Finding the Happy Median for the Kid’s Birthday Party Budget

I remember the comment clearly because it seemed so outrageous to me: “My kids’ birthdays always run at least a thousand dollars.”

I was at the playground with several of the other mothers of kids in Little Bit’s preschool class, and the topic had turned to birthday parties. And their expense, because kid’s birthday parties aren’t cheap.

Now a grand seems expensive to me, but in fairness to this mom her children’s birthdays are close together but the kids aren’t so close in age that they can easily share the same party. She and her husband probably buy nice gifts for each child. If they rent a venue for each child and provide all-organic gluten free party food (which was their family’s normal diet), it’s going to approach $1000 for the month easily.

But if $500 sounds crazy high to celebrate a kid’s birthday, then you may not have been to any lately.

The New Normal in the Kid’s Birthday Party

When I was a kid, you got invited to a party, usually at someone’s house. There might be 10 or 12 kids there, and you’d all known each other forever. You’d play a few rounds of pin the tail on the donkey, or just run around outside for a while until the mom brought out cake, ice cream and Koolaid. Then you’d watch as the birthday boy or girl opened their presents and everyone went home.

That was the basic script for every party I went to under the age of 8, when a few luckier kids started adding an occasional Piñata. Occasionally someone would have their party at McDonald’s. If the kid was really lucky, their parents would have a party at the bowling alley or roller skating rink, or maybe a pool in the summer.

Imagine my surprise when we started attending birthday parties in the 21st Century.

At first, it wasn’t an issue. We spent Little Bit’s first few years with family-only birthday celebrations with a cake and a few decorations, and assumed most others did the same.

It was a real shock to me when Little Bit went to preschool and started getting invited to her classmates’ birthday parties and I realized how much had changed. The first “Happy 4th Birthday” party we attended was at a place full of bounce houses, and it was one of the less elaborate ones. Even parties at private homes were visited by Disney Princesses who painted faces and directed crown-decorating sessions.

It’s not enough to provide cake and soda either. Much more elaborate spreads (including healthy options or at least a big tray of ChikFilA nuggets) are the norm, as are gift bags for all of the guests.

Costs add up quickly.

How We’ve Handled Our Kid’s Birthday Party

We’ve thrown three birthday parties with three very different costs.

Little Bit’s 4th Birthday, when I had a good paying secure job, was held at a children’s gym. We had a dedicated hostess who helped us organize our party, ran activities for the kids, and handled all of the clean up. The gym also provided water and juice. The cost for the party was about $300 for the venue and another $200 for food, decorations and party bags.

The party was well attended and the kids had a great time. Little Bit loved it and still talks about it. The cost, though, was pretty crazy.

The next year, I had lost my job and we tried a much cheaper party. We rented a park shelter for $30, and bought a bunch of Gatorade and bottled water to go with our lighter snacks and cake. We bought fancy Monster High invitations and decorations to make everything look festive and a piñata stuffed with cheap candy. And ice. Lots of ice.

It was mid June. It was afternoon. It was miserably hot. Only a few kids came and the playground equipment was too hot to use. The party was on the cheaper side, but it was not a success.

So for birthday number 6, I tried to find a happy median. We needed something that was not going to be miserably hot and boring. Not ridiculously expensive. And not at my house.

Why Not a House Party?

Okay, I understand that I’ve just ruled out the top way of making a kid’s birthday party more affordable: Skip the Venue. 

If you can have a kid’s party at your house, you save a lot of money. Unfortunately, that’s not practical for us. We have a fair sized space but we also have a storage issue. Or a stuff issue, take your pick. We have more stuff than we can easily display, and small closets. We’re working on having less, but it’s a process, and for now we really can only accommodate a few guests at a time. Particularly when said guests are likely to want to run, jump and act like 6 year olds.

There’s also the problem of entertaining the kiddos. I am not one of those moms who is going to browse Pinterest to come up with cheap party ideas. There are a ton of great ideas out there, and I salute the moms and dads who can turn that wealth of options into a great kid’s party.

I’m not one of those moms. I’m a “have fun, kid!” kind of mom. Therefore, I need a “have fun, kid!” kind of party.

We had a pool party instead.

Finding the Happy Median for the Kid's Birthday Party Budget

Leveraging Our Connections

I’ve mentioned already that we have a backyard pool. It’s fun, it’s great and while it’s bigger than average for an inflatable, it’s not big enough for a crowd.

My in-laws, however, live in a neighborhood with a community pool. With their help, we rented the pool for Little Bit’s party. The cost was a very reasonable $70, which covered the cost of having life guards on duty.

We couldn’t have done this without using our network. I’ve been to other parties where parents used their resource network to lower the cost of the party. One couple we knew had their son’s party at the father’s karate studio. The party had nothing to do with karate, but the studio provided a nice open space for the kids to play. We’ve been to a birthday party at a church where the child’s grandparents were members. Another friend borrowed two Little Tikes bounce houses from friends to provide entertainment at her kid’s birthday party.

By asking Jon’s parents to reserve the pool, we got to use an inexpensive and fun venue for the party.

Limit the Invitations

You don’t need a huge guest list to have a great party. I’ve seen suggestions that the rule of thumb is that you should invite one child for each year of life. Our guest list was slightly larger than that, but I still limited Little Bit to 12 invitations. She invited some from school and some from church. About half accepted, which gave us requisite 6 for 6 years old. Add a little brother and a little sister and we had a total of 9 kids and 11 adults, including our lifeguard.

Keeping the guest list limited keeps your cost down. Not only did the venue charge less for a smaller party, but we spent less on food and we had a more enjoyable day with fewer little swimmers to keep our eyes on.

As long as we’re on the subject of invitations, let me say this is not a place to spend money.

Last year, my daughter insisted we pick up Monster High invitations for the party. Don’t buy invitations, no matter how cute. Your child will not remember to give them out, and no one uses paper anymore. Sign up with Evite and you can easily track who has accepted and how many are attending, who is bringing siblings, and who hasn’t gotten their invitation yet.

Affordable Eats

One thing we knew was that our venue would not provide any of the refreshments, which meant we would be responsible for all of the food and drink.

Some venues provide no food, some provide all but the cake. Those are two very different costs that might look the same at first glance. If you are trying to figure out if paying a lot for a fun party site is worth the cost, make sure to factor any other party needs they are providing into your calculations.

One great way to save money on party food for a kid’s birthday party is to make your own. You still want to make sure that you have attractive and age appropriate food, and you need a great looking cake that will thrill rather than embarrass your kid.

With that in mind, Little Bit and I made some practice cakes to see if we couldn’t manage a reasonable birthday dessert. My cakes taste okay, but my icing skills leave much to be desired. I decided I’d be better off paying for a cake.

I checked Groupon and other coupon sites, but didn’t find a good deal for a cake. I went to our local Lowe’s Foods to order a reasonable cake, knowing they’ve provided a nice professional looking cake for $30.

For the rest of the food, the key was to keep the food fairly limited. These were 6 year olds, after all, so they weren’t going to eat a ton. If we’d had a grill available, we might have gone with hot dogs, but since it wasn’t, we figured cheese pizza was the least expensive popular kid’s option.  My father-in-law volunteered to pick up pizza and we used the special Domino’s was running.

When I picked up the cake, I also picked up chips, dip, watermelon and some berries. While I went with more expensive pre-washed berries, I sliced up the watermelon myself and put it into an aluminum lasagna pan. We also had some juice boxes and bottled water, and bought some ice for a couple of coolers.

Dollar Store Treats

Here’s the thing about treat bags: for the most part, whatever you get will get thrown away within a day or two, as soon as the parents step on the little cars or noisemakers one too many times. However, kids love the treat bags, and they expect them when they go to another kid’s birthday party.

It doesn’t matter what’s in the treat bag. 

When Little Bit was 4, I didn’t realize the treat bag conundrum. I picked up birthday party treat bags from Oriental Trading Company, and spent a fair amount on giving each kid a perfectly coordinated bag with a beach ball, sunglasses and a water gun. It was adorable, but it was also pricy.

This year, I went to the dollar store. I got the bags there (8 for $1), as well as a couple of bags of glow sticks, balloons, paper noisemakers, and beaded necklaces. The kids were just as happy with blowing up the balloons and making a racket as they’d been with the fancier contents a couple of years ago. And I spent about $6 total instead of $25.

The dollar store is your friend when it comes to kid’s birthday parties. It’s by far the best place to pick up cards if you aren’t going to make your own at 2 for $1, plus it’s a good source for gift bags, paper plates and napkins, and mylar helium balloons.

The only party supply I pick up elsewhere is plastic utensils, since I’ve found that the ones my local dollar store carries to break pretty easily.

The Happy Median

The total cost for Little Bit’s 6th birthday party was around $300. She declared it “Best Party Ever!” and immediately asked if we could do a pool party again next year.

Our total cost for the party was about the same as last year. We just substituted the park and the piñata for a pool and a lifeguard, and had a much better time.

I know there are cheaper ways to do a kid’s birthday party. A backyard barbecue, a homemade cake and skipping the treat bags entirely might have brought our total cost of birthday #6 under $100. 

Or maybe not.

While we didn’t find the cheapest option for our kid’s birthday party, we did find good value. We ended up with a very easy-to-throw party that my daughter greatly enjoyed. She got to be one of the cool kids with a terrific birthday party, and her parents kept the stress of party-planning to a minimum.

Birthday #6 was the happy median in the birthday party budget: a good return on fun per dollar spent. When it comes to budgeting for your kid’s birthday party, that’s the most important consideration we could have.

How do you save on celebrations? What things are you spending extra on?

Ways to Save on Your Kid's Birthday Party

Top Image courtesy of Yongkiet at FreeDigitalPhotos.net with changes.

*Part of Financially Savvy Saturdays on brokeGIRLrich and, Disease Called Debt*

 

22 thoughts on “Finding the Happy Median for the Kid’s Birthday Party Budget

  1. We hosted a Survivor theme party (TV show) for our twins one year at our house. We came up with several games for the guest to play. They had a blast. It was much better than the overprice parties we had paid for at other places. It just comes down to the kids want to hang out with their friends. If you can give them something to do and feed them they will be happy.
    Brian @DebtDiscipline recently posted…Father’s Day: What My Dad Taught Me about Personal FinanceMy Profile

    • I do think the kids just want to be together, and we parents would do well to remember that. I hope that as Little Bit gets older we can involve her more with the party planning and entertainment, which might make an at-home party easier to do.

  2. When my kids were growing up, it was in the age (and peer group) of fancy parties. Frugality wasn’t important to me then as I was making a good salary and keeping up with the Joneses. Even at the time though, I thought it was a bit much. It sounds like you’ve struck the right chord with Little Bit’s latest party and found some great ways to save without skimping.
    Gary @ Super Saving Tips recently posted…The Middle Ages Part 3: Money Tips for Your 50’sMy Profile

    • The peer group is important. Most of the parties I’ve been to for Little Bit’s friends have been elaborate, and the kids are young enough that I think it’s clear that the parents are driving the party train and the costs. Little Bit’s favorite party activity for the last 2 parties she attended? A bunch of blown up balloons that the kids batted around the room. That’s not an expensive activity, but it was outside of what they might do on an everyday basis.

      (That said, she also enjoys parties that take place in a room full of bounce houses.)

  3. I loved hearing about what worked and didn’t work for your daughter’s parties. When I was growing up, I had birthdays at arcades, bowling alleys and laser tag, etc. It was all great fun, but a little too elaborate, because I don’t remember getting invited to any parties other than pool parties or parties in my friend’s backyard. My son is not even 1 yet, so we have a few years before we’ll have a party outside of just family, but I already know we will have to get creative, because there won’t be much in our party budget.
    Clearwing recently posted…The Ghosts of Clutter Past; or, the post in which I convince my husband I am a changed womanMy Profile

    • We waited until our daughter was 4 (and in preschool) before we started in on the kid parties. I realize we were lucky that we could put it off so long, but she didn’t seem to mind family-only parties and a trip to the kid’s museum as her birthday treat for birthdays 2 and 3. (Birthday #1 was a big family party and a big deal, but first birthdays are really for the parents and the pictures of babies smashing cake.) Putting off birthday parties for a couple of years was one of our better decisions.

  4. I think you settled on a perfect median! I had some pricey parties growing up (Pinterest-esque but arcades and things like that), and I remember getting to a certain age and switching to movies with a few friends and being equally happy. There is so much pressure on parents! Social media and crafting shows make it so much worse. It’s amazing how little it takes to make kids happy. So glad Little Bit had the best birthday ever!

    • Pinterest makes me feel guilty. I know I could save money on parties and presents if I could just leverage those crafting/baking/cool activity skills. Alas, I know and work within my limitations. Pizza and pool parties for us!

  5. I have been routinely surprised by the attitudes of some of the parents in our area who insist the same as you’ve heard: “wait until you have yours, you’ll HAVE to have parties like this!” I have a really hard time with that because no, I don’t think that’s true at all. Fun comes at all price points if you account for kids with energy, weather, and some entertainment, right?

    We did overspend on JuggerBaby’s first birthday except it wasn’t a party, it was dinner with our close friends, so I GUESS about $450 for hosting a dozen adults isn’t totally outrageous? The bill still shocked me but then I resolved to try something on the level of a BBQ next time, weather permitting, and skip things that will only be thrown out like favors and decorations (if possible). 🙂
    Revanche @ A Gai Shan Life recently posted…Emerald City 2016My Profile

    • One of these days I will be brave and skip the favors. Until then, glow sticks are awesome (you can get them at the dollar store, and they are going to be thrown out after one use so no extra stuff to step on in my kid’s room.) Not ecologically friendly, but awesome.
      As I told Clearwing, we skipped kid parties until our daughter was 4, and that was a great choice. We’d take our daughter to the kid’s museum for the day (special treat she loves) and then have dinner and cake at my in-laws’ house. I highly recommend putting off the parties until JuggerBaby insists otherwise.

  6. We’ve tried venues a couple of times, running around $350 each. Thankfully, my kids’ friends never had really expensive parties themselves – typically it has been parties at their homes with cake, ice cream and games. They are in their teens now and really just want to spend time with their friends – last December we had 15 screaming 12 to 13 year old girls at our house for 3 hours (it was a very long 3 hours). We decided just a handful of close friends for a sleepover is the best option and one we will stick with from here on out.

    Glad to hear Little Bit had a great birthday party!
    Amanda @ centsiblyrich recently posted…Are you scared to invest? How to get past your fear and get startedMy Profile

    • 15 teen/tweens? You are very brave, Amanda.
      I think a small slumber party or trip to the movies with friends will become the norm as Little Bit gets older. I know that 3 or 4 friends became the norm after 10 or so. I guess by that time your friends are closer and less dependent on who your friend’s parents are and who is in your class at school.

  7. Yay for keeping it simple! We used to just order pizza and have a slumber party with a movie or two from Blockbuster… back in the dark ages, I know, but it was still tons of fun.

    • Ha, ha. I went to slumber parties before Blockbuster was a thing, but remember that renting a movie was the overwhelming favorite hang-out activity in high school. There was such an art to picking out a movie that everyone would enjoy, that no one had seen more than a couple of times and that was actually in stock! Not to mention getting the movie back to the video store on time.
      At least slumber parties tend to have smaller guest lists. We’re still a few years away from that being our daughter’s preferred birthday party.

  8. We’ll see if we ever have to worry about such things. I hope to never be so grateful to have the conundrum that I go overboard. I think I’m too stingy. We have a lot of birthday parties in the park next to our house, sometimes with bounce house. But even in the summer. I don’t get it. I can’t see how the kids can touch the park equipment, and 100+ heat? Ugh.

    So I’m not sure how we’d do it, especially now that we have the pool table — so it’s not like we’d want kids running around in the house. I think I’d probably look into Chuck E Cheese prices or a skating rink or something. Failing that, pray for a birthday in the cool months and let them run around the park with some water guns.
    Abigail @ipickuppennies recently posted…America’s (and my) financial anxietyMy Profile

    • Heat is a problem with a summer birthday, as we found out last year. I think if you can get a morning party at the park, it’s not too bad as the sun hasn’t had a chance to cook the equipment. By afternoon, though, those slides and swings are sizzling. And Raleigh’s not nearly as bad as Phoenix.
      The skating rink here was the next cheapest option, because I found a Groupon for $90. Actually, it was cheaper because it included pizza and drinks. I wasn’t sure I could get a good date with it, though, and Little Bit has never been skating before. Most of the other sites I looked at (kid’s museums, bounce house places, kid gyms, movie theaters) ran about $250 for weekday parties and $300 for weekends for 10 kids, and for most you have to provide food. It’s expensive.

  9. I went to (and had) the same exact kind of birthday parties you did, Emily. I LOVE the pool party idea. Good for you to be able to swing that. If I were a kid I’d be so excited to attend. Recently I noticed at the Sweet Frog (frozen yogurt) near us, they have a big table set up for birthday parties. Depending on what you choose I believe the average price is around $10-12 per child. I thought that was a fabulous idea – not in your own home, the sweet tooth is taken care of, and there’s a time limitation.
    Mrs Groovy recently posted…Don’t Be A Method Actor When It Comes To Your FinancesMy Profile

    • $10-12 per person is pretty reasonable for a kid’s party. And I love that they have a special table set up for parties. Our daughter loves froyo and that might be a possibility for a future party.

  10. I have a simple rule. 1st 5 birthdays the kids get these crazy parties and after that they have a gathering of sorts or a fun day with the family until they reach those milestone ages that “warrant” a birthday shindig. I’ve always kept the cost reasonable, but I agree the venue can take a toll.

    My daughter was born in February and I really hate having large crowds at our house so each year, except for year number 4, we had it at a local community center. I was able to leverage the costs by making all food myself and I think she has only had 2 professional cakes. The other years I made cupcakes. Instead of treat bags with all the stuff, I usually do something fun that’s food like for them to take home. For her 2nd bday she had a candy themed party so the kids got toothbrushes and their dabs at the candy bar.

    My son is the summer baby and I thought that it would be a good idea to have a yard party a few weeks ago. Not.a.good.idea. It was almost 100 degrees and I was darn near going to loose my mind in the southern heat. I kept costs down by doing picnic type foods and he had a cookie monster themed party so the guest got to take home a lot of cookies. At least next year I’ll know that we need a venue for his birthday because I will not be sitting in that heat again.

    These are all great tips and I am 100 percent with you that birthday parties have gotten outrageously out of hand!:)
    Latoya @ Life and a Budget recently posted…39 Inspiring Stories of People Who Hustled Away DebtMy Profile

    • I may have to adopt your idea with parties. Since we skipped birthday parties for years 2 and 3 I guess that would mean Little Bit would get a party next year and then not again until 10? 13? 16? There seem to be a lot of milestones once you hit double digits.
      Southern heat is a serious drawback to summer birthdays, especially for the adults. We’ll either stick to indoor parties or water activities.

    • The parties can be pretty expensive, but I’m not sure the most expensive or elaborate parties are the most fun. My daughter had a blast playing with balloons (just regular balloons, mind you. Not helium balloons) and dancing to kid song at her friend’s dad’s karate studio. They used the resource they had: a reasonably sized open space for the kids to play in and a blue tooth speaker hooked up to an iPhone. Other than that, the parents paid for food, paper plates and a couple of packets of balloons. I think my daughter enjoyed that as much as she did far more expensive parties at kid’s museums and indoor playgrounds.

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