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It’s time for that annual ritual: the birthday party. Time to entertain twenty-five of your child’s closest friends. Per child, this includes two slices of cake and two scoops of ice cream, twenty-four ounces of sport drink, and candy to take home (just in case they didn’t get enough sugar in their systems already). Add to that invitations, paper goods, goodie bags, thank-you notes (yes, that three-year-old who stuck her finger in the cake merits a thank-you note), and professional entertainment. Congratulations! You’ve officially gone overboard.

If you had to take a second mortgage to pay for last year’s party, take heart. You don’t need to incur the national debt to make your child happy. There are many ways to plan inexpensive parties without sacrificing fun. The more simple the idea, the better. Do it right and your kids will never know the difference.

Begin by setting a budget and vow to stick to it. Often this is achieved just by inviting fewer guests. Is it really necessary to invite the boy from your son’s karate class from three years ago? Limit the guest list to close friends, current classmates and family members. Or, if the party is pricey, allow only an intimate group of four or five attendees.

Determine an activity and the location of the party. Inquire about birthday party value packages, which sometimes include invitations, paper goods and goodie bags. Check seasonal rates. Bowling alleys, for instance, often charge less during the slower summer months. Look for low room rental fees and inexpensive entertainment. Try the community center, park district, health club or local VFW hall. Ask the children’s librarian from the public library to tell stories and do finger play. A school art teacher might like to make extra money leading art projects, or maybe a family member is an expert puppeteer.

Of course, if you can handle it, an at-home party always saves money. A novel idea in this age of multi-media productions is the old-fashioned party. Play Pin the Tail on the Donkey and Birthday Bingo, and have a scavenger hunt. Eat ice cream and cake (maybe even pizza), open the gifts, pass out goodie bags, and send the children home. Just like when you were a kid!

Cut spending on paper goods by heading for the discount stores. Check for price cuts and also search through the clearance bin. You never know what you’ll find. Stay away from trendy patterns, popular characters or licensed logos. Those tend to be more expensive. Younger children can be easily convinced that a generic bug pattern is just as “cool” as the bug from the movie. However, if older children insist on their favorite TV character, look for sales.

Food costs can be managed, too. Kids are satisfied with low priced pies from the local pizza chain, and generic juice works as well as the branded variety. Purchase plain, frosted sheet cakes or bake your own, and decorate them yourself. The bakery of your local warehouse store sells an inexpensive, frosted half-sheet cake which you can top with plastic toys and character candles. Fill goodie bags with low-cost candy (always 50 to 75% off the day after a holiday) and small toys. Be sure to avoid chocolate candy in summer, as it melts quickly.

Try each of these money-saving measures for planning children’s birthday parties on a budget. They don’t detract from the fun of the party, and together, they add up to substantial savings.