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Birthday parties on a budget

Americans have long struggled with a desire to "keep up with the Joneses." When you see your neighbors prosper, it's only natural to want to prosper right along with them. We find ourselves wanting to match them item for item — cars, lawns, houses...

...children's birthday parties?

That's right.

In recent years the birthday parties parents throw for their children (even very small children) have become increasingly extravagant. ABC News recently reported on this trend by featuring a family in New York that spent more than $40,000 on their son's first birthday party. Of course not many people could ever spend that much on a birthday party, but the trend has reached down into the budgets of middle-class families so that many of them are spending as much as $5,000 on a single party. The whole phenomenon is fueled by the idea that it is necessary to spend exorbitant amount of money in order to show your children you love them.

That's just not true. And it's a good thing, too. Because very few families have an extra five grand just sitting around they can use for a party. The good news is this: Great parties are possible even on a budget. Here are a few tips on how to make some incredible memories without breaking the bank:

  1. Invest time not money — Plan the party with your kids. Allow them to contribute as much or as little as they would like. If they want to be completely surprised then keep it all a big secret. If they want to help, then make the cake together. Do it all together — create the guest list, plan the games, come up with a theme.
  2. Have a theme — make the entire party an event. Have a party that takes your guests to places they've never been before and then have a cake, decorations, games and party favors that fit the theme. Some good ideas are...
    1. An African Safari Party — Before everyone shows up buy several packages of cheap plastic safari animals and place them in groups all around the yard. When the guests arrive have them visit the "Safari Outfitters" where they will receive safari hats, binoculars, little notebooks and pencils, and field bags (all of which can be purchased from party stores for very little) in preparation to go on safari. Immediately before "going on safari" take a group picture — tell them it's in case you lose anyone — and then send someone to the nearest store to have prints of the photo made. Next, have your child lead the safari around the yard where they will "spot" the animals through their binoculars. Allow them to gather the animals in their field bags. After the party the animals and safari gear is theirs to keep. By the time they've finished having cake, opening gifts, and playing games — like "Pin the Tail on the Zebra" — the photos are back and they all have a nice goodie bag to take home.
    2. An Art Gallery Party — Send out invitations to a "Gala Art Exhibit" (just be sure to explain it's a birthday party). Decorate you house with artwork you child has done through the years and make it look like a gallery. When you guests arrive have "security" check their invitations before they are allowed inside. Once inside, prepare to unveil your child's latest "masterpiece." But, when the cover is lifted have an empty easel. Have your adults prepared to "gasp" as the work of art has clearly been stolen. Spend the rest of the party solving a mystery. Give each child a "detective kit" and provide everyone with clues (one at a time) to track down the painting.
    3. A Country-Themed Party (say, China) — Serve snacks that can be eaten with chop sticks (this doesn't work so well with cake; use a fork for that). Play games that children in China play (there are some good ones). Make a cake shaped like a giant fortune cookie. Decorate with paper lanterns (these are cheap, cheap, cheap).

  3. Make some of your own decorations — this not only saves money, but if you do it with your child it just adds to the anticipation and excitement of the party.

I'm a dad of two daughters — both of whom enjoy a good birthday party. We have had all three of the birthday parties described above. Not only did all three parties cost less than $50 each, they were the talk of the school the next day.

It can be done.

Written by Chip, amateur party planner and professional father.

September 2011