Secrets to Throwing an Epic Birthday Party on a Dime

When I received the invite to my nephew’s pirate party, I was worried. The event was being held at his house in the wintertime, so all the 5-year-olds would be cooped up. How would more than 20 kids be entertained in a small area indoors? Would I hear so many chaotic screams of “Arrr” and “Ahoy” that I would want to walk the plank?


My fears subsided when I beheld the enormous cardboard-created pirate ship in my nephew’s living room. If the boat hadn’t been so crowded with kids, then I would have jumped inside of it myself. When I noticed organized activity stations set up throughout the house, I knew all the kids would have a blast. The party was such a huge success that my kids still talk about it four years later.

The pirate party isn’t the only impressive at-home event my sister, Tara, and brother-in-law, Mike, have hosted. They’ve had other parties for my nephew and two nieces. The themes of their parties have included knights and princesses, western cowboys and cowgirls, fairies and gnomes, Star Wars—and of course, pirates. For all their parties, they created a life-size cardboard centerpiece, such as a castle or western town, for the kids to play in and games centered around the theme, along with a favor to take home. Homemade treats and a cake are abundant at every gathering.

The best part is that these parties didn’t break the bank. So, what is their secret to throwing an epic birthday party on a dime?

The Stull family is already planning their next party—unicorn-themed— for June. They get ideas from Pinterest and other crafting websites. Sometimes, they brainstorm ideas on their own.

This planning helps them to have enough time to create all the activities and cardboard centerpiece.

Potential Savings: $25-50. Advanced planning allows them to buy sale items and use coupons.

Almost everything at the Stull family’s parties is homemade, from the cardboard centerpieces to the games, food and favors. This significantly cuts down the cost of the parties, which were all under $200.

Potential Savings: $50-75 by not buying a store-bought cake, games or favors.

Tara and Mike Stull work together to create the life-size centerpiece, games, favors and homemade baked treats. They also include their kids in the process of coming up with ideas and creating items. By working together, they don’t become too overwhelmed with the planning and creating that’s involved. It also makes the process more fun for the entire family.

Potential Savings: $25-50; the more they work together, the less they need to purchase items.

At their parties, Mike and Tara Stull offer simple games that everyone loves, and they incorporate their party’s theme into the game. For example, instead of a typical water gun fight, they created a water gun shooting range for their western-themed party. Or instead of pin the tail on the donkey, it was pin the lightsaber on Yoda for the Star Wars -themed party. Some other games they included were a pirate scavenger hunt for gold coins, relay cowboy horse races and a “beware of the shark” cardboard bean bag toss game.

Potential Savings: $100-200 by not hosting the party at an outside venue such as a play gym, bowling alley or laser tag arena.

Tara and Mike asked local appliance stores for free cardboard boxes to create the centerpiece, games and favors for each party. They also got deeply discounted “mistake paint” for a quarter of the price (around $9 instead of $40) from colors shoppers didn’t like and returned to Home Depot and Lowe’s.

Potential Savings: $25-50 by not purchasing cardboard boxes, games and favors, plus savings from purchasing mistake paint, which can be used for crafts, games or painting the cardboard centerpieces.

The Stulls purchase some items at Michael’s and other craft stores using coupons. They also use coupons at the grocery store to buy food for each party. Families can find coupons on store websites or apps, or by signing up for store emails. Online coupon websites such as are also helpful.

Potential Savings: $50-100 by using coupons and purchasing sale items.

After their last party, the family sold some games for $30, and plan to do this for future parties.

Potential Savings: $50-100, depending on the items created and sold. Selling household items prior to the event to help fund it is also an option.

These parties are a lot of work, but the whole family loves creating a memorable event. I know that we are anxiously awaiting the unicorn party. Who knows, maybe we will even spy a real one?

Cheryl Maguire holds a Master of Counseling Psychology degree. She is married and is the mother of twins and a daughter. Her writing has been published in The New York Times, National Geographic, The Washington Post, Parents Magazine, AARP, Healthline, Your Teen Magazine and many other publications. She is a professional member of ASJA. You can find her on Twitter @CherylMaguire05