1. Don’t reinvent the wheel: There’s this amazing thing called the internet – and Google and Pinterest. There are a TON of people who are more creative than you and, fortunately, love to blog about it. We love the site birthdaypartyideas.com because they have lots of industrious, creative moms who are not Martha Stewart and who don’t have budgets to hire party planners for third birthday parties. (We admit that we are stunned by how many people do this—if Pinterest is any guide!) We have found a lot of great ideas here, almost all of which are pretty inexpensive. They do the thinking so we don’t have to.
2. Plan most of it a month ahead: If you get your ideas online, you may need to order a couple of things. You can personalize items easily if you have or if you want something personal, it can take a little while to get an Etsy designer to make it. Advance planning means you won’t lose an entire weekend to the party (or a night’s sleep). You’ll get better prices. The printer ALWAYS fails at the last minute, as does the DVD player. You only need to face a room of children who are waiting for an hour for Toy Story to begin to know you need to figure out the kinks in your system in advance.
3. Have an “arrival” activity: As kids get there, even a simple printout to color that’s in the theme of the birthday or a pile of legos will help kids get settled in. The worst thing is for kids to start running around like crazy so you have to get the cat back in the bag before you’ve even gotten going. We also sometimes do scavenger hunts, so they can work at different paces finding out what the grandma’s favorite color is, doing 10 jumping jacks, and singing happy birthday to the birthday girl.
4.Find some capable older kids: You don’t need to hire professionals, and you don’t need to pay a lot. Instead, we just hire kids who are a few years older than ours as helpers to wrangle the kids. As long as your kids are at least 4, they worship the ground of an 11 or 12-year-old and will do pretty much anything they say. For $10/hour or less, you can mingle with parents or tend to the bigger stuff without worrying that the kids have nothing to do.
5. Have one big bang-for-buck idea: We don’t spend a ton on our parties, but we often have one big idea that because we planned in advance and is pretty simple to do. Personalization can be huge for this, and, as long as you’re planning in advance (see #2), it’s not expensive. One year, we were inspired by @ohhappyday and did personalized gummi placecards. We ordered two bags of gummis (to make sure we had enough of each letter) from Amazon well before the party so we knew we’d be covered for everyone. It also doubled as a table decoration. The kids loved finding and then eating their names!
We’ve also done a candy bar, or a cake filled with jelly beans, and there are so many great things you can do with jello from multi-colored parfaits to spiderman lime jello secret serum syringes.
6. Get a single item for the goody bag: Instead of filling a bag with a lot of stuff that is headed for landfill, choose one item and make it special. That doesn’t necessarily mean more expensive. We’ve done personalized chocolate bars, personalized baseball hats, a beach towel. Etsy has lots of great, inexpensive favors (another reason for #2).
7. Go bigger and smaller: We have definitely encouraged our kids to do something very special with 1-2 friends instead of a larger party. For my daughter’s 11th birthday, we took her and her friend to a concert. Another child had 3 friends for a play. This has the added benefit that you may be more likely to enjoy the party and, of course, no clean up.
8. Avoid pizza: Maybe it’s just us, but we just can’t take another pizza party, and there are so many options! We’ve done chicken tenders or tea sandwiches or dumplings. None of them are more expensive, and especially if you have adults at the party, it’s a welcome change.