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Low-Cost Birthday Party Ideas for Kids

Published on: July 01, 2008

Inexpensive birthday party ideas for kidsLast year, when Medi turned 4, his parents rented an entire room at the “bouncy house” gym for his birthday party. This year, they might skip it. “I’m not sure about the money,” says Medi’s mom, Kayce. “So we’re definitely considering doing a birthday party at home instead.”

Medi’s family is not alone. With an increasingly tough economy, many parents are looking for less expensive ways to celebrate their child’s special day. But those parents also worry that spending less might mean the birthday party won’t be as fun or special.

Good news! You don’t have to rent the Taj Mahal of bouncy houses to throw a great birthday party for your child. All it takes is a little planning and imagination. Here are four birthday party tips to help:

Start with a budget

Deciding how much you can afford to spend is important for any household expense — and that includes throwing a birthday 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 on birthday parties is using credit cards to pay for costs. She recommends you set your birthday budget based on what you can afford now, without relying on credit.

Limit costs

Trimming the birthday guest list is one way to reduce costs, as is having the birthday 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 use of her “rec” room for a few hours of help cleaning out her nasty garage?

Even if you have to find a birthday party 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 for a birthday, 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 $20 for residents (see sidebar, below).

For an indoor birthday bash, 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 ($20 for half day for residents), won’t break the bank.

Timing can also affect costs. If you have a birthday 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 party basics

Those Dora the Explorer plates may look cute, but they cost. For licensed-character birthday party supplies, even the cheapest source still charges more than $20 for 16 plates, cups and napkins. You can save money and still have a Lightning McQueen birthday party if you just buy one character item, such as napkins (about $3.49 for 16), but get the cups and plates in a coordinating color, like race-car red ($1.95 for 25 plates; $2.50 for 25 cups at Display & Costume).

Surprisingly, you can get licensed-character birthday invitations for only a little more than it would cost to print ‘em on your computer. For $3.95, 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 birthday goodie 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 “goodie.” For my son’s firefighter birthday party, 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 their 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 inexpensive — and green! — option is to think “used.” For a construction-worker birthday 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-size tool aprons for a party for free or at minimal cost. Fill the aprons with the tools and a sweet treat and there you have it: fabulous birthday “goodie bags” at a price you can afford.

Kathryn Russell Selk writes, works and throws budget birthday parties with her husband for their 4-year old, Kiernan, in Seattle.

Parks departments

Most parks department websites have all the information you need about renting facilities, and some will even allow you to search availability online. You usually don’t have to be a resident to rent, but you’ll often pay a higher fee.

Inexpensive party supplies

Is it less expensive to buy your birthday party supplies locally or online? We put online giant Oriental Trading Company and local company Display & Costume Supply to the test. We compared prices for 7- and 9-inch paper plates, plastic forks, streamers, small and large napkins and paper cups, then added bubbles, pencils and bouncy balls for “goody bags” for two different party themes. For the princess party, we added party beads and tiaras; for the pirate theme, muslin “skull and crossbones” flags and doubloons.

For both parties, Display & Costume was the better bet. At Oriental Trading, for example, black 7-inch plates are $2.95 for 25. Display & Costume has 24 of the same plates for a full dollar less, $1.95. Oriental Trading charges $3.49 for 500 feet of streamers; Display & Costume, $2.75. Add in shipping costs for online purchases, and you’ll save at least $10 by buying your supplies locally.

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