The Birthday Clutter Dilemma


I love celebrations. Life frequently seems full of difficulties and stress, so why not make the most of happy occasions? Children’s birthdays can be lots of fun, and most kids love a party! At the same time, the whole “birthday thing” often ushers in some incremental clutter to your space. Here are a few of the more common challenges, and ideas on how to minimize their impact.


=> Challenge #1: sudden influx of gifts

A present is a thoughtful and appropriate gesture when attending a birthday party. At the same time, there can be some unintended consequences for the host/hostess, such as:

  • a large quantity of gifts for which there isn’t space
  • unwanted gifts
  • duplicate gifts

Eliminating birthday gifts altogether is unrealistic and unnecessary, but there are a few options to consider when you are the host of the party.

=> What you can do:

Plan in advance:

Spend an hour or two before the party to sort through and de-clutter your child’s toy collection. If your child is old enough and willing, invite them into the process. You can encourage your child to let go by talking about donating items to a less fortunate child. Also, before the party, designate a spot where the newly opened gifts will initially be placed to ensure that nothing gets lost (e.g. in the corner of the family room or in the child’s bedroom). Over the next few days, allocate time to establish permanent homes for all the new items.

Explore alternatives:

Consider the possibility of requesting that guests not bring a traditional gift. For example, you may throw a party where the gifts are for a charity that is important to your child. We once threw a party for my daughter where she collected school supplies to be sent to a girl she was helping to support in the Dominican Republic. Maybe your child loves animals and would enjoy collecting pet supplies that he/she can take to a shelter. The possibilities are endless, but remember to elicit “buy in” from the birthday child… don’t force this idea on a child who was looking forward to receiving presents! Likewise, it is vital that you be crystal clear in your invitation so that no child shows up feeling embarrassed that he brought the wrong thing.

Set a few gifts aside for a rainy day:

There is a limit to how many toys a child can enjoy at any one time. Children will naturally gravitate to the ones they like best. After the thank-you notes have been written, tuck a couple of the untouched items into a closet or drawer to be pulled out later. There will undoubtedly be times when you wish you had something new, and a gift may be more exciting if it comes back out in a couple of months.

Pass the extras on:

When your child receives something she doesn’t like, won’t wear, or already owns, it is permissible to let it go. Never keep an item out of guilt. Donating is one option, as most charities are pleased to receive mint condition items for children. Another possibility is to re-gift the item to someone else. The key is to be thoughtful when doing so, so that no feelings get hurt. Consider putting a post-it note on an unwanted gift that identifies from whom it came to avoid making an embarrassing faux pas.


=> Challenge #2: goody bags full of trinkets

The party is over, everyone is leaving, and what are children typically given to carry home? A party bag full of trinkets. This is a tough one. As the host of the party, you want to send guests on their way with “a little something” to thank them for coming. At the same time, common party favors tend to be small, cheaply made baubles that frequently end up in the bottoms of bins and drawers which a parent has to clear out later.

=> What you can do:

While you can’t influence what others give, you can limit the extent to which you contribute to the problem. Try and send party guests home with something that is consumable and/or has a shelf life, such as:

  • A helium-filled balloon
  • A gift card/coupon that can be used at a local vendor (e.g. $3 for an ice cream cone at the local parlor or a doughnut at the local shop)
  • Candy or snacks
  • Craft created at the party (e.g. a decorated apron, a t-shirt, a piece of painted pottery)
  • “Usable” items that fit the party’s theme (e.g. flower seeds from a garden party, a baseball from a sports party, food for the ducks from a party in the park)
  • Bubbles, sidewalk chalk, crayons, pens, pencils, play dough


=> Challenge #3: remnant party supplies

When working with clients, I often run into supplies from previous birthday parties such as paper plates, napkins, cups, colored plastic cutlery, streamers/decorations, tablecloths, etc. Since a host’s energy typically wanes once the party is over, these items frequently get dropped into the nearest drawer, shoved into a box or stuck in a plastic bag that ends up accumulating dust in a corner.

=> What you can do:

Quickly dispose of trash:

Supplies that are broken, stained or torn can be tossed. If they are not in good shape, you are unlikely to reuse them, so pitch them as you are cleaning up.

Use up the paper products:

Most people end up with a mishmash of food service items that are too few in number to be sufficient for another party. If you end up with 4 purple forks, 2 princess plates or 8 Avengers napkins, the best thing to do is use them up. Stack the paper plates and napkins on top of your regular ones. Drop the cutlery in the silverware drawer. Place the cups wherever the kid cups go. This makes it effortless for family members to use them up, and has the additional benefit of “extending the glow” of the party for a few more days.

One additional idea… if you have a backlog of random items, consider throwing a “mismatch party” when the next occasion arrives. Kids would think it is fun to have a variety of plates, cups, colors and themes.

Set up party supply storage:

It is helpful to have a designated place for generic decorative items like centerpieces, candles, balloons, streamers, balloon weights, etc. A clear plastic bin labeled “party supplies” will do the trick and can be kept under a bed, in a closet or in the attic/basement.


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Birthday parties can be a source of great fun and wonderful memories. What tips can you share for minimizing the associated clutter?

18 thoughts on “The Birthday Clutter Dilemma”

    1. You are sort of “in the thick of it” with children of this age. I love parties, and I want everyone to have a positive experience. Thanks for the affirmation, Janine!

  1. Love this post, Seana! It brings me back to the birthday party days, which we loved. It was alway so fun to create themed parties. You’re so right that while parties can be fun, there are many places for clutter and stress. I love ALL of your suggestions.

    Particularly the one about setting aside some gifts for your kid to open at a later date. I remember that for the parties that our daughters received a lot of gifts, the opening process always overwhelmed them. We learned NOT to open them during the party. And even after the party, it would often take them days to open them all. They wanted to enjoy each one as they opened them rather than rush through the process.

    I’m sure your sage advice will help many parents as they plan and manage the wonderful days of birthday parties.
    Linda Samuels recently posted…Reduce Your Overwhelm and Increase Zen With One Powerful MethodMy Profile

    1. I love that most parents “invite the whole class” so no one feels left out, but I tell them that pretty much anyone will be overwhelmed by the onslaught of 30 new items into their space. In contrast, having something 3 months from now will be exciting and fun! I too have many fond memories of birthday parties, particularly one for older daughter that was chocolate themed. I went all out… I think Willy Wonka would have enjoyed it:)

  2. Great advice, Seana, on all fronts — from the influx of gifts to the party favor tchotchkes and especially the supplies! I recently discovered a few boxes in our garage that were filled with paper goods from previous parties (my son is now 10 so we’ve had a few) and would have loved to incorporate your advice about using them up right after the party to “extend the glow.” Fortunately, my son’s teacher has regular holiday events or special cooking classes where cups, plates, napkins and utensils are needed so she gladly accepted everything I had. I will definitely heed your advice going forward!
    Cary Prince recently posted…Organize Your Files for SuccessMy Profile

    1. How great to be able to donate the extras to a teacher – that is a great idea! The year my daughter graduated from high school, I clearly overbought napkins. We enjoyed the “Congrats Grad!” napkins for almost the whole summer, and giggled each time we pulled one out:)

  3. Yes, I love this idea! It can be challenging to buy gifts for older children you don’t know, so I think this is a great way to honor the birthday child and help someone in need!

  4. Yes, it would definitely work for adults. In fact, it might bring about a good chuckle to look back at what we felt were big milestone birthdays that now seem young:)

  5. This is great, Seana! I love your advice about sorting through the child’s toys before the party and having the child buy-in to the concept of donating some things to those less fortunate. I also really like your idea of a mis-matched party goods party. I usually do as you suggested and have family members use of the excess. But, it could be really fun to pull out all the leftover party goods for another party.

    1. I think adults would particularly enjoy a mismatch party… can you see a cocktail party with princess plates? Could be memorable:)

  6. Great tips! To help my kids truly value their gifts, I have them make sure they reach out to everyone who gave them a gift and personally say thank you. I tell them first you say thank you then you can spend the money. I also have them sort through their gifts and separate out the bags (we usually reuse them) the very next day. This helps them realize these items are now their responsibility.

    1. Great to invite them into the process of taking responsibility. This teaches children that every new item needs to be assigned a home as it comes in, which is a skill that lasts a lifetime!

  7. I love this post on how fun celebrations can be a source of clutter. You have hit important themes that recur and options to keep the flow of stuff moving forward. There are lots of options and ways to make clutter “disappear.” Thanks for sharing these creative ideas.

    1. Special events – both positive and negative – usually are accompanied by clutter. Sometimes just expecting this to be the case can be helpful, as it reminds us to think ahead and make decisions for what we will do with the extra items that appear.

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