In the Parenthood

Kids' parties that don't break the bank

Posted by Lylah M. Alphonse  June 7, 2010 11:48 AM

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Gwen Stefani reportedly spent more than $15,000 on her son Kingston's 4th birthday party last month. The four-tier custom-made butterfly cake for Suri Cruise's 2nd birthday supposedly cost five grand -- and that was just for the cake. Her entire 2nd birthday bash cost approximately $100,000, iVillage reported at the time. And non-celebrity parents are also spending like crazy: California-based Over the Top Productions offers "couture kids celebrations" that can cost as much as $10,000 per themed, coordinated party, CNN reported.

The rest of us don't have such resources. Renting a party place gets pricey quickly, and while you don't have to contend with much clean-up, you are limited as to the number of people you can invite and the amount of time you can take -- and you're usually still on the hook for refreshments and goodie bags.

Is it possible to throw a fun party for your kid at home and on the cheap, even if you have to invite your child's entire class?

Over at Owlhaven, author and mom of 10 Mary Ostyn hosted a lovely tea party for her daughter's 8th birthday. A simple spread of fruit, sandwiches, veggies and dip, and bagles and creamcheese filled the long tables. "The only activity that I planned besides visiting was cupcake-decorating, which the girls seemed to enjoy," Mary writes. "My daughter had fun picking various bright candies that the girls could use to decorate the cupcakes, and their creations were lovely. We asked the guests to dress up, which I think added to the fun of the event."

Heather from Nobody But Yourself came up with a clever plan for celebrating her daughter's 7th. "Operation Seven Candles" was a Secret Agent-themed bash that was perfect for boys and girls. A coded invitation, special badges, detailed "training" (relay races, limbo, costume contests, and listening to a CD of "mystery sounds"), awards, and a hunt for the goodie bags rounded out the day. Best of all? They were able to host the whole event at their house, which saved them some serious cash. "We couldn't justify spending upwards of $300 or even more on a child's birthday party lasting less than 2 hours," she writes. Also, having it at home "would enable Kiddo to invite as many friends as she wanted." They ended up with 25 secret agents in attendance.

Not into tea or espionage? There are plenty of ideas online (and I've got 10 fun, frugal, home-based party ideas here).

How did you celebrate your child's most recent birthday? In retrospect, would you have done anything differently?

Lylah M. Alphonse is a Globe staff member and mom and stepmom to five kids. She writes about juggling career and parenthood at The 36-Hour Day and blogs at Write. Edit. Repeat. E-mail her at and follow her on Twitter @WriteEditRepeat.

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7 comments so far...
  1. My kids' birthdays are in the spring and we have a big backyard with a swingset so we've always have home parties. We enjoy hosting them - not everyone does. In preschool and K, I invited the whole class (yes it's a lot but I hated the idea of hurt feelings), then it was only the boys and now it is 3-6 boys for a sleepover. We started with an easy obstacle course - everytime they run it they get a small piece of megadiscount post holiday easter candy so there is incentive to keep going. Once all the kids are gasping for breath I bring out juice. We play a few games, shoot off baking soda and vinegar rockets, do a hunt for candy, have cake, ice cream, presents and free play. Decor and the homemade cake would follow a theme - pirates, bugs, space aliens, dinosaurs, Harry Potter... Goodie bags would be the discount candy, stickers, etc - nothing major but the kids love those goodie bags and I always had fun finding cheap and unusual things the kids would like that went along with the theme. Despite fewer kids and no more goodie bags, sleepovers are more $$ because we provide pizza and a big breakfast. Still, its a lot of work and wear and tear on the house so I can understand why some parents prefer to spend the money and have the party elsewhere, especially in winter.

    Posted by Cordelia June 7, 10 02:36 PM
  1. We've always had at-home birthdays and it amuses me what a novelty this is for our guests. For my son with a summer birthday, we've been very successful with outside parties (kiddie pool, slip and slide, running around in the yard, bubbles, scavenger hunt, pinata). For my son with early spring birthday, we did a craft inside that all the kids loved and let the kids have free play (we got lucky that the weather was warm enough to do something outside, too).

    This may make me unpopular, but I generally the "invite the whole class" urge because I know my sons were not friends with everyone and we can't accommodate 20 kids in our house. The one year we did an all-class birthday (outside), it ended up being overwhelming for my son to have all those kids over and not fun for him at all. And I'm going to guess, given the number of kids in their classes vs. the number of parties they are actually invited to, that inviting the whole class is the exception, not the rule.

    One thing I find that helps for a home party is that now that we don't have a time during the party for opening the gifts the way we used to when we were kids (anyone know why that changed?) that having the party be 1 1/2 hours instead of the 2 hours we all grew up with is more than plenty of time.

    Posted by anita June 7, 10 03:24 PM
  1. POW Science in RI puts on a great science theme birthday party at their location or yours. Quite affordable! They are bring in new fun twists into the parties! (i have heard that they do adult parties too)

    Posted by r banks June 7, 10 03:37 PM
  1. No, it's not possible to have a cheap fun party at home for the entire class. I don't have the space, and my kids' birthdays are in the dead of winter. I'm not trying to be a downer, it's just not actually possible. Thank you for understanding this, Cordelia.
    There are reasonable solutions, however.
    Oh, and $15K to Gwen Stefani is probably less than $300 is to me. So ... have fun. But, hey, if she's into kid's b-day parties, maybe she could come to my daughter's. That would make an awesome party for the whole class. :-)

    Posted by Lizzie June 7, 10 03:50 PM
  1. I write about kids' parties for and have some tips on my site for:
    Party planning on a budget
    Favors that won't break the bank


    Posted by Megan June 8, 10 12:51 AM
  1. I think it's certainly a challenge to plan kids' parties now a days. I remember when I was a child and our b-day parties were simply at home, with cake and games. Things were much simple then.

    I feel that now there is some pressure to plan more ellaborate parties which can push a family's budget to the edge.

    It might be unrealistic to plan a home party for an entire class... But... there might be some options of low-key parties but they will certainly require creativity.

    For older kids it might help to have a theme such as "movie-afternoon": Send "movie tickets invitations" printed in your home printer. A livingroom can be set with lots of rugs, pillows and softies to watch a movie they all want (give 3 choices). The room can be "decorated" with holiwood movie posters or actors/actresses. Set a "stand" with goodie snacks/bags of popcorn, candy and such. Cake can be the end culmination.

    For younger kids: If good weather, playgrounds can be used for parties. If bad weather, you can use your memberships to local museums, etc, that might provide affordable room options. Then bring in toys, created obstacle courses, have pinatas, etc.

    I still think that parents should be able to create affordable parties for our children without breaking the bank or feeling like a disappointment. Our children should also be made aware of the realities of each family.

    Posted by rmg June 8, 10 04:20 PM
  1. A's 2nd birthday in April was a family affair. I did not invite ANYONE from school (most of them live on-base, we don't know their parents and we weren't up to a repeat of last year).

    She got exactly what she wanted though - cake, balloons, popsicles, a ball - and to play with a few friends and her cousin who came up with my mom.

    We spent less than 40 dollars on everything, our landlady made the food and everyone was relaxed and had a good time - especially A who still talks about her next "Happy JuJu Party" (er...we think it's her translation of "Happy Birthday to You", as sung before candles being blown out since she calls it the "Happy JuJu Song" when she sings it) AND what she did at this one just past.

    Pressure be damned. I have no desire to keep up with anyone in the party department. The KISS principle (Keep it Simple, Stupid) is my guiding light.

    I do love the tea party theme though. Maybe next year...

    Posted by Phe June 9, 10 11:53 AM
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about the author

Lylah M. Alphonse
Lylah M. Alphonse is a member of the Globe Magazine staff and mom and stepmom to five kids. She writes about juggling a full-time career and parenthood at The 36-Hour Day, and about everything else at Write. Edit. Repeat. When she's not glued to the computer or solving a kid-related crisis, she's in the kitchen or, occasionally, asleep.

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