Birthdays on a Budget

Make the Most of Your Child’s Special Day – Even When Money is Tight

By Carol Band

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Party Savings Ideas

Birthday parties and economic downturns are not an good combination. How do you keep spending under control while still making the day special for your birthday child? It’s all about balance. Cutting costs and eliminating frivolous extras may make it possible to splurge on what matters the most – making memories. We’ve talked to local parents, looked into local options and pulled together some innovative ideas and time-tested tips.

Turns out, there are plenty of ways to trim the birthday budget and keep the party – at home or away, with old-fashioned fun or a hired entertainer – within your financial grasp. Now, that’s something to celebrate!

Birthday partyThe Home-Grown Party

Inexpensive options for party venues abound, especially when the weather is good. If you have room at home, that’s the easiest option. But if your child has a summer birthday, consider hosting a birthday party at a local park or playground. Add cake, a few portable games and you’ve got a celebration that’s festive and extremely economical. Consider having pizzas delivered to the park or asking your local ice cream truck to stop by.

Let simplicity be the party theme, and your wallet and your guests will thank you. “I save money by using real plates and cups – not paper,” says Framingham, Mass. mom Angela Rodrigues. “It saves the environment, too.” Other cost-cutting ideas include substituting the Sunday comics for expensive wrapping paper, enlisting the kids to help make decorations and streamlining the menu. “I never serve actual meals,” Rodrigues says, “just cake, ice cream and a drink.”

When her daughter Iliana turned 2, Shannon Sakellariou made a sandcastle birthday cake, filled up the wading pool and sandbox, and set out fruit, chips and hotdogs. “The kids enjoyed the backyard and the adults enjoyed relaxing on a summer’s day,” she says. When her daughter Sophia turned 4, “we had a ‘fall leaves’ party. The kids enjoyed the swing set, and jumping in and throwing leaves around (we had several bags ready).” For gifts, Sakellariou asked for food donations for their church’s Thanksgiving baskets for the needy. “It was a lot of fun watching all the kids unwrap cans of corn and boxes of potatoes!”

Hiring a professional children’s entertainer adds a special touch to a home-grown party. And by cutting back on other party costs, an entertainer becomes even more affordable. “When my daughter turned 1, I hosted a party and invited my Mother’s Group,” says one mom. “It was a potluck lunch – which didn’t cost me much at all – so I felt like hiring a singer to lead a few circle songs and lap games wasn’t out of line.”

Don’t be afraid to rely on the tried-and-true activities of a home party. Musical chairs still gets kids’ adrenaline pumping and generations of 5-year-olds have been thrilled by being blindfolded for Pin the Tail on the Donkey. After all, these games are new to them. 
When Dawn Fukuda’s daughter Mia turned 6 in April, she planned a classic birthday party at home. “We played Hot Potato and Pin the Tail on the Donkey,” she says. “Then we had a treasure hunt, cake and it was done.” Fukada says her older daughter, who was nearly 9, invited a friend and, together, they helped the younger children with the games. “They had such a good time that now my older daughter wants an at-home party for her summer birthday.”

Fukuda plans to rent a projector and show movies during the upcoming party on a bed sheet hanging outside. “Then the girls will have a sleepover in tents.”

The Destination Party

If you don’t have the space to host a party – or the thought of a dozen kids at your house makes you queasy – there are ways to trim costs even if your party is at an outside venue.

“My son has had his birthday at Kimball Farm (which offers ice cream, mini golf, bumper boats and a country store) in Westford, MA  for four straight years,” says Charlotte Pierce, publisher of The Compleat Day Tripper series of books about local day trips. “Although Kimball’s doesn’t offer birthday party packages, it’s so easy to take a group of kids there because you can pick and choose your activities and, that way, keep the costs under control.”

For young children, Pierce also recommends a trip to the fire station. Check with your local firehouse before you arrive to make sure the firefighters are able to give children a quick tour. “It’s free,” she says, “And the preschoolers absolutely love it.”

Think creatively. Unexpected places to have a party – the beach, a community theater, a baseball stadium or nearby apple orchard – can be inexpensive options.

“When my twin girls were in their early teens, they didn’t think that there was anything cool enough for their birthday,” says Ginny Lawrence. “So I created a scavenger hunt at the mall, which is one of their favorite places on earth!” Lawrence scouted out all the available freebies available at the mall – a wrapped toothpick from a popular restaurant, a flyer from Lenscrafters, a perfume sample from Sephora – the week before. On the day of the hunt, the girls formed teams and, armed with a disposable camera to record their activities, they were set loose.

“Along with instructions and a camera, I gave each team money to get the film developed at the hour photo shop,” Lawrence says. “The teams had two hours to complete the assignments. We met afterward for ice cream sundaes. It was a huge success.”

Sometimes, for larger parties, it’s more affordable to book an outside venue than to try to host the hordes at home. Many attractions offering birthday party services feature all-inclusive packages, which put the entire party in the hands of professionals and give parents time to enjoy the fun

If you are considering booking a party at any outside venue, check out their Web site and look online for coupons and discounted hours for real savings.

MORE: See our Roundup of Party Savings Ideas


Putting on a Party: Adventure Parties for Kids, by Lori Bonner; Gibbs, Smith, 2004.

The Ultimate Birthday Party Book: 50 Complete and Creative Themes to Make Your Kid’s Special Day Fantastic!, by Susan Baltrus, Cook Communications, 2002.

Birthday Party Ideas for Kids – Themes, games, decorating ideas, cool party favors and everything else you need to know in order to host the best birthday ever.