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