How to Throw a Kid’s Birthday Party That’s Fun, Happily Memorable, and Not So Expensive
The most fun, memorable and least expensive birthday party for your child may be, figuratively and literately, right in your own backyard. I’ve attended and hosted fabulous but simple parties with cake, ice cream, and a few balloons, and participated in much bigger backyard extravaganzas. So, just because a party is at home doesn’t mean that it will be cheap and easy to orchestrate. I’ll share ideas for throwing a happy event that’s light on cash outlay and effort.
Be aware of but not intimidated by the fervor around children’s birthday parties
A few days ago, I picked up a parenting magazine for families in my area. In this 46-page publication, there are 15 ads from birthday party purveyors, ranging from magicians to nearly complete packages at a butterfly farm, party palace, and an art studio. Prices start at about $300 for eight children.
My kids (both boys so you won't see a princess party listed) have attended parties that involved:
- Dinner at a nice restaurant
- Mad Science presentation at a church
- Backyard carnival with cotton candy machine, fishing booth, and more
- Petting zoo and pony rides in the backyard
- Activities led by Taekwondo instructors at a martial arts studio
- Bear component selection and assembly at a Build-a-Bear Workshop
- Gaming at GameFrog
- Going to a movie and then hanging out with friends at a sleepover
- Bowling at the bowling lanes
- Baseball and cookout in the backyard
There are loads of choices or rather there are lots of businesses who are ready to take your birthday money; even my local "Y" is offering parties now and it "will guarantee a perfect day for your child's birthday."
It is the charm of the hosts and pleasantness of the guests that matter
One of the nicest parties my kids and I have ever attended was held in the apartment complex where the family of the honoree (5-year-old girl named Samantha) lived. Ten or so kids and many of their parents gathered in the family’s living room, played (or supervised play) inside, walked together to the onsite playground, played, trekked back to the apartment, enjoyed cake and ice cream, and talked.
The parents were kind enough to allow me to bring my younger child in addition to my older son (the invited guest); in fact they welcomed everyone and remarked that my then-2-year-old, who enjoyed building and taking things apart and pushing buttons (which some people find annoying), would likely become an inventor and live off royalties, just like Samantha’s uncle. What made the party great: party hosts who seemed to truly enjoy their guests’ company, unstructured play, and the chance for parents to mingle.
But backyard events are not always so simple. A few years ago, I planned what I thought was going to be a frugal, fun party: a few guests; cake and ice cream; and some cool games. I bought Harry Potter paper goods, decorations, and party favors from a birthday celebration catalog. I figured since I was holding the party at home at no cost, I could afford a themed event at a cost of about $100.
Researching, evaluating, and organizing a series of activities took awhile. Supplies for the games added some to my expenses. A game that I thought would occupy the kids for a half-hour lasted about 5 minutes; another game that I was sure would be a huge hit (sticker tag) was rejected by one child, shortening its life at the party.
Since then, I’ve opted for single activity-based parties: a basketball party for a handful of kids held on our driveway; a baseball party for a slew of classmates held a public park (rental fee of $10); and a sleepover with enough children to entertain themselves without causing property damage or personal injury. What I like most about these types of parties is that the kids are occupied but still have plenty of chances to socialize.
Consider all the costs (money and time)
I have finally realized that there are many components to party planning and each has a dimension of time and cost to consider:
- Treat bags
Having a party at home can be the most frugal option or can cost you plenty, depending on your choice of activity or entertainment, extravagance or absence of decorations, food, and treat bags or party favors. For me, getting my house and yard in shape for guests is often a time-consuming challenge though others may have spotless, ready-to-have-a-party homes. Decorations for a themed party can be pricey so, learn from my mistake, and make sure that the money you save on having a party at home isn't diverted to paper goods, mylar balloons, and trinkets with images of fictional characters.
Other free or very inexpensive options include reserving space at a local park, the clubhouse in your neighborhood, or even your place of worship. Check rental fees and reservation requirements well ahead of the big day: the baseball field at a nearby park cost just $10 but it could only be reserved a few days in advance (also, don’t assume that public spaces are cheap: some sites can run $100 or more).
It’s obvious that if you hold a party on a baseball field, then you’ll play baseball or perhaps softball or kickball; skate at the skating rink; bowl at the bowling lanes; swim at the swimming pool. But you might rent space at a public facility, and arrange for entertainment and activities in which case your time and cash expenditures increase.
Evaluate the package deal
You might decide to pay a fee (or a series of fees) for a party package or menu of services. Most price lists are very specific about what is provided. Still, a busy parent might not notice that the goody bags provided by the bowling lanes are empty or that party guests will most likely share space with shoppers at the Build-A-Bear Workshop.
Here are questions to help you evaluate the deal (relevant whether you are planning a party for a 5-year-old or an 80-year-old):
- What is the price and time limit for the room or facility rental?
- Can I bring as many guests as I'd like or is there a maximum number?
- Will I have space dedicated to my party or will I share the space?
- Is there a minimum number of guests (that I need to pay for whether they come to the party or not)?
- Are decorations included?
- Is food included?
- Are treat or goody bags included and, if so, are they filled or empty?
- Do you need to bring a birthday cake or is one provided?
Treat bags are optional
You don't have to give treat bags filled with very small, probably useless toys (which I am sure I did at least once). Here are some alternatives:
- A book (give everyone the same title)
- Pencils and candy (parents will like one; kids, the other)
- Deck of cards or other inexpensive but nice-to-have item
- Crayons or markers purchased at back-to-school sales with a coloring book from the dollar store
- Random items given as prizes throughout the party
What I’ve learned
- More kids usually means more fun
- Younger children (3-4 and younger) may enjoy a very small party that is more of a playdate with cake rather than a big birthday party; see Linsey's tips on partying with a baby
- Certain activities can be overdone (for example, one of my child’s guests attended 2 bowling parties in one day)
- You don’t have to spend much money but if you are going to spend money, paying for a cool activity or a place for kids to have plenty of space trumps paying for decorations
- Kids who are usually ravenous don’t eat much at parties (I still make sure we have plenty but typically have leftovers)
- There are a surprising number of children who do not eat cake and ice cream
- Take pictures to make the day memorable