Growing up my birthday parties were pretty basic. We would gather in my early 80’s living room to play an array of games, eat boiled hot dogs and then I would blow out the candles on a homemade cake. Since then, birthday parties have gotten bigger. They have elaborate themes, amazing venues and can cost a small fortune. With my youngest daughter’s 5th birthday approaching I decided to take a radical approach to her party – I was going to invite her whole class and spend only $100.
I’m sure this sounds impossible; in fact, when I told my own parents about my plans they suggested I set up a ‘Go Fund Me’ page. Yet, here I am the day after the big event, on budget and eager to spill all my party planning budget secrets.
The first thing I always do to save money for any occasion is to start planning early. I knew that I wanted to have the party at home, with lots of games and activities. I decided to use Canva to make L.O.L. Doll invites (my daughter’s current obsession) for her entire class. I personalized my design, saved it as a JPEG and then added it as a bunch of images into a Microsoft Word document. I could have easily printed these at home, but I decided to use Staples.ca to print on cardstock. I then attached a piece of magnet from a roll purchased at the Dollar Tree, so the invites could be stuck to the fridge as a reminder. I was able to make personalized and themed invites for a class of 30 for less than $4.
Décor Some of my biggest savings were on birthday décor. I was able to find an amazing deal on Varage Sale, where I got a whole bunch of random birthday stuff for $5. This lot included banners, tablecloths, 3D cutouts, napkins and cups. They weren’t on theme, but I knew a bunch of kindergarteners wouldn’t notice or care.
I also found a lady who had free empty L.O.L boxes that I could use to hold L.O.L. surprise balls. As the day drew closer and my budget a little tighter, I was also able to ‘borrow’ some extra paper plates, cups and disposable cutlery from my mom’s basement, which was also a ‘steal’.
My biggest splurge was on a whole bunch of balloons. Not only do they make the house look festive, kids love to play with them and if your floor is covered in balloons, no one can tell you didn’t wash it before the party. I filled our balloons with glow sticks and sequins to make them even more fun, but still budget friendly.
I love to make an activity do double duty. I came up with the idea to give each child a brown paper bag to decorate and personalize with crayons and stickers as soon as they came into the party. This inexpensive craft allowed each kid to personalize what would become their loot bag. It was a good icebreaker that the kids could do as they arrived in waves, which we then collected for our planned treasure hunt.
Once the kids were finished their bags, we brought them down to our playroom for some games. I remember from my childhood one of my favourite parts of birthday parties was the chance to win an elusive prize. I decided to plan lots of games and get lots of prizes to make the party memorable.
Since we were going with an L.O.L. theme, I gathered up all the balls we had in the house and filled them with surprises to use as prizes. Since my daughter’s birthday is shortly after Easter, we visited all the clearance racks to get cheap items to fill the balls such as erasers, bouncy balls and candy. This allowed us to give out more prizes and the kids loved that they were able to take their own L.O.L. balls home.
We played a few rounds of hot potato where the kids passed an L.O.L. ball around the circle and whoever was holding it when the music stopped was ‘out’. Whoever made it to the end won the L.O.L. ball we were passing.
Next, we played a game my daughter enjoys at school called Doggy, doggy where’s your bone?. In this game, one child is chosen as the doggy and they hide their eyes as their bone is hidden behind the back of another child. The dog gets five guesses (depending on the number of people who are playing, three guesses may be more appropriate) to choose who they think has their bone. If they choose in five guesses or less they get to keep the bone (an L.O.L. ball); if not, the person hiding it gets to keep it.
Finally, I had printed out a black and white head and shoulders picture of the birthday girl and taped it to the wall. I cut out party hats for each guest and we played pin the hat on the birthday girl. Those who came closest were awarded L.O.L. balls.
With the party falling shortly after Easter, I decided to reuse our plastic eggs and fill them with Easter candy my kids did not need, as well as some treats I found on the clearance racks after the holiday. While the kids were busy playing games in the basement, we hid eggs on the main floor for them to find and put in the bags they had decorated. They were able to do a fun activity and fill their loot bags to take home. Once the eggs were found, the kids emptied and returned them so we can use them for many parties to come.
One area that you can really blow the budget is food. The first thing I decided after limiting my budget was to hold the party from 1-3 p.m. This timeframe would give me time to bake the cake the morning of (which makes your house smell cozy and clean) but still allows kids to eat lunch before they come.
Since I knew I wasn’t going to be able to spend much money on food, I decided to set the menu and limit the guest list. While I definitely wanted to invite the whole class, I did not want to invite their parents. I find in situations where the parents stay but don’t really know each other, you spend the party making coffee, small talk and the parents will stand around and anxiously eat.
I’m just not doing it.
I opened the door for parents and let them know that pick-up was at three o’clock. I didn’t need the extra bodies, I didn’t have time to socialize or make coffee and I certainly didn’t have the budget for snacks.
Instead, what we did was make two boxes of pancake mix into a million waffles and then keep them warm in our electric roaster. We have a waffle maker that makes large waffles so we sectioned them off into bite-sized pieces perfect for little hands. I purchased a small fruit tray from Walmart for $8 as well as a tub of Cool Whip. This was the cheapest version of a somewhat healthy meal that a five-year-old would eat.
While I am not a huge fan of it, I made a fruit ‘punch’ by combining juice crystals and no-name lemon-lime pop to add some red dye #40 into the mix. All in all, I was able to feed the kids for about $15.
I am a horrible baker and yet I almost always make my children’s birthday cakes. I love looking at how-to videos or admiring photos of beautifully decorated cakes, but I am way too cheap to spend the money on an edible work of art. Instead, I bought a few boxes of cake mix (generic brand) and icing (name brand) and decided to make my own.
My rule of thumb when it comes to theme cakes is to keep the cake simple and add some toys. This year I decided to take it up a notch and looked up how to make boxed cake mix taste like the bakery. I added extra eggs, milk and butter instead of oil. I didn’t hear any complaints or have any leftovers, so I must have done something right.
I could have easily spent my entire budget on the cake, instead I spent around $10. The sprinkles that I used were bought on clearance at Michaels a few weeks after Valentine’s day and the chocolate balls were from the Dollar Tree. I took the L.O.L. doll out of my daughter’s Easter loot and stashed her away in an effort not to lose all of her accessories, and used half a ball as her stand.
I spent a total of $94 on everything. Here’s what I spent it on:
- Cake $10
- Food $15
- Décor $10
- Invites $4
- Prizes $35
- Misc. $ 20
While the party was a huge undertaking and lots of work, I know that having all of her friends at our house, celebrating her milestone, was a wonderful memory for my daughter. Doing a party on a budget doesn’t mean sacrificing the fun, it just means getting a little more creative!
Melissa Robertson is a journalist with 15 years of experience as a professional writer. She is also a hot mess mom to three very energetic daughters, and loves to DIY, share design and upcycle projects and creating patterns. She shares it all on her blog, Keeping Up With The Robertsons and, luckily, has a husband who is a total softie and is usually willing to go along with her crazy plans!