Budget-friendly kid's birthday party ideas

Have fun without busting your budget

Published: February 2012

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Keep it simple
Friends + family + cake = a great day.

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 Today, pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey and cake have been replaced by “a real donkey—and a full BBQ with all the fixings,” said Janice S.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.”


Celebrate at home or go to a party venue?

Home base
A home party can keep your costs down.

Kids’ party places are everywhere—from the local bounce-house to the nearest martial arts or pottery-painting studio. Some parents prefer the ease of hosting at a party place that takes care of everything—such as activities for the children, food, and favors—while keeping their home from being trashed.

When it comes to at-home parties, parents told us they’d seen (and tried) everything, from simple backyard games, to a backyard luau, to an over-the-top first birthday party resembling a carnival. But a home-based celebration can keep costs down while avoiding a cookie-cutter party-place experience.

Interestingly, no one option worked for all parents. Find your happy place by reading about others’ experiences, below.

Hosting at home headache. After spending $500 at a party place a year earlier, Karen resolved to save money by hosting the next party in her backyard pool area. Though she planned for the possibility of rain, she didn’t plan for “the chaos that would ensue with 14 kids and nearly 20 adults in a less-than-2,000-square-foot home.” After paying for food, favors, decorations, and tableware, she realized they’d spent about $500 on this “extremely successful” party. “Next year it’ll be at a party place!” she said.

Others also found hosting at home to be a grind. Rich and his wife worked hard to host a lady-bug-themed party for his daughter with decorations, favors, and activities geared toward the theme. “We did and made everything,” he said. Was it worth it? “We saved a few bucks compared to a party place,” he said. “But I don’t know if the prep, hosting, and related stress of doing it yourself was worth it. It was a lot of work and a long day.”

Happy at home. Some parents really don’t mind the work of a home-based party. In fact, some thrive on the creative possibilities! Janice S. said she loves dreaming up birthday-party themes and bringing them to life, but strives to do so on a budget, buying decorations and favors in bulk online and having family help prepare food and dessert. By doing that, she was able to afford entertainers such as “Hawaiian Harry” for a luau-themed party, and a Michael Jackson impersonator for another party. “The smile on my grandson’s face is the ideal,” she said. “I think it’s awesome to provide our children with such happy memories without breaking the bank.”

When his son was younger, Jeff found hosting at home to be “a great opportunity for the parents to get to know one another.”

The plus-side of party places. Janice H. said that when her children were very young, she found hosting at home to be a bit expensive, especially providing food and drink for the invited guests, not to mention all the parents (and siblings!) who tagged along. So she found a way to make the party place a more affordable option for her family. One year she hosted a party at Build-a-Bear, where she set the price range for what she wanted to spend. “There was no food, no cake, and the party lasted one hour!” she said. Afterward, each child had one scoop of ice cream across from the store. She didn’t provide goody bags because each child now had a bear. The kids “loved it—and they were all boys!” she said.

Find a balance. Karen H. wanted to avoid a party place (which can run from about $300 to $500 per party) but she also wanted to keep her home intact. The solution was to celebrate at a local park under a free pavilion. She brought games, noisemakers, and a bubble machine from home. The party-goers put on tattoos, played music, and used the field and playground. For food, Karen brought cupcakes from home and had pizza delivered—“and no mess in my house!” she said. Another twist she suggested: Because children wake up earlier in general, a midmorning party with bagels, donuts, and juice can save money by avoiding the obligation of serving lunch or dinner.

Josh says his son’s parties at the local community center have been a hit. Geared toward toddlers, some assistants bring out large toys, including parachutes and tubes, and perform activities with the kids. “We decorated and brought in food from the grocery store as well as goody bags,” he said. The cost? About $150 for 3 hours, including use of a kitchenette. For Jeff B., local rec-center parties make sense because “the cost is made up for in the facilities and easy clean-up, and it costs less than the potential damage to the house that little sugar-crazed kids can cause.”

Gifts and goody bags

Give and receive
A simple favor is a thank you to guests.

The birthday child and guests often look forward to the gifts and goody bags at parties. But some parents may not like to spend money on disposable trinkets, or overpriced favors on top of the cost of a party. They also may not like to spend too much on a toy for a child who has everything, or to accept many more toys when their child has enough. There are alternatives. Here’s some advice from parents.

Good gifts

Don’t spend too much. “In my experience, kids don’t appreciate expensive gifts,” Priscilla said. “They like stuff from the drugstore just fine." (Parents might be a different story, though.)

Donate. “I saw an idea that people bring donations for a pet shelter in lieu of presents for the kid, and the shelter brings animals for the kids to play with,” Jessica said. Similarly, Cheryl said she’d “been to many parties where donations were asked instead of gifts." "Food pantry, children’s hospitals, pet shelters, nursing homes. "Lots of places to share a birthday gift,” she said. Courtney wishes she could donate. “We go to parties where a child has a huge mound of gifts and we’re obligated to bring one,” she said. “I wish parents would just let us write a check for college or something else more practical.”

Show thanks. Keep the focus on the child showing gratitude to guests. “We are trying to teach our children to be grateful and to appreciate their special day,” Carol said. “And not to focus on getting a mountain of gifts.”

Good goody bags

Shop smart. “Try stuff that’s on sale, like school supplies, a scarf, a beach towel, or a cute T-shirt from a discount store like Old Navy, Target or T.J. Maxx,” Amy said.

Swap books. “Do a book swap, where every child brings and takes home a new book,” Michelle said.

Say cheese! “I take a picture of all the kids together and print it up for the kids as a memento,” Cynthia said.

Say no to junk. “Give one small item instead of a bag of plastic junk that ends up rolling around the car or embedded in the couch,” Gayle said.

Free is good. “We make coloring books by printing copies of free online coloring pages instead of buying junky toys that break in five minutes,” Carol said.

Insider perspective from a kids’ party entertainer

An expert weighs in
The owner of Ike's Atomic Trailer offers his insights into kids' birthday parties.

Michael Iaccarino, a father of four who runs Ike’s Atomic Trailer—a video-game and photo-booth event trailer that caters to children's parties (shown)—offers his perspective on kids’ birthday parties today.

“The days of going over to someone’s house with balloons are over," he said. "When I was a kid, it was cake and ice cream and playing—maybe a magician. Spending hundreds of dollars today is par for the course. Where I work, the expectation is for kids to have party ‘events.’"

“Parents want a birthday in a package, something simple and easy—a one-stop-shop—because they may not want 15 5-year-olds in their house," Iaccarino said. "But they’re also looking for something unique, like a cupcake truck. They want to do the next greatest fun thing. I’ve done everything from parties with 7 kids to 50- to 100-person events."

“There are definitely more facilities with business models built around the event," he said. "If you go to a birthday place, it’s more of a factory feel—go to room A, go to room B, and there’s another party right behind you. You’re witnessing the franchising of the birthday—it’s part of everything we do today."

“I have seen a heightened desire to add more to kids’ events—providing more stimuli, and paying for it. This is what kids are used to, whether they’re at home or a party. We’ve become a generation of parents who do more for our kids if we can afford it.”

Party safety

Is it safe?
There are no federal rules or standards for inflatables.

There are many potential safety hazards when it comes to children's birthday parties. Know about them ahead of time for a less stressful celebration.

Children can choke or suffocate on deflated or broken balloons. Keep them away from children younger than 8 years old. Discard broken balloons immediately. (See more toy safety tips.)

Pool safety
Swimming and inflatable pools pose serious risks to children. Children can drown in very small amounts of water. Children should never swim alone or only with other children; an adult must always be present. Adults should pay attention when children are in a pool—don’t read, do chores, talk, or text. (See more child pool safety tips.)

Trampoline safety
About 100,000 kids are treated in hospital emergency rooms for injuries associated with trampolines each year. They have been linked to so many injuries that the American Academy of Pediatrics put out a series of warnings in response to a rising number of incidents, and called them “unsafe for children at any age.” If your kids want to jump, go to a gymnastics center, where proper technique is taught and vigilant supervision is more likely.

Jumpy castles
When it comes to inflatables, there are no federal rules or industry standards (while permanent amusement parks are regulated by the state and municipality in which they’re situated). Inflatable slides and bounce houses such as those at church carnivals must follow Consumer Product Safety Commission regulations. But there seems to be a bit of a donut hole in coverage of the bouncy house that you may rent for your child’s party. Proper set up and supervision are crucial. Follow these tips to keep kids safe.

  • Pay attention to age and weight limits and the number of children allowed in at once.
  • Make sure the inflatable is securely anchored to the ground.
  • Place the blower so it can't accidentally be unplugged, causing the inflatable to collapse.
  • Don’t use an inflatable during inclement weather or high winds.
  • Make sure that a responsible adult is keeping an eye on the fun at all times.
  • Remember that teens and adults are not immune from injury.

Amphibians and reptiles
All amphibians (frogs, salamanders) and reptiles (turtles, lizards, snakes) are commonly contaminated with salmonella. The bacteria don’t make these animals sick, but they can make people ill and even be life-threatening to children, elderly people, and others with weakened immune systems. (Symptoms of salmonella poisoning include diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramps.) Small pet frogs are of particular concern because children are more likely to handle the frogs without washing their hands afterward and sometimes even put the frogs in their mouths. The FDA warns that it’s best to keep amphibians and reptiles out of homes with young children, the elderly, or people with weakened immune systems. Always wash your hands after touching any amphibian or reptile or anything that has come in contact with one. And remember those safe-handling tips (teach them to your children too) if you find yourself in contact with one at a party.

Goody-bag toys
U.S. PIRG researchers went to national chain discount stores and other retailers in September and October 2010 to identify potentially dangerous toys. They analyzed Consumer Product Safety Commission recall notices and other regulatory actions to identify trends in toy safety. Examples of unsafe toys were easily found on store shelves. They purchased 98 toys and pieces of children’s jewelry from major retailers and dollar stores. Choking continues to be the leading cause of death related to toys, and some toys may not meet CPSC requirements. Small parts are banned in toys for children under 3 years old and labeling is required for toys with small parts made for children from the ages of 3 through 6. But PIRG researchers still found toys for children under 3 with small parts and toys with small parts for children under 6 without the required choking-hazard warning.

Follow these rules to avoid injury.

  • Designate a space far enough away from the piñata for guests to safely watch the person up at bat without getting hit.
  • Give each child two strikes to the piñata.
  • When a child’s turn is over, the bat should be returned to an adult.
  • Everyone waits in the designated safe area until their turn.
  • Supply all the children with bags for their candy. Because not all the candy will fall out when the piñata breaks, you can spread the candy around for all the children to enjoy.

Keep toys intended for older children away from babies. Follow age recommendations, which apply to development levels as well as the safety of the toy (think, small parts). If a warning label suggests that the toy may pose a choking hazard, don’t give that toy to a child under 3. Check all toys for breakage and potential hazards each time you give them to your baby. If they can’t be repaired, throw them away. Keep small round or oval objects, including coins, balls, and marbles, away from babies and young children—any toy part small enough to pass easily through a toilet paper tube is a hazard. For children under age 6, avoid building or play sets with small magnets. If magnets or pieces with magnets are swallowed, serious injuries and/or death can occur. Discard plastic wrappings or other packaging on toys. Battery chargers and adapters can pose thermal burn hazards to young children. Pay attention to instructions and warnings—some lack any mechanism to prevent overcharging.

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