We've all done it-- stayed up until the sun has started to rise, dry eyeballs, intravenously administered caffeine, unable to stop gawking and endlessly pinning to our cleverly named Pinterest boards.
I love to throw big, over the top parties oozing with special details, but I know that's not everyone's forte. There's a new army of mothers blogging away furiously against the mothers who plan such parties and God-forbid, still give out goodie bags. I mean, you're obviously nothing more than a materialistic, competitive, Martha Stewart wannabe if you want to throw a beautiful party and (GASP) allow your child to receive gifts instead of donations to a charity.
My little one is only three (soon to be four) and I cannot tell you how much her face lights up at the tiniest of details of the parties I have thrown for her. Granted, her first birthday was a blur for her, but by the time birthday #2 rolled around, she knew EXACTLY what was going on! She loves being a part of the planning, decorating and setting up. She's been around her mama planning nonstop events and parties for other people-- she lives and breathes party planning. On a daily basis, I can go upstairs to her play room and it's ALWAYS someone's birthday! Her dolls and stuffed animals are all set out with pretend cakes, cupcakes, drinks and snacks all carefully layed out. There are always party games out and her hopscotch mat-- she is always in a big fluffy party dress! Throwing parties is definitely our thing!
I've done parties and events for years and have consequently helped family and friends plan countless birthday parties for their little ones. I'm not going to pull any punches here. The parties I throw could equal a mortgage payment, but I have thrown beautiful, fun, creative, well thought out parties for many children for as little as $100-200!
People have often made comments to me along the lines of, "Well, if I had endless amounts of money I could throw a party like that too." I've worked for some very wealthy clients who have no taste or ability to project manage. Having money to throw at something doesn't necessarily mean it's going to be beautiful and perfect. In fact the main components that will set your party apart are intangible and unseen to the large majority of your guests. They'll come and think, "Wow, that was a great party!" and yet never be able to quite put their finger on what made it so awesome. It's these little things, when all added up, that REALLY make your parties remarkable and thought of well after they've come and gone.
1. How well thought out it is: This is an element that costs no money, but requires some time and serious thought. When I think about a party, I spend a lot of time thinking about how the flow of people will go, what they'll be doing. It affects where I set everything up, where the forks and drinks go, how much space I leave for games, etc.
2. How organized it is: Parties flow better when the host knows what's going on. My party mantra is: If it can be done in advance, I do it in advance. Even little things like taking the packaging off of plates and flatware. Whatever I can do to save time on the day of the party, I do it. Candles and lighter are always in reach of the cake before the party starts, a trash bag is close at hand to where the birthday child will open gifts. Party areas are clearly designated, people can come and go as they please and easily join in the fun and food. For Holiday's last birthday, I made chili-- which required me to make my recipe x 9. I didn't have the fridge storage to keep it all for days in advance so I browned my hamburger and stored that and then measured out all of my spices and dry ingredients, put them in a Ziploc bag-- the morning of the party-- I just had to throw the browned beef, contents of Ziploc bag and a few cans of tomatoes into the pot and I was ready to go. It took minutes instead of a few hours. I plan in advance how my food tables and cake tables will be set up-- I know exactly what will go where. Outside decorations are tough if you're having to work around wind or other potential weather elements. It often requires a concise decor plan with extra hands to set it all up as soon as you're able. Also a great back-up plan so your festivities don't go down the drain if it does rain.
3. How welcome people feel: Have you ever gone to a party and you just felt uncomfortable and wished you weren't there? I know I have! You want to go for the kids' sake, but you don't know many of the adults and you're just watching the clock until it's over. When I'm throwing a party, it's important to me that everyone feels welcome. I try to make everything family-friendly. I want families to celebrate together with us-- meaning moms and dads and other siblings should all feel equally welcome. I also intentionally try to set up activity stations at the party. Instead of having all the children do the same things at the same time, I like to keep things more festival style where children and families can move around and have fun at their own pace and come and go as their schedules permit.
These are all of the unseen things-- the things that really make a party spectacular. They're not the things you immediately think of when you're planning, but they are imperative to think through thoroughly if you want to have a really great event.
Now let's get onto the practical-- the information you're probably hoping to really get from this blog. Concrete ways to throw a spectacular party on a budget! Here are my TOP TEN!
#10: Pick a Theme You Already Have Decor For: What does your child love and already have a lot of that would make a great party theme? Love Legos? Dump Legos into glass containers for beautiful party decor. Fall birthday? Throw a harvest themed party and incorporate all of your fall decor. Even if you don't already have a lot of seasonal decor, if you time it with holidays, you can easily find inexpensive decor at countless locations. Use your child's favorite collections, toys and books as the jumping off point for your decor.
#9: Go Homemade: If you like to throw detailed parties and don't already own a Cricut, Silhouette or other die-cutting machine, you need one, like yesterday. Even if the price is out of your budget, you can easily pick them up on Craig's List for a third of the cost. All of these cute Etsy shops that sell party banners, signs, cupcake flags, etc are all making them with these machines. I highly recommend one of the newer machines like the newly released Cricut Explore. With the older models you had to purchase individual cartridges and were limited to what you had purchased and at $25-50/ cartridge, it wasn't cheap to have an extensive library. With the newer machines, you just pay a monthly subscription fee of around $10 and you have access to thousands of images and fonts! Even for character parties, I'd much rather make my own beautiful, unique decorations rather than buy them. If affords you the opportunity to truly make one of a kind pieces and decor that can really set the theme for your party. There's a bit of a learning curve with learning to use the machines, but there are so many YouTube videos and online resources to get you going. Even JoAnn Fabrics offers Cricut classes and some of them are free! I often use my Cricut to make my own everyday home decor (like framed animal silhouettes)-- they are well worth the money!
Another one of my favorite ways to "Go Homemade" is with the party favors. I first did this party favor bag when I was a nanny in my early 20's and have repeated it so many times now, it has been a HUGE hit every time. A goodie bag that inspires homemade creativity at home and costs very little for you:
Make Homemade Playdoh, this recipe is my favorite. I wrap the Playdoh in a tiny bit of cellophane and the put into a cello bag, tied with a fun ribbon or baker's twine. When attaching, I include pre-printed recipe cards with the Play Doh recipe so they can make it at home. I usually add lots of glitter to our play dough too!
Buy cookie cutters that match your theme, use baking twine to attach a pre-printed card with your favorite sugar cookie recipe.
Find a cute craft kit from Oriental Trading that matches your theme (the kits generally come with enough supplies for 12-24 individual crafts). Separate the projects into cello bags so that each bag contains a full project. Make you own, fun instruction sheet for assembly and add to the bag. Tie up with ribbon or baker's twine and add to the goody bag.
#8: Skip the Big Box Party Stores: Besides making your own decor, there are three places I buy nearly all of my party supplies. Oriental Trading has an AMAZING selection of CHEAP party decor that I often will customize which equates to total gorgeousness (IMHO)! Another HUGE party savings website: www.save-on-crafts.com Besides some great deals on unique birthday party items, they are a one-stop-shop for wedding and shower decor. Beautiful stuff! And lastly www.tableclothsfactory.com When I'm planning a party, I spend a great deal of time planning my tablescapes. This site had oodles of table linens and runners at unbelievably low prices. So low, that purchasing table cloths from this site is generally cheaper than renting them. Plus, having real linens takes your party up a notch and they are SO affordable (think, beautiful silk table runners for $3).
#7 Party Activity and Take Home Favor in One: Spend a little extra money on a fabulous craft or project that guests can take home as their party favor-- or serve as the main party favor (if you want to add in a few inexpensive extras). There are pre-made craft kits for boys and girls. Just go to Amazon and search for "Melissa and Doug Craft Kits" and you're sure to find a ton. Even Target carries a lot of these now in the toy aisle. There are tons of online resources for great craft ideas. You can just go buy all of the supplies for whatever craft you want to do and make individual craft kits for each of your party guests. One of my favorites for a girly party are these mirrors craft kits from Melissa and Doug. Be sure to do them early in the party to give time for all of the glitter glue to dry.
These were my favorite little projects we had at the craft table for Holiday's first woodland themed birthday!
#6: Concentrate Your Decor on 1 or 2 Areas: I love throwing OTT the parties and have been known to buy hand towels to match my theme for the bathrooms and infuse the decor into every room. I pretty much take down my "regular" decor and incorporate the party theme into everything. Well, this isn't practical for many reasons-- time, budget, etc. If your party budget is more conservative, a good way to get a big bang for your buck is to really focus on a few areas and make them super special. Your food display if you have one, your cake table, favor table and maybe the backdrop for where you will open gifts. If you are having a smaller party where most of the party activities will take place in one area/ room-- like your Dining Room-- then deck that room out. Sometimes when you're drooling over a board on Pinterest, they are really just decorating one area or table-- when everything is focused in that space you can make it way more special and over the top. As my photographer friend once pointed out, anything can look fabulous in close-ups!
#5: Elevate Your Displays and Main Decor Areas for Maximum Impact: This is a little trick that doesn't need to cost any money but will take your parties from nice to va-va-vaVOOM! No matter what area I'm decorating (for parties, or regular home decor), I spend a lot of time focusing on scale and balance. I loved how the Blue Ribbon Cakes and Pies table turned out for this party. Just sitting items out on a table is boring and low impact. I get out tablecloths, pieces of fabric that match the theme of the party and start finding things to vary the elevation of the items I want to display. You can see I even used several of my orange gingham paper napkins unfolded under the pies to add interest or cut some into circles on the cupcake tower layers. Definitely start with a table cloth of some sort. For this party, I liked incorporating the wood grain of my table, but then I added a burlap table cloth on an angle and started layering with other fabrics. I used a lot of varying height cake stands for this display, but many times, I just find sturdy cardboard boxes or even stacks of books and put them under fabric to create height. Also, you can buy a 1/2 yard or so of a fabric that you love for your party and just kind of gather it under your cake or another area. As I'm setting up an area, I spend the majority of my time standing back, looking and editing. I always pay attention to make sure the scale of the items fits the overall space. Small items on a big table just look like a lot of small things-- use fabric and elevation to make them more grand and stand out.
Another example of elevating a display. I bought one of those card board cupcake towers you can decorate yourself. It took forever to do and was so weak and looked haphazard, I found myself back at square one. Truth be told, I played around with this for awhile and then my mom stepped in and with the two of us playing around with it, we came up with this! Obviously I started with my gingham fabric on the bottom and then a family heirloom tray. I used a low profile cake stand as the base. In between layers, I used some birch tea light candle holders as columns to support each layer. Regular pillar candles in the color scheme of your party would also do the trick if they were level on top/ unburned. The top two layers are wood slices that I've used for many parties and easily found these days at Michael's or Save-On-Crafts.
#4: Skip The Expensive Cake and Do This Cupcake Trick Instead: Obviously cupcakes are widely accepted in place of cakes these days. They're easy and inexpensive to make yourself and readily available for little money at places like Walmart, Target or your local grocery store. But how do you take homemade or store bought cupcakes and make them fabulously Pinterest-Worthy? If you're going to make them, do yourself a favor and watch a quick Youtube video on how to pipe your frosting to get a professional look. It's so easy and only takes a few minutes to learn. In this picture above, I had these cupcakes made at Target. I took my invitation in with me and they could pretty much do any color and matched the colors precisely for what I was looking for. When I brought them home, I dropped them in these adorable Baking Cups-- I purchased these from The TomKat Studio, but the brand is Paper Eskimo and you can find them all over the internet these days in tons of colors and patterns. To top them off, I had my sweet friend Mary Holmen from It's A Mary Cake make these adorable fondant animal toppers for me and also the fondant cake topper for on top. I know not everyone has a "special friend" who is a true cake artist, but there are other ways to top cupcakes that are absolutely adorable. Again, with a Cricut or other die-cutting machine the options for creating personalized cupcake flags and decor are endless. If I didn't have these cute fondant decorations, I would have used my horse silhouettes again-- done a double one and glued a toothpick in between to create a double sided decoration.
#3: Special Cake in a Pinch: When planning a party on a super tight budget, I've also done this trick with fantastic results. I called my local bakery and asked them to create a plain white round for me-- I usually do a three cake high, large round and have them cover in basic white buttercream and do a little piping around the edges. For a really good, large-sized round, this generally costs between $20-30 depending on the bakery.
Once you have your basic cake, you can put figurines and toppers that you already have that will match your party theme. Toy Story figures, Strawberry Shortcake dolls-- if you're using any theme based on what your child already has-- use it! Elsa and Anna Barbie dolls, etc. Then around the bottom decorate with candy or whatever would tie in the look of your theme! If you had Strawberry Shortcake dolls on top-- I would cut strawberry slices and arrange them around the base of the cake. Doing Elsa and Anna? I would get all pearlized large blue gumballs and use those around the base. Toy Story-- primary color gumballs. You get the idea and Voila-- you go from an ordinary grocery store cake to something that looks a lot more custom for a fraction of the price and SUPER easy.
#2: Plan Your Party Time Between Meals: Want to save money on your party? Plan it between meals. Do a 10 am - 12 noon party, 2pm-4pm or 7pm-9. By doing this, I feel like it's an unwritten expectation to eat before you come. This way you're only providing cake/cupcakes, potentially some light snacks (only if you want to) and bottled water. (You can even make your water bottles super cute by making your own labels, covering with packing tape!) Consequently, if you do plan your party to overlap with a general meal time, there will likely be an expectation that you'll be serving more than snack foods and cake. I usually try to give guests a heads up on my invitations with a little tag line on the bottom "come hungry, lunch will be served!" Or you could ward it off with , "join us for cake and ice cream as we celebrate...." One suggestion if you're having a party at a place like a bounce house place, trampoline park, etc., even if the venue provides water, spring for a few extra cases of bottled water for your party guests and their parents. Nothing is as frustrating as chasing a child at top energy for a solid hour through hot, sweltering, germ-infested bounce houses and there is no water, anywhere, to be had. THEN it's finally time for pizza in a packed tiny room and course there's only food for children and they each get a small water and nothing for the parents.
#1: Have Your Parties at Home: I'm not sure when it went out of style to have parties at home, but I'm a BIG proponent of parties at home. Home is the center of life and activity for your family. Whenever possible, I want my children's best memories to be at home. I love the fact that when Holiday looks at her first birthday pictures, she'll get glimpses of the first house she ever lived in, the home she was born in. With Holiday's second birthday we had just sold our first home and were in the middle of building our current home. We were staying with my parents for a few months and I didn't want to intrude on them with my party planning madness. At the time, Holiday was currently attending The Little Gym a few days a week so we decided to have her party there. It was either $300 or $400 dollars (I just remember it was more expensive than what they originally quoted me). I was supposed to have 15 minutes before the party to set up, but only ended up having ten minutes because the party before us went late. I spend the extra money to extend the party an extra half hour so we had a full 1.5 hours for the party-- an hour to play in the gym and a half hour for food, cake, presents, etc.
A Pinterest-Worthy party at an outside venue like this IS possible, but it's way more work, stress and pressure. I had to think through every last detail on how I was going to transform that room and set up all of my displays in TEN minutes. I definitely could not have made it happen without gracious friends and family who all waited in the parking lot for the second we could get into the space and quickly unloaded and took directions from me yelling out like a drill sergeant. BUT at the end of the day, I'd MUCH rather have a party at home. In order to have the extra half hour for the party, we had to have the party at the end of the day. Holiday was used to starting bedtime routine (at that age) at 6:00 PM. We had friends in from out of town, she had already had a few late nights and though she enjoyed her party, she was visibly exhausted. I paid special attention to make sure everyone felt welcome-- I made sure they brought in extra seating so that while the kids were all at their own table, I had ample seating for every adult to sit down. I carefully thought about what kind of food I was going to serve and made sure it was easy enough for people to eat sitting and standing around. I'd much rather have a party at my own home on my own terms.
It wasn't fun loading and unloading all of the party stuff. I like to take my time decorating for a party and will often start a few weeks in advance so I can work on it once Holiday is asleep for the night. I just like the leisure of doing things at my own space and Holiday getting to see the transformation and preparations for her party and help me! Plus we thoroughly enjoy the decorations for a few days before taking it all down!
That being said, I understand why some people choose to not have their parties at home-- it requires work to clean up beforehand and afterwards. They worry they won't have enough to entertain the kids-- they'd rather pull up to Chuck E. Cheese, let them do all the work, leave and it's all done. Whereas, I would much rather take that $300 or $400 and spend it creating a one-of-a-kind event in our own home that my child will distinctly remember as being special. Or take that money and invest in birthday decor you can use each year. With the $300 you're spending to rent a venue, you could have a bounce house and face painter, a special appearance by your chid's favorite character, a petting zoo, pony rides, train ride. You could rent popcorn machines or cotton candy machines and umpteen other rentals. You could even take a portion of that $300 and pay to have your house cleaned after the party is over if the clean up is a big deal to you. My point is that with the amount of money you're paying to have the party elsewhere, you could do something REALLY special at your own home. I know the kids genuinely have a good time playing at some of these party venues, but unless they are truly spectacular, they will get lost in the blur of childhood memories of yet another party at Chuck E. Cheese.
I know space is another reason people don't want to have their parties at home. Weather permitting, I always extend our parties into the backyard. For Holiday's birthday last year, we had 65-70 people and it felt almost empty because I extended much of the party outside Of course we missed the rain by the skin of our teeth, but I had a backup rain plan to cover a small portion of the back yard in a tent and then also to move some of the games and activities to various rooms of our house. I planned an equally large party at our first home that was half the size of our current home. With lots of careful thought and planning, you can set things up to have a better traffic flow. If your home is just extra tight, you could always downsize your guest list. For extending parties outside, tables and chairs are relatively inexpensive to rent (big tables are around $7/ ea to rent) and folding chairs are generally $1-1.50 or up to $3.00 for very fancy chairs. Costco has great high-quality folding tables that even fold in half for optimal storage for around $50 each. What a great investment to have at your home for countless parties and activities.
SO THERE YOU HAVE IT. I know elaborate parties aren't for everyone, but anyone can do them on any budget if you really have a desire to do so. In the coming months, I'm planning on featuring some lower budget FABULOUS parties to give you some more ideas!