Perhaps the most important thing to remember is kids are kids–they just love birthdays, no matter how expensive the party is.
“Children will have fun no matter what,” points out Rehaab Zohny director of operations at Gymtime Rhythm and Glues on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, who notes that few kids will notice if the cake has one tier or two.
Here are tips from moms and dads, as well as party planning pros, to help you achieve the birthday bash of your kids’ dreams.
Take advantage of your city or suburb location.
If you live in New York City (or nearby) and your child was born in a temperate month, you’ve hit the jackpot. “For twenty-five dollars plus a processing fee you can get a permit for various locations across NYC parks and dress the party to any theme you like,” says Manhattan mom Noelle Pileggi.
That’s just one of many outdoor options. You can do a carousel party in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park (with wristbands that get kids unlimited rides), suggests Louise Simon, a Brooklyn mom of two. For years, Paul Lyren checked the calendar for Brooklyn street fairs scheduled near his son’s birthday—especially ones with bouncy castles. “For a smoking ten-dollar bill you buy your kid a wristband that lets them bounce all day. So, a ten-kid party costs a hundred dollars, plus a cake and pizza and you are out for under a hundred and fifty dollars!” Lyren says. You can also petition the city to close down your street, then rent a bouncy castle yourself, he adds.
There are still plenty of options for kids born in colder months: try the skating rink, a bowling alley, or hand out a roll of quarters to each attendee at an arcade. Or, go DIY-free and head to a party destination. This can offer some real perks. For one, Zohny notes, “you are a guest at your own party!” That means you don’t need to worry about setup—or cleanup, she says.
Another option is to host at home. (If you live in an apartment, your building may have a common area you can use if space is tight.) An indoor, at-home party means you won’t need to have a weather back-up plan. And, there’s no venue charge.
Figure out a kid-friendly theme.
A theme really ties the party together, says Julie Ontaneda of My Classic Party, an event planning and styling company in Rye. That’s true even it’s a very simple one, like a color or your kid’s favorite things (think: unicorns, trucks, dinosaurs, or just “favorites” for older kids), she says. “A theme allows for simple touches, like theme-named food items, that are Pinterest-worthy and memorable without breaking the bank,” Ontaneda says.
Save by going all out in only a few select areas, she recommends. Simple touches still have a big impact. “Balloons are also a very cheap yet festive addition,” Ontaneda adds.
You can also encourage guests to get involved, suggests Amy Spielholtz, a Manhattan mom. For her daughter’s birthday, the theme was The Enchantment Under the Sea Dance, and guests were encouraged to dress as their favorite Back to the Future character or sea creature. “We were surprised by how many people got into it and it made things so much more festive as a result,” Spielholz says.
Choose an party activity.
An activity is often the priciest aspect of a party, Ontaneda says, so start there, then see what’s left in your budget for food and decorations. If you’re doing the event at a destination—your local pool, a bowling alley, an indoor gym, etc.—this step may already be taken care of.
If not, you can hire someone, or figure out a fun, age-appropriate activity parents can lead. “When it comes to entertainment, do a treasure hunt. It can last a long time, the treasure can be things on the less expensive side, and the children will have a ball. Play musical chairs or musical statues—fun doesn’t have to be expensive,” says Lucy Harris, mom and CEO of Hello Baby Bump, which is based in Queens.
In fact, doing too many activities, and overly complicated ones, can lead to a party that feels rushed and chaotic, Zohny says. Parents tend to want to have everything—the magician, the face painter, a tea party, and so on. “Keep it basic and simple for the best outcome,” she recommends.
And keep in mind that an activity can sometimes outlast the big event. “I wanted some type of activity, but I wasn’t looking to pay for an entertainer or rent equipment,” Spielholtz says—so for around a hundred dollars, she bought a ball pit holder and hundreds of balls to fill it up online. She says she sees it as an investment—the ball pit is stashed at her daughter’s grandparents for occasional play, and it will be available to use again at birthday parties for several years to come.
Trim your guest list.
Who should be invited to your child’s party? It’s tempting to say everybody and invite all your friends, along with your kid’s whole class. Resist! Keeping the guest list trimmed down means less of everything—fewer decorations, fewer cupcakes, and fewer supplies, Harris says.
“Your child doesn’t need every kid in the class to come. Keep the guest list small, figure out the maximum number you want, and talk with your child about who they want,” Harris says. Ontaneda agrees: “It is better to have a smaller party that is put together nicely than inviting too many people and having to skimp on things like food.”
But if you really crave a big bash (or if your kid’s school or day care requires that every kid get invited) join forces. “Consider a joint party with a friend—half the cost and double the fun!” Ontaneda recommends.
Consider skipping paper invites, too, Harris urges, and opt for text messages and Facebook invites instead.
Benefit from other parents’ parties.
Party supplies await on Facebook marketplace and local Facebook groups, says Kristin Fuerst, mom of two. “You can often find someone unloading their used (but perfectly fine) party stuff at a big discount, and you might be able to score some cool things you might not otherwise have been able or willing to spring for,” Fuerst says. As well as decor from themed events, some parents will post unopened packages of napkins and plates, she says: “Lots of moms just want to help out another mom—or just get stuff out of the house and not in a landfill.”
Let your friends lend a hand, too. Nearly any parent will understand that you don’t always have the space to stash endless chairs and other big items. Go ahead and borrow items from friends and family, Harris recommends. And take people up on their offers if they ask what they can bring, she says. “When people offer to help out, there is nothing wrong accepting it. You will more than likely offer it back in return at one point or another,” Harris says.
Create a keepsake item for memories down the road.
Photos are a big path to a memorable party for guests. But Harris suggests having guests craft and sign a keepsake item, too. It can be simple, she says, like a canvas board with attendees’ handprints with their names below. “This is very personal and great when your child has a best friend or two for a couple of years and you can see the difference in their writing from their name,” Harris says.
Don’t forget to enjoy yourself!
If you’re stressed, it’ll show. Same goes if you’re having fun and enjoying yourself. “If you’re having a good time, your guests will have a good time,” Zohny points out. Bottom line: few people—especially the kids—will remember the decor and cake. What’ll stick is if the event is fun. “Remember, it’s for the children! Make sure they are having fun and you are there every step of the party enjoying just as much as they are. They only turn this age once!” Zohny says.