birthday party on a budget (part one)

It’s all Kate’s fault.

Kate, mum extraordinaire, just happened to drop into conversation one day that she sets each of her oldest three kids a £30 budget for their birthday parties.


She makes them a cake outside this budget, but everything else (food, entertainment, decorations) has to fall under £30. As a result, they’ve come up with some incredibly creative ideas for how to celebrate their birthdays, including combining budgets for a joint party, and taking advantage of a cheap deal at the local pool.

Well, being one to like a challenge, I wondered whether I could set myself a £30 budget for each of my kids’ birthday parties. It seems insane to spend so much on just a couple of hours’ fun, and yet I happen to think birthdays are really important, worthy of a decent celebration. (Of course, this doesn’t have to be a party – but our family really loves parties!)

So – the challenge: can I produce an economical yet classy birthday party for nearly-two-year-old Missy? I’m sitting here post-party so I’ll spoil it for you: yes I can. Here’s how:

We had a dollies’ tea party. There was no other choice really: Missy adores dolls and plays with little else.

2013-09-07 07.36.03Eight little people (1 and 2 year olds) attended, plus four of their older siblings (3 and 4 year olds). So – what would we need? Small children don’t need a lot of planned ‘events’ at a birthday party – but I thought a couple of short, simple activities would go down well, give the afternoon some structure (reducing the time for arguments over toys!) and provide an ice-breaker for the parents, all of whom are my friends, but didn’t necessarily know each other.

Entertainment (£3.70)

After a bit of free play time, I invited the kids to decorate bibs for their dollies/teddies. This activity cost nothing: I cut out the bib templates from card we already had, and the children used felt tips and stickers to decorate them. I had a couple of train templates at the ready for anyone who wanted an alternative – these were left over from a previous party.

2013-09-07 15.29.31I was amazed at how much care the girls – and boys – took over these, and how involved they got. I was expecting it to last a couple of minutes – but it must have been nearer 15. Not bad for something free!

2013-09-07 15.36.32

Later we played Pass the Parcel – even tiny ones can enjoy this. In fact, I think the game is improved when its participants haven’t realised that by holding onto the parcel for longer they can improve their chances of the music stopping with them. (Actually, they can’t: the grown-up in charge of the music is watching and making sure everyone gets a turn, but don’t tell the kids!)

I used newspaper and old wrapping paper for the parcel (free), spent £1.50 on the prize (a foam craft kit from Morrison’s) and £2.20 on raisins to go between the layers. After I’d bought the prizes I realised I could have done this cheaper: the pound shop has lots of nice ideas for prizes – books, stationery sets, kites, hair accessories – and I’m sure I could have found wrapped sweets for less than the raisins. Tips for future parties! Anyway, the kids all participated and the raisins kept them going till tea-time!

Decoration (£3.75)

You can spend a fortune on party tableware and the like, so I was determined not to fall into this trap. Specialist designs (e.g. dollies) are usually only available online, so then you’re factoring in a delivery cost as well. Instead, I used the well-worn budgeting principles of make do and re-use. Rooting around in my party supplies I found more than enough balloons, and I also got out Missy’s nostalgia bunting from last year. Those of you who’ve been hanging around this blog for a while might remember this semi-successful craft project. This year, with help from my Mum, all the letters got re-outlined with thicker embroidery thread – I think the result is good! (And obviously this was free, as I’m re-using it. Originally it cost me – oh, perhaps the cost of the bunting ribbon?!)

2013-09-07 15.26.43

2013-09-07 15.26.18

2013-09-07 15.26.24

On the table, I went for a powder-blue tablecloth, which I would be able to clean and re-use for Mister’s party in a few weeks’ time, and pink plates (there had to be some girlyness in there somewhere!) with a few red ones for the boys who might have otherwise complained. Cups, bowls, etc were going to be our everyday non-breakable ones – except that I found some pink cups in the pound shop, and also discovered some pink napkins my Mum had bought us.

Food (£18.78)

This will always be the main expense. I kept costs down by using what we already had and planning (and sticking to) a menu, rather than hopping round the supermarket, buying whatever looked party-ish. We had the usual fare – sandwiches, cocktail sausages, veg sticks/hoummus, crisps, party rings, pink wafers, rocky road – with a couple of Missy-orientated additions (olives, which she adores, and marshmallows, which are possibly the only sweet thing she’ll usually eat). And, of course, no tea-party is a proper tea-party without scones. So I made these fresh, a couple of hours before the party, using ingredients we had in the house, and served them with jam. And then, of course, there was the cake, free from budget restrictions.

2013-09-06 20.12.29

Having decided upon our menu, the next trick was to make it look special. So I got out our cakestands and pretty serving dishes:

2013-09-07 15.59.24I put some small foods in teacups to stick with the ‘afternoon tea’ theme:

2013-09-07 15.59.54I cut the sandwiches into little fingers (cutting the crusts off, of course!), and made the scones bite-size. We lined all the dollies and teddies up on the sideboard with their own plates and cups.

2013-09-07 16.48.02

Party bags (£0)

OK, so you’re caught between a rock and a hard place on this one. Either you spend a bomb and fill them with decent things – or you do them on the cheap and fill them with plastic tat. (Or you don’t do them at all. But we don’t live in that world. Anyway, I think it’s a nice tradition to give something to your guests who’ve made an effort to come to your party, something we only seem to do at kids’ parties and weddings.) Now, don’t get me wrong, my kids are big fans of plastic tat. We put it all in our travel bag and they delight in playing with it whenever they have access to it. But I probably don’t want to be buying it – for environmental and financial reasons, and (if I’m honest) issues of snobbishness. So, what to do?

I wanted Missy’s friends to leave our party with something they might actually have a small chance of playing with over and over, something related to the party theme, something which preferably didn’t cost any money…so I made eight little dolls’ quilts, using scraps of old fabric and wadding left over from a previous craft project.

2013-09-05 14.17.19 I use the term ‘quilt’ loosely, for they were essentially bits of old things sewn together. I am not a seamstress. But my friends are a forgiving bunch, and I figured they wouldn’t mind a little shoddiness in the name of ethical, personal party favours.

2013-09-07 14.34.27Hopefully the quilts will get played with: Missy has already used hers as a blanket, changing mat, and comforter…isn’t it amazing how resourceful children can be with simple playthings?!

Total cost of party: £26.23.


Sign up for my newsletter and receive ‘Ten Tried-and-Tested Tips for Kids’ Birthday Parties’ FREE, straight to your inbox!

11 Replies to “birthday party on a budget (part one)”

  1. This awesome! This is something that I will definitely do to save on birthday party budgets. I think your ideas definitely made your little guests very happy and you were so smart to spend less on it too.

    1. Thanks Janet! It was fun to set this sort of a challenge, and although it took a little thinking about, it did make me realise what can be done for free or very little money. Good luck in your future budget birthday party endeavours!

  2. Hi Andy,

    Good question! It’s difficult to save both money AND time, and, as you well know, for us busy parents sometimes saving time is more important. So perhaps working to a financial budget isn’t the only consideration – perhaps what we parents really need to establish is ways of making party-planning TIME-efficient…?!

    The thing that took me the most time, by far, was making the quilts. But, being a few pounds under budget, if I’d had less time then I could have afforded to provide simple party bags (bubbles and chocolate buttons plus a bit of birthday cake!). So it didn’t need to take me as much time as it did. I also had quite a bit of food left over, so could possibly have cut the food budget to afford nicer party bags.

    The thing which took the next greatest amount of time was actually just the planning – the thinking-through, the ideas, the budgeting. In a sense, I didn’t notice that this was taking me a long time, as I tend to do my thinking ‘on the hoof’, so it’s not like sitting down and planning for three hours! But most of this planning, I think, will actually be re-used next year and for many years, as along the way I gained quite a few helpful ideas and tips which could be used for any party.


Leave a Reply to desertmum Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s