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Birthdays on a budget

6 ways to save money on your child's next party

Is it just me or have birthday parties gotten a little out of hand?

My daughter recently attended a schoolmate's party at a pizza parlor with 30 other children. The birthday boy's parents provided everyone with lunch and tokens to play video games. The cost of the party? A whopping $500.

Is it really necessary to spend this kind of money to give your child a fun birthday party? Of course not. Most children only care about two things: having fun with their friends and eating birthday cake. So how can you make this happen without spending a fortune?

Make your child's next party memorable!

Create a realistic budget

Before any planning begins, set a realistic budget and stick to it. If your child's heart is set on ponies coming to his party, just explain that he needs to be prepared to compromise in other areas.

For some children, the party means more than birthday presents, so if that's the case reshuffle your budget. Believe me, a roomful of three-year-olds who've just seen Winnie-the-Pooh walk into the room don't care about anything else - and this includes fancy cakes or expensive presents.

Narrow down your guest list

The simplest way to cut costs is to keep the guest list small. Another way to save money is to call parents who haven't RSVP'ed to ask if their child is planning to attend. Every year I find myself buying extra food, favors, etc. just in case a child shows up whose parents haven't called. Some people believe RSVP means call only if you're coming and others believe it means call only if you're not coming, so don't be hesitant about calling them to find out for sure.

Decide on home vs. destination party

Usually home parties are the most economical, but destination parties can be a good value if your child is willing to negotiate on certain things, like the number of guests. Stay on the alert for unusual places that offer children's birthday parties such as craft stores, pottery shops or even cooking classes.

A stuffed animal store was the location for my daughter's birthday party this year. For $10 per child, including lunch, the girls were allowed to choose a large animal and an outfit. They were each given a red heart to place inside the unstuffed animal and then watched as a machine filled the animal with stuffing. The cake was the only thing I supplied and the girls raved about the party for weeks.

Consider cost-cutting combinations

To save money, invent clever ways to use these combinations: party favors and activities, decorations and party favors, or activities and food. For example, assemble a simple craft for a party favor. The kids will enjoy the activity, plus they'll take home a nice souvenir. Ready-to-paint wooden birdhouses can be picked up on sale at craft stores for as little as $2 each. Buy flowerpots and let the children plant flowers for a fun spring party idea, or check out hardware stores for toolbox kits to construct.

Double your fun with a joint birthday party!

Festive pinatas are a fun way to combine decorations with an activity. Nothing says "party" like a pinata and all children love taking a swing. But don't forget to fill with candy because all pinatas are sold empty. Helium-filled balloons or brightly colored Hawaiian leis can also be used as decorations and given away at the end of the party as favors.

If your child doesn't insist on a birthday cake, serve cupcakes and allow each guest to decorate their own. Set out several bowls of colored icing, sprinkles and assorted candies, and step back to watch the fun begin. Or throw a make-your-own-pizza party. Prepare the pizza crust beforehand and shape into personal size pizzas. The children will have a blast adding sauce, pepperoni, cheese and vegetables. Just be careful about keeping their little hands away from the oven.

Learn how to decorate a cake

With bakery cakes costing $20 and up, just think about how much money you can save over the years if you learn how to decorate a simple cake. But if you don't have the time or inclination to do this, don't worry. Theme cake pans of all kinds can be purchased for as little as $5 and the only thing you need to be able to do is cover the cake with different colored stars.

Keep an eye on paper goods

Have you ever added up the total cost of theme invitations, paper plates, cups, napkins and a tablecloth? They're outrageously expensive - and unnecessary. Choose one theme item to buy (such as a tablecloth) and use plain items for everything else. If you have a computer, put it to use. Design your own personalized invitations and thank-you cards and print them on brightly colored paper.

To save money for your child's birthday party, remember, the party is for children, not adults. Keep in mind that all the little details we agonize over the children probably won't notice anyway. They'll be too busy enjoying themselves, which is the main idea.

Paula Court is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Hudson Valley Parent and Capital District Parent magazines.