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How to Save Money on Kids' Birthday Parties

Keep the cost of invitations, food, favors and the venue under control.

My children have never been invited to over-the-top birthday parties that cost tens of thousands of dollars -- you know, the kind with a red carpet and professional stylist to make the kids look like movie stars or a mountain of fake snow to create a ski slope in the summer (see Outrageous Kid Parties). We just don't live in a part of the country where that is done. However, they have been to a few parties that easily set the parents back several hundred dollars. My husband and I, on the other hand, have managed to throw memorable birthday parties for our children for less than $100 -- in fact, sometimes less than $50.

Here are several ways I've found over the years to keep the cost of my children's birthday bashes under control without skimping on fun.

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Send low or no-cost invitations. Rather than spending $30 or more on custom-made printed invitations, have your kids create their own. If several guests are invited, your child can make one invitation, and you can make color copies. Or you can send invitations by e-mail for free using services such as Evite.

Keep the food and cake simple. I've read about kids' parties with sushi and caviar. But most kids I know prefer simple food. So really there's no need to spend a lot of money on a caterer when hot dogs or pizza will win over the crowd. The same goes for the cake. And the best way to save money is to make your own, which can be fun for your child if he or she helps. If it comes out looking less than perfect, that's okay. The kids will be more interested in eating it than admiring it.

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Choose an affordable venue. The best way to keep costs under control is to have a party at your home. So rather than buying tickets for your child and several friends to see a movie, create a theater experience at home. Have the kids dress in pajamas, bring sleeping bags and lie on the floor as they eat popcorn and watch a flick. You can create a spa at home rather than paying for a group of little girls to get pricey manicures. Or you can create an obstacle course in the backyard -- which we recently did for our daughter. A search on the Web for "Kids party ideas" can help you come up with a theme and ideas for low-cost fun. If your home or yard can't accommodate several children, consider inexpensive venues, such as a city park or community recreation center.

Don't go overboard on favors. You could throw away money on trinkets, or give kids what they really want at a fraction of the cost: candy. Want to avoid handing out sweets? The kids can make a craft that can serve as a favor, such as a small painted canvas, tissue paper flowers or even cookies with icing and sprinkles. We once bought PVC pipe and colored duct tape for guests at one of my daughter's parties to make their own hula hoops. The kids loved it, and I get reports from parents that their children still play with the hula hoops.

Even though we don't tend to spend a lot, my kids have never commented that their parties didn't measure up to other kids' birthday bashes. The reason, most likely, is that I start the party planning by asking them what they want to do. Usually they just want to spend time with friends playing games or making crafts. Perhaps that's because my children are relatively young and aren't too worried about impressing others yet. But parents of older children might also find that their kids aren't expecting them to shell out hundreds or thousands of dollars for their special day. If your kids do want a pricey party, then discuss the costs and ask them to chip in. They might quickly change their tune and lower their expectations. For more tips about discussing money matters with your children, see Janet Bodnar's Money Smart Kids column.

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