20 Ways to Make a Great Birthday for Your Child When Money Is Tight

One of the most difficult experiences when you’re a parent is not having enough money to make your children’s special days feel very special at all. For most parents, their child is a key part of their life and it’s not the child’s fault when you don’t have the resources to make their birthday special. That, my friends, can lead to some extremely painful feelings sometimes.

Luckily, I’ve been able to pull together resources and ideas to make special birthdays for my own children (so far), but there were times when I was a child when money was very tight for my parents and they had to use some clever tricks to make my birthdays special. They always managed to do it, though, and at least a couple of the items below are inspired by things that they managed to pull off.

Here are 20 ideas for parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, or older siblings who are struggling for ideas for a great children’s birthday when money is extremely tight. Some of these ideas are completely free, while others might cost a few dollars. Many of them can be used in tandem to make an extra special day.

May your child’s birthday be a wonderful day.

In this article

    1. Spend the day together doing something enjoyable together

    No matter how much or how little money you have, the most valuable gift you can give your child is your time, your energy, and your undivided attention. It doesn’t even really matter what you do or what things you have provided if you can give those real gifts.

    So, center the child’s birthday around those things. Give your child a day’s worth of your time and energy and attention. Play with them using the games and toys they already have. Walk to a nearby park together and swing together on the swings. Play soccer in the backyard or at the park together. Draw some pictures together. Watch a television show together.

    No matter what you choose to do, do it together. Give your full attention to it and to your child. That’s the real gift, and it will really matter.

    Cost: nothing

    2. Go to a home improvement store’s ‘kids build’ session

    Many home improvement stores, especially Lowe’s and Home Depot, offer regular free “kid project” days where they give children a few items and show them how to build something using those items.

    For example, as I write this, Home Depot has a kids project day this weekend where the kids can build a truck (and keep it), receive a workshop apron and a pin, and it’s all free. At the Lowe’s Kids Clinic, there’s an upcoming workshop in which kids build a toy based on the Avengers movie – again, it’s free. Check those links to see what’s available in your area.

    This is a great activity to take your child to on or near their birthday. They’ll come home with a toy (and maybe another item or two) and have a nice memory of an activity and it won’t cost you anything.

    Cost: transportation

    3. Make a ‘coupon book’ with pictures from old magazines

    “Coupons” are simply small pieces of paper that describe special things that your children might want, usually things that involve extended attention and time from you.

    For example, you might have a coupon that your child could use for an extra bedtime story or perhaps another coupon for a trip to the park. Maybe one could be for their favorite dinner at home (though this one should be turned in with a bit of advance notice, of course). One could be for a movie night, or for an extra hour of television time. The best ideas come from the specifics of your household.

    All you need are a few sheets of paper, some ideas, and a marker or a pen. If you want to add some images, find a few old magazines to cut out pictures and attach the pictures to the coupons with a bit of glue.

    Cost: a couple of sheets of paper, an envelope, a writing utensil, and some old magazines

    4. Make a homemade printable game

    My oldest son loves comic book superheroes, so a few years ago, I made a version of Old Maid using a bunch of superheroes and featuring Solomon Grundy (a relatively minor comic book villain) as the “Old Maid.”

    All I did was take a bunch of images, reduce them down to the size of a playing card in Word so that nine fit on a page, made two different pages of superhero cards (so, 18 cards), then printed two copies of each page. I then made one more sheet with four superhero card pairs and one Solomon Grundy card, making a total of 45 cards across 5 sheets of card stock – 22 superhero pairs and one Solomon Grundy “Old Maid.”

    This became a frequently played game for a long while at our house and all it took was some computer time, Google Image Search, five sheets of card stock, and some printer ink. My son loved it because it was personalized just for him – I loaded it up with the heroes he liked and the villain he thought was funny as the “old maid.”

    Cost: a few sheets of card stock and some printer ink

    5. Make some homemade play dough

    Most kids (and, around here, most adults) love playing with play dough, making sculptures of all kinds just to see what can be created.

    The simplest recipe for “pretty good” dough is just four cups of flour, 1 1/2 cups of salt, 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil, and one cup of water, mixed thoroughly. Separate the dough into small balls and add a drop of food coloring to each one (or more if you want) and mix the coloring in thoroughly.

    The best recipe, though, requires cream of tartar, which you’ll have to buy at the store (it’s pretty cheap and can be found with the spices). It requires 3 cups of flour, 3 cups of water, 2 tablespoons of cream of tartar, 3 tablespoons of vegetable oil, and a cup of salt. This will make a bunch of play dough, which you can then separate into smaller pieces and color with food coloring.

    Cost: a few items from the pantry

    6. Decorate in surprising ways

    Get up early and take a bit of toothpaste and write “HAPPY BIRTHDAY” on the mirror in the bathroom that they use most frequently.

    Make breakfast and use the cereal pieces to spell out “HAPPY BIRTHDAY” on their plate.

    Make their favorite snack and spell out “HAPPY BIRTHDAY” using that snack food.

    It’s a simple little surprise or a simple tweak on the ordinary things that shows that you remembered and that you care about them, and that’s the most valuable thing of all.

    Cost: a trivial amount of stuff you already have around the house

    7. Check out a pile of books from the library and read a bunch of them aloud

    Head down to the library and check out a big pile of books – anything and everything that your child might be interested in. Take those books home and read some of them aloud.

    I did this with my own children one summer day and I literally read until my voice was starting to crack and fade away from the lengthy readings. They loved it and still remember it to this day.

    The best part? Library books are free (as long as you remember to return them).

    Cost: transportation to and from the library

    8. Get free books from the library

    While you’re at the library, many libraries have a “free books” section near the front of the library where you can grab a free book or two. At our library, there are almost always several children’s books in the mix.

    If you’re feeling tight, go there and choose a few books from the selection and give them to your child. Even better, carry that gift forward and read those books aloud to your child, even if you picked out a chapter book and they’re a bit older.

    Reading aloud is an incredible way to bond and show that you care for and love your child.

    Cost: transportation to and from the library

    9. Check out some movies from the library and have a ‘movie night’

    While you’re at the library, check out the movie section there, too, and grab a few movies that your child might like.

    Then, plan a simple “movie night” at home. Buy a two-liter bottle of pop and some microwave popcorn and settle in for a movie. Pop the popcorn, drink some soda, and turn off the lights for a movie theater experience in your living room.

    This is actually a regular activity with our children and they love it. But if it’s a new thing for your family, you can make this into a special treat, perfect for capping off a birthday.

    Cost: library transportation, a microwave popcorn bag, and a two-liter bottle of soda

    10. Make a race car track

    Stay up late (or get up early) and pull out a big piece of cardboard. Sketch out a big looping roadway on there, big enough for two lanes for the size of cars your child likes best, then paint the road black and add stripes down the middle. Add a bunch of grass and trees and houses. Don’t worry about perfect drawings – just make it fun and bright.

    All you really need for this is a couple of hours, some paints (a children’s paint set is perfect), and a large sheet of cardboard. You can get that large sheet at a hardware store or an appliance store if you ask – they often have very large boxes around that they’ll give away upon request.

    Remember, your art doesn’t have to be perfect. That’s not the point.

    Cost: a large piece of cardboard (from the side of a box) and whatever paints you have on hand

    11. Make a cardboard box fort

    While you’re looking for boxes, ask for a few extras and then use them to set up a box fort in the living room or in the backyard.

    Just take several boxes, tape them together, and cut holes between them to create passages. Stack some on top of others to make lookout points. You can paint the outside, too.

    We did this with my son for one of his earliest birthdays and he played in the fort until it literally fell apart from overuse. It took literally months.

    Cost: a few cardboard boxes

    child in cardboard suit of armor and cardboard sword and shield
    From giant cardboard castles to swords and shields, you can do a lot with a few appliance-sized boxes. Photo: Jo

    12. Make swords and pirate capes

    Here’s another great use for cardboard: swords. Draw a sword on a piece of cardboard, cut it out, then trace that sword twice more. Cut out those copies, then glue the three copies together like a sandwich and weight it down while it dries. You can paint the outside sliver if you’d like to look like a real sword.

    As for pirate capes, find some blank old t-shirts and simply cut large rectangles out of them, leaving straps around the shoulders. Cut them short so they’re not likely to catch on anything. This makes for a perfect cape.

    Add the two together and you can play pirates or knights all day long. This is a great match for a cardboard fort.

    Cost: an old t-shirt, a few pieces of cardboard, and some glue, with optional paint

    13. Make a pair of safe “lightsabers”

    Perhaps you want a sword that’s safe but can handle a bit of roughhousing without breaking the sword or hurting anyone. All you need for that is an old pool noodle and a pair of fat wooden dowels you can get at the hardware store.

    Just take the pool noodle, cut it in half, coat half of one of the dowels with glue, and push it into the hole in the center of the pool noodle so that there’s just a little handle sticking out. Do the same thing with the other dowel and the other half of the pool noodle and let them dry.

    These make for great “safe” swords for lots of backyard play.

    Cost: a used pool noodle, a bit of glue, and a couple of wooden dowels

    14. Build a giant blanket/pillow fort before he/she wakes up

    Take all of the blankets, pillows, and couch cushions that you can find and convert the living room into a giant pillow and blanket fort before he or she wakes up.

    Announce that this is their “birthday castle” and let them spend the whole day in there playing and modifying things. You should even climb in there yourself for a while.

    This is a great idea to combine with the swords and pirate capes described above and it’s also a great idea to combine with siblings and close friends. Children love to play in forts like this as a group.

    Cost: Nothing

    15. Mow a few lawns and buy a completely unexpected gift

    The single most unforgettable birthday gift I ever received as a child came during a year where my father had been laid off from his factory job for a while. I knew that my parents had very little money, as my father was doing every odd job he could find to make sure that our basic needs were met (and they always were). Kids are smart – they know when things are tight, even when you try to hide it from them.

    Anyway, for my birthday, my parents managed to come up with the $50 (or so) to buy me the (at the time) latest and hottest video game (it was Zelda II, for those curious). I had not expected very much at all that year for my birthday, as my parents hadn’t really even planned a party of any kind at all.

    It turned out – and I didn’t know this until much later – that my father had picked up even more odd jobs in the days before my birthday, often working when I was asleep (particularly in the mornings) to raise a few extra bucks that added up to the cost of that game.

    It is probably the one gift I remember more than any other, and even now it practically brings me to tears thinking about it. It isn’t the video game, but the sacrifice of time and energy that my parents made to go far beyond what I ever expected for me.

    You can do that, too. Take your lawnmower into a more expensive area of town and go door to door offering to mow lawns for cash. Collect bottles and cans and turn them in for nickel refunds (if you live in one of those states). Look for odd job listings on Craigslist. Do whatever you can to raise a few extra bucks to buy that item your child really wants but has resigned him- or herself to not actually receiving.

    The gift will be amazing, but the fact that you made it happen will mean far more, especially in the long run.

    Cost: A few hours of time

    16. Spend a couple of dollars on really fun things at the dollar store

    If you have a few dollars but not a lot of money, head to the dollar store and load up on a bunch of inexpensive and fun items.

    Buy a bag of small water guns. You can take them home, fill up a bucket of water, and have a water gun fight.

    Buy some art supplies. You can draw pictures as long as your imagination lasts.

    Buy a jump rope and work together to get into better shape.

    There are lots of great simple items at the dollar store.

    Cost: a few dollars

    17. Personalize a dollar store item

    While you’re at the dollar store, look for some letter stickers and a small item that you can personalize, like a dry erase board, a chalkboard, or a mirror. Use the stickers to spell out their name around the edge of the item and let them hang it up in their room as a tool for reminders.

    I’ve seen children use these kinds of items for many years, sometimes even into adulthood. Why? They’re functional, thoughtful, and personalized.

    Many dollar stores can provide everything you need for this for just a few dollars and a bit of your time.

    Cost: A few bucks at the dollar store

    18. Host a play date

    You might not want to undergo the expense of a birthday party with lots of kids – and I can’t blame you there. So, instead, make it very low key.

    Just host an ordinary play date on that child’s birthday at your house or at a park without all of the birthday encumbrances. Don’t ask anyone to bring gifts and don’t make treat bags or anything. Just get children together to play.

    Many people get wrapped up in buying “stuff” for children’s birthdays, but the children mostly just want to play together, so focus on the truly fun part of it and just make it into a play date.

    Cost: Nothing

    19. Have a picnic or a campfire at the park

    In the evening, you can just pack a picnic meal and take it to the park. Eat supper, play on the playground, and perhaps stay out to gaze at the stars a little.

    If you’re feeling adventurous, take some hot dogs and marshmallows with you and get some firewood to roast them over a fire pit at the park. Firewood might cost you a few bucks for a bundle, but if you get lucky, you can find a few pieces for free. (Remember the lighter and maybe some paper to start it with.)

    A simple campfire meal of hot dogs and roasted marshmallows is a great evening for almost any kid (and from what I’ve seen, a pretty good evening for adults, too).

    Cost: Transportation and possibly a few pieces of wood and a lighter

    20. An unexpected item

    Finally, try checking out the items that are available on websites like Freecycle or Craigslist (particularly the free section). People are often giving away amazing stuff to the first person who asks, so check those resources frequently in the days before a child’s birthday.

    I’ve seen people snag older video game consoles with a few games from there. I’ve seen people come away with rocking horses and sports equipment for kids, like baseball gloves and rollerblades.

    Don’t expect a perfect selection of free stuff – in fact, a lot of it is unexpected stuff. However, if you open your mind, you can find something really cool for your kid that someone else was about to discard.

    Cost: nothing (local Craigslist and Freecycle and Facebook)

    Trent Hamm

    Founder & Columnist

    Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.