The best $50 party

My boys are 13 and 11, which means I’ve thrown roughly two dozen birthday parties over the past decade or so (no wonder I’m so tired). 

I’ve never been a skilled party-giver, but nor am I a fool. In those years of experience, I’ve learned a thing or two about birthday parties. 

And so, if some cruel twist of fate were to subject me to doing it all over again, I wouldn’t even bother with half of the great ideas I thought I had: I’d stick to The One We Got Right. 

Characters, bouncy houses

Over the course of our birthday-party careers, my wife and I have hired a Spiderman impersonator to teach Spidey skills to a group of preschoolers (recommended but spendy). We’ve armed barely teetering toddlers with plastic swords and propped them up on hippity-hops for a jousting tournament (not recommended — and possibly not even legal). And, of course, we’ve shepherded carloads to trampoline parks, bouncy-castle warehouses and arcade-batting-cage-mini-golf houses of terror — fun, I mean houses of fun. 

And they might have been fun for the kids, but I’m pretty sure none of them can distinguish one of those parties from another in their memories. (Did Lucy throw up in the bouncy house at Ella’s party? Or Henry’s party? Or was it that kid down the street who moved away?)

Like most families, we started each birthday-planning season with a vow to keep costs down. And like most (I hope — tell me we’re not alone here), we eventually panicked at the thought of all those ready-to-be-entertained kids coming over, and we blew past our budget in desperation (see: last–minute call to Spidey impersonator, above). Except for the One We Got Right. 

That one came in under budget.

DIY party time

The One We Got Right was based on a pretty simple idea: Keep the kids as occupied as possible for as long as possible. (Duh.) Use things you mostly have at hand. And build in a little friendly competition with interesting rules. 

Here’s a basic outline for the version we threw. (You’ll notice you can easily modify the activities for what would work in your family — adjusting for age, gender and location.) 

You can host it inside a house, apartment, rec center or even outside in your backyard or at a public park. You can make last-minute weather-related changes as needed. 

Best of all, you can spend as little or as much as you want
to build out this idea: 

Divide the kids up into two or more groups. Four to a group is a good number. Depending on how many kids and how old they are, you can assign an adult to each group, or you can have more than two groups.

Tell the kids the rules: Each group has to complete a series of activity stations — and take a picture of each successfully completed activity. 

Oh, and complete all the stations faster than the other team(s). Say, “Ready, set, go!”

Teams at the party had to build something tall and awesome. They also had to give their creations a name and take photos, too. 

Spending is optional

You can add as many stations as you like, based on the ages and tastes of your guests (and based on the type of random stuff you have lying around at home). 

After the stations, gather everyone together for cake and ice cream and view all the goofy pictures on a large screen while eating. 

This will keep everyone pretty well focused, actually.

As for cost, if you used materials you already have at home for the activities, you haven’t spent a dime so far. 

If you want to, you can spend as much as you want on any one station — if, for instance, you want to work a theme into your party. 

Otherwise, take your $50, head to the store for a cheap sheet cake or baking ingredients, and enough crackers, popcorn, carrots, whatever, to fill up some snack bowls.  

Besides the budget, there’s another reason we call this party the One We Got Right: Our son and his friends still remember it. 

Eric Braun is a Minneapolis-based writer, editor and dad of two boys. He’s currently working on a financial literacy book for young readers. Learn more about his other published works at Send comments or questions to