Party Planning On a Dime

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I have four children, which has been a lot of birthday parties to throw (and attend) over the last several years.  In the interest of keeping a reasonable budget, not to mention my sanity, I've had to come up with my own set of time-and-money-saving tips over the years.

I should start by noting that kids' birthdays seem to have taken on a life of their own for the current generations of kids.  When I was a kid, my mom threw a handful of M&Ms on a homemade cake, and we called it good.  There were no goody bags, no inflatables, no farm animals or clowns.  And yet I never felt cheated or unloved; my parents found plenty of ways to make birthdays a big deal in the ways that do count. 

So yes, let me publicly confess that I don't think every kid needs a giant, elaborate birthday party every year.  Or, for that matter, any year.  Birthdays are fun and meaningful because they celebrate a child's life.  When we get wildly elaborate with birthday parties, I wonder if we're actually depriving kids of the opportunity to appreciate the little joys.  For example:

  • Awaken the birthday girl on her birthday by singing "Happy Birthday" to her, and bring her breakfast in bed.
  • Have every member of the family make a list of ten things they love about the birthday kid.
  • Let the birthday kid plan the day!  They can take the family to their favorite park and choose a movie to watch as a family.

With all due respect to The Big Giant Pizza Place With Singing Animals, such places are outrageously expensive.  Yes, they're convenient.  But a parent can easily spend multiple hundreds of dollars on a party like that, and it seems there are plenty of smarter ways to spend the money, especially in tough economic times.  Parties at home do not have to be complicated or nightmarish.  One year we pushed all our living room furniture up against the walls and set up a tent in the living room.  It was enough to entertain the partygoers for hours.  Another year we set up inexpensive Slip 'n Slides in the backyard.  Yet another year I spent $20 on glow sticks at the dollar store (and that's a LOT of glow sticks)--the kids ran around happily in the backyard, all aglow.

Sometimes, of course, it's fun to do something special for a kids' party, but even then, you don't have to spend a fortune.  One year we held a party (for free!) at the local fire station, and the firefighters enjoyed showing the kids the hoses, sirens and ladders (I baked them an extra cake as thanks!).  Municipal parks and swimming pools often offer affordable rental fees for simple parties--it's a fraction of the cost of an expensive party place. 

Always remember Rule Number One of affordable birthday parties: the dollar store is your friend.  Instead of putting together "goody bags" for guests to take home (and let's just be honest, those things are usually filled up with junk), I buy a one-dollar toy at the dollar store for each guest.  Surprisingly, a dollar can still go a long way, especially for something like this.  For a summery theme one year, I sent home one-dollar beach balls.  After a princess party, I sent home one-dollar crowns.  Other great dollar store goodies include sidewalk chalk, bubbles, water guns, jump ropes and more.  The kids love it, and the other parents will love you for not sending home a junky little bag.  Additionally, dollar stores tend to offer great options for party supplies like plates, napkins and invitations.

Basically, give yourself (and your checkbook) permission to keep kids' parties simple.  Children have been living for generations, feeling loved, affirmed and celebrated on their birthdays without the help of Sparky, Your Personal Birthday Clown.  You can do it!

Shannon Lowe writes at Rocks In My Dryer and The Parenting Post.

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