A little girl posing for a picture

How to Not Go Broke on Birthday Parties

Back when I was a kid, birthday parties were mostly ho-hum consisting of a few rounds of Pin the Tail on the Donkey and Clothespins in a Bottle followed by Betty Crocker cake baked in a nine-by-thirteen with buttercream frosting. Back then going “all out” meant splurging on a pre-made cake from the local bakery.

A little girl posing for a picture

These days going all out for a child’s birthday party means something a bit different. Some of the stories are mind-boggling.

Recently, I read about parents in one Minnesota town who rented a bar for a princess-themed party. Children and their parents were invited and instructed to come dressed in tuxedos and formal attire. Guests were picked up in limos. The party included live music and champagne for the adults. The birthday girl was turning 4.

Sure that was an extreme party, but there is no denying that birthday parties for kids are becoming more and more extravagant. You know what I’m talking about. And I get it.

Birthday parties have become part of our culture. The pressure to keep up can be intense! We don’t want to disappoint the child but more than that we want to send the message that our child is as important as other children. We’re driven to go all out to provide the experience of a lifetime—and to do it again every year.

It doesn’t have to be this way. There are great ways to have parties that children know how special they are; that the day they were born changed the world forever. You can do that without breaking the bank.

IT’S NOT A COMPETITION. Write those words on your frontal lobe. Repeat it often. Just because the neighbors hired a carload of clowns complete with ponies and bouncy house doesn’t mean they love their kids more than you love yours. You are not competing for an award. You have permission to do your own thing.

LIMIT THE GUEST LIST. You should not feel obligated to invite every kid that the birthday child has come in contact with over the past year. Nor should you feel like you need to invite the parents of every child. Limit the guest list to include your child’s real friends and you’ll create a more intimate and child-friendly experience.

FIND WAYS TO DO IT YOURSELF. Never in the history of the world have there been as many ideas and instructions for how to do birthday party stuff. Go to Pinterest.com and any number of blogs devoted to creative parenting. Go online. Learn how to make the cake yourself. Create invitations, games and decorations yourself. Find the closest 99 Cents Only or other dollar store. Load up on cheap paper goods and decorations. The more you do yourself, the less you’ll be compelled to spend to get others to do the work for you. And the kids will love it!

FORGET THE GOODY BAGS. Whoever came up with the idea of goody bags should have gone back to the drawing board. The tradition that every child goes home with a bag of plastic things that kids don’t want, don’t need and they’ll lose by the next day, needs to be re-evaluated. And you are the perfect person to start that ball rolling. Forget the goody bags and you will be applauded by every party giver that follows.

There. Four solid ways to rein in the crazy high cost of birthday parties. Add some of your own and you’ll be on your way to making great memories for your child—for a whole lot less!

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13 replies
  1. Kim Hunter says:

    My suggestion: make sure your birthday child doesn’t invite his or her entire class from school with the exception of one or two children. What would happen after is all the kids go to school the next day and talk about the party and how much fun they had, in front of the children who were excluded. Don’t do this, it causes a world of hurt feelings for them (the excluded children). Either the entire class should be invited, or only about a third. For a class of thirty kids, that’s about 10 guests that your child can have. That’s still enough kids to make the party crazy and fun, if that’s what the birthday kid wants.

    • Gehugh says:

      I don’t necessarily agree with this. It would be wonderful if one could invite the entire class, but what parent in their right mind would do this and live? If you tell your child that they may invite say five friends, your child may (or may not) weigh the value of friendship. And what if your child has friends of multiple ages and perhaps in different classes? Parties have become such an obligation that the whole entire reason for the celebration has been lost. It may seem a little brusk, but a weekend party is often forgotten before Monday and a new school week rolls around.
      Now when it comes to weddings and those guest lists..aye yie yie!

      • Kim Hunter says:

        My reasoning behind this is because in just about every class there is at least one child that is considered “weird” by all the other children. They don’t get invited to very many things, if any at all. I know this because I was one of those children. I didn’t make friends easily. I didn’t get invited to things very often. And believe me when I say that those parties aren’t forgotten as quickly as you think by the kids who were there. Not by the 9+ year olds, anyway.

  2. Leticia says:

    Totally agree with everything — but as a parent, if you DON’T do the goody bag, you need to have an answer for the child who asks, in front of everyone, when the room is perfectly quiet, “Where’s MY goody bag?” 🙁 I don’t know that I have that answer for anyone, but have been in a similar circumstance when I was helping with an activity in another situation. It was awkward for everyone…though the parent really didn’t handle it well, so just a tip to be prepared when children need a bit of guidance to learn good manners.

    • Mary Hunt says:

      Seriously?! I cannot even imagine the rudeness of that response. I think I would just shake my head as I mentally cross that name off any future invitations. Birthday Parties really have run amok.

  3. Gehugh says:

    We always celebrated birthdays within our family. The one time I held an ‘out of the family’ birthday party (20years ago) I was appalled by the greed and the behavior of the guests and of that of the few parents that wanted to ‘hang around, just in case’. We had a fiesta theme; the kids decorated flip flips (I got their sizes ahead of time with the RSVP) , we had nachos, limeade, Mexican chocolate cupcakes and home cranked vanilla ice cream. We danced the limbo and some of the girl group songs from the 60’s and Spice Girls. My kids had a fantastic time and that is all that mattered. The guests took home their decorated flip flops, clean up was easily and I swore I’d never do it again! My advice: keep it within the family. The kids won’t remember the over-the-top money flushing extravaganzas, but they will remember the TRADITION of your family’s celebrations (and the year your brother, while running through the house tripped and sailed head first into that beautiful doll ball gown cake mom made for your sister, the one with the billowing cake gown and all that pink frosting and how he claimed his life was over because he hated pink and the pink was all over him).Oh the memories!

  4. Georgia Browne says:

    A birthday party for a child can become quite hectic with many children. I have found that in the past, I have invited as many children as the child’s age. For example, if the child is 4, invite 4 children, when the child is 7, h/she can invite 7 children. The older they get, the more friends that they can handle without the party becoming stressful for everyone. Georgia Browne

  5. Birgit Nicolaisen says:

    We often do an art activity and they take the project home instead of a goody bag. You can get inexpensive kits at Michael’s or AC Moore or Oriental Trading. We’ve also done a cooking party where the kids make mini pizzas with English muffins or make your own Brownie sundae, that kind of thing…so the creation of the food is also part of the party. When DD was younger, DH watched for deals on kids parties through on-line coupon/auction sites…so we got a McDonald’s party with play area for half price, same for bowling. There are plenty of ways to keep the costs down on a party with just a little effort.

  6. Toast Points says:

    Agreed, Mary: Birthday parties got way out of hand decades ago, and the trend is getting worse. My grandson’s birthday is between Christmas and New Year’s, which makes it even more difficult to round up his friends for a modest celebration. I love the suggestions below and will forward to friends and family.

  7. Joanne Swords-Wang says:

    Around here, on the invitation, the children are asked to bring a can or small bag of dog and cat food which is collected at the birthday party (instead of human gifts). They all go to the local animal shelter together as part of the party activity. The staff at the shelter take their picture en masse and make a big happy deal about it and post it on facebook. Such a great idea. Everyone wins.

  8. Jennifer Heinz says:

    I follow all of these except ditching the goodie bag. I spend about $5-6 on candy, stickers, and a few small toys at the dollar store. However, the kids get them before they leave and play with them while they’re waiting to get picked up. We keep the guest list limited to his age, so he had seven friends over during his last birthday party (we have a separate dinner with family) and they had a blast playing party games, such as who could wrap their partner up first using a whole roll of toilet paper. Whenever I see those kids, they say “Remember at the birthday party when we did (x, y, or z)?” Kids just want to play and have fun, throwing a big bash doesn’t really matter to them!

  9. Pam says:

    Replace Birthday Party with Baby Shower or Bridal Shower. Used to be sheet cake with coffee or punch. Now it’s as elaborate as the reception!


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