Birthday parties on a budget

Katherine Boyle
Reporter April 20, 2012

This is the second in a four-part series on life milestones. Last week, we explored how to save on a new baby. In coming weeks: weddings and, yes, funerals.

Katherine Boyle reports on arts, museums and culture for the Style section.

Let me be blunt: Most people like to celebrate their birthday, but they dread having to celebrate yours. Birthday parties, whether you’re throwing or attending, are expensive, time-consuming events. If you’re planning one for yourself, it can run you hundreds of dollars just to supply the cake! Add goodie bags and entertainment if you’re planning one for the kids. And if you’re a 20something city-dweller with 2,145 Facebook friends, do you really want to be spending your entry-level salary at pay-your-own-way birthday dinners?

“One reaction to the recession has been a dialing back,” said Dana Points, editor in chief of Parents and American Baby magazines. “Moms can be a bit appalled by the amounts of money people spend. But we’re noticing that people are doing more themselves.”

Evite’s Jamie Molever says that 50 million of the 222 million Evite invitations sent last year were for birthdays. But now that you know you can save money on free electronic invitations, what about the party itself?

With so many do-it-yourself options and cheap ways to stock up on necessities, it’s easy to be the life of the party on a tight budget.

Throw a party

Plan ahead

Planning a last-minute party will ensure you’re paying too much for the essentials. “It’s always good advice to plan ahead, no matter what you’re shopping for,” says Jody Rohlena, senior editor of ShopSmart magazine. “Watch for coupons at Sundaysaver.com. If you plan in advance, you won’t be caught paying full price.”

Join the club

If you’re throwing a large party at your home, a warehouse club membership may pay for itself. “We’ve found you can save up to half price on Tyson chicken wings, Nestle chocolate chips, Corona beers and Ritz crackers,” Rohlena says.

Negotiate the venue

If you must rent out a venue for a party, you should haggle to get a better price. “Or ask them to toss in a slightly higher grade of liquor, a cake or appetizers,” Rohlena says. “You might not get everything you ask for, but it doesn’t hurt to ask.”

Potlucks and picnics

In the past year, potlucks have become so popular that Evite created an entire category of invitations for them. Potlucks save you money and save your guests the worry of bringing a gift. Picnics, too, are a cheap warm-weather alternative. Avoid the urge to invite friends to a restaurant, which can exclude friends on a budget or with special dietary needs.

Attend a party

Skip the minefields

If an invitation says, “Dinner with friends, expect to pay $20,” know you’re going to pay $40. This is a common party model among singles in cities. You’ll end up paying your bill, part of the host’s and whoever else has a birthday that week too. Be selective about the dinners you go to (attend ones where you really like the honoree or that might provide good networking opportunities). For the rest, send a bottle of white instead.

Wine stock

There’s nothing worse than a grocery-store run right before a Saturday night party to pick up wine. Do you have a favorite bottle? Stock up and store for the future. Rohlena notes whether you’re shopping on wine Web sites or at your neighborhood liquor store, you’ll save on cases. If you and your guests don’t drink alcohol, develop a cheap signature dish you can take to parties.

Go online

Whether you’re buying supplies or gifts, it’s almost always cheaper to go online. Rohlena recommends sites such as Cookwarenmore.com or Rei.com, outlet sites that sell cheap gifts for cooks and outdoor adventurers. “If you can find the free shipping, it’s almost always going to save you,” Rohlena says. “You can also send a gift directly to a home if it’s something bulky.” This works well for those pay-your-own-way parties that you can’t afford to attend. For a complete list of Web sites to visit, see ShopSmart’s May bargain issue.

Party for the kids

Do it yourself

Parents aren’t doing expensive outings anymore. Parents magazine recently started a “Party of the month” column, showcasing the best party ideas. “We were struck by how many readers were throwing amazing DIY parties — getting ideas from Pinterest and online,” Points says.

Go to stores you don’t frequent

Dollar shops are a great option for party planners. “They have great wrapping paper, gift bags, paper plates and cups,” Rohlena says. But she warns against buying toys for goodie bags there. “Our safety expert found some dangerous-looking toys, painted jewelry that could contain lead or . . . choking hazards.”

Cut the guest list

On Evite, birthday parties have an average guest list of 21 people, and 30 for milestone birthdays. You don’t need the entire class in your back yard. Scale the party back and send cupcakes to class.

Your kid doesn’t need a party

Everyone’s kid has a party, but does yours really want one? Maybe he’d rather have a new video game or karate lessons. Does your child know her options? Tell her. It might save you money and headaches. Also, if several children in your child’s class share a birthday month, consider a joint party. For families with multiple children, big birthday parties can rotate with one child getting a party each year. When it’s not their party year, the birthday boy or girl can choose their favorite restaurant for a family dinner.

THE BOTTOM LINE You have one every year, and after 16 and 21, they all start blending together. Stick to your budget and respect your friends’ budgets too. And parents, DIY parties in the back yard are just as fun as expensive outings. Having a large party means money and time spent by you and your guests. Sometimes, a new suit or a weekend getaway is a better (and cheaper) way to celebrate.

ON SALE THIS WEEK

Get your garden growing at Claude Moore Colonial Farm’s Spring Plant Sale on Friday and Saturday. Vegetable and fruit plants include 19 varieties of tomatoes, four types of cabbage, black and red raspberries, red currants and rhubarb. Shasta daisies, lily of the valley, native blue phlox, hosta and peony are among the perennial choices, while the herb selection includes lavender, rosemary, dill and cilantro. All were grown by the Claude Moore Colonial Farm staff and volunteers. Prices range from 50 cents to $10. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. 6310 Georgetown Pike, McLean, 703-442-7557, www.1771.org.

The annual Top to Bottom Sale at Tiny Jewel Box begins Monday and continues through May 12. Merchandise from all three floors of the 80-year-old jeweler will be marked down by as much as 50 percent. Included are engagement and wedding rings, vintage and antique jewelry, men’s and women’s watches, and home accessories. Honora sterling silver tassel earrings with freshwater pearls are $216, reduced from $360. 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday. 1147 Connecticut Ave. NW, 202-393-2747. www.TinyJewelBox.com.

Celebrate Will & Kate’s first anniversary. Take 10 percent off L.K. Bennett shoes, a

Duchess fave, at Old Town’s Bishop Boutique. The high-heeled Selina Court shoe in pink patent with fetching bow will be $292.50 instead of $325 on April 29. We didn’t say it was a bargain. 10 a.m-7 p.m. Monday-Saturday, noon-5 p.m. Sunday. 815 King St., Alexandria, 571-312-0042. www.bishopboutique.com.

— Janet Bennett Kelly

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