I went too far. As I stood in my front yard – which my husband and I had spray painted to resemble a miniature football field – and observed the 68 people swarming my 1/4-acre lot, I realized that perhaps I’d overdone my daughter’s birthday party. Her second birthday party.

Going Overboard

According to the Florida Times-Union’s website, parents spend an average of $200 to $400 on birthday parties for kids. That’s more than we spend on Mother’s Day ($152), Father’s Day ($117.14), and Valentine’s Day ($126.04). The year my daughter turned two, I busted even that generous budget. Here’s how:

  • Invitations (25 invites to a total of 73 guests): $45
  • Postage (for those 25 invites): $10.50
  • Cakes (three total): $70
  • Decorations (balloons, “Happy Birthday” signs, centerpieces, and spray paint to decorate the aforementioned yard): $90
  • Food (hot dogs, hamburgers, buns, chips, pretzels, non-alcoholic beverages, corn, potatoes, and baked beans): $130
  • Disposable serving-ware (themed cups, napkins, plates, table cloths and utensils): $65
  • Party favors (mini-footballs for the boys; mini-pom-poms for the girls): $35

When it was all said and done, that three-hour party cost me a whopping $445.50. And while we were able to accommodate 68 children and adults – bringing our costs down to a more-respectable $6.55 per person – it was still overkill. Especially when you consider that the celebrant, now a very mature four-years-old, does not remember a minute of it.

Party Ideas On A Budget

Since the birthday debacle of 2010, I’ve toned my kids’ birthday parties down… way down. For example, last year when she turned three, we invited four families – whose kids we’ve known since literally they were born – over for a cookout; we spent a total of $185. We repeated the low cost party for my son’s first birthday in the spring, and spent about the same. Just last week, when my daughter turned four, she simply asked if her two best friends from dance class could come over for a play date and cake. I spent a grand total of $35 to make her dreams come true.

But what if your kid – or, let’s be honest, you – are jonesing for a big fete. There are ways to minimize the budget without minimizing the fun:

  • Don’t obsess over a theme. The year I had a football-themed party for my daughter, I made sure that every favor, every utensil, every piece of food revolved around the pigskin. Buying plain old party napkins would have cost me $3.99 for a pack of 50; instead, I talked myself into 12 napkins that looked like football for $2.99 a pack. Generic items will always cost you less than those that follow a theme.
  • Limit your guest list. I cannot stress this enough. When I planned that over-the-top party for my daughter, I didn’t even bother asking her whom she wanted in attendance. Instead, I fretted over sending invites to half of a play group, but not the other, and ended up inviting everyone just to cover my bases. If your child is old enough, simply ask her whom she wants to come; and if your child is too young to provide you with an answer, maybe you should ask yourself why it’s so important in the first place.
  • Don’t buy what you already own. Own a 16-serving set of every day serving ware? Already have a 100-piece utensil set? Don’t bother buying something new if you already own it. This may force you to limit your guest list to accommodate the number of plates you already own, but you know what? That’s ok.
  • Parents hate party favors. It took me a few years to realize this myself, but I really wish parents would skip party favors altogether. Trust me, my kids already have enough small, useless toys to provide a very merry Christmas to most of sub-Saharan Africa on their own, thankyouverymuch. Just skip them – everyone (over the age of 10) will thank you.
  • Bake the cake yourself. Ok, I realize that not everybody has baking skills. I’m chief among the “can’t bake” crowd. So if you can’t cut costs by DIY baking, try asking a friend with baking skills to make one for your child in lieu of bringing a gift. Or, do like I do – scour the bakery section at your local grocery store for baked goods that have been deeply discounted. This year, I found a custom-made princess cake that no one ever bothered to come pick up from the store. Instead of paying the $19.99 the person who ordered it would have, I got the 8-serving cake for $5.99.
  • Change the party time. Throwing a party from 4-7pm? Your guests will expect you to serve dinner. Instead, opt for a party that falls between meal times – like 2-4pm. You’ll be able to get away with serving cake, drinks, and light snacks instead of providing a full meal. On top of that, your guests won’t think you’re cheap, because they’ll understand – based on the time of the party alone – not to expect a meal.

But my most important piece of advice for low cost party ideas has nothing to do with the actual party – rather, it focuses on you, the host (or hostess) and your motives for the event. Are you having it for the right reasons? This can be a tough pill to swallow if you discover you’re up to something. For example, halfway through the 68-person party for my toddler, I realized that I was only trying to one-up all the other mothers who had thrown lavish first birthday parties for their kids. It was the completely wrong reason to have a party, and I believe that it showed to my guests.

Reader, what’s your typical budget for kids’ birthday parties? What low cost party ideas do you employ to keep your budget under control?

Libby Balke

Libby Balke