Children love birthday celebrations. To them, getting older is cool, and birthdays are a special day to get and give love, attention, and gifts — simply because it’s a birthday! But for parents doing the birthday-party circuit (whether as a guest or a host), things can get expensive, fast. Considering that the number of kids on the guest list could be between 15 and 25 youngsters, birthday parties can also be exhausting.
Children’s parties have become a lot more elaborate than they were in the good-old days. Cake and ice cream is for babies. For older kids, options include popcorn machines, bouncy houses, face painting, DJs, magicians, clowns, celebrity appearances, and video arcade rentals. In some communities, these extras are not negotiable. But not all parents can spend a year of college tuition on a child’s party. How can you commemorate the date without breaking the bank?
It is essential to have a budget and a game plan. Party planning involves more than money. It is up to the host to determine how guests will spend their time during the party. Will the bulk of the party consist of good conversation, doing an art project together, sports competitions, singing, dancing, and eating? Determining where the budget can be trimmed depends on the age of the child, her expectations, and who you know that can “get it for your wholesale.” But even a limited budget can go further with a little imagination and footwork.
If your budding star wants a karaoke-themed party, a bare-bones rental space in New York (that comes with lights, couches, and equipment) is about $24 per person, without food and beverage add-ons. Fortunately, karaoke equipment is available for rent from local companies, as well as those found online, for as little as $50 (add-ons are available for song collections, lights, etc.). The rental space, versus the equipment rental, gives some leeway and pricing options to the party planner that are worth checking out. A further option is to find a local DJ to play music for the entire party and have the highlight of the party be a few karaoke tunes from the birthday child.
For the athletically inclined, an indoor sports party is fun. Gymnastics, bowling, rock climbing, basketball, and paint ball (for children of a certain age) are a few of the options. These parties are typically around $30 per child, without all the bells and whistles. More kids and add-ons (like food, beverages, and cake) are extra. Parents usually spend between $600 to $1,000 on this type of party when everything is tallied.
If the sports center is not an option, think of a work-around where the kids can run and play and conclude the party with cake. Would a backyard, basement, park, or beach work as a party space? By moving the party to a “free” venue, the party can go on a lot longer and the budget can go further. But, this choice involves preparing the environment in advance for safety, as well as the fun and games. The activities and equipment will have to be organized in advance. If a paint ball party is not an option, would a water balloon fight work? Decide on the activities — relay races, volleyball, soccer, or whatever works for the guest of honor and guests. Hosts will need to make sure that they have enough equipment for these games and that there are enough adult coaches or referee-type personalities to put the friendly competition into play and keep it safe.
Younger kids usually enjoy getting messy — without getting in trouble — at a party. If your child likes making special projects, consider having an art-themed birthday party. Typically, a two-hour pottery-making party is around $34 per person with pizza, which can wind up in the $1,000-plus range quickly. A scaled-down option is a home-craft project, just try to keep it fun and simple. Consider baking pinch pots or making soap or candles. If the entire process would take too much time, some of the work can be done in advance, so the guests can add color and decorations or the final steps to the project, and then take the project home as a souvenir.
Creating sock puppets together and putting on a favorite story is another possibility. Some of the characters can also be made by gluing faces on paper plates or paper bags, using felt, yarn, and glitter. As long as the project is hands-on and does not have to been done perfectly, the kids will have a great time, and won’t know or care how much money you spent.
In warmer weather, an art party can also be done outdoors or in a rented space like a local community center. Regardless of the venue, there will need to be enough supervision for safety — and to contain the mess (at least a little without spoiling the fun). Another option for an art party (or any other party theme) is to check out free events for kids at museums, for example, and meet up there. Afterwards, treat guests to a bite to eat to celebrate the birthday before everyone heads home.
In the fall, an apple-themed party can be organized by apple picking together, then making apple pies or apple crisps at the party. A pumpkin painting party, or making jack-o-lantern designs, will also work in the fall.
Decorating pre-baked gingerbread cookies or making a gingerbread house will be warm and cozy in December. If your home kitchen is too small or your guest list is too big, there are alternatives that will give you a culinary thrill. Commercial kitchens, restaurants, and perhaps even the local pizzeria can put on a show with your guests participating in meal preparation, viewing the chopping and dicing from a front row seat, or rolling the dough for the pie. Check with the manager or owner of your favorite venue. More and more places are welcoming the chance to add to your fun.
Unfortunately (or not), as kids get older, they want a more sophisticated celebration, which usually equates to one that costs you more money. Sometimes they want a celebration without parental supervision. A trip to the movies or shopping with friends makes a birthday fun (with your money and without you there). Independence is the key to this birthday feeling like “a good one.”
However, some birthdays are religious or cultural rites of passage that merit a heftier bottom line. For Jewish children turning 13 years old, signifying the arrival of adulthood, the bar mitzvah (for young men) and bat mitzvah (at 12 or 13 years of age for young ladies), is a more significant event. In Latino culture, some celebrate with a quinceañera, as a rite of passage for a young lady into young womanhood at the age of 15. In American culture, some celebrate a sweet 16 to mark the occasion.
These parties can become big ticket items, depending on the parent’s resources. Friends and family may contribute months in advance to ensure the success of the event, but the key is to have a game plan and shop around. Negotiate everything — the invitations, the venue, the fare, the entertainment, the photographer, the videographer, the goodie bags — everything! When finances are tight, more people are searching for affordable quality because, in the long run, quality is usually more of a consideration than the cost of this once-in-a-lifetime event.
Hosts will also consider what they will give to guests in return for the presents their children receive. The goody bag doesn’t have to include personalized T-shirts or video games if that is out of your price range. It can include a lottery ticket with your best wishes for a win. A charitable contribution is also a thoughtful gift, or a homemade, decorated photo of the guest and birthday child makes a nice keepsake. Candy, bubbles, pinwheels, balloons, coloring books or other simple toys, lip gloss, nail polish, and hair bands and clips, can be purchased in bulk at the discount store. After a certain age, children are just happy that they had another chance to be together.
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Showing the children how to appreciate life is one of the best gifts that you can give them. Don’t forget the thank you cards!
Candi Sparks is a Brooklyn mother of two and a children‘s book author. Her titles include “Max Gets It!,” “Nacho Money,” and other books on finance for kids. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter (Candi Sparks, author) and on YouTube (Canihavesomemoney).