Budget Bashes

Planning a party for your kids is rarely a simple process. Throw in a tight budget and party planning can seem daunting. But utilizing some simple tips can make party planning – and your budget – manageable.


Bay Area author Penny Warner has written several birthday party books, such as The Kids’ Pick-a-Party Book (Meadowbrook Press, 1997) and Slumber Parties: 25 Fun-Filled Party Themes (Meadowbrook Press, 2000), that offer great party suggestions, including fun activities and decorating ideas with a consistent theme, as well as troubleshooting tips to avoid disaster. 


Home field advantage

The simplest way to cut costs, says Warner, is to host your party at home. "Keep the party simple," she says.

The best way to keep within a budget is to agree on a theme and brainstorm inexpensive ways to decorate, including fun (and cheap) party favors that tie it all together. The Oriental Trading Company, for example, has inexpensive themed party supplies that you can order online.

"Personalize it to your child’s interests," Warner says. "If your child is a soccer fan or loves dinosaurs, plan the party around that theme, with matching homemade invitations, decorations, games, activities and food." 

Peninsula mom Jodi Murphy thought a garden or flower-arranging party would be fun for her daughter. "I’d set up stations – like Build a Bear – but the kids would go stations to decorate an inexpensive container, select the plant, and decorate a plant marker," she says. "I think that rather than spending lots of money, kids can have fun mucking around with plants or flowers, and their ‘goodie bag’ is something they can be proud to take home, because they made it." Party goers can cut party sandwiches into flower shapes with cookie cutters, carve faces into root vegetables and dress them with felt and pipe cleaners, or make apple dolls.

East Bay mom Kecia Anderson created a Pokemon theme party for her son using red and white plastic bowls she found at a dollar store, and securing them together with circles of black tape to make Pokeballs. "I put stuffed Pokemon in the balls and hid them around the yard, and the kids went on a treasure hunt," Anderson says. "They played with those the entire time."

Does your child love bugs? Warner suggests having a bug race to see how many bugs kids can spot in the backyard or park in five minutes. Dig dinosaurs? Hide plastic dinosaur bones (available at science or toy stores) around the house, and let the kids hunt for them, says Warner. "When they find all the pieces, have them work as a team to put the skeleton back together." 

Slumber parties are making a comeback as well, providing an exciting event kids can look forward to without breaking the bank. But be sure to discuss house rules and how pranks can ruin a party, Warner notes. And keep the party small. 

One way parents can limit guest lists, and costs, is by choosing a theme that’s boy- or girl-centric, like tea parties for girls. 

Anderson recently hosted a dress-up tea party, inviting six girls to her daughter’s sixth birthday to enjoy scones and "tea" (lemonade) sipped from real china teacups. Some parents even found inexpensive china cups and saucers at second-hand stores and handed them out as party favors.


Home not an option?

Although an alternative location may be more expensive than hosting a party at home, for some families, home parties are simply not an option. "Our house isn’t big enough for a group of rowdy kids," says Santa Clara mom Karen Gardiner. "The best parties have been outside – in a friend’s backyard or in a park." 

Foster City mom Debbie Abrams Kaplan hosted a Hot Wheels party at a local park for her 5-year-old son and had children come with one of their Hot Wheels sets from home. They set up a big Hot Wheels area on the grass for the kids to play. 

Finding inexpensive party locations can quickly bring costs down. The San Francisco Recreation and Park Department can provide a list of local parks and community centers that are available for parties at reasonable rates, and San Mateo’s Coyote Point is always popular for Peninsula parents. And don’t forget about local beaches, like San Francisco’s Ocean Beach, where you can host your own sandcastle-building contest, or Alameda’s Crab Cove where you can hunt for sea creatures. Abrams Kaplan hosts a blog at friscokids.net that lists kid-friendly events and trips in the San Francisco Bay Area.

If a party happens during inclement weather, restaurant banquet or conference rooms can offer an indoor solution. Since Gardiner’s son, Theo, has a birthday in February, she’s had to improvise on rainy days. She held one party at Round Table Pizza, which had a small, inexpensive party room in the back of the restaurant. 

South San Francisco Mothers Club member Nicole Raphael held a tea party for her daughter in an inexpensive private room at Sweet Connections in San Bruno. "I was able to rent her a karaoke machine for $25." 

Last year, Kaplan had her 5-year-old daughter invite two close friends to see a show by the Pied Piper Players – a local kids’ theater company – then returned home for treats and cake. This year, because the party was smaller (four kids at home), Kaplan splurged on the cake and party favors.  "She really wanted a Baskin Robbins ice cream cake, which isn’t cheap," she says.


Seeking something more extravagant?

If you’re intent on a blow-out, yet still want to watch your budget (or simply don’t have the time to do it all yourself), hiring a professional service or adding a performer or other unique feature can bring in the glitz without the guilt.

Create a world of bubbles: Use clear balloons tied in clusters and suspended in corners of the party room to look like bubbles, hand out bubble wand party favors, and invite The Bubble Lady of San Francisco for a 45-minute bubble show. Have a pirate theme? Happy Birds of San Jose will dazzle your guests with their six trained birds at your party location. Planning a Sweet 16?  Include a three-tiered chocolate fountain (and skewered goodies for dipping) from Contra Costa Chocolate Fountain Catering on your refreshment table. 

If your child loves animals, have a pony ride or a traveling petting zoo from Pony Up in San Jose come to your party location, or simply rent a party room at the San Francisco Zoo, go to the Randall Museum or to Lemos Farm in Half Moon Bay. 

Just remember who the extravagance is for.

Raphael has given more lavish parties, and even hired a clown from Ringling Brothers for her son’s first birthday party, but says, "It seems that the kids are happy as long as there is cake and there are activities."

Warner suggests involving the kids in all stages of the party planning. "Let them decide what kind of theme they want, then let them help make the invitations, decorate the party room, plan the games, and set up the activities. You might even let your child decorate her own cake!"

Whatever the activities are – and whether it’s a small gathering at home or a neighborhood extravaganza – the main thing is to enjoy yourself. If Mom is stressed, then probably so is the birthday boy or girl. Remember, they won’t care if the crepe paper isn’t perfect or the Peter Pan-themed cake is the wrong shade of green. But they will remember if they had fun.

Jennifer Wake is a freelance writer and the mother of two sons.



Birthday Ideas

The following is a sampling of some great party-planning Web sites: