Wrapping parties around a tight budget


WHILE SOME PARENTS are still operating at the upper end of the spectrum with glamorous themed parties for their children, for many it’s a back-to-basics approach.

If you do choose to have your party hosted in a play centre, you will find that many have made their prices more competitive; where prices have remained the same they are offering better bang for your buck.

The Dome Family Entertainment Centre in Carlow is just one facility which offers an online booking discount and two “recession busting party packages”.

Susan Gilmore of Gymboree Ireland ( playandmusic.ie) says she is now offering more value for money, with better quality food in larger quantities and the addition of party bags. In April 2008, Gilmore was hosting up to 15 parties per week but then her party business “fell off a cliff”.

This year has seen business return to 2007 levels – an indication of “green shoots” and a return to the “new normal”, as she sees it.

The company charges €15 per child which includes entertainment, games and activities, food and party bags (with edible treats rather than toys). The cost is €150 should you host the party in your own home or venue – quite a competitive price considering there is then no limit to the number of children.

Ronan MacGabhann of children’s entertainment company Silly Billy ( sillybilly.ie) says his prices are much reduced from a number of years ago. Packages that previously cost between €220 and €240 are now available at a keen €140 midweek and €160 at weekends for an unspecified number of children (though the average party size is between 10 and 20).

There are a number of themed parties available, including Fair Princess and Superhero, and all parties have a bubble disco, puppet show and magic show, although food is not part of the package.

MacGabhann also says the number of party bookings dropped off during the summer of 2008. “It was as though even people with money were afraid to spend it,” he says. “Recently people seem to have gained more confidence and business is up. Customers now are extremely price conscious. It must be good value or people simply won’t pay for it.”

Louisa Crowley is an antenatal practitioner and mother of four children aged between four and 13. Crowley says that parties in adventure centres among her children’s friends are less popular than in the past and that many children are now partying at home.

Crowley believes it’s a less expensive way to go and can be just as much fun. She estimates that, rather than spending between €10 and €14 per head, she can cater for up to 30 children for around €80.

“Quite often we have a joint birthday with another friend from school,” says Crowley. “This means half the cost and effort but twice the fun.”

Crowley will either host the party at home with party games, a piñata, face painting and a treasure hunt or she might organise a picnic in the park with birthday cakes, food and tag rugby, depending on the age and tastes of the child.

On the birthday present front, Crowley was shocked when she totted up her family’s spending for six months and realised she was spending more on gifts than on clothes for her entire family. A few 40th birthdays aside, she says the majority of the outlay is on gifts for her children’s friends.

While she in no way begrudges the gift-giving, she says it was revealing to see how much buying presents for classmates can end up costing parents.

Bronagh McCrystal’s two sons, aged eight and 10, attend the North Dublin National School Project in Dublin 9. Last year McCrystal introduced a €5 limit for presents on her children’s birthday invitations. Once McCrystal did it everyone in the class more or less followed suit.

“People were spending up to €20 on presents for school friends on gifts like Lego and Smyths vouchers; now in the school many other parents will state a limit of a fiver on the invitation. For special friends some parents will spend more but at least you’re giving people the option.”

The cash in the cards is generally added up and used to buy a computer game or some similar toy for older children.

McCrystal says it can prove difficult getting younger ones to understand the concept so presents are still generally given. An option here is to organise a joint party and split the presents equally between the two birthday children.

Crowley says that, while there is no limit on presents among her children’s friends, people are probably paying closer to €10 for presents where they previously spent €15 or €20. Inventive present-buying tips included buying books in bulk, shopping in small local shops and shopping at the sales.

Quirkier offerings such as homemade vouchers for “A football match and a bag of chips after” or “I’ll buy you a doughnut” are also creative, fun and inexpensive.

Sinead Kenny hosts inventive, fun parties with the help of her children aged between five and 11. Kenny’s themes have varied from the Muppet Show, Meet Me in St Louis and cocktails and canapés to a, possibly inappropriate but nonetheless hilarious Father Ted party for her older boy.

“We start with a theme and then search the internet for ideas; if you’re handy with a printer you can make lots of themed decorations for the room and table for next to nothing.”

Kenny has a collection of glass lemonade bottles, sweetie jars and cake stands which she redecorates. Food includes homemade cookies, sweets in jars, popcorn, sandwiches and a birthday cake decorated by a talented friend.

Kenny recommends Lidl for good quality sweets on the cheap and says Iceland is great for mini fish and chips and canapés for older children.

“I’m not looking after the nutrition of the kids; they are generally going home for dinner or have just had lunch so it’s more about fun food,” she says.

The parties include traditional games with a film projected onto the wall and a disco dance. “We usually set up a microphone and an amp – kids love doing a party piece or singing a song. And you’d be amazed how hilarious they find burping into the microphone!”

Kenny, whose husband runs the Irish retro blog brandnewretro.ie, says great parties on a budget are about involving the children, a little bit of work and being imaginative.

She also recommends ditching the party bags. She takes Animal chocolate bars by Cadbury and makes themed labels for these “thank you bars” but says Tesco is a good source for inexpensive goody bag supplies if necessary.

Gymboree’s Susan Gilmore says it’s back to basics for the majority of people.

“Ten years ago some people went crazy with ridiculous outlays and parties similar to MTV’s Super Sweet 16.

“Then the recession hit and it was too much to the other extreme. Children’s parties are back on the calendar, but they don’t rival Super Sweet 16s; they are just filled with great fun and all the friends from the classroom.”