Inexpensive birthday party ideasLooking for less expensive ways to celebrate your child's birthday? Good news! You don’t have to rent the Taj Mahal of bouncy houses to throw a great party for your child. All it takes is a little planning and imagination. Here are five tips to help plan a blowout without breaking the bank.

Birthday on a budget

Deciding how much you can afford to spend is important for any household expense — and that includes throwing a party, says Christie Drakeley, a tax attorney and financial adviser in Seattle. Without setting a specific number in advance, you may be tempted to overspend. And, Drakeley says, another common cause of overspending is using credit to pay for costs. She recommends you set your budget based on what you can afford now, without relying on credit.

Limit party costs

Trimming the guest list is one way to reduce costs, as is having the party at home. If your backyard is the size of a postage stamp, however, consider the homes of family and friends: Does your dad have a romp-worthy yard? Would your sister trade the use of her “rec” room for a few hours of help cleaning out her nasty garage?

Even if you have to find a rental place, there are still good low-cost options. Be creative! If it’s the right time of year, a park can be a fun, affordable venue, and the games are built in. At Carkeek Park in Seattle, for example, you can rent picnic tables with a spectacular view of Puget Sound for as low as $10 for an afternoon, and the tables are right next to the cool kids’ play area. North Creek Park in Snohomish County has a great picnic shelter, rentable for only $40, while shelters in Tukwila start at a frugal $40 for residents.

For an indoor party, community centers are often a great budget choice. In Seattle, community center rooms start at $25/hour, and some have kitchens and A/V equipment — perfect if your tween wants to have a movie/pizza-making party. Parks often have indoor rental spaces, too, and although some are fairly expensive, others, like the log cabin at Bicentennial Park in Tukwila ($40 for a half-day for residents), won’t blow the budget.

Timing can also affect costs. If you have a party around lunch or dinner, you can expect people to need more to eat. In early afternoon, a few appetizers, some punch and cake will keep everyone happy.

Save on birthday party basics

Those Dora the Explorer plates may look cute, but they cost. For licensed-character party supplies, even the cheapest source (see box) still charges more than $20 for 16 plates, cups and napkins. You can save money and still have a Shrek party if you buy just one character item, such as napkins (about $3.50 for 16), but get the cups and plates in a coordinating color, such as slime green.

Surprisingly, you can get licensed-character invitations for only a little more than it would cost to print ‘em on your computer. For less than $5, you can get 16 character invitations, including many Disney characters, at Oriental Trading Company.

Tame the wild goody bag

An almost universal parental gripe is the goody bag, a bag full of stickers and assorted doodads given to guests as they leave. Somehow, those $1 pencils and 50-cent stickers always add up to more than you would like. But there are ways to tame even this budget-busting monster. Here’s one: Give the little party-goers a great experience in combination with a “goody.” For my son’s firefighter birthday, we brought an invitation and doughnuts to our local fire station the morning of the party. Later that day, when they weren’t on call, the firefighters brought a fire truck to the party and let the kids climb inside. The firefighters couldn’t guarantee that they’d show up — they might have been on a call; check with your local station for its policy. Each kid also got a plastic firefighter helmet to take home, with a fire-dog pencil and a fruit snack inside. Total cost? Less than $15 for 12 kids.

Another great option is to think “used.” For a construction-worker party, look on eBay and at thrift shops for used toy plastic tools you can clean. Then, contact your local Home Depot, where they are usually happy to give you kid-sized tool aprons for a party at minimal cost. Fill the aprons with the tools and a sweet treat and there you have it: fabulous “goody bags” at a price you can afford.

Kathryn Russell Selk writes, works and throws budget birthday parties with her husband for her two kids in Seattle.

Birthday girl with party crown

Keep it cheap — and fun!
Here are 12 helpful tips from Corey Colwell-Lipson, co-author of Celebrate Green and the founder of Green Halloween.

1. Use free e-invitations through a site like Evite or a video email.

2. Instead of decorating the whole house, choose one part of the room, such as a table, to adorn.

3. Make flower crowns as an activity and party favor.

4. Choose a theme with built-in activities and party favors. For instance, cooking could be the theme, and the children would bake treats to take home as party favors.

5. Match the number of guests with the birthday child’s age. A lot of money can be saved on food and  party favors if you keep the numbers down.

6. Make thank-you notes from pieces of wrapping paper left over from gifts.

7. Throw a party every other year; in between, acknowledge birthdays with a small family celebration.

8. Combine the party with friends and the family party so you only celebrate once this year.

9. Keep the party to no more than one and a half hours long.

10. Plan the party between lunch and dinner so you can provide snacks without a full meal.

11. Have an old-fashioned cake-and-ice-cream party. Play classic games such as Pin the Tail on the Donkey, Musical Chairs and Duck Duck Goose.

12. Instead of buying décor, fill the party space with framed photos of the birthday child from the time she was born to today. Accent with freshly cut flowers.

4 tips from our Facebook fans
1. Build-your-own pizza party! Get cheap kid aprons from Michaels, decorate with washable markers, pat out dough balls from Trader Joe’s. —Kris K.

2. Scavenger hunts and obstacle courses. You can even set them up inside if the weather is too yucky outside! Best of all, they’re free — you can use what you already have. —Shannon M.

3. We did a Nerf party. . . Made a cake frosted like a bulls-eye with a few Nerf darts stuck in. We played (with Nerf balls) outside, but this could work indoors if you had a big rec room. —Becky H.

4. Mud party BBQ bash in our under-construction backyard! —Matina F.

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