Do you remember your childhood birthday parties? More than likely they were simple affairs with cake, ice cream and classic games like "pin the tail on the donkey."
In this day and age, sadly, such a low-key party is not the norm. Instead, many families opt for extravagant events, usually involving an expensive venue such as a play gym, an artist's studio or even a club car on a train!
If your family doesn't have the financial means to hire a three-ring circus to entertain your child and his friends at a birthday party, don't worry -- there are plenty of other budget-friendly options available that can be just as creative and meaningful. Today I'm going to share six ideas that will bring big smiles to your children's faces, and leave lasting impressions in their memories -- instead of on your bank account.
Before you decide on the theme, location and other party details, figure out a realistic budget. Remember that the birthday party is going to last for a few short hours, but the repercussions of spending more money than you can afford could last far longer. Once you have a handle on how much your family can stomach financially, then you can start brainstorming ideas for a fun-filled, creative party that your child will remember for years to come.
For Toddlers and Younger Kids
Idea #1: Teddy Bear/Stuffed Animal Party
One of the most whimsical birthday parties my children have ever attended was a Teddy Bear Bash. The birthday girl was turning 3, and all the guests were asked to bring a favorite teddy bear or other stuffed animal. We arrived to a fanciful setup in the family's dining room, where picnic blankets were set around the room and each guest had a comfy cushion waiting on the floor with a brand new teddy bear friend for each child. The kids got to pick adorable outfits from a big picnic basket to dress their new bears (bought at a local craft store), and the rest of the party revolved around all things teddy bear. This included a game of "hide and seek," bear-themed coloring pages, and a "pin the tail on the bear" game that the clever mom made out of construction paper. An adorable bear cake was served with gummy bears galore -- and within two hours, the party was over and everyone left happy, full and carrying a new bear friend!
Bears and outfits (10 bears for 10 kids at $5 each): $50.00
Cake and gummy bears: $15.00
Grand total: $65.00
Idea #2: Storybook Character Party
Just recently, my 7-year-old daughter went to a book character party. The 10 kids (boys and girls) who attended were asked to come dressed as their favorite storybook characters. When all the guests arrived, they played a game of "20 Questions" to determine each guest's literary identity. My daughter went as Fancy Nancy, and some of the other characters who arrived were Harry Potter, Curious George, Willy Wonka and even Junie B. Jones. They all got to make book jackets depicting their favorite characters/stories out of journals purchased at the dollar store and covered with heavy-duty construction paper and stickers. These looked like their very own books!
The host took photos of each child, which were glued to the back covers of the books with a cute bio featuring highlights about each "author." My daughter's read: Annie Butler, Grade 2, is crazy for all things fancy. She's the youngest sister of five brothers and two sisters and loves to decorate her room with posters of Fancy Nancy. When she's not reading, you can find her in the gymnastic studio or playing with her Pomeranian puppy, Gracie."
In addition, the host asked each child to bring one or two of their gently used books and they held a book exchange as part of the fun. Each child left with a custom handcrafted book and at least two books from the book exchange.
Craft supplies: $25.00
Journals at Dollar Store: $10.00
Cake and Ice Cream: $15.00
Grand total: $50.00
For Elementary or School-Aged Children
Idea #3: Chocolate-Making Party
Most kids enjoy making treats. One popular and easy treat to make is chocolate. You can get a variety of fun, playful molds and chocolate melt flavors in the craft store. Melt the chocolate in the microwave and then kids can pour the gooey goodness into the molds and get as creative as they (or you!) want with decorations and even lollipop sticks. The molds set quickly in the fridge or freezer, and clean-up is a breeze if you put wax paper down on the kitchen island or other work station of your choosing.
Molds and accessories: $15.00
Wax paper: $5.00
Grand total: $45.00
Idea #4: Backyard Carnival
This idea takes a bit more work, but if you have a big backyard, or even a large garage, and can spend a few weeks planning and creating some neat games, this can be a frugal alternative to going to a bowling alley, gymnastic studio or other pricey venue where kids get to be active. We did this for our 10-year-old daughter a few years ago and it was a big hit.
Some of the games we made for the carnival included a mini golf course, a ring toss on soda bottles (which we filled with water and food coloring to make them festive), a beanbag toss that we constructed and painted using some large appliance boxes -- and we even had a cotton candy and popcorn stand. We also had a tattoo station, face painting and balloons. Prizes were given as well, and these were a combination of purchases from thrift stores, the dollar store, the party store, and other sale items I had found in my weekly shopping. This party took us about three weeks of planning, but it was worth it.
Cotton candy machine rental: $30.00
Appliance boxes: Free from a local hardware store
Balloons, accessories, paints, prizes: $40.00
Grand total: $100.00
Idea #5: Craft Party
Many tween girls love to create things. Channel that interest into a craft-themed party. Buy some unfinished items such as wooden trinket boxes, unpainted pottery, T-shirts, picture frames and bags. Make sure they're as plain as possible so that they make for a nice blank slate. Present the partiers with some fabric, paints, sparkles, glue, markers and any other decorative items, and let them go to town.
Decoupage is also an awesome way to create one-of-a-kind decorations for girls' bedrooms. Get ideas from your child of what she's interested in, and then the two of you can spend some quality time together shopping for the items you'll need. The financial investment for a craft party is pretty minimal -- bits of fabrics, glitter, paints, picture frames and other such items are pretty cheap. So you won't spend a ton, but the kids will leave the party with something special that they made in their own individual style.
Idea #6: Scavenger Hunt
A scavenger hunt is one of the most thrilling parties for kids of any age. The key is to put some thought into the items you will be hiding and, of course, create the sneaky clues that are also a large part of the draw! My 13-year-old son attended a scavenger hunt party at the beach recently. Each child received a message in a bottle (water bottles were used and filled with confetti to make them really colorful) and each child had a different poem with clues.
They worked against the clock to see who would find the buried treasure (it was actually a tin box that contained movie tickets, gift certificates to a local pizza place and some books and board games). Every kid was a winner because there were lots of prizes to be found along the course of the scavenger hunt. But the main treasure was only found by one child. The kids loved it because it was a bit competitive, but it also got silly and exciting for them to see who could figure out the clues.
Those are just a few of the many wonderful party ideas for a tight budget. A few others are indoor camping parties, cooking parties, scrapbooking parties or stewardship parties where kids spend a large part of the party gathering items for a food pantry or making a thoughtful craft for people at a local nursing home.
And don't forget that sometimes less is definitely more. Kids don't need a fancy party or an entire park of wild animals. What they want is to spend time with you and their friends doing something fun.
Cheryl Butler is the host of the Mighty Mommy podcast on the Quick and Dirty Tips network. For more practical parenting tips, connect with her on Facebook and Twitter (@MightyMommy), and join the Mighty Mommy Pinterest boards for tons of family-friendly ideas.
Restaurant.com sells $25 gift certificates for $10 or $50 gift certificates for $20. The site also has sales throughout the year, and I've snagged $25 gift certificates for $5. I keep a stack of these things in my wallet at all times. Most places have a minimum purchase requirement (from $35 and up) but you can generally use the gift certificates any time. But there are drawbacks: They're for dine-in only, they're nonrefundable, and they can only be redeemed once per month per restaurant. Still, the site has become so popular that you can double dip - buying Restaurant.com certificates through an airline's shopping portal in order to earn frequent flier miles, for instance.
If you're not already using Groupon and LivingSocial, start now. Both sites post daily deals that will give you 50 to 90 percent off at different restaurants. You'll have to act quickly, but you'll save a bunch. I just got a dozen cake pops (regularly $17) for $8 through Groupon. If you don't want to spend hours sifting through all the offers, Money Talks News deals diva Karla Bowsher has culled the very best on our deals page.
If you have a smartphone, some social networking apps will get you free stuff and discounts. Last weekend, I got free guacamole and a free flan for checking into the restaurant on Yelp. Here are a few apps that score you deals: Yelp Check-ins - After you check in, mention Yelp to your server to get the goods. Foursquare - Many places offer discounts and buy-one-get-one offers to people who check in. SCVNGR - Every time you check in, you accumulate points. You can redeem your points for a discount on your bill or a free item depending on the restaurant.
Every restaurant in town knows when my birthday is. Last year, I got three half-price meals, six free desserts, two free entrees, and about a dozen free cocktails - and all I had to do was sign up for a birthday mailing list and turn a year older. Many restaurants have a birthday or anniversary club. Signing up is free and they'll send you a coupon around the date. Ask your server how to sign up - and even if they don't have a mailing list, he'll tell you what you can get for free or cheap on your special occasion. There's even a site devoted to listing restaurants where you can eat free on your birthday: eatfreeonyourbirthday.com
Social media-savvy restaurants post special deals on Twitter. Some even post code words. If you tell your server the code word, you'll get a discount or a freebie. Last month, I got a free dessert for saying "Free Sean Payton" to my server. (I live in New Orleans, and the code words referred to our NFL coach who has been suspended by the league.) To find a restaurant's Twitter info, visit its website and look for the "Follow Us" links. One should be for Twitter. Another should be for Facebook. Speaking of which...
Here at Money Talks News, we take surveys, hold contests, and give out freebies on our Facebook page as a way to keep in touch with you. Many restaurants do the same thing. By "liking" the restaurant page, you'll get access to special deals not mentioned anywhere else.
I've made it a habit to open a few apps before I walk into a restaurant. There are several free apps that post deals to local and chain restaurants. Most places will apply the discount to your bill if you show them the app - no need to print the coupon. Here are a few apps worth downloading: Dining Deals LocalEats The Valpak App
Many restaurants in my area extend their lunch hours until late afternoon. By eating dinner early, I get the lunch prices, which are often 25 to 50 percent cheaper than the dinner prices for the same entrees. Before you try somewhere new, visit the restaurant's website and see if they have a lunch or early bird special.
It's uncommon, but some restaurants let you bring your own beer or wine, which is usually cheaper than the cost of paying per glass. Before you go, call ahead and ask if the establishment is BYOB. If they're not, skip the cocktail and have one somewhere else. Some places will charge a "corkage fee" if you bring your own wine, but even at $10 per bottle, it's still often cheaper than buying the same bottle in the restaurant. Most restaurants in my area overcharge for alcohol. For example, my local bar charges $3 for a mixed drink, but the restaurant next door charges $6. I save 50 percent stopping by the bar for my after-dinner drink.
Restaurant meals are over-proportioned, so split your meal in two. You'll eat dinner tonight and lunch tomorrow for one price. It may seem like obvious advice, but it's harder in practice. If you're not careful, you'll end up eating everything on the plate. To beat the extra calories and save money, I divide my plate in half before I start eating. I only eat from my "now" half of the plate and ask for a to-go box for the rest.
Knowing the different steak cuts and how they're prepared will save you money. For example, my friend always goes for the filet mignon because it's well known and tender. It's also one of the most expensive cuts you can order. Meanwhile, I ask if the hanger or flank steak was marinated. If it was, I order that. It's the cheapest steak on the menu, but it's also flavorful and tender - if marinated. MSN says sirloin, flank, skirt, and hanger steaks are really underrated. Give them a chance.
If I've learned one thing being a local in a tourist town like New Orleans, it's this: Tourist traps are alive and well. Many of the famous restaurants tourists want to visit are overpriced and not the best dining experience. If you want an authentic experience and a better price, check out a review site like Yelp or Urban Spoon before you visit a vacation spot. Pick a few places the locals rated highly and check their websites for menu prices. You can save a ton by planning ahead and skipping the hot spots.
I'm fortunate to have very cheap friends. "I don't care where we go as long as it's cheap," is a common refrain on a Friday night. But I also have some less-than-frugal friends who visit from out of town. Since I know they'll want to try that expensive five-star restaurant they heard about on the Food Network, I jump the gun and suggest a similar but cheaper place. If you're dining out with a group, suggest reasonably priced places ahead of time. It will keep you from having to choose between a $25 salad or a $30 piece of chicken.
Around here they call it lagniappe - the little something extra you get for being a great customer. Like the free cup of gumbo I've gotten every time I visit a diner in my neighborhood. I get that little something extra because I'm a regular. Trying new places is great, but you can get a discount (or a lagniappe) by building a relationship with the servers or owners of local restaurants.
With iDine, you can earn 5 to 15 percent back any time you eat out. Just sign up on their website. Within 30 days of your meal, sign on and complete a quick survey. For every survey you take, you'll earn cash back. When you reach $20, iDine will mail you an American Express gift card. It takes some effort, but it's free money. See? Dining out doesn't have to mean going all in - or staying in.
Follow Cheryl Butler on Twitter: www.twitter.com/MightyMommy