Budget Birthday Ideas for Your Toddler

With our second kiddo in daycare, we have gotten lots of invitations for 3-year-old birthday parties. I think some of it is that, for children who’ve mostly been alive during the COVID-19 pandemic, their parents haven’t had a chance to celebrate them much publicly and birthdays (when things have opened up more) are a great time to do that. And I think another part of it is that parents see what other parents do and think they have to do the same thing.

I’m here to tell you that keeping up with your kid’s daycare classmates’ parents is not something you have to do or strive for. Your kids likely won’t remember their birthday party, so there’s no reason to book an expensive kids play space or trampoline gym or swimming pool and invite every kid in their daycare class. If you want to celebrate your toddler or preschooler, great! It’s just not necessary to spend a ton of money to do so. In this post, we’ll discuss budget birthday ideas for your child, so that you don’t have to stress to celebrate your little one.

Where to party

My favorite choice is always a park with a playground, a botanical garden, or a local beach (lake beaches work too). Depending upon what part of the world you live in and how your baby’s birthday matches up with good weather, though, outdoor venues might not be an option. You can always celebrate a half birthday for the public party and have a small indoor birthday at home if weather doesn’t cooperate, but there are other options too.

Hosting at home is another low-cost option. With good weather, you can be outside or you can set up in a garage or on a covered porch if it’s rainy.  If your home doesn’t have good spaces to welcome folks in, look into public spots that might be available, such as function rooms or clubhouses at nearby apartment complexes, which are usually available to residents for a small fee. Other places that may rent space cheaply include local community centers and churches. Sometimes, restaurants have a semi-private area where you can gather and celebrate as well.

What to do

Faced with a couple of hours of toddlers and their parents, it’s a good idea to have some things planned to do. The playground takes care of the activities for the kids, but if you’ve chosen a different location read on for ideas about low-cost activities. I love crafts, so I try to have at least one crafty option set up. It could be as simple as watercolors (and if you buy enough for all the kids, they can take home their watercolors as their party favor) or playdough. Homemade playdough can be cheap to prepare with flour and salt and keeps my three-year-old busy for hours. Coloring is also a nice idea—it’s cheap to print coloring pages relevant to your child’s interests and have crayons or markers close by for children and adults to entertain themselves.

Eating is also a great idea, but having to provide a full meal will be expensive. Planning your party for the late afternoon—after lunch but before dinner—will allow you provide some snacks and cake, but people won’t expect anything beyond that. My favorite cheap snacks are the snack size bags of chips and popcorn that you can buy in bulk and fruit and veggies that you can arrange yourself. For paper plates, cups, and napkins, check out your local dollar store, which will often have good deals on colorful paper goods. For a cake, there’s nothing wrong with making your own from a boxed mix or finding a ready-made one at the grocery store, where the bakery will likely decorate it for you.

Do I need favors?

Party favors are a nice-to-have, but not a need-to-have. If your entire budget went into your venue, activities, and food, don’t stress. I personally never miss it if we don’t leave a party with little plastic toys. At the same time, if it’s important to you that guests have a party favor, think outside the box. Do you have a little free library or used bookstore near you and could gather some free or low-cost books that toddlers might like? Or can you buy balloons to decorate for the party (the dollar store is another good spot for this) and have the children take a balloon home with them? As we discussed above, a party activity (painting, bubbles, playdough) can also double as the party favor. Have fun celebrating your kid!

Abby Olena
Dr. Abby Olena has a PhD in Biological Sciences from Vanderbilt University. She lives with her husband and children in North Carolina, where she writes about science and parenting, produces a conversational podcast, and teaches prenatal yoga.

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