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Parenting Tip of the Month
By Heather Totten

Celebrating Birthdays in This Era of MTV's My Super Sweet 16

Birthdays . . . how do you celebrate them? And how much do you really have to spend to mark these occasions?

I firmly believe a 'super over the top party' is never necessary at any age. And in a large family, what you do for one you most always must do something similar for another. So we don't have to mortgage our house for five parties, we have established some rules for our parties. They are still fun, mark the occasion, but don't have us eating peanut butter and crackers for two weeks after. Along the way, I've also learned some ways to keep costs to a minimum.

First, every other year is a family only party. That means it is only the seven of us celebrating. If you think about it, that is really enough anyway. We still buy a cake and presents. I've even tossed in a few games, but no friends. In fact that is the year we have the family treasure hunt, which is something that the kids really look forward to running around looking for clues. The older ones are well aware of this policy and know what to expect upfront. So, when their friends start talking about parties at school, they tell them that they are having a family only party that year.

On the years that we have parties, they follow another rule of thumb. Usually, pre-school (at least the ones I have been in) class sizes are small enough to invite the class and not break any budget versus grade school; I have no interest in inviting 25 kids to a party. I don't want to watch 25 kids, I don't want to bring 25 presents home, and I don't want to feed 25 kids. So, only the pre-schoolers get parties with their class and once they hit grade school, the party gets much smaller. But smaller means you can do more and different things too. This year for my son's ninth birthday, he is inviting 4-5 close friends. Then my husband and I are taking the boys to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway while his sisters are baby-sat at home. His birthday is in May, the Indy 500 fever month around here. We will watch some cars do test runs, go to the 500 Museum, and then come back here for cake. We know all the boys and their parents well, so a traveling birthday will not be out of the question for any of them.

As you can tell by the plans for my son, this year happens to be a year for parties. I have two down already and 3 to go. That does sound like a lot, doesn't it? For my recent 4 year old, she had a party at an indoor play place that sells Rainbow play-sets. Since she is in pre-school, I scheduled the party during the day and during the week. By doing that I saved over half on the cost of renting the place for the party. It is kind of like vacationing on 'off peek' seasons. She invited her class and had an absolutely fabulous time.

My non-school age daughters get a family party every year. I also invite my cousin and her two girls. This means we have seven children, and it ends up being relaxed and a lot of fun. My cousin is my best girl-friend and we do things together all the time, so it is not out of the question to invite her to all the parties.

When I have established when and who is having parties and how many guests, I find a few ways to cut costs even more. First, I plan out ahead of time what we are going to do. That way, I can keep an eye on sales for presents and great goodie bag gifts. I also buy gifts throughout the year and store them. I keep a list of what I have on hand to refresh my memory. That way, the birthday is not a huge dent of the budget that week, but is instead spread out over the year. For instance, for my four year old, we had the party booked and I paid the deposit. That left a remaining balance of only $20 on the day of the party. I bought her presents previously and found a few others in after Christmas blow-outs. I found fabulous goodie bags. So all I paid that week was the $20 remaining balance on the party and the cake.

The goodie bags may look over the top, but it really isn't. My four year old daughter wanted a princess/prince party since she was inviting girls and boys. Online at the Disney store after Christmas, they were blowing out their entire dress up items. Their princess wands and crowns, originally $25, were $3.50/set. They were also selling shields and swords for $2.50. Shipping was only $5 total. I bought all the girls crowns and wands and the boys shields and swords. The kids at the party were so excited. I spent as much as I would have if I had gone to the party store and picked up candy, bags, and trinkets. Plus I saved on dragging the five kids to the store and the gas to get there. Since I planned the parties for the year, I was able to purchase and store away all of the party gifts. It was an upfront cost, but a savings that will spread out during the year.

The timing of the party can save you money also. If you plan a party during lunch or dinner, you should plan on feeding the children. If you pick a middle time, like a 3 pm party, you can get away with only doing cake. I used to pick times in which I fed the kids, but I noticed that almost all the food was wasted. The kids barely ate because they were so excited. I do like to mention on the invitation that cake, ice cream, and juice will be served so the parents know what to expect.

Finally, the location can save you money also. Home parties are usually the least expensive. My son had a really fun Olympic theme party in our backyard. We sprayed painted the grass with line paint like they use on soccer fields and made different events that the kids competed in. I found that buying the plastic medals and ribbons from the party store are the same price as buying the real medals from a trophy shop, so I opted for the latter and the kids were really excited to have real medals and ribbons hanging around their necks during the medal ceremony.

So, think about your party in advance. Plan it out and save yourself some money and have a fabulous "not so over the top" party for your little one!

PS: Don't forget the party tote! Don't just use up those plastic plates, throw away unused balloons, streamers, birthday signs and such. Throw them into the 'party tote.' You will be amazed at how much stuff accumulates. That is where we pull our things out for the family party. You can even toss in the extra goodie gifts and make them game gifts. Who cares if the birthday sign has Miss Kitty on it? Hang it up! Put up a few streamers. Kids love decorations. You don't have to go over the top with those either. A few are exciting to them and signify that this is a real special day. So, save those 'extras' for a rainy day!

Heather Totten is a stay-at-home mom with five children and a busy husband. She is incredibly organized, and shares her sense of family, parenting, and organization with us in her monthly parenting tips column. Read what's new with her family in Heather's Parenting Journal.

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