There's a certain irony about spending a lot of money on a young child's birthday party - it's something they will have no memory of a few years down the road.
Despite this, the cash spent on parties boggles the mind. Popular features these days include a rented bouncy slide or castle ($250-$350), a drop-in by a perky Cinderella ($150-$200), even a visit from an ice cream truck ($50-$100). When you add a custom cake, themed decorations and prepackaged loot bags, you're talking well over $500.
But you can create a fun-filled party for your child (and their BFFs) for less than $50. Evite and colour printers have eliminated the need for expensive invitations. Pick up plenty of balloons from Wal-Mart or the dollar store (you'll get 20 or so for a couple bucks), and your decor is taken care of. Throw your party in-between mealtimes to avoid that extra cost: Cut-up veggies, fruit and chips are cost-efficient snacks that always score high.
For loot bags, buy candy in bulk and portion it out into dollar-store baggies. For anti-candy parents, check flyers and "front-of-store" specials at places such as Toys "R" Us for small books, bubble wands or sidewalk chalk, or visit toy warehouses (such as Samco & Miko in Toronto and JRC in Montreal), Wal-Mart or Zellers.
And if you think your pint-sized guests won't be satisfied with simply running amuck in your home, pick a theme and get creative.
1. Backyard beach bash (ages 2-8)
Got a sprinkler? Tell the kids to bring their suits and let loose the H2O. Or invest in a Soak 'N Splash water slide for $10 (at Toys "R" Us). Throw beach towels and blankets in a corner and make it your picnic area. Party games can range from limbo to water balloons to never-fail classics from your childhood - three-legged races, freeze tag, Red Rover. Raid the dollar store for inflatable beach balls ($1) and leis (five for $1). Throw on some Dick Dale or the Beach Boys and serve freezies. And go online for instructions on how to make your own pinata - a fun activity to share with your child before the party.
2. Goin' on a bug hunt (ages 3-5)
Yard + summer = perfect birthday shindig. Create an outdoor scavenger hunt by compiling lists of things your small adventurers can look for (a weirdly shaped rock, an ant, a caterpillar, a flower). Plant some "treasures" - dollar-store dinosaurs or army men look extra cool when perched under a shadowy bush. Rather than a list, Google images, and print and staple together for reference. Make your own bubble mixture in a couple of large plastic bowls, set out bubble sticks and let 'em at it. Buy a whack of gummi worms to top chocolate "dirt" cupcakes.
3. Make stuff (ages 4-6)
Is your child a Lego fanatic with tubs of bricks cluttering your rec room? Hold a Lego tower contest, in which the tallest/weirdest/most fanciful creation wins a prize. Scads of craft materials? Set up creative stations: painting in the kitchen, bead stringing in the dining room, paper bag puppet making in the living room and Popsicle stick building in the bedroom. Loot bags can be a bundle of craft materials and some dollar-store stickers.
4. Top chef (ages 5-7)
Make chef's hats out of white bristol board and tissue paper, and let the kids personalize with markers, stickers, glue and construction paper. First course: Kids concoct their own smoothie flavour. Give them plain yogurt and ingredients - chopped-up fruit, cookies, cocoa powder, whatever. (You'll need to operate and clean the blender between flavours.) Second course: make your own pizzas. Then let your budding Gordon Ramsays blow off steam in the backyard with food-related games (such as egg races). After that, it's back to eat their pizzas and on with the main event: sugar cookie decoration. Dole out cookie cutters, sprinkles and candy.
5. Get snap happy (ages 7-9)
There's a sweet spot between kids being too young to handle a "real" camera and being too old to care ("Like, duh, I have one on my phone"). At about 7 or 8, kids will like nothing better than to run around snapping photos of anything that moves. Let the kids loose with digital cameras (ask the less Type A parents to lend one or two). A shot list works well (shoot someone's silly face, big toe, the family pet, something delicious etc.). Then print out masterpieces, and create a birthday collage on bristol board or make scrapbooks they can take home. Finish your "on camera" theme with a movie at home and buckets of popcorn.
Special to The Globe and Mail. Shelley White writes for Globe Investor's Home Cents blog.