Birthdays on a budget: How to cut the cost of kids’ parties

When Camila Slusarczyk’s daughter turned one, the Vancouver mom threw a birthday party that would have impressed Juliette Binoche. The rented venue had French doors leading out to a pretty patio. Paris was the theme, and the event for 24 children came complete with France Gall music playing in the background, a mini Louvre where kids painted on small canvases, and macarons, clafoutis, and éclairs to eat, along with two pink ombre cakes. She even had a pink and black colour scheme — classic Chanel.

Slusarczyk made the invitations and decorations herself, and instead of handing out goody bags full of cheap plastic toys, she sent the kids home with a home-made cookie in the shape of the Eiffel Tower. But she admits she still spent a small fortune — a little over $1,000, in fact.

Would she do it again?

“Yes,” she says emphatically. “It was fun. I know the little one had no clue what was going on, but it was exactly how I envisioned it. I have my memories and my photos, and this kind of stuff is important to me.”

Whether it’s glow-in-the-dark soccer games, excursions to trampoline or waterslide parks, or hired entertainment, kids’ birthday parties are more extravagant than ever. Gone, it seems, are the days where parties were held at home, with old-fashioned games like musical chairs to keep kids happy.

There’s good reason for hard-working parents to not want to have a dozen or so loud little ones over: there’s too much preparation required in advance and too much clean-up afterward. Working for a living doesn’t allow much spare time for that kind of effort. So the alternative seems to be renting out a private space, which in itself easily costs a minimum of $200, not including food and those aforementioned loot bags. So having less hassle usually comes with a higher price tag.

But there are plenty of ways to throw a memorable birthday bash without going broke.

“Birthday parties can be expensive, but they don't need to be,” says financial-literacy advocate Shannon Ryan, founder and author of the blog and book called The Heavy Purse.

“Who are you throwing the party for? The obvious answer is your child, but I also find many parents sometimes lose sight of the purpose and intent of the party and instead turn it into an extravagant event to impress other parents or family members. Your child may not expect or even want such a lavish party.”

Budget for that birthday

Before you hire that magician or rent a bouncy castle, be clear about your budget first. “Figure out how much you can comfortably spend without creating debt,” Ryan says. “Going into debt is not worth it.”

Ryan recommends a visit to Pinterest together with your child to look for simple and affordable activities. Pass the Parcel is a classic that’s usually a hit with young children: Save wrapping paper throughout the year and wrap a small prize in multiple layers using different paper. Have the kids sit in a circle and turn on some music while they pass the parcel around. When the music stops, the child holding the object unwraps a single layer. Whoever gets the last layer wins the treat.

Other cheap classics? Rayven Perkins, an extreme couponer who founded the Stay a Stay at Home Mom website points to scavenger hunts, bean-bag or water-balloon toss, charades, and musical chairs as frugal but ever-popular party games.

And here’s a thought: ask your child how he or she would like the party to go.

“You may be surprised by what they want to do,” Ryan says. “Some may want a sleepover or to go to the movies with their friends. My daughter wanted dinner and a sleepover with her friends. The catch? She wanted a limo, not mom, to do all the driving. Normally, a limo would have been outside of our budget, but we got creative. We shopped around and found a limo company that would pick up her friends at their individual homes, take us to the restaurant and back to our home for the sleepover for only $45, including the tip. We were able to score a great deal because we went during off-peak hours.

Even if the request may seem extravagant, challenge your child to get creative and try to work within the budget, Ryan suggests.

Feeding the frenzy

Keep in mind too you don’t have to serve a full meal. Time it right — say between 1 and 3 p.m. or 3 and 5 p.m. -- so you can just offer cake and refreshments.

On that note, consider the cost difference between store-bought cake and home-made. Grocery-store cakes usually start around $20 while an ice-cream cake typically goes for about $35 and up. A two-layer cake baked at home and decorated with icing costs around $5. Even going the cake-mix route will still save you big bucks.

If you’re really not comfortable making your own cake, Perkins suggests the trade system. “Ask a friend or family member to bake the birthday cake for you,” she says. “Try bartering something they see as value for their baking skills, such as babysitting.

Choice of venue and gifts

Instead of renting a pricey venue, consider heading to a local park to play sports, have a picnic, or even do crafts. Get the kids to pick out a rock they can paint and take home, or buy canvases at the dollar store they can paint on. If it’s winter, look to community centres and even public schools, many of which rent out their gymnasiums for extremely reasonable rates.

Some local fire halls allow kids’ groups to come through for tours, while some animal shelters will allow small children’s parties, giving the kids a chance to learn about abandoned or injured pets.

While you’re on a budget, keep in mind the invitees’ parents too: instead of accepting gifts, ask for a loonie for every year (someone turning nine gets $9) or ask for a donation of no more than $10, half of which goes to a group gift of the child’s choice and half of which goes to a charity chosen by the birthday boy or girl.

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