How to Throw a Kid’s Birthday Party That’s Fun, Happily Memorable, and Not So Expensive

By Julie Rains on 19 September 2008 (Updated 18 September 2009) 18 comments

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:

  • Venue
  • Activities
  • Food
  • Decorations
  • 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
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Myscha Theriault's picture

You really put a ton of work into that article. Good job, and a great resource for those who are trying to save money while hosting a quality event for the kids.

Guest's picture

We had a party at home for my son on his seventh birthday. We inflated a few balloons (not helium) and gave the boys flyswatters to bat the balloons around with (kind of like badminton). They had a BLAST and could have done that for all two hours of the party. They also liked pin-the-tail-on-the-critter, limbo, and drawing on the kraft paper tablecloth, but after all that they were begging for flyswatter badminton again.

Guest's picture
asrai

Where were you three days ago when I was planning my 6 year olds party?

Actually ours was fun and frugal. Mainly my plan was to let the kids play. We have enough toys for a dozen kids and I had a few games and activities planned in case there was problems.

In all it cost $100 give or take. I can't add the cost of the little pizzas I made because I just added that my grocery shopping. Even making the pizzas was an activity because most of the kids hadn't every had home made pizza and looked at me like I was crazy.

There were 8 kids and everyone said they had a lot of fun just playing together.

The presents are overwhelming for me. There's so much coming in.

Guest's picture

We've tended to do the backyard party deal, and last year, we invited all of the girls in my daughter's class to her 6th birthday party. We were playing the odds--in years past, only about half showed. That year, every single one showed up. It was a nightmare. Most of the kids had fun. They tore apart the playroom, played a group game or two, sat around the table for cake & ice cream. The only person who didn't have a good time was my daughter--she dissolved into tears before the party ended.

We learned our lesson--no more big parties here. Instead, we're opting for a special day with one of their friends. My youngest went to a play at a community theater & then out to lunch with her buddy. My oldest is having a sleepover (we'll use some coupons for free bumper boating & take 'em to a free festival, as well).

Jenn

Guest's picture
sylrayj

Two months before my son's birthday, I started preparations by saving every small box I could - Jell-O type boxes, Kraft Dinner type boxes, toilet paper tubes, etc. I painted them grey, with white and black paint I got from a dollar store, then drew on lines with a marker to look like brickwork. Also at the dollar store, I found some craft materials with which to make and decorate paper crowns (glitter, some metallic shiny thingies), and some of those fill-stuffed cloth balls meant to be used with water. I made a 'dragon head' with construction paper and a big water jug, into which the balls would be tossed. I had a few of the party favour things too, bracelets and I think plastic harmonica things, as 'prizes'. We did some ball toss, then everyone got to choose a prize, we did some crown making (although the boys just wanted to go play), and we built a great big castle from the building blocks.

Gift bags? Plastic grocery bags for every child, and they all took turns choosing a castle building block to go into their bag. Add in the crowns and the soft balls and the prizes, and they had decent loot, and I didn't have an entire castle worth of boxes to put back in my son's room.

I decorated a cake to look vaguely like a castle, and we ate Pogos and had veggie sticks, and I don't remember what kind of juice to drink. Overall, I think the kids had a good time (even the stray who wandered in), it was affordable, and I was willing to have another party for my son. :)

Julie Rains's picture

Thanks everyone for comments and more birthday ideas.

I remember doing a version of the fly-swatter/balloon game with residents of an assisted living facility (during a scout service project). The adults loved it more than the kids!

I am nowhere hands-on creative as you are sylrayj (great ideas and great way to recycle) which might be why the parties with a bunch of kids turned out better (typically) than the ones with just a few kids-- the kids could come up with better ideas to play than I could. 

Like you ATLCheap, I have had events where just a couple of the many invited guests showed so it was tricky to figure out what to do; my youngest just loves a crowd but I could see how things could get out of hand (maybe the big parties could be saved for the ones at an outdoor venue). And, now that you mention it, I have heard of parents having their children invite just one or two guests for a special day/evening out, making the planning much easier and the celebration (happily) memorable.

 

 

Guest's picture
Guest

For my Son's 8th birthday, I was tired out from birthdays (cheap ones, but still tired out!)
So I told him to pick up to four of his bestest friends, for a sleepover. Before the sleepover, we would all go to Giggleberry Fair. (a huge 8 story indoor playground, plus a discovery play room, and a tiny game/token section. LOVE that place.)

So he picked some friends, I printed out invitations that were just a letter, with our plans for the evening and night, reassuring every parent (because Giggleberry Fair is 45 minutes away!) and waited for the calls.

They all called, which was nice, and they all could go.
A few weren't sleeping over, but that was fine for me!!

I had the party on a Friday night, because Giggleberry Fair is half priced admission on Friday nights. (savings!!$$)
As soon as everyone arrived, we opened gifts (I just HATE it when people don't open their gifts AT the party!!!) and left!
We packed everyone in the van, stopped on the way at Wendy's drive thru, got everyone two items from the DOLLAR menu, gave them a drink that I PACKED in the car, they ate on the way, and I listened to them party and talk "cool guy talk" all the way there, full of excitement.

They had a BLAST, all night, we got them all drinks, that they refilled all night. (we brought a marker, so they wrote their names on their cups and saved them all night. We don't mess around, saving money!! And the kids didn't care one speck!)

Tired, worn out, and having a great time reliving the night's excitement, we came home, the two kids left, and the rest slept on the living room floor after having a birthday cupcake and a drink. (no birthday cake cost! Just cheap cupcakes!)
They put a movie in, and joked around, then fell asleep.

Next morning, I made pancakes with chocolate pieces cooked into them, and parents arrived.

The BEST birthday he ever had.

The whole thing was probably $75, no mess, no "entertaining", and NO birthday "package prices". Ick!

Guest's picture
Guest

When my Daughter turned 5, she had a little group of friends. Four of them.

We invited JUST those 4 friends to her party. They all came.
Luckily, it was just after New Years, so I clearanced shopped at Walmart. And boy was there GREAT selection!
I ended up getting the coolest party favors (NOT ONE SINGLE THING FROM THE PARTY SECTION!! I absolutely HATE the stupid toys and prizes from the party section! They are cheap, useless, and get thrown away in a day! Why bother??)

I got Princess soap/body wash kits discounted to .72 cents each, a nail polish gift set, which I gave every girl 2 colors each from it, some discounted frames that were under a dollar each, and a few other things.
Because everything was sooooo cheap, I did go a little nuts, but it was part of a game for the party.
Since GIRLS love to shop, I set up a "store" for them.
I got discounted gift bags (snowflake themed, but cheap!) and used my Daughter's fake money, gave everyone some, brought her cash register down, and let them "shop" from the dining room table, where all the prizes were laid out.
I told them they could all take ONE of everything.
They each went along, shopping and picking stuff out, which is what girls do best, right? LOL!!
They wrung up their purchases with their fake money (My Son was the cashier) and we wrote their names on the bags, and played more games. They LOVED it.
After the party, I got told by all the parents, that they couldn't believe the gift bags I gave the girls. They were AWESOME!
Having such cheap stuff, and having only 5 girls total, made it easy.
They played "freeze dance" a few times, duck duck goose, etc....had cake, (set up as a tea party.) and when the parents came, they all said "Mom! I had FUN!"
Sucess.
My Daughter loved it, the kids loved it, and I think I spent about around $100.
I did NOT decorate, except for a few balloons thrown around.
And let me tell you....kids do NOT even notice if the place is decorated, or not.
I have NEVER decorated beyond balloons, and no one has ever CARED a bit!
The money wasted on decorations, is unbelieveable to me!!
The same with fancy themed/character plates, napkins, cups....
No thank you!!!
Kids don't care what they eat from! They just care WHAT they're eating!!

And my house is small, but we still manage to have GREAT parties here. No expensive, impersonal party packages at kid's places for us.

Guest's picture
Guest

Another suggestion is to do a co-birthday party. My son and one of his friends have a birthday one day apart and they are in the same classroom - so many of the same kids will be invited to both. So this year rather than making sure we don't schedule their birthdays on the same day we're celebrating it together. It definitely makes it cheaper and a lot of fun. Not to mention I will only have to do half the work too!

Guest's picture
Guest

"(sticker tag) was rejected by one child, shortening its life at the party."

oooh, that seems a bit harsh :p I guess no one will reject the games next year.

Julie Rains's picture

Thanks for the great and creative ideas!

The mention of writing names on cups is a wonderful one and I've seen done at parties for people of all ages: it definitely saves on paper products. 

Linsey Knerl's picture

Thanks for all the research on this one, Julie!

Guest's picture
Curtis

My wife and I have become much more frugal when it comes to birthday parties for our daughter. For our older daughter's first few birthdays, we had large bashes where we invited everyone we knew, down to people we had met a few times at church. We spent a lot of money on gifts and activities that our daughter will never even remember, because she was so young.

In recent years we've gotten better, but my wife still insists each year that we have a pinata. I don't get why, since every year that we've had one, we've always forgotten about it until the very end. Then, at the point when kids are ready to go home and parents are ready to take them, we're rushing around trying to put it up, make sure everyone has a bag, make sure everyone gets a turn, and then make sure everyone gets enough candy.

And of course, generic pinatas aren't good enough -- we have to have whatever character our daughter is into at the time, whether it's Dora, Disney Princesses, or (the latest) Hannah Montana. Then there's also the expense of the candy to fill it up.

My advice: Stay away from pinatas.

Guest's picture
Guest

All kids love to have something to take home from a birthday party. Just an idea that doesnt cost much to do...
As an activity for all the kids to do together, set up drawing time. Us parents all have plenty of crayons, markers and pencils laying around. Give them all a sheet of construction paper and let them go to town. Once they have finished their masterpiece, take a few moments to cover them in contact paper. These can then be sent home with the children. They can be used as placemats or they can choose to give to someone as a gift at a later date. Try doing it at the end of the day so the kids can wind down. While you are covering the pictures, have the kids clean up. It only costs a few dollars, can calm the kids down, and is original and useful.

Guest's picture
Guest

I love this thread, as I have three kids and the ideas of parties always seems to be one boggling my mind. Now that they are older (preteen to teen), we have settled into the habit of having a "party" year, and a "travel" or "special event with special friend year". So, one year each kid will have a party within our budget limits (usually slumber or costume parties at our house, occasionally we have done parties at the kids museum or somewhere else if we've had a renovation project going), and then the next year each child might pick a destination within a few hours that they (or all os us) have really wanted to go.

One year, it was caverns for the 8 year old, Natural Bridge of the 9 year old, and
DC for the other one. (We have friends that live there, so it was not as much of an expense as you'd think, but of course we took the family out to eat that hosted us, while we also all took advantage of the FREE Smithsonian museums etc in the area. Celebrating a birthday in some other locale entirely makes for a memorable, family-based event, and usually costs about as much as having a party that might take several weeks of planning, but be over in just an hour or two.

We love both, so we have decided this works for us, except during the years when one kid wants a "party party" and its a "travel" year. Oh, well!

Guest's picture
Guest

I love this. I saw this post at momliving. What is game frog? Is that like playing leap frog? We did an Indiana Jones Party and did a scavenger hunt around our neighborhood. My husband dressed up as Indiana Jones - the kids had a blast and I got all of the treasure and costumes from Oriental Trading Company for about 100 bucks.

Julie Rains's picture

Thanks for the ideas. Going new places is a great memory maker. We did scavenger hunts when I was a kid and they were a lot of fun, requesting household items from neighbors (a shoe string comes to mind). I had never heard of gamefrog either; it is a computer game cafe for kids.

Guest's picture

This is a really good article. I guess you really don't have to spend as much money as you would think for a party with lots of kids.