How to avoid going birthday-party-broke

With both of her kids born this month, Sandra looks for creative ways to celebrate their big days without breaking the bank.

October birthday girls Isobel and Bronwyn. Photo: Sandra E. Martin.

We didn’t plan it this way — I swear.

Matt and I (well, at first mostly Matt) had been talking about having a baby practically since the day we got married in 2001. I’d just been promoted at MoneySense magazine and felt my career was going well; would it be a good idea to interrupt all that forward momentum by taking a year off?

But… I was weeks away from my 30th birthday and not getting any younger. Sooner than later, I acquiesced and we started, as they say, “trying for a baby.” (All that implies makes me hope my dad isn’t reading this; I still kind of hope he thinks his two grandchildren came from the Cabbage Patch.) A year after our wedding, I was pregnant. And on Thanksgiving weekend of 2002, Bronwyn was born.

Four years later almost to the day, Isobel popped into the world. This time, there was less calculation involved — and, in fact, I worried that I would have to leave Bronwyn’s fourth birthday party because her in utero younger sister was threatening to come into the world on exactly the same day. The little stinker hadn’t moved much all day, to the point where my OB/GYN was concerned enough to order an ultrasound, which in turn led to an order for a non-stress test. “If she doesn’t move soon,” said the on-call doc at the hospital, “we might have to get this baby out tonight.” Eep!

It turned out that Isobel was fine, and kept cooking for another three days. But from that moment on, I was aware that birthday proximity would someday become an issue.

For the first four years, we simply avoided the problem by not having a big “friend party” for Isobel. She hadn’t asked for one, and seemed quite happy with the cake-and-dinner celebrations we had with extended family.

But last year, her friend Hannah’s mom emailed to ask if we’d consider having a joint birthday party for the girls. Hannah’s birthday is the same as Isobel’s so, timing-wise, it made perfect sense. “The poor kid hasn’t ever had a birthday party,” I said to Matt. “I think we should do it.” He agreed.

The great thing about a shared birthday party is that everything costs half as much, because you’re splitting the bill with another family.

The bad thing about a shared birthday party is that you know you’ll be splitting the bill with another family, so you have a tendency to go “all out” when you might have only gone halfway on your own. And, quite possibly, I felt that I should make up for those three previous years my second-born didn’t have a party.

Instead of putting together loot bags from the dollar store, I ordered pre-made loot bags at $9 a pop. (They were shipped directly to my house at no extra charge, I rationalized. And I was so busy at work…)

Instead of baking a cake, as I had in previous years, I ordered one. It was from the supermarket, but still way more expensive.

Instead of inviting kids to our house, which forces us to limit numbers (and, hence, cost) we invited all the kids from the girls’ daycare room, plus a few extras.

Still, I think we came out ahead in the long run. And we also saved money by having Bronwyn’s party at home that year — at her request, she wanted to play games, dance to music and eat pizza at our house, with a small group of friends. So a biggish spend for Isobel was balanced by a smallish spend for Bronwyn.

This year, both girls have requested parties again. And Isobel is sharing with her friend Hannah — but we’ve agreed to go cheap. The loot bags cost less than $5 each, and they’re having the party at a bowling alley near our house, which costs $15 per kid, including pizza and a special T-shirt for each of the birthday girls. A friend of Hannah’s mom is baking a vanilla Hello Kitty cake, which the girls said they wanted to share, and which I am augmenting with homemade chocolate mini-cupcakes.

Meanwhile, Bronwyn, who is turning 10 (10!!!) did most of the planning for her own joint birthday party with her BFF, Rebecca, whose birthday is in November. (The two have known each other since they were literally weeks old.) They made the invitations by hand, chose the date and decided on the activities: Bowling with a small group of their mutual friends (which will be cheaper than Isobel’s bowling party, because we only need to book the lanes and pay for shoe rentals) followed by dinner at Swiss Chalet. Again, we are splitting the costs with Rebecca’s parents.

Both parties will be moderately priced. But coming one right after the other? There’ll definitely be a cumulative ouch. This must be what parents of twins feel each and every year they throw a party.

We’ve already talked to the girls about taking a year off party-throwing next year. “We’ll alternate, like an A-B pattern!” Isobel exclaimed. They’re fine with the idea (as long as they still get dinner and a cake with their grandparents, aunts and uncle).

Does anyone else take alternate years off? How do you save money on your kids’ birthday celebrations? Share your tips here.