When I was a kid, my grandpa and grandma used to host carnivals in their backyard. The yard would be full of grandkids, cousins and neighbors and it was magical. Magical and cheap. The carnival stalls were made of quilts tied to ropes. Games were made out of household items like empty Clorox bottles and clothespins. Grandpa made homemade slingshots to shoot stuffed animals, which we’d get to take home if we hit them. We are all grown up now. Those kids that used to play in Grandpa’s yard have served in wars, started careers, explored the world and started families of their own yet on the rare chance we get together, it’s those backyard carnivals we talk about most.
I think it’s probably my grandpa’s backyard where I learned that you can never spoil a child with imagination and that’s why I love creating a fun, little world for my daughter’s birthday. I want to create a memory not only for her but for her friends, too.
This year, my party budget had me down. I was originally budgeted $150, which would have to buy decorations, food and entertainment for at least 30 adults and children. With a February birthday and an especially snowy winter, I knew we’d be limited to hosting the party indoors and most likely in our home. And when I asked Ada what sort of party she wanted while standing at the dining room window watching yet another snow storm blow outside, the only thing she could imagine was a snow party. More snow? Okay, kid.
But as I thought about the day she was born, a snow party seemed perfect. The thing we talk about most when reflecting on her birthday is how big the snowflakes were that day. They were…magical. And like I said, I have a soft spot for magic. So I started planning a snow party inspired by the scene in Elf when Buddy decorates Gimbles for Santa.
And then we got the biggest heating bill we’ve ever had, which cut my already small budget nearly in half. I had to get really creative so here is how I pulled it together, with the help of my family and friends:
-Instead of buying a toy that she’d play with for an hour or so, my mom’s gift for Ada was cupcakes. We found a wonderful, local bakery called Babycakes that specializes in gourmet cupcakes. The cupcakes were delicious and the best part was, we were able to buy a few gluten-free cupcakes so Ada and I could indulge and a Vegan cupcake so one of my friends with a dairy intolerance could enjoy, too! We asked Tricia, the bakery owner, to give us a sampling of her delicious menu and our guests had a blast tasting flavors ranging from maple-bacon to white chocolate peppermint.
-To stock the hot cocoa bar, I used a gift card I got for Christmas from Kohl’s to buy hot chocolate K-cups. Marshmallows were an inexpensive way to fill pretty jars and I dressed up the whipped cream can with wrapping paper and a few embellishments.
-We enlisted the help of a family friend to snag some pallet wood for us to build the cocoa bar, which will become a permanent fixture in my dining room. In total, we spent $8 to build the bar and used leftover paint from our recent kitchen remodel to give it an aged-barn look.
-Instead of buying party decor, I reused Christmas decorations and shopped my house for things like jars, galvanized cake pans and a long mirror I used to create the centerpiece for the dining room table. The tablecloth was an old bedspread my mom bought for $1 at a yard sale. What I didn’t have on hand, I borrowed. My friend Beth let me borrow her huge box of 3-D snowflakes, which she scored when she worked as a manager at a retail store. My friend Jenna let me borrow a bag of white Christmas lights.
-My mother-in-law, Connie, supplied the beautiful hot cocoa cups. She found the cups themselves at Walmart and made the cup warmers out of felt that she hand-stitched. She also brought us beautiful, chocolate-dipped cereal treats, which looked lovely on the cupcake bar displayed in cake pans filled with artificial snow.
-The only decor I bought came from the Christmas clearance section or craft store and I kept it cheap, cheap, cheap. I bought gold, glitter snowflakes for 17 cents a box at Walmart and used those on the chandelier and dining room window, which I decorated in memory of the hospital window on the day Ada was born. I bought three packs of tissue paper and created a tassel garland. I also bought two packs of sparkly yarn (yes, yarn) and used those as streamers. Polka-dot wrapping paper that I scored for 99 cents at Target was used throughout the house for fun, little touches.
-Using two canvases from a local discount store ($8 each,) I created the wall art for the dining room. These took me about 30 minutes to create. Over the cupcake bar, I hung a canvas that read “On the day you were born, the snowflakes falling outside were as big as doilies and we marveled how even nature seemed to celebrate the sweet moment you came home to us.” I wanted it to be something Ada could keep; my words about the day she was born. The canvas over the hot cocoa bar read “Ada’s Famous Hot Cha-Cha-Cha” because that’s what she calls hot chocolate and I thought it would be a sweet reminder of who she is at three.
-One of the most talked about menu items was the milk punch, which I created by tweaking this recipe from Southern Living. I added a bag of frozen strawberries, a cup of white chocolate chips and a little more vanilla to taste. The punch was served up in dollar store cups with paper straws I got from Hobby Lobby. I also snagged a box of gluten-free macarons for $7 at Walmart in the freezer section to add some more color to the cupcake bar.
-While watching TV during the many snow days we’ve had, I made the whimsical cupcake toppers using Sculpey clay, Martha Stewart craft paint and paper straws. I bought the box of clay for $5 and managed to make several cupcake toppers with extra clay to play.
-The biggest surprise of the party was the indoor snow pit, which we built for just a little over $50. I bought a 2 pound pack of Sno-Wonder, which when mixed was enough to fill a cover a 5 by 8 foot area with an inch of snow, and we used leftover wood to build a small box lined with a drop cloth from the Dollar Tree. We stapled bags of artificial snow my mother-in-law bought for 10 cents a bag after Christmas to the wood and bam, SNOW PIT. We had a bucket of spoons, measuring cups and toys (all from my kitchen) out for the kids to dig and play. They had a total blast! Even the adults had to dig and play some.
So, a few tips for throwing an awesome birthday party on the cheap:
1. If the grandparents are asking to help, ask them to chip in on food instead of buying a gift. I’m all about giving experiences over material gifts!
2. Create a small menu with special treats. It’s not everyday you get a lovely, French macaron and a $7 tray of those pretty cookies will make a big impact for little effort.
3. Don’t overlook yarn as a decoration! With a 40% off coupon from Hobby Lobby, yarn goes a long way and creates a unique look.
4. Shop your own house. Get creative! Use what you have!
5. If you’re having a party at home for little kids, make sure you have a fun and interactive play area. Games are difficult because you tend to have a variety of ages at a birthday party. Check out websites like Play at Home Mom or Pinterest for cheap ideas on entertaining little ones.