NEW YORK (MainStreet) — We all want to throw an unforgettable birthday party for our kids, but even when money is tight, you might be tempted to spend more than you can afford to make your child's dreams come true. After all, the other parents in your neighborhood are renting out expensive restaurants, gymnastics studios and gaming centers for their kids' birthdays, so shouldn't you do the same for your little one? Not necessarily. The truth is that you don't have to shell out big bucks to throw an awesome birthday bash that everyone will love—all it takes is some creativity and careful planning.
"We see parents go crazy trying to plan over-the-top parties for their children," says event planner Danielle Rothweiler of Rothweiler Event Design in Verona, N.J. "I like to remind our clients that fun is the number-one priority for kids and that they don't have to go overboard to have an amazing party."
To give you some inspiration on how to keep costs low but the fun factor high, MainStreet asked a variety of party planning experts to share their favorite tricks of the trade. Here's what they had to say.
To avoid overspending on party essentials like balloons, piñatas and tableware, it's a good idea to plan your child's party as far in advance as possible.
"When you're scrambling to buy party goods at the last minute, you tend to spend much more," says Greg Jenkins, a partner at Bravo Productions, an event planning company in Long Beach, Calif.
Give yourself enough time to shop around for the best sales and discounts on everything you need and don't forget to use coupons whenever possible. You can download free coupon apps on your smartphone such as Coupon Sherpa and RetailMeNot to find great deals.
Send Digital Invites
Sure, mailing out paper invitations can be a nice touch, but they aren't really necessary in today's digital world. If you're on a tight budget, consider sending electronic invites for your child's party. Websites such as Evite and Paperless Post offer many free, colorful options to choose from.
Keep the Menu Simple
Don't worry about creating an elaborate menu for your child's birthday party—their friends are likely to be just as impressed with a few basic, fun items to munch on.
For instance, if you're having an outdoor party, simply throw some hamburgers and hot dogs on the grill and whip up a few of your child's favorite side dishes, suggests Jenkins. When it comes to beverages, Jenkins says it's not necessary to load up on expensive bottles of water and cans of soda. "Use pitchers of water and make a creative lemonade punch that can be served in glass dispensers," he says.
It's also a good idea to purchase your food items from bulk stores such as Costco and Sam's Club, which can cost you much less than purchasing the items at your local grocery store. "The warehouse club is going to best the best destination for frozen finger foods, snacks, paper plates and even cake for your kid's birthday bash," says consumer savings expert Andrea Woroch. "If you don't have a membership, find a friend who does and ask if they'll take you shopping."
For a surefire way to cut back dramatically on your food bill, consider hosting your kid's party in the morning or after lunchtime in the afternoon. This way, you'll only have to supply snacks and cake instead of a full meal.
Borrow Instead of Rent
When planning a large party, you may need extra tables and chairs to fit all of your guests. Before going out and renting these items, first ask your friends, neighbors and family members if they have some extras that they can lend you, suggests Woroch.
And don't worry if the items you borrow are different shapes and sizes.
"Mismatched equals cuteness," says Amy Goodman, lifestyle editor of zulily, an online retail site for moms and kids. "Plus, you can cover tables with colorful tablecloths that match your theme or in bright primary colors for a visual splash."
Scout Out a Free or Cheap Venue
Forget booking your child's party at a pricey venue and instead look into places where you can host the party for free or for just a small charge.
"Of course your backyard is free, so the savings would be huge," says Helen Holden, founder of CountingCandles.com, a birthday party planning site. "If your house is not an option, try a friend's house. You can also reserve picnic tables or space at your local park, usually either free with a reservation or a small fee."
Stock Up at Dollar & Thrift Stores
Head to your local dollar store for great savings on cute items for your child's birthday bash.
"The dollar store is the best place to find cheap party decor like balloons and streamers, plus gift bags to give out goodies," says Woroch.
And once you establish a theme for the party, rummage through your local thrift shop for hidden treasures.
Tiffany "Kitty" Irene, a public relations specialist and founder of iSpeak The Agency, said she found great items for a little girl's tea party-themed birthday at a local thrift store.
"We got two sets of teacups and dishes that totaled to around $23 for about 30 pieces," Irene says. "We also were able to find tablecloths, big hats and those fancy lace umbrellas all for a low price."
Ask Friends & Family to Pitch In
Kid's parties need a lot of extra hands, but you don't necessarily have to pay for help.
"Have family and friends pitch in whenever possible," says Holden. "If your brother-in-law is good with kids or a coach, then let him run the outdoor games. If you have a friend that happens to know how to twist balloons into animals, ask if they can do so for a short while at your party."
You can even ask a friend or family member to dress up as your child's favorite character instead of hiring someone to do it.
Go Cheap on Goody Bags
Don't go out and waste your money on pricey toys and candies to fill up goody bags.
"Kids are wowed by the simplest things, so don't overthink and overspend on goody bags," says Woroch. "Find some great items from the dollar store or, if you have time to pre-order, from Oriental Trading Company. You can even just bake a few sweet treats to wrap up and send home with the kiddos."
Set Up Affordable Games & Activities
Games and activities can make or break a kid's birthday party, but they don't have to cost much—or anything at all.
"Don't rule out simple games like dodgeball, freeze tag or even a scavenger hunt," says Rothweiler. "Kids just want to have fun, and fun can be pretty affordable."
If your child is into crafting, have the kids make simple crafts with household items.
"A craft like a milk carton bird feeder is a fun diversion with the added bonus of a built-in party favor," says Kendal Perez, a savings expert with CouponSherpa.com. "You can even ask parents to have their kids bring an egg carton or other primary part of the craft within the invitation."
When choosing which games and activities to run at your child's birthday party, just be sure to consider whether all of the kids on the guest list will be able to participate.
"Guest lists generally include children of differing ages and abilities, so make sure that the activities you choose are suitable for a wide span of developmental levels," says Sharman Johnston, director of curriculum and instruction for Children's Lighthouse Learning Centers.
Bake Your Own Cake
Sure, going out and purchasing an expensive, elaborately decorated cake may be eye-catching, but it's a big money waster if you're trying to cut costs. Instead, consider purchasing cake mix, icing and sprinkles from your local grocery store and whipping up your own creation at home. You can even get the birthday boy or girl involved in mixing the cake batter and decorating the cake to give it a personal touch.
—Written by Kristin Colella for MainStreet