Remember when a child’s birthday party meant cake, ice cream, soda, games, and presents at his house? Today, pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey and cake have been replaced by “a real donkey—and a full BBQ with all the fixings,” said Janice S.
Parents today seem to feel an increasing pressure to ramp up spending on their children’s parties, perhaps unwittingly encouraged by peer pressure, media coverage of celebrity kids’ parties, and reality shows such as “Outrageous Kid Parties.”
But it doesn’t have to be that way, according to the dozens of people who shared their birthday-party experiences with us, including our Facebook and Twitter followers and Consumer Reports staff members. They revealed that no single budget is right for everyone. For the happiest birthday, you should always do what’s right for you (in terms of budget and time) and your child (in terms of age, personality, and interests). And simple, inexpensive activities (think: freeze dance and water-balloon fights) are appealing to children of all ages, according to parents. In the words of one parent, the ideal party is one “where the child and his friends have fun, period.”
Parents came up with some great ideas for providing children with maximum fun without busting the budget, including:
Keep it simple. Have a few friends over for pizza and a movie, a backyard barbecue and birthday cake with family, or a walk in the woods followed by games in the backyard or a local park. Amy said her kids prefer boxed cake and icing from a jar over costlier store-bought, and that they look forward to pulling out the reusable decorations (which she bought on sale!) year after year. Gayle’s son and his friends “basically like to laugh, run around, and be together.” Sometimes the simplest things are the best (and least expensive)—especially if you’re a child.
Offer a helping hand. While parents may consider hosting their child’s celebration at a “party place” such as Chuck E. Cheese’s, Pump It Up, or a local sports club or dance studio, some less-expected options may be available. “Our local food pantry does parties at its warehouse,” Stacy said. There, the kid-guests pack food for an hour or so, and the pantry provides the cake. Instead of gifts, guests bring donations. Some animal shelters do the same. Call a local shelter and ask.
Celebrate milestones. A few parents have big parties for their child’s milestone birthdays to simplify, keep costs down, and make those celebrated years all the more special. Carol had her children’s parties at the 1- and 5-year marks, and plans to do it again when they turn 10, 15 or 16, and 18. On the in-between years, she hosts low-key parties for family only. Some parents had parties every other year for their children (on the “off” years, the child got the home-cooked meal of his choice). Another way to limit expense: Invite the same number of guests as the child’s birthday year (three friends when you turn three, eight friends when you turn eight, etc.)
Be creative. Parents and children alike had great ideas to push party creativity over the top. Jen hosted a “Survivor”-themed party, complete with easy physical “challenges” including walking on a balance beam on the ground or eating gummy worms. Elissa’s daughter and friends played a game of hot potato where “losers” had to put on costume pieces such as a silly hat or jacket till everyone looked ridiculous—and had a blast! Scour the library for books filled with children's party ideas on a budget, or brainstorm your own.
Enjoy summer celebrations. If a child has a warm-weather birthday, and there's a yard or nearby park available for a celebration, the stage is already set for fun (provided the weather cooperates!). At Anne’s granddaughter’s birthday party in July, the child's friends played outside on a slide-on water toy and ate pizza and ice pops. It might sound low-key to an adult, but Anne said, “When the parents came to pick them up, they didn’t want to leave!” Maxine's sons had “a plain old water fight with water balloons." "We had so much fun, I will never forget!” she said. Jeff’s son’s best party was a simple backyard sleepover, with flashlight tag and roasted marshmallows. “It was a big success, and inexpensive,” he said.
Adapt to your child. Whatever you consider, always keep your child’s temperament in mind. Dawn and her husband thought their 4-year-old would love to have her favorites, Big Bird and Elmo, come to her party. But when the huge character actors showed up, her daughter was “mortified,” Dawn said. “She clung to us the entire afternoon and wouldn’t let them near her” because they were so big and she was scared.
Johanna’s daughter did not understand birthdays till she reached about age 4. “Now that she looks forward to celebrating her birthday,” Johanna said, “it is my job to teach her that it’s not about having the biggest party, but enjoying a fun time with friends.”