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Simple and Cheap Birthday Parties: How to Do and Spend Less

Tips for scaling back a child's birthday bash

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cheap birthday, simple birthday, homemade cupcakes, cupcakes, sprinkles, jimmies

There's no need to spend a lot of money on a fancy birthday cake. Have the birthday kid and her siblings make dessert themselves.

Megan Cooley

Does your jaw drop when you see the effort and expense that some families dedicate to birthday parties? If you're looking for ways to simplify, you've come to the right place. These tips will help you plan a meaningful, fun and cheap birthday party for your child.

And if you are frustrated with the growing expectations surrounding kids' parties, you're not alone. The website Birthdays Without Pressure collects anecdotes from parties held around the world that illustrate how excessive some gatherings can be, including a young party guest who declared, "This is a rip off," when he discovered there weren't goodie bags and a first birthday party that dedicated two hours to gift opening because there were 60 guests.

In light of the sluggish economy and the need to care for the environment, many people likely look on with disgust at the birthday parties thrown for some children. After all, if you hire clowns and limousines for a 3 year old, how can you top yourself when she turns 4? Instead of making ourselves crazy getting the perfect decorations and frosting an outrageous cake, maybe our kids would rather we just slow down and spend more quality time with them as their birthdays approach.

So how do you make a birthday party special without dedicating your life to it or breaking the bank? Here are some ideas:

  • Reduce the size of the guest list. That's the quickest way to cut the budget. Some families follow this rule: a child can invite one friend for however many years old the birthday kid is turning (five guests for a fifth birthday, for example).
  • Bake your own simple birthday cake rather than ordering a complicated one from a bakery. It's flour, sugar and eggs, for Pete's sake, and the kids are just going to eat it.
  • Better yet, bake the cake and then have the birthday kid or the siblings decorate it. That could become a neat birthday eve tradition for your family.
  • You could also hand each guest a plain cupcake, frosting and sprinkles and make decorating dessert a party activity.
  • Skip goodie bags altogether or have the birthday child make the party favors, perhaps stringing together beads to make necklaces, assembling craft kits or building lightsabers out of empty wrapping-paper rolls left over from Christmas.
  • Or give favors but choose ones that are longer lasting than trinkets from the dollar store, such as seeds to plant in the garden or a cookie cutter that's related to the party theme.
  • Let your children make the party decorations instead of crafting them yourself or spending a lot of money on them at a store.
  • Play traditional party games instead of hiring outside entertainment.
  • Host the party in a public park, which is free and offers built-in entertainment (i.e., play structures, swings, basketball hoops, etc.).
  • Encourage guests to bring secondhand gifts, such as gently-used books or toys. You might consider setting a gift theme, such as "experiences," in which guests would give a pass to the local children's museum, movie theater, miniature golf course or other attraction.
  • When you buy or make party decorations, choose ones that can be used again and again, year after year. You could make a fabric pennant banner, for example, that has a neutral color scheme and gets hung up for every party you host.
  • Send electronic invitations. Emily Post will never know.
  • Make party supplies yourself, perhaps following some of these how-to party projects. Only take that advice, though, if you enjoy DIYing it. Crafting up your own decorations can take a lot of time and sometimes costs more than buying it.
  • Serve food that's inexpensive and easy. If that means ordering pizza, awesome. Go for it. It could mean making a casserole or lasagna ahead of time that just needs to be reheated or serving up sloppy Joes from a slow cooker.
  • If you're worried about what other parents will think of your simplified birthday party, here's a tip: Don't invite those families! Surround yourself and your children with people who understand that birthdays are about celebrating a year in the life of a child; they're not about seeing who can spend the most money.
  • Talk to your birthday kid ahead of time about your reasons for simplifying the party. Explain the values that are driving your decisions, whether you're concerned about the environment and therefore don't want to purchase plastic do-dads made thousands of miles away or whether money is tight and your family needs to be smart about how it's spent. In fact, showing your child the party budget and letting them help make decisions on how to spend the allocated amount can teach invaluable lessons in personal finance (not to mention math!).

What are your thoughts on hosting simple versus extravagant birthday parties? What tips do you have for frugal, fun kids' parties?

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