Birthdays will always be cause for celebration, but as kids parties become more and more elaborate, planning often drains the fun right out of the occasion. Every parent wants to give their child a party to remember, but what’s the best way to do so without breaking the bank or going absolutely insane in the process? The following five steps will help you plan the perfect birthday party—sanity and wallet intact.
1. Set your planning priorities
First, ask yourself this important question: What would you like to save the most: time, money, or effort
Of course, conserving all three is the ultimate win. But let’s not go chasing unicorns. Be strategic: Do you have time to take on a few DIY projects to keep costs down? Would you rather spend a bit more money to have the venue provide the cake, favors, and activity? Once you have set your priorities, it will be much easier to come up with a plan.
Simplicity Tip: Consider a joint birthday party. Does your child have a best friend, cousin, or sibling with a birthday the same month? Better yet, does that friend or cousin share the same classroom or circle of friends? This can be a great way to save time, money, and effort. Sharing a celebration is often a blast for younger kids, and is a great option for kids who tend to shy away from the spotlight. If your guest list is identical, you”ll be doing other parents (and yourself) a favor by combining two potential weekend commitments into one.
2. Draft your guest list
A guest list can grow quickly: five family friends, three cousins, four neighbors, six sports friends, and 20 classroom friends later, you have a boat load of kids running around, destroying everything in their path. Sounds like fun, right
Don’t panic. By drafting your guest list before you choose your theme, venue, or activity, you can be strategic about your decision to either keep numbers down, or invite everyone and their mother without going broke. Think back to the question you answered in Step One.
Do you have a large guest list, but want to save money? Host the party at a park. There will be more effort involved in setting up, decorating, and hauling food, but if you can spare the effort and time, you can save quite a bit of cash. Choosing a park that your child and his or her friends are already familiar with can ease stress, too, as everyone knows what to expect.
Have a small guest list and money to spare, but want to save time? Look into party venues that do it all for you. Just be warned: sometimes there are hidden costs or caveats. At some pricier museums, the cost-per-head is for partygoers only. You”ll need to pay full admission price for any accompanying adults.
3. Nail down the details
Once you have your guest list, get to work on securing a date and location for the party—the earlier the better. If you are hosting the party at your home, you will of course have your choice of dates, but you”ll also spend quite a bit of time cleaning up before and after the party.
If you are having the party in a public space such as a park, or at a play space or museum, call well in advance to reserve your preferred date and time. Ask lots of questions to make sure you know what is included and what isn’t.
4. Pick a theme
This is the fun part. Get creative: depending on what you”ve decided in terms of venue, party size, and where you”d like to save, your theme can help you reinforce your priorities and stick to a plan.
Simplicity Tip: Give your child choices. For the younger set, choosing a birthday party theme is much like choosing a Halloween costume: their preference changes daily. Think of two or three options you know they will enjoy, that are in line with your budget and capability, then give them the final say.
Of course it’s easy to pick a theme around a character or movie that your child likes, but usually that theme will be carried out only in décor. Instead, go with a theme based on an activity that your child enjoys. See “Picking the Perfect Theme” (left) for some sample ideas.
Use your theme to help shape a guest list. If you want to keep head count down and your kid loves the outdoors, try a camping birthday. The effort of packing up, hauling in, setting up, and hauling out will mean only the truly adventurous will join you.
5. Plan the finishing touches
For many themes, the party activities themselves provide the take-home favors, saving you money, and sparing mounds of cheap plastic trinkets. But if you pick an activity without a take-home component, there are some creative and budget-friendly options to consider that kids will actually play with again, such as light-up balls, toy cars, and bubble wands. For younger kids, Mylar balloons from the dollar store are always a crowd pleaser, and also double as party decorations.
Finally, why not turn a crowd into crowd-sourcing? Consider including a book or toy drive into the party activities, or ask guests to donate a small amount to a charity that you name on your invitation. When you deliver the donations, take some photos to include in your thank you notes. Incorporating ways to give back teaches kids to think of others, and your guests will appreciate the opportunity.
By answering a few strategic questions and brainstorming some creative ideas, any parent can create a memorable party while staying sane and within budget.
Saralyn Ward is a Denver-based writer and mother.
Celebrating Away From Home
If you would like to hold a party at a venue, such as a gymnastics center or museum, call well in advance to reserve the date you prefer, and ask these questions:
- What is the guest list minimum and maximum?
- Is the cost per head for children only, or adults as well?
- Do they provide any food and beverages? Can you bring in outside food?
- Do they provide cake? Favors? Invitations? Decorations? Can you bring in your own?
- What is the amount for a deposit and when is it due? When is final payment due?
- How early can you arrive on the day of the party to set up? Are you responsible for cleanup?
- Are there any parking considerations to keep in mind?
Picking the Perfect Theme
You don’t have to use a favorite character or movie for your party theme. Think about your child’s favorite activities and build a theme around one.
Favorite Pastime: Riding Bikes
Activity: Have the party at the park or the pump track, and encourage guests to bring their bikes. Provide streamers, ribbons, balloons, and party hats, decorate the bikes, and go for a group ride, bike-parade style.
Favorite Pastime: Picking Flowers/Having Tea Parties
Theme: Garden Party
Activity: Invite a florist to come lead a kid-friendly lesson in floral arrangement. Guests may take home their bouquets as favors. If your child is younger, skip the lesson and instead offer flowers to make your own bouquet or flower crown. Throw a tea party with cut out sandwiches and small hors d”oeuvres, and encourage guests to come in their favorite fancy attire.
Favorite Pastime: Drawing with Sidewalk Chalk
Theme: Street Fair
Activity: Find a location with plenty of pavement or cement. Create giant color-by-number chalk art, and encourage kids to complete the drawings. Invite a caricature artist, face painter, or street performer, and provide DIY stations such as making balloon animals, and make-your-own street tacos.
Favorite Pastime: Climbing and Crawling
Theme: Mini Olympics
Activity: Design an obstacle course or minute games, and have a good-natured competition. Guests can be split into two teams, with individual scores on each event contributing to an overall team score, so as to minimize hurt feelings. Be sure to include activities that require a wide variety of skills, so that every kid has a chance to shine.
Park Party Planning
A birthday party at the local park sounds simple, and it can be, but there are a few things to consider. Call the parks and recreation district that manages your favorite park and ask these questions:
- Is pavilion rental available, and for how much? Sometimes rentals are seasonal; if you are having a party in the off-season, it may be first-come, first-serve the day of your event.
- For how many hours is the space reserved? How early can you arrive to set up?
- Which pavilion is closer to the playground? You”ll want your kids in sight so you can (hopefully) relax and have an adult conversation.
- What is the alcohol policy and is a permit required? If you want to offer adult beverages, try to avoid a ticket.
- Are there power outlets? How many tables are in the pavilion?
- Are there any parking considerations to keep in mind?
(More tips on page 2)
Tips for Saving Money on Kids Birthday Parties
Bring down birthday party costs and amp up the fun with these tips from Rachel Namoff, a financial literacy expert and managing partner with Arapaho Asset Management.
Use free digital invites. Evite.com offers free online invitation options that eliminate the cost of printed and mailed invitations. Remember to request that guests RSVP for kids and adults attending—an exact head count will ensure that you don’t overspend for people who aren’t there.
Don’t invite your child’s entire class. Invite just a couple of your child’s closest friends. Or, ask parents to drop off if the children are mature enough to handle it. By not feeding and entertaining each child’s parent, you can dramatically cut costs.
Create your own games. Think of pin the tail on the donkey or tic-tac-toe. If the party is outdoors, break out some lawn games like washers or corn hole. Kids don’t need a lot of bells and whistles to have fun together.
Stick to cake and ice cream. Serving a full meal can be expensive. Schedule your party at a time in between lunch and dinner so you only need to serve cake and ice cream. A sundae bar can be a cost-effective fun treat, too.