What, No Presents? Memorable Kids’ Birthday Parties

Note: This is a post by Courtney Baker, chief seller and long-time running wo-man of MvD.

Every year come April, we brainstorm new themes for Milli’s birthday party. But unlike most parties, our themes don’t involve princesses, Spiderman or Spongebob. Instead we have balloon parades, pinatas and zoo trips.

We also don’t have presents.

Several years ago, we started thinking of birthdays in a new way. We were participating in the 100-Thing Challenge, and a single birthday party could easily add an additional 10-15 little toy bits and pieces.

We implemented a “No Presents” rule that year, and we’ve never gone back.

Everything worked out very nicely until we realized that guests feel uncomfortable coming to the party without something. So, we started thinking of ways for our guests to participate in the party without bringing mounds of unwanted toys or spending unnecessary money.

We have received rave reviews from other parents about our alternative birthday parties, because they know exactly what to bring, it’s usually low-cost, and their kids really get involved in the gifting process.

In fact, we’ve started seeing some of guests hosting their own present-less parties.

Milli’s 5th Birthday – The Pinata Cookout

Milli wanted hot dogs, brownies and a pinata.

We asked that our guests bring a bag of their favorite candy for the pinata. Milli’s friends were so excited to show her their favorite candy, put it in the pinata themselves, and then chase after it when the pinata broke. The gift was the party entertainment, and the majority of it went home afterward!

Each family contributed $2 or $3 for a bag of candy. Individually, it felt like a small, reasonable contribution; but when grouped together, they saved me $40 to fill up the pinata.

Milli’s 4th Birthday – Fancy Balloon Parade at the Park

Milli wanted a fancy balloon for her birthday. So we asked that our guests bring one fancy balloon to a play date at the park. We whipped up some simple PB&J sandwiches, strawberries and dessert for a picnic at the park.

I’ll let you imagine how picturesque it was to see preschoolers trotting across the park with their massive, fancy balloons. And boy were they proud of the balloon they picked out for her!

Milli’s 3rd Birthday Party – Trip to the Zoo

We were traveling in the RV during Milli’s third birthday, and we’d met a couple of families in a San Diego RV park. We headed to the zoo as a large group. With the small contribution each family gave, she paid for her ticket, food and a souvenir!

We love experience-based gifts! Tickets can be expensive, especially when the whole family goes. Getting a ticket or gift card for Milli only makes it much more affordable for the whole family to attend.

Milli’s 1st and 2nd Birthdays

Let’s be honest- birthday parties for 1- and 2-year-olds are for the parents. We are celebrate our surviving the first years and snap a million photos of how adorable our baby looks smashing cake. And we were lucky to do it with our “village” (grandparents, aunts, and uncles) who were equally excited and smitten about the whole ordeal.

Other Birthday Ideas

I’m excited to keep up our tradition now, because they birthday parties turn out so memorably! I think it’ll be more challenging the older Milli gets, but for now I have some ideas for next year.

  • College Fund, give $4, $5, $6 (depending on age) to a savings account
  • Bring Your Own Paint, art party where the kids decorate a sheet or a keepsake
  • Birthday Signs, decorate a huge poster for the birthday person, hang on clothesline at the party
  • New to Town, give $5 gift card to your favorite place in town
  • Sports Party, pick a sport and everyone brings their own gear
  • Fundraiser Parties, collect items for a local humane society or Give Your birthday to Charity:Water

Thanks To You All

Many of the early Man Vs Debt readers met Milli around her first birthday. Since then, you’ve seen her grow to a witty 5-year-old who is gearing up for kindergarten. Adam and I appreciate the good wishes and support you’ve given us on our biggest adventure yet – parenthood!


Which birthday idea should we use next year? Do you have ideas for kids 6 to 10 years old, tweens or teens?

Share your ideas in the comments below.

37 thoughts on “What, No Presents? Memorable Kids’ Birthday Parties”

  1. Yeah, sounds cool. As they get older, the “party” can be you dropping them off at Six Flags for the day. Each kid pays for their own ticket. I remember my mom doing that for one of my birthdays, and man was it awesome. Who needed presents when I was 15? I just wanted to be at a place with chicks and my mom not be around!

    1. I love how you get older that birthdays become less about the details of the party, and more about celebrating with friends. Let’s just get everybody together and do something we love to do.

  2. I love all these ideas! I’m just curious- do you also do no “goodie bags” at the end of the party? I’m assuming in the pinata instance, the kids just took home the candy they collected?

    1. For the pinata party, I did give them baggies for the candy in the pinata, but otherwise, I didn’t send anything like that. Honestly, I haven’t had “goodie bags” at birthday parties. What are they- bags with little toys and sweets?

  3. I love this idea. The toys kids normally get at birthday parties don’t last long anyways so why not save everyone a bit of money (and clutter) and add to the birthday experience instead. My wife and I don’t have any kids yet, but we’ll probably go this route with the parties just because it’s such a good idea.

  4. We did a Candyland party one year. We spray painted our lawn as the board and used cardboard as the dice and the children were the actual players on the board. It was fun and easy. We had candy laid out all over for people to munch on and kids to take home. Using your idea, you could have other kids bring the candy to have laid out on the tables. It was tons of fun!

    1. Amazing! I’ve never thought of an idea like that. There are so many ways to use this idea outside of birthday parties.

  5. For teenagers: Photo scavenger hunt. Each kid needs to bring a camera (this was a bigger deal 5 years ago before every phone had a camera and every kid had a phone). Send them out for a couple of hours with a silly list (2 people kissing – nobody from the group! A balloon. Etc.) then feed them something while the pictures play on a big screen and they vote for the winning group.

    Or breakfast surprise: kids show up REALLY early in the morning with a totally inappropriate food item, wake the sleeping birthday child (probably best for 12 and above), eat the pancakes you provide along with whatever silly stuff they’ve brought, then go outside to play soccer or volleyball with balloons in their pajamas.

    If your daughter suddenly develops a girly streak (it happens sometimes – mine grew out of it), having guests bring a single long-stemmed flower creates a big, beautiful bouquet and goes nicely with a dinner-and-a-video kind of party.

    I could go on . . . 🙂

  6. This is so timely! We are just starting to plan our second child’s 1st birthday party, and I feel weird asking people not to bring presents or telling them that if they feel they MUST get something (and the grandparents will), that they buy clothes in the next size or contribute to a savings account. I feel bad taking away their joy of buying gifts, but I also feel bad watching them spend money at every holiday and birthday on things we’re just going to end up giving to Goodwill. Great ideas in this post!

    1. We started giving our family and friends a heads up on what kinds of things we really could use for our kiddos. We’ll send them 3-5 ideas with links. They really appreciate the suggestions, because they know the items will be used and appreciated.

      I put things like Keen Sandals, Leap Frog Tag, and tickets to zoo.

  7. What a fantastic way to celebrate birthdays, keep the cost down and teach your children to appreciate the small things in life. I love your idea that combining gifts can make a big impact (everyone brings a similar item or gift card).

    I live in Orange County, CA. I don’t have children but I’m constantly amazed at the ridiculous lengths parents go to to have lavish birthday parties for their children. Worse is that they are setting a standard that they feel they have to surpass the following year. This can be financially devastating over time.

    Thanks for the great content.
    Ree ~ I blog at EscapingDodge.com

  8. We stopped doing a birthday party every year for our kids and went to every other year. The off years we had a small family dinner and a homemade cake. Our kids are grown now and say they never minded this system!

  9. I love this idea. Unfortunately it would not work well with the grandparents. So for now our daughter is getting presents but, I do try and ask grandparents to give her some clothes for the summer or whatever season is needed. Maybe when she gets older she might consider not getting presents.
    I did something similar for a more noteworthy birthday of my own. Where I asked people to bring any spare change so I could donate it to an organization. It worked out ok.

  10. We’ve thrown a few no-presents parties and attended more. In my experience, asking guests to contribute money is awkward for everyone. Asking the kids to make birthday cards, and bring non-perishable foods or toiletries to donate to a local shelter, works much better.

  11. I don’t have kids but volunteer with an animal rescue group. We’ve had several kids use their birthday as a way to collect for the animals. They either have folks donate a bag of dog/car food, tennis bass or drop extra change in a cup. Then they come by during adoptions and drop it off and we have them take photos with the animals.
    We’ve even had some make cards for the cages during adoptions- they really stand out and show off their art work or how very sweet they are when they wish the animal finds a home.
    so very touching to see these kids proud of what they’ve accomplished and helping out an animal in need.


  12. Thank you for this post, I am starting to plan my son’s seventh birthday and I definitely appreciate no-gift ideas to pass to the parents of guests.

  13. This is a great idea. I have heard of kids bringing food for the food pantry in lieu of a gift. When we were in Ghana, we always had our kids choose some of their toys to give away at Christmas to the neighbor children. It’s great coming up with ideas to teach kids about giving. Each of our 3 big kids only got a party every third year (so I was doing only one party a year – their birthdays were all within six weeks of each other). Of course, we celebrated each child, each year but only one got a party with friends over. Blessings, Amy

  14. My brother (who lives in Portland with a daughter about Milli’s age, a younger one, and a new one) has no-gifts parties with book exchange–everyone brings a book and the guests exchange amongst each other, so everyone leaves with a book, too. I attended one child’s birthday with them–a friend, not one of my nieces–with standard presents, and it was the most terrifying thing ever.

  15. It looks like you’ve done a great job creating experiences.

    Well done.

    Nothing beats those priceless gifts …

    “My father gave me the greatest gift anyone could give another person, he believed in me.” — Jim Valvano


  16. One can only guess what impact this is going to have on her life as she gets older, but I can’t help but imagine it’s going to be a positive one. Such an incredible idea, I wish I had run across it years ago.

  17. These are some absolutely fantastic ideas and a great way to make sure that your little one doesn’t grow up focused on gifts more than time with family and friends! I know quite a few kids who are far too focused on gift-giving, gift-receiving, and even one-upping the kids around them. It makes me sad, sometimes.

  18. I love this idea! Every year we know our kids don’t need more *stuff* and this is a great idea to help them enjoy the experience instead of just looking forward to presents. My kids are getting older (17 and 11) and I think it would be awesome to have a party where each kid brought some type of donation that the birthday girl would then be able to take an donate after her party. Especially for the 11 year old, maybe a “donate your old but gently used toy to another child”. I know our church is always looking for donations as are many other charitable organizations throughout the year.

  19. I combined all of my nieces and nephews birthday presents into one… I called my sister and asked which weekend I could book tickets and a hotel to the closest waterpark. All of the kids are under the age of 13 and swim… and they were all thrilled that they get to go to Schlitterbahn (in Texas) and stay in a hotel.

    For my own child I typically ask the grandparents to give him tickets to a thing to DO, rather than an item to bring home. Sometimes they’ll give him cash which I then put into his bank account for him. They’re happy to give it, he’s happy to receive it, and I’m happy to put it into savings : )

  20. Pingback: I Love You Like a Blogger Roundup – 05/03 | Enemy of Debt: Where Behavior Meets Reality

  21. For my daughter’s 13 birthday, we asked guests to bring monetary donations to provide to the local children’s home. The gift for her was that she delivered the donation to the home and she saw what her gift did for others. It was as if she had given s million dollar check. She left and immediately said that she wanted to do the same thing next year.

  22. Wow I think more parents should do this! It’s a great change and shift from the normal gift giving process and it I think it teaches kids the right lessons in life. Good stuff! Great site too!


  23. Last year, I had my kids’ friends each bring a new or used book to the party. We then did a book exchange and everyone went home with something. My kids were most excited about cake and playing with friends anyway. I give grandparents ideas for gifts the kids will really use, because they do love buying my children something.

    1. My kids paint little personalized pictures for friends’ parties and they are always well received. 🙂 We also do $5 gift cards with a little bag of their favorite consumable item (get the parent’s ideas).

  24. I’m sitting here trying to plan my son’s first birthday. As a former camp director, I find myself getting absolutely carried away. I have to keep reminding myself. This isn’t camp… or your wedding… this is a first birthday. I also just started clearing out our basement and decided to put all of our toys in the living room. Talk about eye opening. We don’t need any more stuff! I am thrilled to have come across this post, as it was just what I needed to give me a nice reality check. Thank you SO very much!

  25. Loving these fun ideas! My daughter’s 2nd b-day is coming up and am considering a no gift rule. Was wondering how you might word the donating to the college fund for $2 on the invitation. Thanks!

  26. My daughter loves playing outdoors. Loves!!! So for her birthday I want to ask for donations to go toward her very own playground. We recently moved into our new home and she doesn’t have any outdoor activities as of yet. That must change! I am not a huge fan of parties. They’re frankly overrated. I love your ideas! I was wondering if you have any insight or a fun name I can give this gifting. There will be no event to attend…just send the mullah to help make her park.

  27. I have a 10 year old & 13 year old and we’ve requested donations for the animal shelter (food, treats, collars, leashes, cleaning supplies) or local food bank at parties. What’s been popular with their friends this year is to do an inexpensive gift exchange. You ask each attendee to bring a wrapped gift costing no more than $10, it could also be home made or something they already have at home, and then everyone does a gift exchange during the party. They all go home with a gift, it replaces the goody bags that often get filled with junky stuff anyway, and saves everyone money.

  28. I thought I was the only one irritated by this trend! I am just not a fan of all of the sweets and the drama and the stuff. Instead, my idea of a fantastic birthday party is to go on a group hike up a particular wooded hill in our area (smack dab in the middle of the city! It’s a gem!) and then explore/read a book/snack on popcorn or apples after we get up. We might be still for a while and see what we can hear. Or get on our hands and knees and see what life we can find on the ground. If I was to go all out, we might also make simple bird seed ornaments that everyone could take home. It’s usually snowing or blizzarding on my own birthday (and occasionally the kiddos’), but over time I’d like to invest in good-quality snow clothing so we could have a family walk or hike even if no one else cared to join us. Ah, the woods.

    I’ve also toyed with the idea of doing a mud war/messy party or wading in a local river.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Scroll to Top