The Frugal Child’s Birthday

A few days ago, our youngest child celebrated his birthday with a small party. We invited a small number of his friends, had a simple cake and some pizza (which is what he requested), and hosted the entire thing at a local park. For entertainment, we made up a “scavenger hunt,” which involved finding small prizes based on the pictures of park locations that we’d taken beforehand. The children played on the playground and explored some wooded areas near the shelterhouse.

Every child there had fun for at least two hours. Our total cost was about $40, with virtually all of that being food.

Now, let’s compare that to another recent party that some of our children attended. It took place at a local bowling alley. There were several children there. As with our party, all of the children played games. As with our party, all of the children wound up with small party favors. As with our party, all of the children had a meal. And, as with our party, all of the children went home happy.

The big difference was the price. I checked the price of that package when we left and I discovered the host family paid at least $200 for all of it.

In both cases, the most important factor was the happiness of the children. Did everyone have fun? Did everyone go home happy? If that happens, a child’s birthday party is likely a success.

Given that most of the fun comes from simply having a group of children together, most birthday parties fulfill that basic objective. So why spend a lot of money?

Here are three examples of great children’s birthday parties that my children have attended in the past. All of these ideas are quite inexpensive. All of these ideas were huge hits.

Superhero party Buy a bunch of inexpensive plain red cloth at a fabric store. Cut most of it into large squares (two and a half feet by two and a half feet or so). Sew a Velcro pair onto opposite corners of the cloth squares. Cut the rest of the cloth into untied Lone Ranger style masks. When people arrive, give them each a cape and a mask and have them make up their superhero identity.

Water gun party Buy a big package of inexpensive water guns. Fill up a large bucket with water. Tell the parents to send their kids in clothes that can get messy and wet. When the kids arrive, just hand out the water guns and stand back.

Dress-up photo party Pick up dresses and other unusual clothing in small adult or large youth sizes when you find them, along with costume jewelry. Then, have a party and bring out a giant dress-up tub. Get out a digital camera and take lots and lots of pictures, then make a digital photo album of their day and share it digitally with their families.

What about the other challenges?

Host the party at home or at a park. That means there’s no extra cost related to the hosting of the party.

Make the cake yourself. A boxed cake mix is easy to make in advance and they’re almost foolproof. If you’re adventurous, make it from scratch. If you want it decorated, just find a few very simple decorations that match your child’s interest. Use some icing in a Ziploc bag (trimming off a corner) to write whatever message you want.

Keep the head count relatively small. The larger the crowd, the less time the birthday child will have to interact with each invited child. Plus, the fewer kids you invite, the less total cost.

Skip the goodie bag. Goodie bags wind up being a bunch of junk anyway that the kids forget about in a few hours.

Send home a memento instead. If you want to send something home, send home a true memento. Take a picture of everyone in costume or everyone doing something really fun and send home a print of that picture – or just email a digital photograph. That will have far more lasting value than a bag of unnecessary stuff.

If you want to send something tangible home, have an actual craft as the activity during the party. That will have far more impact than any goodie bag.

A child’s birthday does not have to be an expensive endeavor. The only real things you need are the children and some sort of activity to entertain them. If you have that, the party will be remembered fondly by all of them, because that’s really what a child’s party is about.

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