WFMW: birthday on a budget

My daughter’s third birthday was this week, and we wanted to throw her a fun, simple party with a few of her friends. Our budget was a little tight this year, so we had to get creative, but we ended up having a blast without breaking the bank.

The theme for her party was High School Musical. Now, some of you may be reading this and thinking that High School Musical does not seem appropriate for a three-year-old. And to you, I would say: you are correct. However, my darling daughter has had her mind set on a “High School Musical Birthday” since she turned two. Truly, she has been talking for a year about her desires for this party. No amount of talking or reframing was going to sway her into choosing something preschool-appropriate like Dora or Backyardigans. She is three going on thirteen, and she loves Troy Bolton in a big way.

For invitations, we sent an evite. The days of cute, homemade invitations on colorful cardstock are over for this tired mama. If that kind of thing floats your boat, you go on with your bad self and your glue stick. Not for me. Besides, it is so much easier to keep track of the guest list on evite.
I love when I can incorporate the party favors into the décor and activities. We decorated the tables with pom-poms, microphones, basketballs, and stickers, which were all used at the party, which the kids then got to take home. I ordered them bulk from Oriental Trading Company. I also set up some of India’s other HSM paraphernalia on the other tables. The only decorations I had to purchase were the tablecloths and paper plates.

We had the party right at lunchtime. Choosing the time for a party is always a challenge, and typically I like to try to avoid having a party during a meal. However, some of her friends are older and had games in the morning, and some of her friends still nap. So we were pressed into the lunch window, which meant providing lunch for all the kids, and the parents. It’s also always interesting trying to provide healthy food that kids will actually eat. We decided to keep it simple, and offered a large chicken nugget tray from Chik-fil-A. Their chicken is cooked in healthy oils and natural chicken instead of processed, meat, and a great staple to build on. I also served huge bowls of grapes, carrots, salad, and whole-grain goldfish. Previously I have spent a lot of money on fruit and veggie trays, but for younger kids keeping it simple worked to my favor.
I went for some fun beverages for the grown-ups, since the food was geared for the kids. I wanted to serve something adult, without actually serving adult beverages, if you know what I mean. There is a fun new drink called Sparkling Essence that is basically sparkling water with a hint of fun flavors like cucumber and mint. I also served some bottles of Natural Brew, who makes the best Vanilla Crème Soda and Ginger Ale you have ever tested. For the kids, I served Sensible Sippers – my favorite juice box because they are 100% organic juice and contain more water than the average juice box.
For dessert, my sister-in-law made cupcakes. Let me share this tip: find a friend or family member who is willing to swap this responsibility with you. Sarah had the idea that we make the cupcakes for each other’s birthday events, and it has been such a lifesaver, since it is one less thing to think about when you are planning a party. It’s fun for me to get creative for my niece and nephew on their birthdays, and I love the stuff Sarah comes up with for my kids. I think I’ve gotten the better end of the bargain with her cupcake skills, though. Look at what she made!

When hosting a party, it’s always a delicate balance between letting the kids freely play and offering some structured activities. Too much free play means they get bored, but too much structure means I become the shrill, controlling mom ordering kids to follow rules when they just came to have fun. I wanted to keep the activities simple and allow for things that would be fun for both genders and all ages. We had _ activities during the party:

1) Banner Project – as the kids arrived, I invited them to choose a letter or two on the banner to decorate. I put out crayons, markers, and stickers. The banner was just several sheets of white paper with a letter on each page to spell out “High School Muscial”. I downloaded the HSM font and typed it onto a word doc, and then printed it from my printer and strung it on a piece of ribbon. Uber-cheap and easy, and it kept the kids occupied for a while. Once it was complete we hung it up on the “stage”.

1) Sing-A-Long – after eating, we invited kids “backstage” and then played scenes from the movie. We passed out the microphones and pom-poms and the kids were invited to sing and dance while the parents watched. The stage was basically an area in front of some chairs where I hung two king-sized red curtains from IKEA for $7 each. They covered a large area and cost much less than if I had purchased fabric by the yard. Some of the kids took the performance very seriously. Some of them just stood and watched the movie scenes. It engaged them for a good chunk of time.

1) Cupcakes & Tattoos – we set up the cupcakes at the table while the kids were dancing. After singing happy birthday, a couple parents went around and helped give the kids some HSM tattoos we found at Target.

After getting their tattoos, we had India open her gifts, and then most of the kids ended up jumping on the trampoline. It was a really fun party for not a lot of moolah, and most importantly I think India felt very honored.


  1. I love budget birthday ideas! Everything turned out so cute!

  2. What an awesome, easy party! And that's a great idea about the cupcake-swapping.


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