What a Preschool Birthday Party Doesn’t Need

When Christmas ends, there’s no rest for the weary in the FP household. Big Brother had the unfortunate luck to come into the world on January 21st, when many of us find ourselves sunk in celebration fatigue. And with his turning five this year, he is starting to have expectations of what a birthday should be. Last year, I just baked a cake, hung up a banner and told him it was a party; this year, he wanted guests.

Still, I don’t believe, as a general rule, in exceeding kids’ expectations. We invited guests, sure, but we kept it low, and I mean low, key, reducing both the expenditure and the stress level. It’s a good thing, too, because when I went to pick up Little Brother at preschool at 11 am on the day of the party (which was an after-school affair), I was told that Big Brother was in the office and needed to be taken home. Sick, I thought? Nope. He had gashed his head and needed to be taken to Urgent Care for stitches.* The party, I was assured, could proceed as planned, but my time to prepare was suddenly cut in half.

Here are some aspects of throwing a birthday that we consider optional and decided to forego:


  • Inviting the entire class. Some people do this, and I can only assume that these people are masochists. Or trying to make up for some kind of party-deprived childhood. More sensible parents limit their child to one guest per year of age. I didn’t even go that far–I allowed him to invite the neighbor girl (age 7) and three kids from his class, two of whom RSVP’ed yes but only one of whom attended.


  • Restaurant pizza. There’s a Little Caesar’s not too far away, so this would not have been a major expense. But English muffin pizzas were even cheaper and more fun for the kids, who enjoyed putting on the sauce and cheese and pepperoni. And healthier.
  • Ice cream. I know, it’s tradition. But there is plenty of sugar in the cake. No one complained about the lack of ice cream.
  • Fancy cake. I tried to bake a cake from scratch, but it collapsed in the oven. Duncan Hines to the rescue, and I had to buy jarred frosting as well after the head vs. gate incident. Know how I decorated it? I stuck candles in it. A “5” that I had bought back in December for a friend’s 35th and four plain ones. Complaints? Zero.
  • Treat bags. I hate these. Hate, hate, hate when my kids get them. They’re full of candy they don’t need and trashy toys–so much waste. I was going to send each kid home with a helium balloon, but then I didn’t have time to buy them. (I sent Mr. FP, who brought home uninflated balloons instead.) No one complained.
  • A venue. I suppose if your house is very small, and it is winter, you might need a venue. Our living room was fine.
  • Formal entertainment. I asked Big Brother if he wanted to play games like Pin the Tail on the Donkey, but he said he would rather just do Play-Doh. Everyone seemed to enjoy it. The other key entertainment was batting around balloons (laboriously inflated by Mr. FP and myself), which was a massive hit.

Lest you think this party was some sort of barely glorified playdate, we did have juice pouches and disposable Ninja Turtle cake plates, both of which are, by my standards, wildly extravagant. I trust my own children with our usual chipped Pfaltzgraff plates and open cups, but I wasn’t sure about the guests.

Here’s one thing that I think all preschool birthday parties should include: wine. I had previously attended only one children’s birthday party, and wine was served. The hosts were pot-smoking hippie types, so I have no idea if wine is a typical offering at these affairs, but I liked the idea and I ran with it. I kind of thing it might not be standard, judging by the way my guest’s face sort of lit up with surprised delight when I offered her a glass.

For the adults, I also offered Trader Joe’s spinach dip and veggies with store bought hummus. I did not keep exact figures, but I believe the total cost for the party came in around $20-$25.

And it was fun. Big Brother had fun. His guests had fun. I had fun drinking wine with the other mother (neighbor parents couldn’t stay, which is fine as their seven-year-old is easy to supervise). And by having it on a school afternoon, I did not have to block out a whole precious weekend day.

How do you celebrate your kids’ birthdays?

*He’s fine now, although if he goes bald, a scar on his forehead will probably be visible. The PA who put in the stitches told me to remove them myself–from his head. This is apparently nonstandard medical advice, but since it saved me a fifty-dollar copay, I gave it a shot using thread snips and the tweezers from the Swiss Army knife while Grandma FP, who was visiting, distracted the patient. It was surprisingly easy and highly satisfying.


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About frugalparagon

I'm a part-time librarian and mom to two small boys. I blog about striving for the long-term goal of financial independence while running a tight ship at home.

16 responses to “What a Preschool Birthday Party Doesn’t Need”

  1. Sara says :

    Yes! Yes to the wine! Sounds like a great party that I would give up precious time for. (Mom of three, oldest is 5) All of our parties are basically cake, treats and kids running wild together while grownups hang out and relax… Much more fun than the stilted formal parties and it leads to friendships on the grownup side!

    • frugalparagon says :

      Another advantage of low-key and less structured is that it makes it easier to handle a mixed age group–say, ranging from a three-year-old little brother to the first grader from next door!

  2. Amy K says :


    I confess that I looked around the house at Christmas and couldn’t imagine cleaning it enough for a party so we did all the crazy things. Rented a venue, invited far too many people, bought a cake, goodie bags, and since we invited so many people we’re now inundated with even MORE toys with no place to put them, which is what caused the problem in the first place.*sigh* Plus I have to write thank you notes, which I hate.

    Our usual birthday parties are just glorified playdates plus pizza, homemade cupcakes, juice boxes for the kids and beer for the adults. I’m kinda jealous of your party this year, other than the stitches it sounds like a much less stressful event.

    The last 5 year old party we went to was not only at a bounce place, but they also had a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle painting class so each kid got to paint their favorite turtle. With a year of going to other parties it’s hard not to get crazy trying to “keep up with the Jones”. Thank you for keeping me grounded.

    • frugalparagon says :

      I almost put “no presents” on the card but that didn’t seem fair to Big Brother! Fortunately, his entire haul was one Minions ColorWonder book, one picture book, and some really stupid skateboard toy things.

      Hey, sometimes you do what you gotta do! Although it’s possible to rent a venue and not get carried away–my sister and her daughter have fond memories of the year they were living in a two-bedroom apartment, so they sent little brother to his dad and rented a hotel room for her birthday party. The handful of girls ate pizza and swam in the pool and had a grand time.

      No invitations to bounce house parties–an advantage of sending my boys to an 80% free lunch school?

  3. seattlegirluw says :

    I say that, if you’re ever going to put in a lot of effort, make it one of the ones the kid will actually remember!

    I love the idea of alcohol for the adults. I imagine it makes the screeches of delighted — or upset or surprised or… breathing — children infinitely more bearable. (Not saying your child screeches, but especially at parties with a lot of activities, I imagine it’s inevitable.)

    And frankly, most mix cakes are just as good as the ones from scratch. At least the ones I’d make. If you want to get fancy, you add chocolate or mint chocolate chips. Especially little kids won’t care.

    Also, I don’t like both ice cream and cake. The ice cream melts and makes everything soggy.

    In short (too late), you made all the right decisions.

    • frugalparagon says :

      I actually vastly prefer made-from-scratch cake, but the birthday boy didn’t notice! Icing is probably a bigger difference than the batter itself, so my initial plan when the first cake flopped was to make a mix cake but icing from scratch. Oh, well. Kids didn’t complain and I’m counting calories anyway :-). Thanks for the kind words!

  4. Tawcan says :

    I’m all for a low key party and inviting family and close friends only. Ditch the unhealthy food & drinks. For our son’s birthday we made a fruit cake and it was great.

    • frugalparagon says :

      Glad your fruitcake was a success! I don’t object to occasional homemade goodies for special occasions. I mean, I want a party to feel like a party, and I feel like cake sans ice cream is acceptable. It’s that dyed corn syrup business they get as Valentines or treats at school that really bother me (which is part of why we didn’t have goodie bags).

  5. nicoleandmaggie says :

    We’ve found that giving $100 to the local museum to host the party and inviting the whole class (which means generally that ~10 kids come) works out pretty well. Though we didn’t start kid birthday parties until age 4 when DC1 was old enough to request one. I have to say I like it better when we can just show up at the preschool on the birthday day with treats, but it is well worth $100 to me to have someone else deal with everything.

  6. frugalparagon says :

    Yeah, I had all kinds of overnight tricks. Microfiber over hemp in a pocket, and then I would put nylon Gerber pants on top. And I don’t like to use diapers after they wear undies during the day, but Big Brother used to sleep in two pairs of cotton trainers under a nylon cover. But once they were both daytime trained, I needed to move on mentally. I can’t face rinsing poop in the toilet anymore. And the smell… Blech.

  7. Frugalista says :

    Imagine being that kid not invited to a classmate’s birthday party. I’m a teacher and I know how sad children get when they are excluded. I feel that if invitations are sent via school it should be all children or none. (My humble opinion)

    • frugalparagon says :

      I was discreet and tried to give them to the other mothers before or after school; I would not say that invitations were
      “sent via school.” I’m sure it would be dreadful to be one child excluded from a party, or one of just a handful, but it seems like a different situation to me when only a tiny fraction of the class is invited.

      Our home could not accommodate the whole class, or even half, and a party outside the home was not in our budget. So the options were invite just a few kids, or tell my kid he can’t have a party. I chose option A. In the extremely unlikely event that there is a classmate who found out about the party (which can happen even if invitations are mailed) and got their feelings hurt, I hope that their parents would do what I would do: Help the kid see why they should not take it personally.

    • Amy K says :

      I wish I had the email addresses of all the parents of the 5 kids I invited to my daughters 5th birthday. Our venue had a limit of 30 people, and she has 21 classmates, so even if I wanted to invite them all I couldn’t. I stand by my 5,as the age she was turning. I did cringe, knowing that they talked about it at school (are you going to the birthday party Sunday?) and only a quarter of the class was invited when usually it is everyone. Or at least seems like it.

  8. Jacq says :

    In grade school my birthday party was a trip to a local theater to see a play – Pippi Longstocking with pizza & cake after. ‘Back in the day ‘ when the girls wore dresses & Kurt wore a bow tie. 🙂

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