$20 Lady: Looking for birthday party bargains for kids

Faced with a series of birthday party invitations, consumer columnist Dara Squires seeks out good choices for parents on a budget.
Dara Squires used $20 to buy three different presents for three different birthday parties, while managing to find quirky, interesting gifts. (Dara Squires)

If there’s one thing  besides germs  that kids are guaranteed to bring home in the first weeks of school, it’s a slew of birthday party invitations.

This week, we had three: two for my youngest, who hasn’t been to many parties so I said yes to both; one for my oldest son.

Two presents for six-year-old girls and one for a 10-year-old boy. And my mission? Get them all for $20.

It’s possible to do it easily – just give each kid $5 in a dollar store birthday card. But I don’t really like giving money as I gift. It just doesn’t feel special enough.

I hit Facebook and Twitter to ask for suggestions. Many people thought three presents for $20 was impossible. Plenty mentioned books, though. A few other people mentioned hitting the clearance aisles and picking up jewelry for the girls from the dollar store or Claire’s clearance.

Not much in the 'birthday box'

The Scholastic flyers always have books for under $2 each that I stock up on. I have a "birthday box" for books, small trinkets, craft supplies and my own kids’ unwanted presents.

A discount 'sock monsters' puppet gift proved to be a great choice for a birthday gift bag. (Dara Squires)

This week, though, there wasn’t much in there: some glue sticks and boxes of crayons — extras from bulk buys for school this year; leftover loot bags from my daughter’s party last year; some card-making supplies.

Eyeing the glue sticks, I realized any six-year-old girl would love a project my daughter enjoys: fabric art. So I grabbed a tote with markers I’d used as a loot bag, a glue stick and bottle of glue and hit my rag bag. There I cut a few squares from some shiny and pretty fabrics. I also grabbed a thimbleful of sequins and seed beads from one of my daughter’s bead kits.

Then it was off to the dollar store. I bought three small canvases for $1 and a pair of scissors, also for $1. One gift accomplished.

While at the dollar store, I saw a toy my boys love getting in loot bags: a glow-in-the-dark zombie that expands in water. I grabbed that and a flashlight for $3 total and decided that with a scary or suspenseful book, they’d make a great fright-night reading experience for a 10-year-old boy.

A farm theme

I was left with one more child. Her birthday party was scheduled at a farm, so I decided to stick with that theme. I picked up a couple of small planters, a bag of potting soil, and a small watering can for $1.25 each. Then I hit Home Depot for some crocus bulbs at 99 cents.

Before that, though, I stopped by Chapters, where I picked up a suspenseful hardcover for $4.99. While there I noticed another bargain present I considered buying for the birthday box: a sock monster puppet kit for just $6.99. I also noticed “heritage” craft kits, like the one I had just compiled, selling for over $20.

What I didn’t buy? Cards – my kids can make their own. Tissue paper – it’s just wasteful. Fancy gift bags – I picked two gender neutral ones for $1 that can be re-used for any occasion.

What I did buy? Three pretty cool gifts that weren’t “junky” and would keep kids happy and busy.


Dara Squires is a single mother of three, working, living, and scraping by in St. John’s.