Happy to you! Budget birthday party-going for kids

With two kids in grade school and a third in part-time preschool, the number of birthday party invitations we receive is staggering. Over the next 72 hours, I will make two trips to Chuck E. Cheese. Which twice exceeds the quota established by the Council for Not Losing Your Freaking Mind.

The mileage alone is exorbitant. The home birthday party seems to be extinct in my children's' social circle, with celebrations held at whatever newest inflatables / bowling / gymnastics facility has opened, usually in an industrial park on the outskirts of town. I am sure if I added up the fuel cost times three kids at 14 years each, I would do just as well to buy a trailer and make our weekend home the parking lot of whatever party spot is this season's must-rent.

On top of the time and gas money spent, one is not expected to show up empty-handed to these soirees. I have a strict limit of ten dollars per gift, which is on the cheap thrifty side, relative to the other offerings on the gift table. Let's do the math again: three children X 15-20 classmates each X $10.00=a nice annual deposit on an Education IRA.

Birthday parties and presents are part of childhood, however, and my boys love them. With a little advance planning, they don't have to break the bank, and can even (if a monetary value can be placed on good times) be a bargain, considering that entertainment, a snack or meal, and party favors are provided.

The key words are "advance" and "planning." If you are calendar-impaired, like me, this will require extra discipline. When those party invitations arrive in the mail, they need to go in the calendar RIGHT AWAY. Most people who have been raised right by their Mamas will give at least two weeks notice. While the card is in your hand, note the host child's name, the guest's name (yes, with three children, I could easily deliver the wrong kid to the wrong party), the date, time, and location. I use Yahoo!'s online calendar for all my scheduling, because I can set up reminders to go to my email and mobile phone, but an old fashioned wall or desk calendar will do, as long as you use it consistently.

Respond "yes" or "no" to the RSVP right away. If you must wait to make a decision, enter a reminder in your calendar no closer than three days to the party date, along with the phone number or email. Parties cost money to host, and it is basic courtesy to let the hosting parent know how many to expect. Give yourself permission to say, "I'm sorry, but little so-and-so can't make it. But thank you for inviting her" No further explanation is necessary. Sometimes we are just swarmed with invitations, and choices have to be made. This is easier to do with my preschooler, because I don't need to bring him into the decision-making process, but it is good practice for my grade schoolers to realize that there are limits to time, money and energy, and to consider the best application of finite, shared resources.

Once the event is in the calendar, file the invitation where you can grab it quickly to call in an unavoidable, last-minute cancellation. Also be sure that it goes with the party guest on the drive there. I can't tell you how many times I have circled around an industrial park with an anxious child, wishing I had the number or name of that new rock climbing center.

Having committed to your child's attendance, now is the time to start thinking about carpooling for kids who can be dropped off. Find out who else is going from your neck of the woods and see if another parent wants to split the drive. I kick myself every time I neglect to do this. Sometimes I can catch a parent arriving at the same time and ask if my child can hitch a ride back or offer their child a lift home with us, to credit towards next time. But often as not, the other moms are more on the ball than me and every car seat is already spoken for. They probably coordinated it the same day they accepted the invitation, and they probably don't have to program reminders like "put the kids to bed" and "make supper" into their cell phones, either.

Now, about those gifts. First, remember who and what it is for. A birthday gift is not for the host parent, or any of the other parents in attendance. It is not a statement about you, how much money you make, what your values are, what great taste you have, nor how hip, traditional, frugal, lavish or generally fabulous you are. It isn't about you at all. It's a gift for a child, and most of them are quite easily delighted, especially after cake and ice cream.

Last summer, I blogged about finding four great birthday gifts for less than $25, total. Nothing flimsy or junky about any of them. If I can do it, you can too.

On errand/shopping day, write down the names and ages of all birthday children currently scheduled in your calendar. Making multiple excursions for multiple gifts is to be avoided at all costs. Head for your nearest deep discount store. T.J. Maxx and Tuesday Morning are my tried and true sources for high quality children's toys and games. I routinely find the very same Melissa & Doug toys, that cost $20 and up in a pricey toy boutique, for well under $10. The Dollar Tree is great for assembling lovely girly swag: I've mixed and matched colorful barrettes, compact mirrors, hair brushes and jewelry. Wrapped prettily, they easily passed among the more expensive presents. And more importantly, the girls love them.

I don't stockpile gifts, because I don't want to have to find a place for them that is out of reach of my kids, where I will likely forget about them anyway. And I don't want a lot of money tied up in unused inventory. I look about a week or two out, and buy just for what is coming up in that time frame. I am not at all immune to tossing a wonderful bargain puzzle or action figure into the cart to surprise my boys, either. Giving gifts is fun, especially when one isn't expected.

As much as I want my boys to appreciate the pleasure of gift-giving, I usually leave them out of the gift buying when it comes to other children. They become distracted by all the things they want for themselves, or else attached to a gift that is out of our price range, and it becomes a negative experience. I prefer to tell them on the way to school, "I'm going to pick up a present for your friend today. Any ideas what he would like?" Once the gift has been purchased, I let them look at it and help wrap it.

Wrap should be factored in the budgeting and shopping. I have experienced the bitter irony of placing a bargain gift in an overpriced gift bag because I didn't realize until the last minute that I was out of wrap. Now I keep an assortment of beautiful and bright wraps and trims on hand, and always check my supplies before heading out to shop for gifts. WalletPop blogger Zac Bissonette wrote a terrific piece on how the right wrap can elevate a gift. Presentation is everything. Learn it. Live it.

Let your party-goer sign the tag with his very best printing or scribbling, remind him of his please's and thank-you's, and send him on his merry way. Next up: budget birthday party hosting. Because what goes around, eventually comes back around.

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