Tuesday 8 March 2011

Birthday parties on a budget - guest post by Becky Goddard-Hill

As most of you know, Ruby has her 3rd birthday coming up.

I'm extremely grateful to Becky from Baby Budgeting for helping to calm my rising panic with practical and helpful advice on how to handle the party, and she has kindly written this fabulous guest post for me.

I hope to be able to follow a lot of her advice, and not get sucked into the whole commercial vacuum of toddler parties.  I'll report back in a couple of weeks and let you know how it went!

When babies are one, birthdays tend to be small family affairs, which a baby doesn’t really understand. By the time they hit two party invites start to come aplenty. At three your child fully understands birthdays and will most likely have already asked (months in advance) for a cake in the shape of…
I love my children’s birthdays. When it is your child’s birthday it is natural that you want to make all their dreams come true, but you’ll need to do this without breaking the bank. Here are some of my top tips:
The present
Get them what they want if you can afford it but then absolutely nothing else. They will get a pile of presents from everyone else, just one from you is fine. If you can’t afford the trampoline or sit-on car, then ask Grandma and Aunty Mo to go in with you. Have a clear idea of what your child wants or needs as others are bound to ask you. Its far better your child doesn’t get jigsaws if he or she hates them and that they do get armbands if this is what they need. Be clear and precise. And, there’s always the useful gift of a course of activities or clothes. I have often asked for swimming lessons as gift from great granddad saves him going to the shops and more personal than a cheque and literally weeks of pleasure.
The party
A party on a shoestring sounds impossible when confronted with catalogues trying to sell you coordinated party ware, party bags and presents – as well as a bouncy castle in the garden. But it is possible, and here’s how to make it so.
MAKE YOUR OWN INVITES – A sticker or two of your child’s favourite character, such as a fairy, pirate or animal on a plain postcard looks so cute, is easy for your child to help with and cheap as chips. He or she will be so proud to have created invitations. Hand deliver where possible and keep the party times shortish, no more than two hours is best from my experience.

FOOD OR NO FOOD? – If you organize the party mid afternoon you avoid the need to cater at all, and you could just write ‘Please come to Frankie’s party for games and cake on…’ and that would really cut down your costs (and effort). If you love to put on a spread then I strongly suggest you follow the maxim that less is more: simple little sandwiches, a few carrot sticks, slices of apples, raisins and cheeses slices would be fine. Don’t go mad with cakes and chocolate biccies as not everyone is happy about later collecting a child that’s totally wired, but do get some treats, otherwise it wouldn’t be a party, would it?
Ask parents when they arrive about any food allergies, and tell parents to help themselves and their own children to food so you don’t make a mistake. It’s a good idea to keep all packaging in case anyone needs to check ingredients.
CONSIDER A THEME – Themes are fun but can be expensive. One year my little boy was really into Thomas the Tank Engine and I foolishly ended up buying Thomas cups,
tablecloth and napkins all to be used once then thrown away. So, rather than buying a raft of coordinated party plates and bags etc, you could ask all the guests to come in fancy dress (encourage home-made outfits so no one spends too much) or make it a beach party with the sandpit out and a crafty activity to make some funky sunglasses out of card. Fancy dress spreads the effort and can make for lots of giggles even with the littlest kids. As for cardboard plates and cups forget it…a cheap plastic set from Ikea can last you a party lifetime.
PRIZE-FREE GAMES – Do away with prizes. Now, that might sound mean but how many tiny toys gathered from parties ever actually get played with? They’re greeted with an excited look then discarded as quickly. I see them as an unnecessary expense and cause of upset at almost every party. I find that prizes bring out greediness in children too unsophisticated to hide their disappointment. They can also cost a packet. I tried to do cheap pass-the-parcel gifts once, only to have them looked at with derision by two year-olds and most were left behind at the end of the party.
These little crayon packs and bouncy balls had cost about £5 – what a complete waste.
My favourite party games
I have a cousin who works at a Steiner school (creative, natural and anti-plastic) and she taught me a variation on pass-the-parcel that I always use now and it works a treat with little kids.
Sing-along pass-the-parcel – After each layer of paper rather than a chocolate or a little gift you have a piece of paper with a song title and the group (that’s parents too) have to sing the song. Action songs work particularly well and the kiddies love it. You do need to make sure you know the words though and sing up. Alternatively, have little challenges written on the paper, such as spin round three times, jump on one foot for one minute or shake your neighbours hand; nothing too hard, just simple and fun.
Hunt the birthday cake – Hide cut-out pictures of cake around the garden (or inside works well too) and send everyone off to find one picture. The prize? They swap the picture for a slice of birthday cake.
Diddy disco – Get some music on and get on down at the disco.

Penalty shoot out – If there has to be a winner, a big clap and a cheer (or if you’re feeling ambitious a Mexican wave) is good enough.
Party bags
Please don’t go down the party bag route – it’s expensive and feeds into a consumeristic culture. Instead, give the children a slice of cake and maybe a balloon, say thanks and bye-bye. I have often found unexplored party bags in my car weeks after a party. I am pretty sure most people will ignore this though. So how about having the child decorate a homemade cupcake and popping it in a little bag to take home as their gift?
Birthday cake
If someone you know can bake and will make you a cake as a gift then rope them in straight away. Or make your own. Professionally made cakes can steal precious pounds from your party budget. Is it really worth a big expense? If you can’t face making it yourself and can’t find a friend to bake, hit the supermarket and ask if Grandpa would like to pay for it as a gift. These cakes are usually reasonably priced and large and, if you want to satisfy your little one’s penchant for Mr Men or Spiderman, then supermarkets will usually have something to fit the bill.

I could go on and on about parties; I love them. Essentially they’re supposed to be fun, don’t stress and don’t end up spending all the time in the kitchen or your child’s special day gets lost. Lighten up and smile, they always work out, and really don’t need to cost too much.

by Becky Goddard-Hill

This take on a budget birthday is from How to afford time off with your baby (Vermilion 09) by Becky Goddard-Hill who also blogs at Baby Budgeting about frugal and thrifty, fun and creative family life with under 5’s.


  1. Great post, I have just made my 6 year old's birthday cake (see blog) and have a 3rd birthday coming up for his brother. I do like to make a birthday cake which looks like something, and would just like to share this really easy idea. Make a round cake - chocolate, sponge, whatever - then add 12 chocolate buttons with numbers piped on (can use icing writer pens from supermarket) as per a clock face. Matchmaker 'hands' pointing at the relevant birthday o'clock and you're done!

  2. Oh I like that idea a lot!! Thanks for sharing, I'm popping off to read about your other party on your blog now. x

  3. Lakota thats a great idea! Thanks for posting my post Liz

  4. Love this post! Thank you for sharing such great ideas. My daughter has asked to go to the beach for her birthday (in a couple of weeks) lets hope the sun is shining! :) We're going to have a few of her friends around for a play, craft & cake afternoon just before her birthday. I enjoy making her birthday cakes, & for her 1st birthday I made a caterpillar by joining cupcakes together in a swirly line. I used a little green icing on the top of each cupcake & added a few smarties. The cakes were a great size for little hands to hold, & big kids enjoyed them too!;-)

  5. We're still sticking to a family get together plus a couple of our daughter's friends for her 4th birthday in a couple of weeks.
    The best thing we ever did was go in with my parents to get her a good quality balance bike for her second birthday - brilliant investment. This time we're doing the same and getting her a proper bike.I've got her a couple of books and that will be it for us.
    She has been asking me for a pink spider cake for months though ;)