6 Fun, Budget-Friendly Birthday Party Themes for Kids (or Kids at Heart)

children at a birthday party
kali9/Getty Images

I’ll admit it, I love a good birthday shindig. When I was a kid, I started thinking about my next party about six months ahead of time.

Now in my 20s, with more and more of my friends having children, I’m starting to realize birthday events are no simple affairs. People hire professional Disney Princesses, rent bouncy houses and order elaborate cakes. If you have three kids, throwing elaborate parties three times a year can quickly break the bank.

Of course, baking the cake yourself and finding a cheap venue can help you save money on birthday parties. But you can also set yourself up for success by choosing naturally budget-friendly party themes.

Looking back, I’ve realized my parents were under-the-radar geniuses at birthday parties. This gift may have rubbed off on my middle brother, Kyle, who organized his own surprise ninth-birthday party. When all the guests arrived, he jumped out of our garage, doused them all with his Super Soaker and yelled, “I never said it was a surprise for me!” That’s weirdly brilliant for a 9-year-old.

My parents not only organized smashing birthday parties for my two siblings and me, but they were somehow able to throw these bashes on a budget. And with three kids, their knack for frugality went a long way.

Here are some of my favorite parties they threw us in the 1990s and early 2000s, along with the estimated costs converted to 2017 prices. At the time, we had no idea they were trying to be thrifty. We were having too much fun!

1. Bicycle Birthday Party

bowdenimages/Getty Images

A few weeks before I turned 8, I mastered riding my bike without training wheels. My parents decided to throw me a bicycle birthday party to celebrate my success.

My mom and I spent Saturdays riding bikes and rollerblading in the parking lot of a business closed on weekends. We knew no one would bother us there. I invited all the girls in my second-grade class, and their parents transported them and their bikes to the parking lot. We spent a couple hours having fun and steering around obstacles my parents had set up.

The only costs my parents had to worry about were the cake and party favors.

If you want to host a party like this, here’s a tip: Communicate with the parents of everyone you invite, and make sure all the guests have access to a bike.

Initially, a few of my classmates didn’t want to come because they were embarrassed they still had to use training wheels. Once we told their parents that multiple girls had this issue, all the guests felt comfortable coming to the party. In the end, none of us cared who did or didn’t have training wheels!

Estimated costs: $50 for goodie bags, $25 to make the cake and buy cups, plates, napkins, etc.

And trust me, they easily made some of that money back when they sold my bike at a garage sale a couple years later. (Without telling me! Not that I’m bitter or anything.)

2. Backward Birthday Party

My oldest brother, Kurt, had a very simple theme for his seventh birthday party: backward day.

All the boys arrived with their clothes on backward and their shoes on the wrong feet. My parents had them sit backward in their chairs, eat the cake before the main meal and participate in backward races. The boys called each other by their backward names. (25 years later, my family still jokingly refers to one guy as “Rolyat.”.)

Seven-year-old boys are creative, so they started making things up as they went. They all decided to eat hot dogs in hamburger buns and hamburgers in hot dog buns.

Kurt recently celebrated his 32nd birthday. While reminiscing over dinner about past birthdays, he told my parents the backward birthday party was his all-time favorite.

Estimated costs: $80 for food, cake, paper goods, and party favors.

3. Super Bowl Party

sdstockphoto/Getty Images

Kurt was a Jan. 30  baby, so his birthday used to always fall on the week of the Super Bowl (at least, until the NFL added more teams, pushing the game back a week.) Now this idea would be fun for any child whose birthday is in early or mid-February.

For his ninth birthday, my parents played the Super Bowl on television at our house, and guests wore the jerseys or dressed in the colors of their chosen team. My mom made a rectangular cake decorated to look like a football field. Other than making the cake, my mom only had to provide classic Super Bowl food.

Surprisingly, the weather was pretty mild in late January in Arkansas, so my dad took the boys out for some touch football!

Estimated costs: $80 for food, cake, party supplies and goodie bags. Thankfully, no one had to worry about beer costs!  

4. Nerf Gun Party

For Kyle’s eighth birthday, he had a Nerf gun party. My parents took the boys to a free park, and they got creative by holding competitions. For example, they brought G.I. Joes we already owned, lined them up on a picnic table and saw which boy could shoot down the most soldiers.

Each boy brought his own Nerf gun, so my parents’ only expenses were food and party favors.

Estimated Costs: $60 for food and party favors and supplies.

This list has me thinking… Should we just skip all this “goodie bag” nonsense? The favors took over my parents’ budget. They already gave the kids cake, for crying out loud!

5. Water Party

sampsyseeds/Getty Images

Kyle’s birthday is in early May. In Arkansas, that means it’s warm enough to play outside but still too early for water parks. For his 10th birthday, he settled for a water-themed party.

You may be noticing a trend here. From around ages 7-10, kids are very easy to entertain. “What do you want? Water balloons? All right, let’s kick that up a notch and make it a theme.”

Once again, my parents took the kids to a free park. They filled up a few dozen water balloons, and each boy brought his own water gun so my parents didn’t have to supply them. Access to functioning water spigots was all the kids needed to keep the battles going all afternoon. Summer vacation was only a few weeks away, and the boys got into the summer spirit early!

Estimated costs: $60 for food, paper goods, and favors; $5 for water balloons.

6. Double Birthday Party

I have a close friend from high school whose birthday is two weeks before mine. (Which, just FYI, is April 23rd. I love books and pizza!)

We decided to have a joint birthday party at a nearby park. A party at a park is already cheap, but having a double birthday party is a great way to cut costs even more. Our families split the food costs and responsibilities, making for one of the most laid-back Sweet 16 parties ever.

The older kids get, the less they need (and truthfully, the less they want) parents entertaining them at birthday parties. It’s about being with their friends and creating memories, so don’t feel too pressured to create elaborate themes as your kids get older.

Estimated costs: $100 split between two families ($50 each). We 16-year-olds were too sophisticated for goodie bags.

(At age 24, I now jump up and down when someone hands me a bag at a company party. How the mighty have fallen.)

I don’t feel like I missed out because my parents couldn’t afford to throw me elaborate birthday parties when I was little. Those birthdays are actually some of my favorite childhood memories. My brothers and I still reminisce over these parties with our childhood friends… including Rolyat.  

Your Turn: What memorable budget-friendly birthday parties have you thrown or received?

Laura Grace Tarpley is a freelance writer who is always looking for ways to save money. She recently moved to China to teach English with her new husband.