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I Threw The Best Birthday Party My Kid Had Ever Been To — For Less Than $70

Raising a child supposedly costs you a quarter of a million dollars, but it can honestly be more daunting to face the idea of spending $80 on bottle nipples in a single month. Expense Report gives us a look into the spending, scrimping, and wishing that defines parenthood, from what moms spend on birthdays, to childcare, to sleep, to self-care (we wish!), and beyond.

Parents often spend as much as $500 on birthday parties when bounce castles, room rentals, or special party favors come into play, but as Busy Toddler's Susie Allison proves, you can design a party that sparks children's imaginations without hemorrhaging pirate's bullion. In this family's experience, sometimes all you need is a boatload of costumes and a trip to the dollar store.

Home parties are kind of my jam. They’re wildly simple, the quality-time-meter is through the roof, and, most importantly, the kids are turned loose to just play.

Of course, I love going to bouncy houses and pottery studios, but in terms of a birthday party — these places can be limiting in time and limiting in how much the kids can actually play with each other in a meaningful child-led way. Yes, they can run wild at a bounce house but good old-fashioned birthday party play is so much more fun at home.

I’m talking group play. Interactive play. Teamwork play. Imaginative play. The kind of play where the ground becomes lava and tea parties with dinosaurs exist. The kind of play that is rich with make-believe.

Imaginative play is a HUGE skill for kids and one that we should honor, treasure, and encourage. Here’s how you can host a dress-up themed party to maximize play for a minimized price...


No one does make-believe like a group of young children. They put Disney to shame with their imaginative skills. So why not center an entire party around what kids do best?

Start by sending out free email invites with one simple request: that all child guests come in costume.

Photo courtesy of Susie Allison

For added costume fun: Pull out all your family’s dress-up clothes for any kids wanting to make a mid-party costume change (or five). Trust me, they will.

We’ve collected dress-up clothes from past Christmases and birthdays — our bin overflows. It’s made up of superhero capes, old Halloween costumes, and various outfits (mostly from Melissa and Doug). It’s a solid collection with pretty good mass appeal.

PRO TIP 1: If your dress-up bin is still growing, ask some friends for help pulling together a costume station by borrowing theirs. No need to buy!

PRO TIP 2: Don’t forget to raid your own closet for old hats, costume jewelry, and other relics of your fun pre-kids past. You know there are some gems in that closet…

Photo courtesy of Susie Allison


Make-believe play really evolves all on its own and you don’t need to worry about putting out a ton of extra activities or games for kids when costumes are involved.

Kids are play experts. They know exactly what to do especially when in costume. You’ve just given them a full body invitation to play…

But just for fun, you can set-up a wands and masks station.

On a table, set out craft supplies for kids to make magic wands and silly masks to wear and use while at the party.

For the wands: Grab sticks from outside (hello, free!) — make sure to have MORE than one per kid just in case extra wands are needed.

For the masks: Take a few minutes during your nightly Netflix-ing to cut mask shapes out of old card stock, card board, construction paper, or even paper bags. No need to rush out and buy something — just think a little outside the box here.

Photo courtesy of Susie Allison

Last, head to the Dollar Store for some classy craft supplies.

On the table, you’ll want to set out a bunch of supplies. Some you might already own (scissors, glue sticks, markers, stapler). Others, you’ll want to “splurge” a little and pick up.

Pom pom balls (Dollar Store) $1

Jeweled butterflies (Dollar Store) $1

Fancy beads (Dollar Store) $1

Pipe cleaners (Dollar Store) $1

Starburst cut-outs — these make awesome wand “stars” (Dollar Store) $1

Stickers (Dollar Store) $1

Glitter glue (Dollar Store) $1

Feathers (Dollar Store) $1

String (Dollar Store) $1

Activities Subtotal: $9

For the wands, most kids wrapped pipe cleaners around the sticks and we adults stapled the “starburst” shapes onto the tips — glue sticks only kind of worked for this, but the stapler did the trick.

Photo courtesy of Susie Allison

MASK TIP: measure the string around the child’s head and use the stapler (again) to hook the string onto the mask. This is ten times easier than trying to tie a knot through a tiny hole when a 4-year-old is doing her best impression of a superhero princess (true story, actual costume).

Photo courtesy of Susie Allison


These wands and masks double as the perfect party favor. No need to spend extra money on small toys and candy that clutter up everyone’s homes. Instead, send the kids home with something they made themselves by hand that’s personal to them, full of good memories — and loaded with play-at-home potential.

Food (For A Dress-Up Crowd)

First of all, kids rarely eat at birthday parties. They have a lot of playing to do and no time to stop, sit, and have a meal. You don’t need to break the bank on food.

Second, parents are busy chasing, watching, helping and costume-changing kids at parties so they aren’t exactly eating buffet levels of food.

Keep it simple. Keep it light.

I use the same basic food formula at all our parties for cost, time, and ease.

This food amount will easily feed a group of 30.

36 hot dogs (Costco) $12.99

2- 24-pack hot dog buns (Costco) $3.39x2 = $6.78

2 organic watermelons (Costco) $7.49

1 large bag of Doritos (Costco) $4.99

1 large bag of Ruffles (Costco) $5.49

1 flat of bottled water (Target) $3.49

1 box cake mix (QFC) $1.99

1 can of frosting $1.69

Food Subtotal: $44.91

**We use condiments we already own and since kids don’t use much, this is never a big cost to our family**

PRO TIP: We always make MINI cupcakes instead of large size ones. The investment in a mini cupcake pan is around $10 or you can look on your local Facebook Buy Nothing to see if this is something you can borrow.

A box mix makes about 60 mini cupcakes and they’re just the right size for kids.

Photo courtesy of Susie Allison


You don’t need any! Between the costumes laid out for kids, the food table, and the craft table — trust me, your house will be hopping!

We call it good when we crank up the Spotify tunes and suddenly the house goes from normal to party-ready. Music has a way of adding to the party excitement without costing any extra.

We do always pick out pretty colored plates from Target as the one big decoration ~splurge.~ None of the food provided needed silverware so we didn’t have to buy any utensils. How’s that for a win?!

Paper plates (Target) $10

Napkins (Target) $5

Decorations Subtotal: $15


A make-believe party turned into a real-life success for us. Who knew having kids wear dress-up clothes to someone else’s house could elicit such joy and play?

Kids know exactly what needs to be done at a birthday: playing and partying. Pinterest was not invented by kids. Trust these play experts, give them the tools they need, and let the masters go to work.