Throw A Cheap Birthday Party & Stay Sane In Just 10 Easy Steps

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You've seen them on your various social media feeds and on viral slideshows: "15 Travel Themed Birthdays For Your Toddler!" "Glitter Everything Birthday Party!" "Super Superhero Birthday Goes Viral." I love these kinds of articles and happily click through all the lovely, filtered images. But admiring these kinds of parties is where my patience for them ends, as I have zero desire to throw one. So today I'd like to talk about how to throw a cheap birthday party and stay sane, because I believe this is a dying art.

I'm a child of the '80s and '90s, and back then my mom was the birthday queen. Most people I know can't remember their childhood birthday parties, but I can tell you the theme of every single one of mine. I wonder if my mom, put in a modern context, would throw the kind of lavish birthday parties I see on social media. On the one hand, she was super into the whole celebratory birthday feel and was more than happy to pile on the praise and admiration a child usually receives on their birthday. On the other hand, not one of the birthday parties she threw cost her more than the price of cake, juice, and a few little items here and there for decoration. To this day she prides herself on that fact and her ability to birthday on a budget.

Look, if you have the time, money, and desire to put in effort, have a great big bash for your kid. There's absolutely nothing wrong with it. But I've always been of the mind that a fun kids party requires extremely little time, money, or effort. Here's how:

Keep Off "Inspiration" Websites

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I'm not going to name names, but you know of what I speak. (I'll give you a hint: it begins with a "p" and rhymes with "interest.") But aside from That Which Shall Not Be Named, it's generally a slippery slope from "gathering ideas online" to "believing that you have to live up to someone else's party based on all the pictures you're gathering online." It's also a good way to fall in love with things that, ultimately, are going to be more time, money, and effort than they're worth. So keep the images searches to a bare minimum or skip them all together.

Find A Free Venue

There are lots of benefits to having a birthday party somewhere all inclusive, but they sure do cost a pretty petty. Even the moderately priced packages can bust your budget.

Fortunately, there are alternatives to the fun flashy places. I had my daughter's birthday party at our house this year. I feel like a house party is a throw-back these days and I honestly don't know why it ever left. I'd planned on a backyard party but when rain interrupted we just rearranged some furniture and set up different play areas for her and her classmates in our living room.

Now, none of our previous apartments would have accommodated such a crowd, and that's why I really don't think enough can be said for playground parties. Go to the local park, stake out a picnic table (or bring a few picnic blankets) and you're set. Kids love playgrounds and never run out of games! Another thought is local community centers — while usually not free, you'll often be surprised to find how cheaply you can swing a rental owned by a town or charitable organization.

Keep Decor Simple

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Repeat after me: kids don't care about decorations.

You want proof? Go look at the state in which they keep their bedrooms.

I rest my case.

I'm not saying you have to forgo decorations entirely. But, honestly, all you need is a banner with a few beloved franchise characters on it, some balloons, a few streamers, and you're all set. This is the level to which you should feel obligated to decorate, if at all. Again, if decorating brings you joy then follow your bliss! But this is not a requirement or something that will make or break your child's party experience.

Dollar Stores Are Your Friend

The stuff you buy for a birthday party has to last, like, two hours? Three? There's zero need to go for quality items here, unless there are things you can get that will last you several years of parties that can be reused. This is why all my party shopping is done at a store where everything costs a dollar.

I don't recommend going to a location that has a cheap section but offers a larger store of more expensive but still moderately priced items, though. That's how you walk out of a store with everything you had on your list within budget and then another $175 worth of stuff you had no idea you needed so badly.

Really Think About The Importance Of Goody Bags

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Have you ever once thought after a party, "Oh wow! A goody bag! I'm so glad they received this and all the items in it." Has your child cared about anything in those bags for longer than 15 minutes? The truth is, we all do goody bags because we feel like it would be impolite not to. Meanwhile, every parent I know complains about the copious amounts of sugar and useless plastic contained therein.

So I say be the first among your friends to stand up and admit that goodie bags are entirely unnecessary. If you're feeling super guilty, go ahead and get each kid a bubble wand or something (again, from the cheap store), but skip the random tchotchkes.

Incorporate Toys & Games You Already Have

When I was a kid, my mom's birthday party strong suit was getting creative with things we already had in the house or yard and incorporating them into party games. Hula hoops and bouncy balls became carnival games. Anything could be incorporated in an obstacle course. And if you have a back yard and a blow up pool the possibilities are endless. Get creative, because kids will just be stoked to play with a familiar toy in a new way.

DIY Or Grocery Store Cake

Big fancy cakes are all the rage these days, and it's easy to see why: they're big and fancy and also cake! But please allow me to show you what my daughter's cake looked like three seconds after singing "Happy Birthday."

Photo courtesy of Jamie Kenney

Those 4-year-old children were savages. Can you tell if it was fancy or not? Nope. And the kids didn't care. Kids love cake. They don't care what kind of cake it is. Whip up a box cake in 10 minutes (plus bake time), or swing by the bakery and pick up a reasonably priced sheet cake. If you really long for a fancy-ass cake in the shape of your child's favorite cartoon character that's totally cool, but you are under no obligation to provide such a confection.

Keep Organized Games To A Minimum

There is little you can plan for a kid that will be more interesting to them than the random crap they will come up with all on their own. And if you try to organize too much for too long things will get unruly and not only will the kids be less-than-entertained but you will be frazzled and annoyed.

As such, I am a big proponent of letting a group of kids make their own fun. Set up the given area so-as to minimize any chaos they can cause and leave them to their own devices. Depending on the age (and the group dynamic, frankly) limit your structured activities to one or two games. And hey, if the group winds up enjoying the structure, cool! But otherwise let them be your activity coordinators.

Let Your Kid Pick The Snacks

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You will be tempted (especially if you journey to that tempting, beautiful, hellish inspiration site) to put together an assortment of whimsical "kid-friendly" snacks. These foods are usually shaped like different characters or have smiley faces or whatever.

Far better, however, is to just ask your kid what they would like to eat. Not only will they get exactly what they want, but you will save yourself so much work. You know what my daughter wanted for her birthday when I asked her? Goldfish crackers, pretzels and hummus, potato chips, apples, and tangerines. I threw in a veggie tray for the adults. My work was slicing some apples and pouring stuff into bowls, and you know what happened? All the kids ate all the food because it was chosen by one of their own.

Was it aesthetically gorgeous? No. Did it add to a theme? Nope. But it was kid tested, kid approved, and cheap and easy as hell.

Remember Who This Is For

Again, if you take joy in planning beautiful, over-the-top birthday parties for your children: go for it! No one is going to have a bad time because of all the extras. But the truth of the matter is that so much of what we have come to think of as "musts" for kids parties are, in fact, extras — they're not really anything our kids would want if there wasn't an adult there telling them about it. Kids are simple and their parties can be, too. Don't worry about how it's going to photograph or what Nancy, your party planner friend, is going to think of the fact that your decorations consisted of a Frozen banner and some balloons tied to a tree in a park. Think about how much fun your kid is going to have running around with their friends and smashing box cake in their face.