and then picks a package in turn). in this way, each kid (including the birthday kid) gets a new book to add to their library! no party favors needed this way either.

  84. avatar
    Friday Lowrey says:

    As a homeschooling parent of two, I often had to find creative ways to celebrate holidays and birthdays. We began the alternate year tradition when the kids were very young. They would have a birthday “party” at the house, which included friends, homemade pizza’s or spagetti, movies, games, and a sleep over one year. The next year they would have a small family dinner with cake and the entire family would chip in to purchase a gift which we individually could not afford. For several years the game of choice was D&D for my son. For gifts the family purchased items such a good cell phone, a new lap top, one year we purchased good boots.

    The children understood the purchases were from mulitiple people and very special. This system allowed the children to have items they both wanted and needed that were outside of the normal family budget. It also taught them to appreciate the fun instead of just the stuff.

  85. Some of our best birthday parties included letting the kids decorate the cake or a cupcake. Put out lots of zip-type baggies of frosting with a small corner cut off and a few cups of sprinkles and let them have fun. Videos of the fun will be entertainment while they eat it. You can do this with cookies, too.

    We also put out all the dress-up stuff one year, let them get gussied up, and did a movie fashion show that both boys & girls loved. It is a rare child who doesn’t enjoy watching themselves on the screen.

    Graham crackers, colorful cereals, and meringue frosting can turn into all sorts of ‘gingerbread’ houses in the winter (humidity doesn’t mix well with meringue) and it is far less expensive than candy decorations. Buy the meringue powder in the cake decorating section, add water & powdered sugar, and you have ample frosting glue. Friends of ours do this every New Year’s Eve with adult kids & guests.

    In the summer, anything outside with water and homemade bubbles and license to get messy is much more fun than purchased entertainment. Let them experiment with how big a bubble can get, crazy things to blow bubbles through, even encasing each other in a giant bubble. Look online for ideas in science experiments.

    Ivory soap in the microwave is lots of fun for a small group, too. And speaking of small groups, a this type of party is most successful with fewer kids rather than a mob. One rule of thumb is one guest for each year of the birthday child.

  86. avatar
    Christina Y says:

    I LOVE this article! It’s such a refreshing spin on birthday parties (which in today’s society are totally out of control)!

  87. As someone who LOVES TO THROW PARTIES but also wants to learn how to be a better steward of what I’ve been given I am always looking for easy and creative ideas to spend less, waste less and give more. I esp like the idea of collecting goods at the party for those in need, in lieu of gifts. I’m thinking either canned/boxed foods for a food bank (cooking themed party) or art supplies for a local under funded school (art themed party). Can you guess my daughters interest?! Thanks again!!!!

  88. I’ve been giving this exact topic a lot of thought. My family grew up without much money, but birthdays were still wonderful. My Mom would let us choose what she made for dinner (stringy pot roast and mashed potatoes!) and let us choose cake decorations for the cake she made us. (Remember the old sugar decorations at the grocery store?) If extended family was near-by, they would be invited over for dinner. We got one, maybe two, gifts.

    I have to admit I got caught up in themed birthday parties and elaborate gift bags with my kids. The more I did and the more they got, the more they wanted. It’s time to scale back. A lovely dinner. A small gift or two. Simple, but special.

  89. Even though I don’t like clutter, I also don’t like asking people to not bring gifts, to do a donation instead, or to bring handmade or hand me downs. I feel like in doing so, I’m already expecting them to bring gifts (even though I know they will).

    Since my kiddo is still young, we’ve kept the gifts we think fit in with our family, and the others that are too much, we return, sell on Craigslist, or donate.

    But I’m not sure how to tackle this issue once he’s older and understands that there are presents for him.

  90. wow!

  91. We’re the odd man out on both sides of the family. Instead of doing elaborate birthday parties, we have a dinner and cake with just the grandparents. Relatives who ask about gifts, I ask them to pick a charity to donate to but then to send the birthday girl/boy a note telling why they chose that organization.
    I personally just felt so sad after leaving all these birthday parties where presents are ripped open and then thrown to the side so that the next one can be opened and then the toys are either broken or never played with again, there’s no sense of appreciation…for the thought or for the gift.
    Because my children are young but old enough to realize that their cousins all have big parties, I told them that we can have parties but just for fun, family get-together kind of parties. So this summer we had a Pinkalicious party and just invited both sides of the family over and had a CRAZY fun time. I lost count of the number of times I heard people saying that it was the most fun/relaxed party they had ever been to. And it was SOOO simple and relaxed for me. We had a bunch of pink foods, pink streamers and balloons and the kids had a pink water balloon fight and silly string fight. We’re planning on having a Halloween party next month and my kids couldn’t care less about not having a birthday party.
    I’m soooo happy with our decision. Birthday’s absolutely deserved to be celebrated, I just don’t know that they needs to be such a dog and pony show. I want my kids to celebrate family and friends and time together rather than expecting to be the center of attention.

  92. Hi Megan! You’ve also mentioned (at Sorta Crunchy I think) doing gift exchanges. We’ve used that idea several times now for our parties. We’ve done a gently used book exchange and a art supply exchange.

    Thanks for continuing to inspire us toward simplicity and fun!

  93. this was a great article!

    for my daughter’s 5th birthday we brought 4 friends to a local pool for a fun afternoon. in lieu of gifts we asked the girls to donate school supplies, which we gave to a local shelter in minneapolis. for a party gift they got stickers (something to actually play with), a lip gloss with spf (practical!), and cake pops in the shape of ice cream cones and the sun (this supported a friends new business venture).

    i am trying to shape my kids into people that think of others, but as they get older i am not sure they will want to forego gifts! my thought is to allow grandparents to give gifts (i don’t think i could persuade them otherwise), but to ask friends to skip the gifts in light of something else.

  94. Thanks for the great tips….these are also practical for the upcoming holidays. We usually get our kids 1 gift on their birthdays…grandparents are a little more difficult – they love to spoil :)

  95. Oh My Gosh, Yes!!! I am so sick of buying batteries and broken plastic, from poorly made toys, that my kids don’t pay that much attention to. The past couple of years, if someone insists on gifts we ask for something homemade or money towards an activity that the kids enjoy (ie, day at the Science Museum). This is met with great resistance, like it somehow reflects the gift givers status or something. If someone does buy us a toy we aren’t going to use, we thank them for thinking of us and taking the time to pick something out. We do however, end up donating it.

  96. avatar
    Mandy Orozco says:

    We too think the gifts portion of the party detracts from the simple joy of being there and celebrating. We don’t do gifts at any of our own children’s birthday parties. People are very thankful for our request to come to our party without a gift.

  97. I’ve been trying to give ideas that fit what she plays with and that we find value in, and when we receive something that matches, we try to emphasize what a wonderful gift that one item was (as opposed to the other 10 items they purchased…) I also try to hand out the idea of activity gifts – passes to local bounce houses, splash parks, children’s gyms, the children’s museum, etc. So far people have voiced receptiveness to this idea, but not followed through.
    Just wanted to throw that out there for those people who know that people will insist on gifts. Our daughter has MANY grandparents (and great-grandparents) who gift, and I’m not sure would survive the ensuing heart attack if we said no gift at all.
    Another idea, which still brings items into your home, but has been received better within our family, is to keep a list going of your child’s favorite books you check out from library, and hand those titles out. Unfortunately, she usually receives a book and a toy then, but it’s better than two toys! And usually the gifter is happy to buy something you already know your child will love :)

  98. We have 3 little girls and have done simple party celebrations for all of them. We started when our oldest turned 1 by asking for donations to the local Children’s Hospital………..and raised $400!!! In the beginning we chose the charities based on what was important to us as a family, but as the girls have gotten older they have chosen who to donate to. It’ a wonderful experience to see your child proud of themselves for giving to others and excited to do it again on the next birthday.

  99. I volunteer at a local mission center and recently this little guy had a birthday party but in lieu of gifts, he asked for the amt that would have been spent on a gift to be spent on food. Some food came in all decked out in birthday bags. He came w/mom to donate all the food and he was all smiles. Another option might be slippers and lap robes for the nursing home, art supplies for the local hospital, books for the elementary schools or day care centers or libraries. If birthday is close to school starting they could bring a backpack w/supplies to donate to a local charity who helps kids with these needs. These are just a few suggestions off the top of my head.

  100. avatar
    misslaureli says:

    I guess we are the alternative people too. I make all invites by hand. This past year, the kids help. I make the cakes and the decor too which they got to help with the decor. The cake, cupcakes are my gift to them. They don’t ask for birthday presents, I’m not sure they realize they can. We have asked for monetary to put towards their sports/activies for the year from family members that insist on getting gifts and crafts or books from friends. We try to emphasize, no gift, just come for the fun.
    We create games for the parties, usuable favors (and not junk candy) that aren’t pricey and everyone always seems to have fun. We have a huge group so the most costly thing is feeding everyone because I plan to serve a meal instead of planning around it. I think it lends to the celebration.

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