How to Throw a Better, Cheaper Birthday Party

It's easy to get swept up in consumerism, but there is an alternative.

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As I started planning my daughter’s second birthday party, the stakes seemed to keep getting higher. We attended a birthday party for about 30 kids at a gymnasium, where guests were treated to a trampoline performance by an aspiring Olympic athlete and toddlers could jump into foam pits. Another party was at a Gymboree, which featured a professional toddler-wrangler who led the small guests in songs and games. How were we going to compete with that without completely blowing our budget?

The answer, of course, is that we didn’t need to compete with that, and our two-year-old would be just as happy (or perhaps happier) with a small gathering of a few friends. As I tried to convince myself that we wouldn’t be lame parents for hosting such a relatively low-key event, I discovered a whole movement leading the way towards simpler birthday parties and family rituals.

As I write about this week in my article on alternatives to pricey kids’ birthday parties, Bill Doherty, a professor at the University of Minnesota, and a group of parents joined forces to form Birthdays Without Pressure, which helps parents celebrate birthdays without giving in to consumer pressure. The group’s website offers a dozen ideas for fun party games, including relay races, creating a cardboard box maze, and musical chairs.

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I also interviewed my favorite source for sage family advice, Marguerite Kelly, who co-wrote the classic book, The Mother’s Almanac, back in 1975. (I still rely on my copy, passed down from my own mother.) She said some of her—and her now-grown children’s—favorite memories from their childhood parties involved the cakes, which she made herself. She used cookies, candy, and other edible items to create images of their current interests, such as space ships. “I was not very good at it, but to this day, the kids talk about it,” she says.

“Kids at these ages are simple,” Kelly explains. That’s why she recommends throwing pennies into a wastebasket or pin the tail on the donkey. “You don’t have to rent a pony—and you really shouldn’t,” she says.

Needless to say, we’re skipping the professional venues in favor of a small party at home this year. But don’t worry, we have some ideas to keep our little guests (and their parents) entertained. The main event? Toddler freeze-dancing. All we need is our Pandora toddler radio station—and lots of energy.

Twitter: @alphaconsumer