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Randy Allbritton

In February and March, our family is consumed by birthday preparations. I hosted a party for each of my kids in the past two months and, while they and their classmates enjoyed the festivities, I am feeling significantly poorer.

Winter and early spring birthday parties for kids are expensive since you can't employ the park or the backyard as a cheap venue. For my youngest, we decided to rent an indoor gym for her and her 15 friends. After pizza, cake and party favours for the guests, I spent more than $300 to entertain four-year-olds for two hours.

For my six-year-old, we had a smaller party in our home and I hired an actress dressed as a Disney princess to keep her and her 10 friends occupied. The princess sang songs, played games and put makeup on the girls, who were enthralled the entire time. It was a party my daughter will remember, but it added up to more than $250 with all expenses included.

For next year, I have vowed to limit the birthday celebration spending. I recognize that part of the problem is my own lack of effort. It is easier to invite 15 youngsters to an indoor gym than have them confined to my living room. Still, with some creativity, I think I could get through next February and March more frugally.

Many parents I know whose children were born in colder months have faced the same challenge.

"I have been very frustrated with the lack of options for a fun birthday party location with some sort of activity that could keep the kids entertained," says my friend Jodi. whose son recently turned three.

"Not only did I not want to do the same thing as the last two birthday parties that we had attended at the local indoor playground, but the prices had gone up and I was looking for a cheaper alternative."

She decided to host her son's party at a local dance studio. It offered a two-hour party for $60 and included the use of two rooms and a one-hour dance lesson for the kids. Jodi set one room up with food and the kids practiced their hip-hop moves in the other.

After the dance class, Jodi gave each child a galvanized bucket and had them personalize it with stickers. She handed out wooden craft dowels for them to use as drum sticks and her husband, a trained percussionist, gave a drumming lesson. They closed the party by giving each child some treats to put in the bucket, which became the loot bag.

"It was totally worth it not to have so many kids running around my house," she says.

One friend, a mother of two, has hosted several birthday parties on a small budget in her home. Her advice to me is to keep the birthday party in perspective. "Does a two-year-old really need a fancy do with 40 friends?" she asks.

When her youngest turned two, she invited six of her daughter's friends over on a weekday morning for an extended play date. The girls played and then sat down in the dining room for scrambled eggs, vegetable sticks and a mini-cupcakes.

When her son turned four, she just invited some of his friends over for games and arts and crafts. She shopped at the dollar store for decorations, crafts and loot bags.

"I probably spent $80 at the dollar store in all," she says, "but that still adds up to a lot less than what I would have paid at a place to play."

To keep costs in check, she also recommends using food as an activity, but not offering a meal. "We served make-your-own sundaes, fruit and then birthday cake. The sundaes were served separately from the cake to kill more time. It was a lot cheaper than pizza or party sandwiches."

Another friend with two kids doesn't create a budget to plan their birthday parties, but spends very little nonetheless.

One year, she borrowed a projector from work and showed a movie in the basement. The kids snacked on chips and popcorn. Her one extravagance is fancy loot bags, but there are alternatives. A friend of ours recently handed out simple loot bags along with a note saying that the savings had been donated to a charity for children.

"Aside from one year, I have always done home parties," says a mother of three I know. "They are more stressful and still not cheap but I can't justify the expense of renting out a place for young kids."

At her best budget birthday party the kids played Pictionary and sang karaoke. She filled a piñata and the candy became the loot bag.

"I think you have to put on the most energetic side of your personality, break out the corny jokes and the mood can be contagious," she counsels. "Go old fashioned with games, arts and crafts and music. It definitely works until the kids are seven years old."