We Need Your Birthday Party Ideas!

by Katy on April 26, 2013 · 33 comments


One of the great things about The Non-Consumer Advocate is how readers are able to find answers to life’s problems both great and small. This is especially true over at The Facebook Group. 

Just this morning, Renee posed this question:

Looking for frugal ideas for my son’s 4th Birthday party:
He has decided he wants a “costume party to celebrate Halloween and my Birthday!” Which is in the end of May. Silly kiddo.

So we’re thinking we’ll drop the Halloween part and make it a dress up party. Collect a bunch of friend’s dress up stuff ahead of time and then have a big selection for the kids when they get here (although he really just wants to wear one costume from his favorite video game, Costume Quest, which inspired this whole thing.)

I’d like to avoid the $100-$200 rental fee for a place, but we’re not sure our house is big enough/set up well for lots of kids playing. Weather is too unpredictable here (Seattle area) to plan for it it be outside. Any ideas of where to have it?

And other than the kids wearing different costumes, what kind of activities can you think of?

Within a few minutes, answers starting popping up. But since we all face the challenges of entertaining, I thought I would share her question on the blog.

Here are my suggestions, (and by the way I love the idea of a costume party!)

  • Rethink that your house is too small. You may have to clear the living room of furniture, but that’s better than the expense and bother of renting out a space.
  • Do party favors of fabric tails for the kids. (Stuff thin tubes of animal print fabric, with a length of unstuffed fabric to tuck into the backs of pants.) Great play value!

Now you, what are your suggestions for Renee? please share your ideas in the comments section below.

And before you get all creative with your  birthday party suggestions, I want you to reflect on the vintage photo of my now 14 and 17-year-old sons. Yes, they are superheroes, but my older son has a squirting dolphin tucked into his belt, because it was the closest thing we had to a toy gun.  And my younger son created some kind of wrist cuffs from paper and tape. And yes, my house was messy.

They melt my heart.

Katy Wolk-Stanley

“Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.”

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{ 33 comments… read them below or add one }

Sharon April 26, 2013 at 9:00 am

I think my first suggestion for Renee is to not worry about the size of your house. I raised three kids in a double wide trailer and all our birthday parties were at home. You push the furniture aside, close the doors to the rooms you don’t want them in and “stay in charge”. My second suggestion is to plan all your activities from arrivals to cake eating in 15 mins increments. Trust me, that’s all the attention span you’ll get from kids…especially boys. Keep the activities simple, cover a wall with paper (at their height) and let them draw, let them decorate their own cupcake, make a paper plate mask…easy stuff. And thirdly keep the party short…an hour, hour and a half tops. Don’t put so much pressure on yourself…kids don’t care..not at that age. They just want to have their friends over and be noisy!


Claudia April 26, 2013 at 9:05 am

Don’t be so quick to drop the Halloween theme! We had a Halloween-themed party for my sons’ spring birthday, and it was a great time. Children were invited to wear their own costumes (or not), and I had a few available for shy kids in case they changed their minds. I loaded up my mp3 player with Halloween and monster-themed sounds and music. I bought a bunch of Halloween-themed games and party favors very inexpensively off a popular party-goods website since it was off-season. I let the kids wrap me up as a mummy with a few rolls of toilet paper (the used paper can be repurposed as packing material). I served cupcakes and Jello in the shape of brains. There are tons of Halloween party ideas online, including games and cake decorations. You could have the kids dance like zombies, do a pumpkin pinata, have a costume parade, etc. We did ours at home and it was crowded but totally doable–I cleared a room of furniture and served the food on a buffet table; kids simply sat on the floor with a plate. The whole party was very inexpensive.


Trisha April 26, 2013 at 9:37 am

I LOVE this!


Ruthie April 26, 2013 at 9:11 am

Don’t forget that kids don’t realize how big or small their house is, it’s their house and that is important to them. It’s great to remember the house you grew up in and all the happy memories you had there — including birthdays!


Jennifer B April 26, 2013 at 9:19 am

Birthday party in a 2-bedroom apartment, yes, it can be done! One of the games we played was Sardines, kind of the opposite of hide and seek. The one who is “it” goes to hide, while the rest of the kids count. Then, instead of outing the it-person, you hide in there with them, keeping as quiet as kids can be. The last person to squash in there (like sardines) is the next person to be it.


cathy April 26, 2013 at 9:23 am

I’m still seeing Halloween stuff at Goodwill and Savers.
We always did home parties. Most took place in one not-so-big room. And for a 4-year-old, how many kids would you have?
For my kids’ birthdays, I always did a combination of at least 2 games and 1 or 2 craft activities. We’ve done endless variations on Pin the Tail on the Donkey. My favorite was downloading a photo of Saturn (we had to print it in 4 parts and tape together) that my husband laminated at work. Downloaded some cute rocket pix from a book and played Pin the Rocket on Saturn. Since some of the kids didn’t like to be blindfolded, we marked the “landing spot” with glow-in-the-dark paint, quickly turned off the lights so they saw it, but did all the spinning and pinning with the lights on.
Bean bag/hacky sack toss. Just get a box, cut holes, cover in paper (if you want) cutting out the hole shapes. Write different values above the holes. Or put pictures of different ghouls/monsters/zombies (or other dress-up characters) next to each hole.
Freeze dancing (sort of like musical chairs, but they just freeze when the music stops).


Cherie Beyond April 26, 2013 at 9:45 am

My sister gave me the invaluable kid party advice to always have a craft activity first so there is something for the early arrivals to do. A dress-up party is a great idea. Why not have them decorate their own paper plate masks?


Sanna April 26, 2013 at 9:51 am

At that age, you might get a paper tablecloth and set the coffee table with a few crayons at each place, so the kids can eat cake and draw on the “table cloth”.
Then there’s games, like “musical chairs” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Musical_chairs
or what’s very popular in Germany is a simplified version kind of pinata, only that you don’t make a pinata but just hide some sweets or other price underneath a pot which you place somewhere on the floor, then the kids take turns, crawling through the room, blindfolded and with a wooden spoon in hand searching for that pot, while the other kids assist by shouting “hot”, when the kid crawls in the right direction and “cold” when he/she is going somewhere else. Each kid gets to do it once, so each kid gets a price.
I know a lot of party games for children, but I think at 4 years they will be fine with just a few planned activities and some room for free play as well.


Louise April 26, 2013 at 10:28 am

At 4 I would only have 3-6 children max (I have often read 1 child for each age of your child – so that would make 4). Cutting numbers immediately cuts costs and may well make your house the perfect venue. Also, I wouldn’t necessarily drop the Halloween part since it conjurs up lot’s of cheap crafts and food ideas (bopping for apples comes to mind!).


d April 26, 2013 at 10:40 am

Here’s a fun dress-up type of game: Give each kid a pile of clothes (maybe 6 pieces of clothing). Whoever can get their whole pile of clothes on first wins. Trying to get that third shirt on over the two they’ve already put on is a challenge! Plus little kids think it’s so funny to do silly things like wearing three shirts at once.


Patches April 26, 2013 at 10:55 am

We threw a dress up party for my daughter when she was 4 and it was a big hit! It was a simple affair at home with cake and ice cream. To give them plenty of options, I borrowed costumes and accessories from friends and family. We didn’t need to plan any activities because the little girls were more than happy to repeatedly put on necklaces, outfits, costumes, etc, take them off, and start all over again. If I remember correctly, the party lasted about 2 hours and her friends wanted to stay longer so that they could continue to play with the dress up stuff.


Linda in Indiana April 26, 2013 at 10:57 am

Loved Claudia’s ideas…and all the suggestions to keep the number of invitations down…that way your son can be involved with each one. I might suggest putting a blanket over a card table and creating a cave/or clubhouse for the kids. Also, since space is limited…I did this when my daughter was young, I served the cake and ice cream picnic style with a blanket on our kitchen floor and everyone sat cross-legged. We also played our games there. Kids love getting on the floor. I also think the supervised craft idea is great. I think you should also keep the party short and specify on the invitation. That way the parents know what to expect and young children wear out quickly. You could do Halloween games also. Have fun and interact…that is what the kids will remember…not how big the space was or how much you spent….they will remember doing stuff and having fun.


kris April 26, 2013 at 11:38 am

IA w/having it at home and if the weather does cooperate, do it outside by all means! And keep the head count low, a few of his special buddies are all he’ll need.


Nicole April 26, 2013 at 11:55 am

No need to invite the whole class. 6 kids tops maybe? Don’t include siblings-of-his-friends, or parents. Serve cake and a beverage, not a meal. Keep it short: 60-90 minutes max for duration.

And we live in Victoria which has very similar weather to you; we did my daughter’s pirate party at the playground around the corner on April 6th. We lucked out weather-wise but were okay with the possibility of coming back to the house in case of rain.

Be kind to yourself, and don’t keep up with the trendsetters!


Katy April 26, 2013 at 12:13 pm

Here is my tried and true pinãta tip:

Figure out how many kids will be scrambling the candy ahead of time and then bag up that many bags of candy/whatevers. That way you don’t have the situation of a few aggressive kids getting more than their fair share.

And there will be no tears!

Also, stay away from games that have “winners” and “losers” at this age. Again, you can avoid crying this way.



Jennifer C April 27, 2013 at 8:19 pm

YES! This pinata tip is crucial– I have bagged many pinata treats as both a parent and a teacher. Keep a couple of extra bags to the side in case they get trampled/extra kids show up/ some get lost/whatever. It’s also fun to make your own pinata– I have made several with children helping, although I am NOT crafty whatsoever.


Amanda April 26, 2013 at 2:50 pm

If your house is too small, I would suggest using a local park pavillion. We live an hour out of town, and all our friends are in the city an hour away.
We do parties at parks or at my parents’ house because we know no one wants to come all the way to us!


Katy April 26, 2013 at 4:18 pm

She lives in Seattle, which means it’s hard to schedule outdoor activities for much of the year.



Mauren April 26, 2013 at 4:49 pm

Hate to burst the birthday bubble, but when my daugher was in second grade someone gave her some hats and clothes for dress up as birthday presents. Quite a few kids were at this party so things got passed around. Yes the clothing and hats and lice!!! All the girls in her class got lice from this party because 1 person had it and brought it to the party and it was passed around when the hats were tried on. So I would be hesitant to have a dress up party and go with your son’s idea of a costume party. Have the kids come already dressed. And I don’t know of any little kid who doesn’t want to dress up in their favorite costume.

And I love the rest of the Halloween themed party ideas. You can definately find tons of ideas on Pinterest.


Heather April 26, 2013 at 5:43 pm

I have a 3 and 5 year old and we have had all of their birthday parties at our house. We don’t have a large house or a floor plan that is even remotely “open concept”, but the kids have always had a great time! We have just started playing games at the 5yo’s last party. We blow up a pack of 20 or so balloons (just with air from our free lungs!) and make a “balloon pit” in the middle of the living room. The kids love pummeling each other and no one gets hurt. I’ve had lots of friends who have had “destination” birthday parties for their kids and spent hundreds of dollars, but the kids have just as much fun in our living room. If you have a dress up party, you could do something like “pin the cape on the superhero” or something like that. Cut a person out of construction paper who looks like he’s flying. Then cut out a cape for each kid. Let the kids decorate them with markers/crayons/stickers before the game. Super easy and cheap.


Shannon April 26, 2013 at 5:58 pm

I did a Scooby Doo party for my son’s 5th birthday, when of course Scooby Doo was not in vogue, and therefore it was all DIY. We invited kids and parents like to either dress “creepy” or “groovy.” The highlight for the kids was the spooky fog—water over dry ice! They were so curious about it! We also did a group painting of the Mystery Machine on a big sheet of butcher paper, and a couple of other crafts. We were stuck indoors too because it was a 90+ degree day. I don’t have a huge house but I had a game plan to keep the kiddos busy. Good luck!


Margaret April 26, 2013 at 6:45 pm

I am working on a May birthday and thinking stuff for my other daughter’s birthday in July. I second the idea of re-thinking your house. I have seen people entertain with attitude in very small houses and apartments.

One tip I putting to use… freezing cake. I wanted to invite a lot of people to my daughter’s first birthday in a few weeks and I wasn’t sure how I could pull off homemade cake for a crowd. Then I remembered that you can freeze cake and it turns out just fine. Even bakeries do this, and the customers never know… especially after it’s covered in frosting. So… I am making 3 sour cream pound cakes in my small pockets of time. I am also making a simple sugar glaze which will keep in the fridge for an eternity. Day of the party, I will wash and slice berries, scatter around the thawed cakes and drizzle with glaze. Voila! This plan also travels really well because you can bring all three pieces separately and plate it virtually anywhere. Even a park!


Holly April 27, 2013 at 1:27 am

Borrow a canopy (or use a large family-sized 3 room tent like our friends did) and put it in the backyard. We have a tiny house, but we used to successfully host Thanksgiving and Passover events for up to 20+ people by using that strategy (although there was sometimes a line for our one bathroom! LOL). We live in England and the weather is dreadful in November and early Spring (wellll, most of the year actually!!!), so can relate! We’d put canopies by the back door and put tarpaulins around the sides to block the cold and rain. Told the guests to dress warmly, and used small, cheap blow heaters to take the chill off. By the time everyone was outside, it had warmed up to a comfortable temperature. You could make heat up rice bags- either pocket sized or larger- to give as gifts to each child. Cheap and easy to do, and something practical as well. Pop them in the microwave for a few minutes if the kids complain about being cold. But I must say, after 4 kids- 3 grown now- and scores of parties, I’ve only had a few kids complain as they are usually running around like crazy enjoying themselves!

One time for my son’s 7th birthday we used the canopies for a homemade pirate themed party… in December! The kids loved their ‘pirate ship galley’ under the canopy.

I agree with everyone else, keep the party short and only a few. Kids get over-excited, overwhelmed and tired, then the tears and tantrums make an appearance. And keep the sweets and E numbered items to a minimum (some kids go absolutely mental on them, going from well-behaved children to maniacs). Send kids home with a few sweets instead of giving them out at the party. That was the parents can dole them out as they set fit, and saves you a few pennies as they kids won’t gorge themselves or won’t waste them by spilling them everywhere. You can make little draw string party bags out of scrap fabric.

Don’t worry about over-scheduling everything. Start with a craft, and have a few games ready, but let the party flow and only do the games if there is a lull. One easy and relatively cheap one is Pass the Parcel. Slip a token gift of a little sweetie, special pencil, sheet of stickers, tiny toy, etc between each wrapping sheet of newspaper, have the kids sit in a circle whilst playing music, when you stop the music, the child holding the parcel at that time gets to unwrap and keep that ‘gift’. They move out of the circle, then the music begins again. Continue until everyone gets a little gift. Avoid any games where just one person wins. Invariably one child will end up winning most of the games, or worse, none!


Carla April 29, 2013 at 6:19 am

Having lived in England (and my oldest is a Yorkshire lass by birth), I thought I should note that ‘E numbers’ in North America are the artificial food colourings plus other chemical additives (e.g. red food dye, tartrazine, etc.).


Roberta April 27, 2013 at 6:59 am

I agree with everyone who said to keep the party small. Less chance of hurt feeling, and someone crying. At our parties, we always have a craft at the begining, to keep people busy as all the guests arrive. I like the mask idea someone posted. Then I always have three games planned — and for four year olds, make them games without winners. Games should be fun, not something with losers who cry. Then singing, cake and your little monsters can run around (even outside if you get lucky).

Where I live, it is customary for at least one parent to remain at the party with the participant. If that’s the case, make ahead some snacks that can be frozen and reheated, or veggies and dip, and tea and coffee (it’s Seattle, after all!) that will not require your attention while you chase monsters.


Starr @ The Kiefer Cottage April 27, 2013 at 3:15 pm

I have a small house, and I recently hosted a party for 20 kids and their parents. It was too cold to be outside.

I planned no activities other than eating. It was a blazing success. The kids made their own fun. It was like a gigantic playdate. I’m not sure I’ll ever do it any other way!


Jo@simplybeingmum April 27, 2013 at 10:36 pm

I love Kid’s parties!
My advice would be don’t worry about the weather, it’s the one thing you can’t control 😉
I’m from the UK, and our weather is highly unpredictable. Yesterday we had sun then hail…today we have cloud.
My Son’s birthday is mid-June (which is apparently Summer?) however anything goes here, but still we held a party at a local forest/park. Everyone pitched up with bikes, I took the picnic/cake and we crossed our fingers. Apart from making sure the waste went in the bin and all our stuff went in the car – no clearing up. Plenty of room at the park!
It’s a gamble, but what I did was say if it pours divert to my house and make the best of it.


Vickie April 28, 2013 at 7:49 am

If you don’t want to have it at your house, check to see if your local Library has a room they will let you use for a few hours. If so, the kids will already be in the library and they can pick out books or movies to take home and watch, after the party is over.


Shari April 28, 2013 at 10:58 am

Our favorite birthday party was the easiest. Our youngest wanted to do a dress up theme and we landed on crazy scientists. We challenged all the kids to do up their hair in their craziest scientist impression and we had lab coats when all the kids arrived which I’d embroidered with Dr. (name) —you can get men’s white shirts from the a thrift store, cut the sleeves and hems to size and use marker for the name labels for an inexpensive option. We then spent the majority of time doing science experiments with the kids—of course, doing the mentos in soda at the end. It was a June day and we did this in our backyard and would have used the garage as a backup. You can google for tons of ideas. Ended with birthday cake (beaker shape) and ice cream. Kids kept their lab coats and the beaker, test tube and a few other items we used for the experiments as party favors—all reusable in school!


Diane C April 28, 2013 at 5:18 pm

A lot of good tips here.

Don’t forget the mother of all frugal zealots, Amy Dacyczyn. Her books have lots of great ideas about how to throw great kid’s parties on a shoestring. If you don’t own it, try to get the big blue compilation book of all The Tightwad Gazettes from your local library.


hmbalison April 29, 2013 at 6:52 am

When my kids were little, I always did a scavenger hunt around the house–either inside or out depending on the weather. I wrote up silly/obvious clues and split the kids into teams. Each kid on the team found a clue/item. I hid stuff like marbles, little balls, etc. The beauty of this was that the bags they used and the items they found on the hunt were their goodie bags for the end of the party.

Also, for 4 year olds, one fun activity is to decorate cupcakes. I did this instead of having one big cake. I put a candle in the birthday kid’s cupcake for the singing and birthday wishes part of the party.


Allison May 4, 2013 at 3:53 pm

Yes! Also, you can save up all the junky little toys you get all year long at the dentist, the doctor, from other goodie bags. One friend of mine wrapped each item in tissue paper – a different color for each kid, so each kid was guaranteed to get the same number of items.


me May 18, 2013 at 2:56 pm

– Rent a “party room” from the park district. Generally those meeting rooms at various field-houses are not booked too tightly. In Chicago rooms cost between $25 – $100 and include the use of the kitchen, trash cans, bathrooms, etc.

– Your church likely has little or no rental fees for an event space if you are an active member.

– Borrow an outdoor tent from a friend. I live in an area where every third house has a outdoor tent for parties.


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