Among über-hyped moments in kids’ lives, birthday parties rank up there with vacations, Christmas mornings and bar mitzvahs. But compared to the basement parties from back in the day, today’s celebrations have become way more elaborate, with extravagant price tags to match. (Events at venues or with entertainers, for example, will usually cost a few hundred dollars minimum.)
Rather than resenting Martha Stewart or pining for a pre-Pinterest era, check out our suggestions to avoid having to take out a loan while still throwing parties as blog-post-worthy as they are memorable.
It’s all in the planning
It may be a cliché, but “the early bird gets the worm” is a philosophy that savvy moms embrace for festive but frugal b’days.
Christina Dennis, a mom of three young girls and the creator of the lifestyle blog The DIY Mommy, advises going online at least six weeks to two months before birthdays to search for ideas or to visit handmade-product sites like Etsy for decorations. “Starting early helps save, because you’re not running out last minute to find what you need and paying too much, because you don’t have time to shop around.”
Home or away?
Given rental fees and hefty venue package prices, house parties are generally more affordable. But there are pocket-friendly locations. When her eldest son, Lincoln, turned four, mom of three Amanda Anderson-Maisonneuve booked a toy-filled room at a community centre, which cost about $200 for four hours. Frances Misquitta, mom to nine-year-old Naomi, also rented space in a community centre: Its $100 fee included sports equipment and room for 30 to 40 guests. “It wasn’t a fancy party, but people don’t care if they’re together to celebrate,” says Misquitta.
Other ways to save include finding a location that lets you bring in food, and, if you can swing it, booking mid-week, when many venues charge less.
Stretch the theme
Organizing parties around a theme is a smart way to focus the event. But you don’t need to buy everything branded.
When her middle daughter, Abigail, wanted her third birthday themed around Frozen’s character Anna, Dennis put her own spin on it. “I thought we’ll do it, but it’s not going to be character plates and balloons,” says Dennis. She incorporated colours and patterns from the movie’s wintry setting into the decor, food and activities. Dennis made puffy snow paint using white glue, shaving cream and glitter for Abigail’s besties to use in artwork, and they created snowflake ornaments with pipe cleaners and beads. For dessert, Dennis made cupcakes with teal-coloured icing and snowflake sprinkles.
Anderson-Maisonneuve also used colour to convey the superhero theme of her son Cash’s second birthday. She served cupcakes iced in superhero shades of red, blue and yellow, and her husband painted a fridge box tractor-red to create a Superman phone booth for the little caped crusaders’ costume changes. (Each guest was given a cape made by Anderson-Maisonneuve.)
Get creative when it comes to entertainment
It’s cheaper and more creative to skip the princess guest appearance or children’s magician in favour of DIY fun. For example, hold an activity in which princesses-in-training make their own crowns, or ask a musical friend to lead a singalong. Instead of a pricey tween spa, enlist friends to help give guests manicures.
If you decide to hire someone, look beyond traditional options. For Naomi’s eighth birthday, Misquitta found a henna artist who decorated partygoers’ hands for $5 per girl.
For Cash’s superhero party, Anderson-Maisonneuve had guests demonstrate “superpower strength” by lifting “barbells” crafted from toilet paper rolls wrapped in black tape fastened to the ends of paper towel tubes covered in silver tape. They also punched through stacked cereal and tissue boxes painted to look like bricks. And for Lincoln’s art-themed party, Anderson-Maisonneuve turned her backyard into a studio, with a huge blackboard made from plywood and chalkboard paint and big rolls of paper wrapped around the fence for painting.
Let them eat cupcakes
While not always cheaper to make than cakes, cupcakes provide more visual punch and are easier to serve and to send home with kids. Plus, if you add a themed topper to each one, every guest gets a special dessert.
But there are ways to save even on professional cakes. With points earned from her grocery store membership card, Misquitta paid half price for a Katy Perry cake for her daughter’s party themed around the pop singer.
And Dennis has gotten more bang for her buck by making mealtime itself an activity, having kids top their own pizzas.
Otherwise, reduce food costs by keeping the guest list short. For her part, Misquitta promotes a drop-off policy at parties, eliminating the need to feed parents.
Keep expectations in check
While decorations help determine whether a party feels festive or flat, don’t stress about dressing the whole house. Dennis focuses her flourishes on a dessert table. For her daughter Cadence’s ballerina-themed fifth birthday, Dennis decked the table in pink fabric and bottles of pink juice wrapped in printed ballerina labels.
Another way to lessen the load is to ask friends or family to pitch in rather than giving a present. Taya Knight, creator of the money-saving site Simply Frugal, held her daughter’s first two birthdays at her parents’ house, which is larger than hers. And Anderson-Maisonneuve asked a friend to make the cupcakes for Cash’s second birthday.
Finally, remember to keep expectations in check. Dennis, for instance, admits to a mini meltdown at the Frozen party when her dog ate six cupcakes. “In the end, there were enough and nobody knew,” Dennis recalls. “If one or two elements aren’t perfect, it doesn’t matter. As long as everybody has fun.”
A version of this article appeared in our March 2015 issue with the headline, “Birthday bashes that don’t break the bank”, p. 54.