Birthday Party on the Cheap

by HubSub Urban Mom

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As a single working mom of 3 kids, I was used to throwing creative and fun budget birthday bashes. But my then 5 year old stumped me when she requested a party where she can bring her friends and cousins to a place where they can make and dress their own bears. After doing some research, I found the cheapest option to be about $15-$20 per child for just a bear and a top, and that didn't include food or a cake, so it was definitely not in my budget for about 15 kids. I stretched my creative mind and came up with a home-based-decorate-your-own-bear party theme called "A Beary Special Friend" that cost me about $7 per child, which included the bears with clothing/accessories for all the kids, the cake, and enough food for the children and adults.

The Invite

The invitation was a simple one pager created on my computer using teddy bear and balloon clip art that I printed on my color printer. I had invitation-size envelopes on hand already, but if you don't want to spend the money to purchase these envelops at your local office supply store, you can create a flyer and simply fold it and affix a sticker if they are hand-out invites. You can purchase letter-size envelopes at the dollar store if they need to be mailed.

Story Hour

The party started with "Story Hour." This time allowed for the kids to arrive, hang out and color pictures of clip art teddy bears I printed on regular computer paper. Once everyone arrived, I assembled everyone on the floor next to the fireplace to hear the story "A Beary Special Friend." Basically, I wrote a story and designed it using more teddy bear clip art and big font so that it could be read aloud by my 10 year old while she showed the pages to all the kids. I printed and assembled everything in a thin binder decorated with a "book" cover. The story was about a teddy bear that lived in Bear Town and was visited frequently by kids in the summer. The kids always met a bear that they got to take home as a friend, and one particular bear was not picked by the end of summer since there were not enough kids. The story ended by asking kids if they would like to meet and take home a bear for a friend, and of course, the answer was a resounding "Yes!"

Meeting a Beary Special Friend

The kids were then taken to another room where they were greeted by bears artfully arranged on the table. First they picked a colorful basket to hold their bear. Then they got to pick a bear and name it. From there, they got to choose from various themed clothing and accessories packaged in clear big food storage bags. They had their choice of fairy bear, princess bear, police bear, fireman bear, detective bear, or baby bear. Once everything was chosen and named, they picked a spot at the table and began to dress their bears. You should've seen and heard the excitement! Five year olds have a wonderful imagination and they came up with some great adventures for them and their new furry friend!

Feeding the Masses

The food was simple. It included pigs in a blanket, macaroni & cheese and chicken nuggets, which was a feast enjoyed by 5 year olds who had their new furry friends seated next to them. The adults feasted on homemade sourdough bread, chicken fettuccine and a simple salad. I made punch from bargain packet drink mix placed in my fancy punch bowl (bought a long time ago from a thrift store) with fresh sliced apples floating on the top. I also had coffee and tea available for the adults.

The Birthday [Cup]Cake

I've used this recipe for all three of my kids, but it came especially handy when my 5 year old was diagnosed with an allergy to eggs. This can be used for both cakes and cupcakes, but when throwing a party where many kids are invited, I find cupcakes to be the easiest since it simplifies and speeds up the serving process to 25+ kids and adults. I used store-bought frosting bought on sale at Food Rainbow for 79 cents and decorated the cupcakes using a box of teddy bear graham snacks and a package of gummy bears bought at the 99-cent store.

I then "drew" the number 5 using some of the cupcakes placed on a foil covered cookie sheet with more teddy bear graham snacks scattered artfully around. The rest of the cupcakes were placed on a three-tier serving piece and placed next to the cookie sheet. She loved it. The kids loved it because they sang "Happy Birthday" and were given their cupcakes without having to go through the agony of waiting for a piece to be cut and served to them. It also eliminated the FAQ's such as "Can I have the corner piece?" or "Can I have the piece with the pink flower?" And the pictures of her birthday cupcake came out great.

3 cups flour
2 cups sugar
1 1/2 tsp. salt
6 tbsp. powdered baking cocoa (not hot cocoa mix)
2 tsp. soda
1 cup oil (you can substitute 1 cup melted margarine/butter)
2 tsp. vinegar
2 tsp. vanilla extract
2 cups water

Sift dry ingredients in a bowl. Add oil, vinegar, vanilla and water. Mix well. Pour into cupcake lined pans half or three quarters full.. Bake at 350 degrees for about 24 minutes. Cool 1-2 minutes in pan, then remove and cool on counter or cookie rack. Frost and decorate after completely cooled. Yields about 1 1/2 to 2 dozen cupcakes.

Games and Party Favors

Normally I have games, prizes and party favors for the little guests, but with the "A Beary Special Friend" theme, the bears they decorated tripled as both the game, the prize and the party favors so it was great for my budget! I also placed the leftover teddy bear graham snacks and gummy bears in small colorful bowls placed throughout the table and surrounding areas. Kids and adults alike snacked on them throughout the party.

The Bottom Line

$17 - The Bears: 15 bears + tax at my local Dollar Store. The bears were about 14" long and came in various colors.

$17 - Bear Baskets: 15 colorful plastic basket bins with handles + tax. These could later be used to store small toys, crayons, cars or hair accessories if they outgrow the bear.

$15 - Bear Clothes/Accessories: I was able to find police and fireman accessories, fairy wings and wands, tiaras, magnifying glasses, mini note pads, colorful pens, baby t-shirts, baby blankets and hair accessories in the toy, party and baby sections of my local Dollar and 99 cent stores. Many of these items made multiple themes for 1 to 2 bears so I was able to keep costs down. I also used ribbon and fabric scraps that I already had.

$50 - Food: I bought store brand hot dogs, biscuit dough, cheese slices, macaroni pasta, bulk grated cheddar cheese, a bag of frozen pre-cooked chicken nuggets, fettuccine pasta, a couple of jars of Alfredo sauce, 3.5 lbs. of chicken breast, 4 packets of drink mix, 2 apples, 2 heads of lettuce, 4 carrots shredded for the salad, 1 zucchini, and 2 bottles of store brand dressing. I already had condiments (ketchup, mustard) for the pigs in a blanket and the flour and yeast for my homemade sourdough bread that purchased previously in bulk.

$3 - Birthday [Cup]Cake: I purchased a box of teddy bear graham snacks, a bag of gummy bears, and frosting. I already had the other ingredients in my pantry that I always keep handy since I like to bake.

$0 - The Invite: I already had the computer paper and envelopes on-hand.

$4 - Decorations: I purchased a bag of balloons, simple white paper plates, a package of colorful napkins. I already had a bulk purchased box of plastic forks and reused balloon sticks from another party.

$105 - This was the total for the entire party (bears, food, cake). That works out to be $7 per child, lower if you factor in about 7 adults because this cost also covered enough food and cake for everyone.

Of course, costs may vary depending on your menu and what you find at your local discount stores. Even if you doubled my costs above, the per-child cost would still come up cheaper than the $15-$20 bear-and-top-only option since food and cake are covered in my budget birthday bash. Most frugal folks plan way ahead of time, and that is what I did so it gave me the benefit of time on my side. I always stopped into my local discount stores when I was in the area to check out the stuffed bear merchandise and made my purchase when I found the right bears. I also asked the store staff and they gave me an approximate timeline of when the bears were arriving. I had seen them previously stocked months prior and was told they were coming back. The menu was based purely on my 5 year old's fave foods, which happened to be much appreciated by the other children. Pasta and chicken are always safe bets for adults and it is relatively cheap compared to other options.

Most importantly, my 5 year old loved her bear party, her friends and cousins had a blast, and the adults were truly impressed, all of whom shared the idea with their co-workers and relatives with young children. Enjoy and I hope you and your young child have a beary fun time too!

HubSub Urban Mom has been a single parent living in the San Francisco Bay Area for 20 years, one of the most expensive places to survive in. She owns her own home that she purchased without the help of a long lost rich uncle (or any family member for that matter), or an ex-hubby. You can find her tips on living frugally while maintaining a decent lifestyle at

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