Children’s Birthday Party on a Shoestring Budget

Birthdays are the only holidays that are in season, all year round. And no doubt you want to recognize your child’s birthday with a celebration, whether it’s reserved for family, or your child’s friends are also invited. But, unless you have unlimited resources, some months are harder than others to squeeze in the expense of birthday presents, let alone a birthday party. Maybe your child was born in January when you’re still reeling from Christmas, in April when Uncle Sam is demanding his share, or in the only month the family can get away for a summer vacation. How do you make a memorable birthday party on a shoestring? Not a problem!

1. Shop at the right type of store.

Start by shopping at the parents’ best friend, a dollar store. There is very little you will need for a party that can’t be found there, probably cheaper than anywhere else. Most of the following tips depend on such a store.

2. Invitations

Invitations are inexpensive� about eight for a dollar. Or, let the birthday kid have fun by making their own. Buy a piece of colored poster board, fifty cents at the dollar store, and cut it into postcard size pieces. Let your child decorate one side and save the other side for the address. Postcard stamps are about 2/3 the price of regular stamps. Or, if the guests live nearby, take a walk with your child and let them hand deliver the cards.

Here’s a bonus: If you know the email addresses of the guests, you can go to and send email invitations, or reminders, for free.

3. Decorations

Of course streamers are always goodâÂ?¦ two rolls for a dollar. But how about adding a taste of summer fun, regardless of the season? Buy a few inflatable beach balls for a dollar each and hang them from the ceiling. They’re colorful and will look great mixed especially with some streamers. Near the end of the party you can take the beach balls down and let the kids burn some energy by batting them around (assuming there is plenty of space or that they can go outside). Later, use the balls as a prize for a guessing game or other competition.

4. Food

If you don’t intend to serve a meal, schedule the party for an in-between time, and write on the invitations that you will be serving cake, ice cream, and punch, or whatever.

If you do choose to serve a meal, stick to simple fingerfoods that kids love, like hot dogs, pretzels, and carrot sticks. For small kids, save waste by cutting some of the hot dogs in half and tell them they can come back for more.

If you’re serving soda, skip the cans. Otherwise, when the party is over you’ll find a lot of half-empty cans sitting around. Instead, buy 2 liter bottles or serve pitchers of punch. As guests arrive, write each name on a paper cup so they can keep track of it.

You can usually buy a small bakery cake for a reasonable price, or save a lot more by making it yourself. Here’s an idea: Make a cool caterpillar cake by baking a bundt cake, cutting it in half, and positioning the pieces to form an S. Decorate one end to be the face, using licorice or pixie sticks for feelers and the mouth, and other candies for eyes and nose and body spots.

5. Goody bags

You don’t have to do goody bags, but if you do, the bags are cheap at the dollar store, about 12-30 in a package. Or, to add some fun and occupy the kids, use regular brown lunch sacks and let little kids decorate them with glitter paint and stickers.

Which holiday is nearest your child’s birthday? Whatever it is, plan ahead.
Go shopping the day after the holiday and load up on brand name candy for half price to fill goody bags. Even if the candy has a holiday picture on the wrapper, the kids won’t care.

If you also want to put a small toy or two in each bag, here’s a sample of various multi-packs you can get for a dollar each:

  • Die-cast metal cars in packs of 4-8
  • Play-doh style modeling clay, packs of 4
  • Bubbles, packs of 3Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½
  • Kids’ card games, packs of two
  • Colorful erasers with characters on them, packs of 12
  • Designer pencils, packs of 8
  • Pocket-sized colorful note pads, packs of 4

6. Treasure chest

Here’s an idea that will intrigue most kids, and some adults. Before the party, create a treasure chest, using a large shoebox, or even a larger box if it has a lift off or one-flap lift-up lid. Spray paint the treasure chest gold, or cover it with shiny foil wrap, or colorful paper. Then decorate it with glitter paint or stickers. If it’s not a surprise for the birthday kid, they will love helping.

Now for the treasure. You may want to save the goody bags to put in the treasure chest. Or fill the chest with packing peanuts or even paper shred and hide enough treasures inside for each child to get one, and then blindfold them and let them dig. All of the items in the goody bag list above would make great treasures.

7. Games and Activities

  • Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½Here’s a game for young kids and all it will cost you is a bag of gummy bears. The game is a spin off of the TV show, “Who Wants to BeâÂ?¦ a Millionaire?” It’s called, “Who Wants to EatâÂ?¦ a Gummy Bear?” It’s as simple as it sounds. Before the party, make up a few age-appropriate questions, like “Where does Sponge Bob live?” Or, what is the name of the lion in “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe?”
  • Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½If the party is outside, give the kids some sidewalk chalk and let them decorate the driveway or sidewalk. You can divide it up into sections and give each kid their own space.
  • Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½Want to have a piÃ?±ata but don’t want to pay the price for something that will soon be history? Make one. Better yet, make one with your child. After all, a piÃ?±ata is just paper mache. See below for directions.

8. Entertainer/Helper

The kids will have plenty of fun without bringing in entertainment. But if you feel you must do something extra, here’s a budget-wise idea. Hire a teenager who can help with the kids, and serve as an entertainer. You may know a teen who can make balloon animals (or ask at a local church or a high school drama teacher.) Balloon animals are a huge hit, even for older kids, and watching someone make them can entertain kids for a long time. You can buy a hand pump for about $4 (and still have it for the next party!) and balloons are about 25 for $2.50.

How about face painting? If it’s near Halloween, stash away some face paints while they are cheapest (probably half price right after Halloween).

Not only will the children be entertained, but you’ll have an extra pair of eyes to watch them, and a clean-up helper afterwards. How much you’ll have to pay depends on where you live, of course, but $25 for a two-hour party sounds very generous.

Some mostly no-cost gift/celebration ideas for the truly broke:

  • If your small child loves a TV show that they often miss because it’s on at the wrong time, secretly record several episodes back to back. Put a colorful label on it with their name and the show’s name, like “Sponge Bob: Private Property of Joshua.” and present it to them as a gift. They don’t need to know it cost you nothing but time.
  • What does your child love to do? A little boy may be captivated with Dad’s tools, but is seldom allowed to touch them. Give Dad and junior each a polishing cloth and have them sit down together in the garage to polish the tools, one by one and talk about what they do. For a girl, have a Mom and daughter makeover day. Polish each other’s toes and put on make-up together, and experiment with each other’s hair. Make a production of it to build anticipation.
  • For the family celebration, have it on a weekend and let everyone stay up late watching movies and eating popcorn and birthday cake. Let the kids bring out their pillows and sleeping bags and fall asleep on the living room floor.

Whatever you do, keep in mind, your kids will be thrilled to the queen or king for a day. It’s not about the moneyâÂ?¦ it’s about the recognition and the fun.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½

Instructions for Making a Pinata:

You and your kids can easily make a simple, colorful pi�±ata in the shape of a large balloon.

Here is all you need:
2 cups white flour
3 cups water
1 large balloon
Glitter and colorful crepe paper (optional)

1. Blow up balloon.
2. Mix flour and water to make a paste.
3. Cut newspaper into long
strips, one inch wide.
4. Dip newspaper strips into the flour paste.
5. Layer the strips on the balloon until it is covered, making sure to leave a hole at the top for filling.
6. Let dry fully.
7. When it’s fully dry, pop the balloon and pull it out.
8. Paint the pi�±ata.
9. If you like, add crepe paper strips for extra decoration, or sprinkle with glitter.
10. Poke two small holes near the top and insert string.
11. Fill the pi�±ata.

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