Fun on a Budget: Local moms offer tips to keep that birthday bash from becoming a bank-account buster

Jennifer Drew wanted her son's birthday party to be fun and memorable, but the Columbus mother also wanted to stick to a budget. As a professional event planner, Drew knows how to throw elaborate events. She also knows how to keep parties affordable.

Parents need to remember that a child's birthday party is for the child and his or her guests, said Drew, who recently hosted a Cars-themed party for her son Cohen, 3.

Think about what is important to the child and put your focus there, said Drew, owner of STR Events. "Spend your money where it's going to be entertaining for the kids," she said.

If you can't afford to throw a party at a venue, that's OK, said Holly Johnson, a frugality expert and mother of two in Indianapolis. "I don't feel like as parents we owe our kids what we pay for their birthday party," she said.

There are plenty of fun things to do during a party at home, Johnson said. Organizing a water balloon fight, soccer game or other child-friendly event is a great way to entertain guests, she said. "Look at your budget and find things that your kid likes that fit in your budget," she said.

Johnson suggested making your own cake or cupcakes. While bakery cakes might look impressive, they cost a lot of money and probably aren't that important to the birthday child and his or her guests, she said.

Whenever possible find an activity that can double as a party favor, suggested Kristi Braskett of Dublin. She has had guests paint pictures on canvases during parties for her daughters Kate, 10, and Erin, 8. They took their paintings home at the end of the party.

Another good way to save money is to show restraint with decorations, Drew said. She likes to use balloons because they're inexpensive, make a big impact and children love them. She also tries to find toys or items in her home that match the party theme. For her son's Cars-themed party last month, she incorporated some of his toys into the décor. She also bought colorful plates and napkins in coordinating colors instead of the more expensive Cars-themed items licensed by Disney.

The best way to find out what matters to your child is to ask, Drew said. Enlisting your child's help ensures he or she will be happy with the party, she said. It also provides an opportunity to talk about budgeting and finances, added Johnson. Parents can give their child a choice between an expensive cake and a visit from a magician or other entertainer, she said.

Johnson encouraged parents to let go of the desire to see parties as a competition among their neighbors and friends. That's not helpful for anyone and it won't make kids have more fun, she said. "We've forgotten how to enjoy the simple things in life," she said. "Don't try to outdo one another, just try to have fun."

Niccole Reing-Hurley has hosted numerous birthday parties in her Clintonville home. She finds her children-Eli, 5, Sophia, 8, and Ben, 11-enjoy having their parties at home because they normally don't have multiple playmates over at once.

Reing-Hurley works with the kids to find a theme and activities that excite them. When her daughter wanted an American Girl party, she had guests bring their dolls. They played, had snacks and then went to Easton, which was showing an American Girl movie for free as part of its summer movie series.

Eli has had two Batman parties. The family created an obstacle course in the backyard for guests to complete, and filled up water balloons (aka "Bat Bombs") for them to detonate. "I keep it simple," Reing-Hurley said. "I find the kids just have fun being together and playing."

Two of her children have friends with similar birthdates. The families have hosted joint parties at Columbus-area venues, she said. Co-hosting a party-especially when you both invite the same kids-allows you to share the cost. "That has really worked well for us," she said.