Re: Some toddler birthday etiquette questions
I wouldn't RSVP to anything until you get an invite and it has an RSVP by date on it. If you haven't received an invite to the party you want to go to before the RSVP by date on the other invite(s) then decline. An invite to a child's bday party does not come before family time. I have been known on many occasion to decline "because we will have family here that day" even if the "family" is DH, the kids, and myself.
As for gifts... I keep a gift bin, it is a plastic storage tub that contains toys that were purchased at clearance sales (Target has awesome 90% off sales) and bought brand new in the sealed package at yard sales. I also have books in there that are brand new, never cracked, from Goodwill and the like. My kids always have their choice of really nice gifts, usually in the $15-$40 range, but none of them cost me more than a few bucks. Going out to the store and buying something full-price, with the pressure to buy the "best gift" and trying not to blow your budget... Not my idea of a good time! Plus, as DS1 has grown into the school-age party scene, I have found that it is nearly impossible to maintain my sanity in the toy department. Try telling a kid he can only spend $10 or $20 there - not easy. First of all, things are expensive! Secondly, they want to pick something that their friend will like. Have you priced Hello Kitty stuffies lately? Yikes! It is so much easier to pull out a storage bin, say, "pick something for your friend" and have all parties feel good about it.
Tip: For things that sit in the gift bin too long, we utilize the Giving Tree at DS1's school and/or the YMCA. Last year I had some Melissa and Doug puzzle books that had been in the bin for a few years, so I chose age-appropriate gift tags and gave those to the giving tree. The year before it was 2 sets of Matchbox Adventure Sets, and 2 different 7-year-olds received them for Christmas. It helps teach kids "giving" without training them to be "consumers".