How to Throw an Affordable Kids Birthday Party

Have you been to a child’s birthday party recently? If so, you may have noticed the cost of children’s birthday parties is out of control. Thanks in large part to social media, some parents are spending more on a single kid’s birthday party than others spend on a wedding.

According to a survey from BabyCenter of more than 5,000 parents, one in four reported spending at least $500 on their child’s first birthday party alone. While a majority spent $200 or less, 11 percent admitted to spending more than $500.

Although a majority of parents are doing their best to rein in spending when it comes to children’s birthday parties, a study from Real Insurance found that more than seven in 10 parents feel like social media and celebrities have influenced them to throw visually impressive parties for their kids.

“You look at Pinterest, and you see all of these awesome parties and people on social media sharing and competing, and it’s like – I would like to do that one day,” said Tasha Holland, who spent $5,400 on her son’s first birthday. 

The tab for Holland’s son’s party included a $1,000 party planner, $2,000 for the country club venue and food, a giant penguin made of balloons that ran $1,200, and more. 

But it’s not just about where you throw your child’s birthday party or the food that is provided – it’s in the small details where parents notice others are splurging.

“Oh, the treat bags are where I feel pressure, for sure,” says Jessika Boles, a mom of two in Nashville. “Some moms have custom-made cookies that they individually package with, ‘So-and-so’s 4th birthday,’ and a princess tiara on it, that kind of thing, and a bunch of little toys and candies, and you can tell, well, this probably cost $15 or $20 per kid.”

Is it Wrong to Spend Big for Your Kids Birthday?

Maybe your child’s birthday is the one day each year that family comes from near and far. Or perhaps you’re the type of family that prefers to bring cupcakes to school and spend the birthday budget on a family getaway to Disneyland instead. Whatever your family decides to do is a personal decision, not just a financial one.

But with inflation, higher interest rates, soaring fuel prices, and an overall more expensive cost of living, throwing a super-pricey birthday party is not in most families’ budgets.

“We all want to celebrate our kids and there is no reason to feel like you must hold back if you want to go big. But you don’t have to spend a ton for kids to have fun,” says Jay Tanner, an event planning expert based out of Los Angeles.

Tanner says her best advice for parents is to not stress out over what everyone else is doing because, when it comes right down to it, the kids don’t care. “I made a living off of birthday parties, but, truth be told, kids love birthdays in the park with cake and pizza,” says Tanner.

Tanner said that the best advice she can give is to really figure out what your child wants and then decide how to budget to get there.

Having the Birthday Budget Talk With Your Kids

So how do you have this conversation with your children, particularly if they socialize with children whose parents are working with budgets that are not as thinly stretched as yours?

Start with “basic commerce lessons around needs, wants, basics and discretionary spending in a way that is appropriate for the young person’s developmental level,” says Jocelyn Brewer, a psychologist who started her career as a commerce teacher.

She says that we can help children to better understand money by making them aware of the value of different items using everyday things such as supermarket produce.

“Noticing things like the cost of fruit and veggies, especially when things are in and out of season, [helps] them understand basic economic principles like supply and demand, and helps them have a sense of fluctuations and buying choices,” she says, citing the fluctuating price of strawberries as an example.

When it comes to birthday parties, you can share with your kids that if they don’t have a party, you’ll have a larger budget to spend on birthday presents for them, but if they decide they do want a party, it will likely mean fewer presents. There’s no need to talk to your child about the actual dollars you’re spending, but this helps your child understand the financial aspect of having a party while also feeling like they got to have input.

Of course, your child may ask you why some of their friends got several birthday presents AND a birthday party. Brewer says explaining why we can’t keep up with others who might be better off is easier said than done, but that discussing what’s in line with the family’s values can help.

Although some parents are realizing splurging on a child’s birthday party may not be the best way to spend money and celebrate their child, it can be harder to set financial boundaries as your kids get older and want what their friends have.

Talking to the Guardian, one parent, David, shared that no parent wants to say no to their kids and that he is dreading the day his kids start asking for iPhones and limited-edition sneakers. At the same time, he agrees with Brewer that having these tough conversations about money with kids can benefit them in the long run.

“If we build that awareness around cost and worth from now, then hopefully when they are older, they will understand that sometimes getting something big in life is about making small sacrifices along the way,” David said. He added that it can also be helpful when talking to your kids about money, to be honest and transparent about why you’re saying no. 

“It helps them understand that it’s not about saying no because you want them to be unhappy; rather, it’s about learning to live within your means. Some people having more than others is a fact of life,” he says.

Event planner Keri Levitt, who charges $5,000 to $20,000 for milestone events that have occasionally included upscale birthday parties for children, agreed that social media is driving up the cost of children’s birthday parties.

“We’re living in a very stylistic world, where there is incredible inspiration and content online that is visual eye candy,” she told Moneyish. “You can find a whale party, a pop star party, whatever your child is into. Everything is about the next level of detail.”

“Often social media is just one huge advertisement so having not only financial but digital literacy to spot this – and inflated prices – are helpful skills,” Brewer said.

For families with more than one kid, those who tended to splurge on their first child don’t roll out the same fanfare for their second, third, or fourth child because they realize young kids really don’t remember much about their early birthdays. And spending an average of $400 per birthday party can really chip away at your budget, especially if you have more than one child. 

“For the first kid it was insane, like renting train cars at the train museum, a custom cake, lunch and appetizers, drinks and entertainment. Now with the second, I just buy cupcakes for her preschool friends and drop it off at class. So, um, $5 all in?” says Molly Sakahara, a mom of two in South Pasadena, California.

9 Tips to Throw an Affordable Kids’ Birthday Party

1. Determine Your Budget First

Decide exactly how much you want to and can afford to spend. Create a detailed budget that outlines how much you’ll spend on food, cake, entertainment, activities, party favors, and gifts, and stick to it. Don’t stress out over what everyone else is doing, reminds Tanner.

Talk to your child about what kind of theme they want for their birthday party, and shop at home first to see what items you can reuse for your party. Do you have leftover napkins and paper plates from a previous party that would work? For example, if your child wants a “Frozen” themed party, you can use leftover blue and white napkins or plates, even if they don’t have the branded-character images on them.

Avoid leaving things to the last minute so that you don’t have to pay premium prices or for rush shipping, ask friends or family members if they would be able to help with any activities such as painting faces, making balloon animals, or even baking a cake. Also, be sure to check out what activities and events are currently on sale on sites such as Groupon. 

2. Consider Your Child’s Age

There are years to scrimp and years to splurge on your child’s birthday, and that depends largely on how old your kid is and how much of the party they’ll remember. Many parents do a big blowout party for their child’s first birthday, but Tanner recommends you save up for an age they’ll remember. She likes to spend big on milestone years like 5 and 10 while giving modest parties during the years in between.

“One-year-olds won’t remember all of the time and money you put into their party. If you’re throwing that party to acknowledge that you made it through a year of parenting, then make that party about you,” says Tanner. 

3. Find an Affordable Venue

It can be tempting to throw a birthday party outside of your home, but venues like indoor play gyms, roller skating rinks, or Chuck E. Cheese can typically run from around $200 to well over $500, depending on the number of guests and any add-on services.

The first and most obvious free place to host a party is your home or yard. If that’s not doable, consider asking a close friend or relative to host the party at their home. Park picnic shelters are another great option that are typically free and can be reserved in advance. Parks often come with free entertainment as well such as a playground, beach or splash pads. You can dress these outdoor locations up with decorations, and the best part of all is that your house is spared from the impact of a party hurricane.

4. Avoid Overinviting Guests

Are you inviting the whole class or just a few of your kid’s best friends? Consider where you’re throwing the party and what you want to do during the event when making the guest list. 

“My daughter is going to a birthday party that is just the birthday girl and two friends, and they’re going to do something special together, and that’s it,” said Caroline Willson, an educator and mom to a 6-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son in Memphis.

Wilson says other parents have shared similar relief about this shift in party size. “It definitely feels like people are glad to be able to reimagine how we do it,” she says, “that it doesn’t have to be this high-pressure thing. It can just be a few friends hanging out.”

Limiting the guest list not only helps your budget but it also helps the budgets of other parents who note that buying birthday presents for 30 kids or more every year can add up real quick.

If you do feel inclined to invite the entire class, one recommendation is to turn the party into a potluck – ask the parents to skip bringing gifts and instead bring a dish to share. 

5. Stick to Basic Cakes

Buying a fancy cake from a bakery can easily set you back at least $50. Since most kids don’t have particularly fancy or sophisticated tastes, a grocery store boxed cake mix is an easy crowd-pleaser.

“A cake’s a cake! If you want to impress your friends with an expensive one, go for it—but kids just don’t care,” says Tanner. “Throw a plastic toy on it and call it a day.”

Tanner says in her years managing a kids’ party venue, she never heard a child give sophisticated commentary on the flavor, texture, and culinary fortitude of a birthday cake. So, as it turns out, if you grew up on Duncan Hines boxed birthday cakes or sheet cakes from the grocery store, you’re probably just as well-adjusted as your friends who got their cakes from a high-end baker.

A bonus with making your own cake? You’ll be able to add a homemade, personal, memorable touch to the cake. Another bonus with a simple cake? Any leftover cake won’t seem like such a waste of money. 

6. Avoid Parties Around Meal Times

Most parents reported spending more than 50 percent of their party budget on food. But this is a kid’s party, not a cocktail soiree. In other words, the kids are often too busy playing to even notice the delectable spread you’ve laid out. 

“I saw gorgeous spreads go to waste while parents begged guests to take home plates of food,” says Tanner. Kids are always too busy playing to eat, so if you’re looking for a way to cut costs, either keep it straightforward with pizza, chips, and cake—or opt for a party that takes place just after, or finishes just before, a meal time, like 10 a.m. or 2 p.m. – so you’re not expected to serve a meal.

“Kids are such picky eaters anyway. Give them just enough to keep their blood sugar on track,” says Tanner, adding that a big spread doesn’t fare well sitting out for two or more hours during a kids’ party, and children rarely touch the fresh fruits and vegetables that hosts put out.

“If they have a choice to keep playing or to stop for a plate of blueberries and broccoli, they’re going to keep playing,” says Tanner. 

If you feel the urge to put out food just in case, consider platters of snack-style finger food items like small sandwiches, mini corn dogs, sliders, or fruit. And don’t forget about the cake!

7. Digital Invitations

Physical invitations may be cute and fun to receive, but it’s hard to beat the cost of digital invitations. Sites such as Paperless Post or Canva provide free invitation templates that are super easy to customize, plus it’s quick and easy to share them online. But for those parents who don’t have time or the patience to create a custom e-vite, writing out the details in a text message also works. 

8. Dollar Store Decorations

It can be tempting to shop at a party supply store, but when it comes to affordable birthday parties, dollar stores will be your best friend. Here you can find garlands, banners, balloons, streamers, party hats, plates, napkins, cups, tablecloths, piñatas, and other creative decor to create the perfect birthday ambiance. 

Another bonus of shopping at the dollar store? You may find affordable items you can use in a goody bag, such as a small container of bubbles or stickers.

9. Entertainment

If you are going to splurge in one area of your birthday budget, Tanner recommends you spend money on entertainment. But don’t take that to mean you need to hire a bunch of characters, a magician, have an elaborate bounce house, a petting zoo, unicorns, and a firetruck parked outside of your house with real firefighters.

“You don’t need to plan for a whole lot of things for kids to do, but I do recommend that you plan for one solid activity,” she says, adding that too many activities can be overwhelming for kids who just want to play and socialize.

Tanner’s favorite birthday activity? A bounce house. Bounce houses go the distance when it comes to keeping kids happy and busy, and they are enjoyed by a wide range of ages. “You’d be surprised, even older kids like bounce houses,” says Tanner. “And they don’t have to be expensive.”

Not only do kids enjoy bounce houses, but parents enjoy them because it helps kids get their energy out.

“Parents love other parents who throw parties that send their kids home tired,” she says.

When it comes to bounce houses, you can rent one for the day or splurge and buy your own and have it to use at future birthday parties, summer parties, and any other party you can think of.

If a bounce house is not in your budget, there are other no-cost entertainment options you can consider.

  • Scavenger Hunt:  A scavenger hunt works well for all age groups because you can customize the clues and prizes to the theme of the party and the ages of the kids. Before guests arrive, scatter the items around the house or outside. Depending on the age of the kids, you can leave them out in the open or hide them to make the game more difficult. You can purchase toy soldiers, fake coins, or other small items from a dollar store or use items you already have around the house. Give each kid a maximum number of items they can find (to avoid hoarding), or have them break into teams. To make the hunt more challenging for older kids, have it take place in a dark room or outside at night with kids using flashlights or glow sticks.
  • Obstacle Course: An obstacle course can be done in the yard, in the garage, or even inside the house. It takes some prep work, but it gets the kids active and moving. You can even customize the course based on the theme of the party. For example, create a princess challenge where you have to balance a crown on your head or a superhero training course that requires jumping back and forth, climbing through, and climbing over obstacles — but only using items you already have on hand. Track individual times or group times through the course with the goal of improving upon the initial time on each successive try. Creative challenges can be added in different rounds, such as going through the course backward, on one leg, hopping, holding something, blindfolded, etc. The sillier the added challenge, the more fun the kids will have.
  • Classic No-Cost Games: Classic guessing games like Charades, Pictionary or a team version of Family Feud can be party pleasers. Other classic party games to consider includes musical chairs or the modern version, freeze-dance. Not only are these games simple, but they also keep kids entertained for close to an hour.

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