Whether you have a small amount of money, or nothing at all, you can still make birthday celebrations special in your family.
One of the things that we do as a family is to celebrate birthdays at home with family. We invite grandparents over for dinner and dessert, and other times just for dessert.
The birthday child gets to pick all meals for the day (limited only to what we have on hand; this means that if we are living on our food storage, which we often are, we can't buy anything specifically for the birthday, but we can still make plenty of things from our pantry). My children might pick chocolate chip pancakes, or crepes for breakfast. They'll usually choose a favorite soup for lunch or dinner. They also get to pick what kind of dessert they would like.
My family prefers brownies to cake, so I have several brownie mixes on hand at all times for birthday parties. You can store brownie or cake mixes if that's what you like, or just the ingredients to make your family favorites.
My children have chosen anything from chocolate pomegranate mousse cake, to cheesecake, to brownies with chocolate ganache. For one birthday cheesecake, I had sour cream and cream cheese that I had bought on sale in the winter, that wouldn't last until a mid-summer birthday. I made up the cheesecake ahead of time and froze it, pulling it out on the day of the child's birthday (the requests usually come months in advance, so if I know ahead of time, I can prepare. That's also how I knew to freeze pomegranate seeds for the top of the pomegranate chocolate mousse). I also keep birthday candles and matches on hand.
I take pictures of the birthday child on his/her birthday. These are usually taken at home, but I once took a child to the park early in the morning, before breakfast, to get some shots of him on his birthday. He still talks about how much fun it was to go with just me to take pictures.
Decorations are not, of course, neccesary. Nevertheless, a few decorations can make the day feel different from other days.
(Banner made by older sibling out of craft paper [you could also use paper grocery bags], crayons, and black crochet thread).
Inexpensive decorations can me made in a variety of ways. We've made them from repurposed paper, including used tissue paper and packing paper. (I iron it flat before we use it). You can use paper grocery sacks, craft paper, printer paper, and even newspaper. We've made paper banners, accordian-folded decorations, snowflakes, and even paper flowers for the table. I printed paper butterflies, and we hung them from the light above the table for a spring birthday.
(Accordian folded paper decorations from reused packing paper and resused tissue paper [ironed first] and the cloth banner made from a sheet, a pillowcase, and scraps mentioned below.)
I made a resuable banner as well. I used scraps of fabric, and old pillowcase, and an old sheet (the pillowcase and sheet were given to me by someone who was moving) and some ribbon (also a gift) to make a banner that can be used often. I didn't put Happy Birthday on it, so I have been able to use it for another celebration, and it would also work well if I were to host a baby shower.
(Birthday butterflies and fairies from free images at The Graphics Fairy. Homemade lollipops made from a Martha Stewart recipe).
When there are flowers in the garden, I bring them in. Even a few clipped branches from the trees can make for lovely decorations.
I'll put wrapped presents on the table as part of the decorations as well. I've bought Christmas wrapping paper on large rolls in solid colors at 75% off to use for birthdays (you can usually find red and green, and sometimes blue, white, silver or gold; the last three will also work for wedding gifts).
If you have a tablecloth, you can put that on the table. You don't have to buy paper plates, napkins, and cups. You can use your everyday plates, or if you have nice china, you can bring it out for birthdays.
Presents at our house are usually homemade by me. This means that I look at what I can make from what supplies I already have on hand. Fortunately, I have quite a fabric stash, which has been a big help. In addition to that, I've been gifted old sheets, more fabric and sewing supplies, thread, and old clothing (which I have repurposed). When people know you sew, they're often happy to share leftover fabric with you. Older women who are no longer sewing often have a lot of fabric as well; I've had a couple of women, including my mother-in-law, give me fabric that they will no longer be using.
I make both practical and fun gifts. Practical ones are always on the list. I'll make new dresses for my girls, and new nightgowns.
(Two pairs of summer pajama shorts from my husband's old shirts that had shrunk over time)
My boys are always needing pajamas, so I've made them for them from old flannel sheets, and my husband's old shirts and pajamas.
I also make fun presents, such as dress-up clothes, hats, headbands, barrettes, puppets, and stuffed animals. See my Sewing for Less page on how I've built up a fabric supply, and for links to lots of free clothing and gift tutorials.
(Rapunzel dress made from lavender scraps that belonged to my mother-in-law, lace from the same, skirt from an old sheet, ribbon that belonged to my grandmother [on sleeves], ribbon that I bought for .33 years ago, buttons for .40 on 60% off sale, and thread bought at a garage sale for .25.)
In addition to home-sewn gifts, I've also given paper gifts, be it paper dolls, paper toys, bookplates, or personalized bookmarks as gifts. I'll print the bookmarks and paper dolls on cardstock. For the bookmarks, I use clear contact paper (a roll is around $5 and will last you a long time; I first learned this trick in France, so you can buy clear contact paper in most places!) to cover the bookmarks to make them more sturdy. My children have taken these printable gifts to birthdays as well. Avid readers loved have personalized bookmarks and bookplates, and little girls have loved the paper dolls.
Another gift that you can give is a box of cookies, just for the birthday child. My son brought these to a birthday party for a friend, and all of the adults oohed and ahhed over the homemade chocolate chip cookies, and said that they wished it was their birthday!
(Birthday dress made from eyelet that belonged to my grandmother, lined with broadcloth bought 10 yards at a time on sale, finished with buttons bought 60% off [.15] and a ribbon that I bought on sale by the spool).
Another way to give gifts for little to nothing is to look for things that are free and close to free. Free samples and items that are free with coupons are a good way to give gifts. My oldest daughter loves to write thank-you notes. Hallmark has had $5 off $5 coupons for a couple of years in a row. I used those to buy a $5 pack of 10 thank you cards both years. I did have to pay tax, but that was all. She was thrilled with the note cards. Target had shampoo for .09 a bottle. My daughter was excited to have her very own bottle of shampoo (she had actually asked for it for her birthday). If you have older daughters, look for deals on free makeup and nail polish. My daughter took a free nail file (with coupons) and a .04 (with coupons) bottle of nail polish as a birthday present to a party.
(Two books from the thrift store: $3)
We've also bought used gifts. My children love to read. We've given used books from the thrift store, Amazon, Alibris, Half.com (I got a set of American Girl books that looked like new for a third of the price that way), and garage sales. Garage sales, children's resale shops, and thrift stores often have great things that you can give as gifts. I bought a 1950's hat from Japan for .50 for my daughter. Old purses are great for small children and older girls. Clothing that is new to them is always a gift.
I've also given things that are used that belonged to me. I have saved lots of my jewelry from when I was a child (most of which was handed down to me by various older women, though some of it was Avon children's jewelry). I have given my children necklaces and earrings that used to belong to me. Most of my jewelery was broken in some way, but by combining items (usually by using a pair of needle-nosed pliers) I can make items work together. I'll use a mismatched earring as a necklace, and combine it with an old chain. Alternately, you can get a chain at Joann's or Michael's when they have a 40% off jewelry sale for under $2. I did that once so that I had a chain for a locket that I've had since I was 13.
Above all, the most frugal thing that you can do is to spend time with the birthday person on his/her birthday.
When children in our family turn five, we take them to the library to get their own library card, and check out some books on their card.
Most of my children have asked to be involved with helping to make their own cakes (stirring or decorating them), or helping to make the decorations for their party.
We have also let the birthday child stay up late for a date with mom and dad, where we all play some board games of the child's choice.
Birthdays are a great time to do a fun art project, go on a picnic (even just in the backyard), eat a candlelight dinner, read stories together, teach a sewing or cooking lesson to a child who wants to learn, and just have fun being together. In the end, that's the most memorable--and most frugal--birthday gift of all.