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Party on, dude! 10 tips for doing it in style and on the cheap

Submitted by on Sunday, 8 February 2009 2 Comments
You know the economy's getting tight when the bounce houses and pizzas disappear from the preschool parties.

You know we're in a recession when the crowd that usually rushes to the kid party mills - you know, the places where the food's bad and the noise is migraine-inducing - opts for celebrations at home.

And you know tough times are hitting hard when folks are economizing on major life events - Bat and Bar Mitzvahs, quinceañeras, weddings.

Here's a hint, though: Economizing and fun are not mutually exclusive. Nine times out of 10, neither the guests nor the honorees will even notice your penny-pinching measures. The 10th time will involve either a true Veruca Salt or the type of guest who goes to parties strictly to criticize, and you're never going to make them happy anyway.

The key question to ask yourself: Will anyone remember 10 years from now if I don't spend money on expensive centerpieces from a florist? Will anyone miss the bounce house by the time they graduate high school?

Probably not. So proceed with financial caution to create a fun, memorable event without blowing beau coup bucks. Here are a few tricks I've learned over the years.

1. Centerpieces are easy do-it-yourself projects. For our wedding, the centerpieces were hurricane globes bought with pre-Christmas coupons at Michaels - it took many trips to accumulate enough - six-inch taper candles, hand-crafted bows hot glued to the globes and a red rose at each place setting.

By ordering wholesale, the roses came in at less than a dollar a stem. I invested less than $10 per table, compared to the $20 the florist wanted. I could have cut the total even further if I'd left off the roses.

Even better: The globes were recycled for both guys' baptism luncheons. They'll be recycled again through our local freecycle when I get organized enough to do it.

2. Skip the photo studio for more memorable pictures: I hired a co-worker to take pictures at our wedding and I couldn't have been more thrilled with the results. He took the stock images that studio photographers always get - the wedding party, the bride and groom. But he also captured a wealth of candid moments, some of which I was too dazed and confused to notice as they happened.

If you don't happen to work at a newspaper, give your local office a call. Ask for the photo department, and then ask if any of the photographers shoot weddings on the side. There's a good chance you'll find someone.

3. Don't blow a lot of paper on paper: Stock up on seasonal goods at the end of the season. It's the same principle as buying Christmas wrap Dec. 26 - it works with holiday napkins, too. It's not as useful for birthday parties, but often you can pick goods for those up at dollar stores or Big Lots. I recently bought paperware there for Big Guy's kindergarten class Teddy Bear Picnic for under $5.

If you can't find cheap products to fit the party "theme" instead buy solid-color napkins and plates - you'll be able to use the leftovers for future bashes. Or simply go with standard paper napkins and plates from a deep discounter or warehouse store. It's one of those small changes no one will remember 10 years from now.

If the guest list is small enough, use plastic ware you already have. I invested years ago in a set of a dozen rainbow-colored plates, cups and bowls from a discount store, at roughly $ each for the plates and cups. You'll often find them on sale in the summer. It's a purchase that's paid for itself many times over.

As far as invitations, there's really no reason to spend a dime on those - beyond the costs of your own labor - once you have the initial investment in a desk-top publishing program. You can find them for as little as $20. I haven't bought an invitation, greeting card or present tag in years.

4. Plan timing and location carefully: Mid-afternoon is a great time for a party, because guests don't expect or want a full meal. They'll be happy with small snacks or, in the case of the younger set, cake and ice cream.

My favorite location is our back yard, though neighborhood parks also are an option. I tend to avoid them, because there's a rental fee for reservations at some parks and at others you can't reserve at all. That means you either rely on luck or camp out at the intended location for most of the day to hold your spot. That's do-able for a morning party, but it gets to be a pain for later in the day. Plus I really don't like schlepping all the gear and refreshments to the park.

5. Think "active" activities: One of Big Guy's two favorite parties in his social history featured a simple obstacle course in the host's back yard. The guests road a scooter to a basketball hoop, took a shot, ran to a baseball tee, took a swing, sprinted to a soccer net, made a goal, then ran through a crepe paper "finish line" to earn a medal. The beauty of this one: The gear already was in the guests' back yard. The game didn't cost a dime and was a blast for the 4- and 5-year-olds.

6. Think messy activities: This plan requires a tolerance gene some parents simply don't have, but if you do, it's cheap and it's a blast. At Big Guy's other favorite party, the activities were oobleck, shaving cream, sidewalk chalk and planting sunflowers. And water hoses to clean off the mess.

7. Costumes aren't just for Halloween: Having a pirate party? Ask the guests to come dressed and ready to play. Add foam swords - $4 is the cheapest I can find online, but I've bought them for much less at Michaels - and create maps for a back-yard treasure hunt.

8.  Invest in durable goods instead of short-term rentals: The main activity at Big Guy's fourth birthday party was a SpiderMan slip and slide. It cost around $20 on sale from Lillian Vernon at the time and lasted the better part of two summers. You could easily spend $30 or up on a slip and slide or you could opt for a $10 to $20 model. Either way, it will cost less and last longer than the $70-plus you'd spend to rent a bounce house for a few hours.

9. Make them make their own food: Get off the gravy train, partiers, and fix your own grub. It will actually be fun. Honest!

Instead of taking them out for pizza, have them make their own. Make the crusts in advance on mini pizza pans and bake for 10 minutes or simply buy mini-Bobolis. Have dishes of sauce, toppings and cheese ready and let the guests choose their own. This has the added advantage of no one crying because they hate mushrooms or love pepperoni but their favorite option is not available.

Pop the guest-crafted pizzas in the oven for 10 more minutes and the food's ready.

This plan also works with cupcakes and cookies as well. Bake in advance and turn the guests loose with icing and sprinkles.

10. Avoid a bakery cake at all costs. Anyone, no matter much they hate the kitchen, can bake cupcakes from a mix. It's going to cost only $5 or so at most for two dozen, and that's if you buy a mix and canned frosting at full price. It will be even cheaper if you hord mixes when they're on sale for $1.

If your skills are a bit more advanced, you can create virtually any character, animal or shape without buying a single pricey pan. Or craft a creative cupcake for a less-mess treat that's always popular with the kiddie set.

Copyright 2009 Debra Legg. All rights reserved.

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2 Comments »

  • Leslie K. said:

    Remember homemade b-day cakes and games with the prizes being a bag with a plastic whistle and a pez dispenser?

  • Debra said:

    We always have homemade cakes, in part because of the allergies but in part because I love decorating them. And some of the guys’ cousins think that’s so sad.

    Ay, the games! Drop the clothes pin in the milk jug. Pin the tail on the donkey. These days, it’d have to be Mario Kart.