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Great, cheap birthday parties

Published on: March 27, 2009

Want to throw a bash without breaking the bank? We talked to some experts to get ideas for great parties that will leave a little something in the bank for the birthday child’s college fund.

Backyard birthday bashThe theme
Considering the child’s interests and passion should be first and foremost. Corey Colwell-Lipson, co-author of Celebrate Green, says that when her daughter turned 3, instead of asking her what kind of party she wanted, her mother suggested they have a “purple party.” Purple was her daughter’s absolute favorite color, so the child was immediately on board. Instead of heading to the nearest party store looking for purple party gear, the whole family went on a hunt around the house looking for anything purple to use for decoration. “It was eclectic, silly and fun,” Colwell-Lipson says. The menu included everything purple: grapes and grape juice, grape Jell-O, fig cookies and cupcakes with a purple frosting colored with all-natural, organic dye.

Amanda Soule, author of The Creative Family and the wildly popular blog SouleMama, learned her lesson the hard way. “I once threw a third birthday party for one of my children and hosted it at a large gym,” Soule says. “We invited so many children, and I thought it would be so much fun. Turns out, he spent the entire party snuggled up, nervous from all the attention, on my hip.”

When considering the space for a party, parents sometimes forget that their home or their backyard is oftentimes a perfect solution. It can also be more comfortable for the birthday child and guests — they know where the bathroom is, there’s back-up entertainment in the child’s room if the puppet show bombs, and siblings can take naps or get space to themselves if necessary.

The backyard and local parks also make for a cheap, kid-friendly venue. “Whenever a party can be outside in an open space, it’s advantageous for lots of reasons,” Soule says. “It gives lots of room for kids to run and play and keep themselves busy and happy, and of course, outside makes for easy clean-up too — always a bonus!”

The decorations
Walk into any party store and it can be easy to get carried away. You go in for balloons and leave with matching candles, noisemakers, streamers, confetti, piñatas and more — all because they matched your theme! Consider that nearly every item you’ll purchase in a party store ends up in the garbage. Do you really need to buy it? Why not make your own?

Portland mother Renee Limon, cofounder of Enviromom, did just that. “For decoration, we cut out letters that spell ‘Happy Birthday’ from old paper art projects the kids had made in preschool, then we strung them all up with string. It made for really festive and cheap party décor that the kids were proud of because they helped make it.”

Limon also hand-sewed some brightly colored cloth napkins to use and reuse. “Now we use them on a regular basis for lunchboxes and regular meals at home, but they always remind us of the fun party they were made for.” And Limon says making cloth napkins can be an excellent first project for someone who wants to learn to sew. Another great (and free!) idea: “On the eve of each child’s birthday, my husband and I flip through our photo doubles and pull a few dozen favorites of the birthday child,” says Soule. “We tape them up scattered throughout the house for them to discover throughout their birthday.” It’s a sweet and free way to celebrate the birthday child, which is, after all, what a birthday is all about.

The gifts
It’s become popular to request “no gifts” or ask that guests donate to a charity instead. These ideas keep the cost down for the guests and keep the birthday child’s closet from overflowing with large, plastic, noisy, licensed character toys that can make parents nauseous. They can also reduce stress. “Opening presents was like feeding time at the shark tank,” says Limon. “That aspect was what made me dislike parties, and by eliminating gifts, I’ve found parties are actually a ton of fun to host.”

Portland mother Heather Hawkins, co-founder of, suggests parents consider a book exchange. “Each guest is asked to bring a book from home, you put all the books in a pile on the floor, and the kids take turns picking out a ‘new’ book. You can do this with puzzles and art supplies, too.”

One year, Hawkins asked guests of her daughter’s party to bring pillows or blankets for a local nonprofit. Her daughter took great pride in delivering the items and received a lot of praise for her good deed from the nonprofit volunteers — a very positive experience for her.

Some parents worry that “no gifts” parties deprive guests of valuable gift-giving lessons — and a lot of fun! So what are some alternatives?

“For my daughter’s recent party, we included a line in her electronic invitation that read, ‘The gift is your presence. Handmade cards only, please,’” Colwell-Lipson says. “The cards that the guests made and brought were truly gifts from the heart, and my daughter was incredibly touched by their efforts. She didn’t ask once, “Where are my gifts?” — it was clear she already had them all around her.”

Colwell-Lipson also suggests guests pool their money to purchase one special gift for the child. This can be organized by one attendee, or via a Web site created for this purpose (ECHOage), if you don’t mind paying a fee. Parents could also request that guests bring one used item (either brought from home or purchased at a thrift or consignment shop) as a gift.

Setting expectations
If you decide to change your approach to parties, let your child know early and explain why. “Parents need to start talking to their child about the party early … so that there is enough time for the child to accept and embrace a scaled-back party,” says Hawkins. “If you are planning an at-home party, involve your child in planning and making party games and decorations and craft projects … a parent’s enthusiasm is contagious!”

Karen Dawson, owner of Dawson Communications Group, is the mother of two children and lives in Maple Valley.

Orange balloonKeep it cheap — and fun!

Here are more tips from Corey Colwell-Lipson, co-author of Celebrate Green:

  • Use free e-invitations through a site like Evite or a video email.
  • Instead of decorating the whole house, choose one part of the room, such as a table, to adorn.
  • 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.
  • Make flower crowns as an activity and party favor.
  • Choose a theme with built-in activities and party favors. For instance, cooking could be the theme, and the children would cook bake treats to take home as party favors.
  • 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.
  • Throw a party every other year; in between, acknowledge birthdays with a small family celebration.
  • Combine your friends and family party so you only celebrate once this year.
  • Keep the party to no more than one and a half hours long.
  • Plan the party between lunch and dinner so you can provide snacks without a full meal.
  • 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.
  • Make thank-you notes from pieces of the leftover wrapping paper from gifts.

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