Birthday celebrations are supposed to be fun, but they can turn into expensive nightmares full of wasted food and needless gifts. They repeat, of course, year after year, which means the delightful waste can continue for years if we’re not careful.

Good times.

My daughter turned four last week. It was also the first time ever that we had a “real party”—before then, it had just been family gatherings. So, I was stressed about a number of things: one being the money I might spend on one little girl’s party, and second, the unnecessary onslaught of gifts and clutter that would land in our home as a result.

It all worked out in the end, which was less to do with the actual party and more to do with our lead-up to the party.

Here are my takeaways.

1. Plan early. Set expectations early.

By plan, I don’t mean decide the menu or party favors, I mean sit down with the birthday child and ask what he or she wants for a party.

After all, this event is order to make them happy, so understanding what they want is key. Planning early will give you time to work with your kid to manage or change expectations.

My four-year-old had never had her own party and had very few expectations. She knew she wanted a party with friends but had no ideas beyond that. Since there were so many unknowns, I told her that we’ll indeed have a party. It’ll be a small one, but it’ll be BIG fun.

If your child wants a huge party at an expensive place with expectations you can’t handle, planning early will help you plan a celebration that everyone will enjoy.

2. Talk about priorities—yours and theirs.

Once you’ve re-adjusted high expectations, it’s time to get into details. But where to begin?

Start with yourself. Decide on the absolutely highest priorities, both you and your child. Think of this as negotiation; list your two highest priorities. If you and your kid have hugely different priorities, this might take diplomacy.

I asked my daughter about her two priorities, and she said: cupcakes and goody bags. I detest the wasteful goody bag concept, so I wasn’t sure what to do. This was an opportunity to negotiate my own priorities—I told her my priorities: no gifts and doing some good.

She didn’t scream in protest, but she raised an eyebrow about the no gifts part.  I told her one of the best birthdays I had growing up was when I took sweets and gifts to an orphanage and shared it with the kids there.

Here’s how I framed it: I told her I’d really like her to have a similarly awesome experience, like I did. She jumped on board. Her friends could bring small items to contribute to a toy drive for the children’s hospital, and in turn, our family would buy her a gift she would love.

We had $1 watercolor sets from the local craft store for her goody bags.

Photo by StaunchThrowback

3. Define “celebration.”

Birthday parties can be simple if we change our perspective from it being a “party” to it being a “celebration.”

As you plan, talk about the years that have gone by, the milestones and memories of people and experiences from previous celebrations. Children cherish what we cherish, and as their parents, they learn to love the things we value.

My four-year-old’s birthday was about friends, fun, and sharing gifts with sick kids in the hospital. Planning early helped us frame her birthday like this. She beamed with pride every time I told a relative or a friend about her choice to forgo her own gifts for the sake of the kids in the hospital.

4. Involve the family

Having a simple, frugal birthday party could be hard because you’re going against normal expectations.  Involve the rest of the immediate family in the birthday discussion—this will make the process a little easier.

My husband was energized by the toy drive idea; the whole celebration became more fun and meaningful. The fact that we were doing something nobody else we knew had done didn’t seem to matter.

5. Communicate with friends

Explain your approach to a few close friends, especially if it involves them in some way (such as with our no-gift policy). Since it was my daughter’s first party—and it was going to be quite different from a normal party—I wanted to have individual conversations with a few friends.

It helped them understand my perspective, and it helped me feel comfortable with my own decisions. It also gave them time to explain the no-gift concept to their own kids.


6. Simplify the actual party. Less is more.

If you’ve done everything you can by this point to set simplified expectations, the actual party planning should be simpler. Make choices that are easiest on you, the busy parent with minimalist expectations. Remember, most kids just want to have fun, run around, and eat cake.

Choose one fun activity based on what you can handle. Choose a time of the day when kids are happy.

My daughter created her own labels for each goody bag. They weren’t perfect, but they were made by her. We did simple sandwiches and fruit for snacks.

7. Actually enjoy the day.

Having worked so hard to plan a perfect day and celebration for your little one, remember to relax and enjoy the day yourself.

I say this, because I had to tell myself this many times. Having grown up in a culture where I was taught to over-care for guests, I have a hard time not stressing when I host an event.

8. Close the loop.

A celebration doesn’t end when the last guest leaves the party. Talk about why the day was so much fun. And take notes on what worked for future meaningful birthday parties while it’s fresh on your mind.


At the end of the day, we had two big gifts for my daughter: a few books from friends that still insisted on bringing a gift, and a big box of art supplies for the kids at the children’s hospital. I was immensely grateful for our friends who’d contributed not only to the toy drive, but also toward my four-year-old’s memorable experience.

We’re excited about sending everyone a thank you card and a picture with my little one at the children’s hospital.