planning a birthday cake dessert

Tips for Planning a Birthday Party

We all love to celebrate, but when it comes to planning a birthday party, the task can be daunting. The easiest idea may be to “outsource” the party, and let one of those “bounce house activity places” take care of it. 

However, you are then left with a major bill at the end, and lose that personal touch.

Affordable, Fun & Memorable

Planning a party should not be stressful. With just a little planning and preparation beforehand, your celebration will be a breeze! 

Here are a few simple strategies and a useful timeline, to help you plan a birthday party for your little one that is affordable, fun, and memorable!

Pro-Tips & Quick Guide

As a long-time party planner, I have learned some tricks along the way. I am including these helpful pointers below, so you too can become a pro party planner in no time.

Use this quick guide to jump to any section:

Fun for All

Featured in this article are two different birthday parties, for two completely different age groups.

planning a birthday

An “Aloha Fun, Baby Turns ONE” birthday party was hosted to celebrate the baby’s first year. 

Highlights included a family-friendly Hawaiian themed BBQ, leis for all guests, a bubble station for the kids, a dip in the pool for those interested, and OF COURSE a Smash Cake!

For two outgoing pre-teen sisters, a “Creative-Colorful-Painting Party” was planned to celebrate their upcoming birthdays. 

An artist was hired/contracted to teach the girls how to paint, and everyone got that “sip and paint” experience. 

Other highlights included tie-dye shirts for all guests, build your own ice-cream sandwiches (instead of cake), rainbow-themed snacks, and cute paint-brush crispy-treat parting gifts.

Party Basics at a Glance

There are many factors to consider when planning the timing for your child’s party. Little kids have naps to consider. 

Pre-Teens don’t function well in the morning hours.  Below are a few basic party time-lines to help:

Ages 1 to 2

  • Time of Day: After nap time
  • Duration: 1 hour
  • Number of Guests: Varies

Ages 3 to 4

  • Time of Day: Lunchtime or late afternoon
  • Duration: 1 to 1 1/2 hours
  • Number of Guests: 4 to 5 children

Ages 5 to 6

  • Time of Day: Early to mid-afternoon
  • Duration: 1 1/2 to 2 hours
  • Number of Guests: 6 to 7 hours

Ages 7 to 8

  • Time of Day: Early to mid-afternoon
  • Duration: 2 to 2 1/2 hours
  • Number of Guests: 8 to 9 children

Ages 9 to 10

  • Time of Day: Mid- to late afternoon
  • Duration: 2 1/2 to 3 hours
  • Number of Guests: 10 to 11 children

Six – Eight Weeks before the Birthday

This is your big decision-making time! Six to eight weeks is when you will bring those Pinterest boards, and your party-related dreams, to life. 

This is when you will choose a theme, decide on a venue, finalize the guest list, order invites, and plan decorations.

Theme

Sit down with your child (if old enough) and choose a party theme. Brainstorm things your child likes, characters they like reading about, activities they enjoy doing. Pretty much any idea can become a theme with a little imagination

planning a birthday

Pro-Tip: Simple is Best. The more general the theme, the easier it will be to find decorations and other party items affordably. My daughter’s 2nd Birthday Theme was “Social D – Under the Sea.” We chose this partly because of her obsession for Dory and Nemo, and also because ocean themed items are super easy to find!

Set a Budget

This is easy to overlook. Parties can get pricey quickly if you don’t write down a budget. Be realistic, and plan smart! Most décor can be found at the Dollar Store.

Set a Date

Check the calendar. Is there a holiday coinciding with the date of the birthday party? That may affect the party turn-out. If it’s important for certain family/friends to be present at the party, check with them about calendar-conflicts in advance. 

Pro-Tip: Check Community Calendars as well. Sometimes BIG special events can prevent a party participant from coming.

Guest List

Write up your guest list and decide how many people you would like to attend. This will all affect the party’s venue.

Decide on Venue

Now is the time to decide on the location of the party. Will you be hosting the party in your home? If you plan to rent a venue, now is the time to reserve. Consider your budget when planning this part. 

Renting a space can get very pricey, very quickly. Booking a venue in advance will also help guarantee the space is available for your set date.

Entertainment

Princess appearances, magicians, face painters, DJs, etc. all need to be scheduled in advance. Book now, so you don’t forget later.

Order Invitations

Order invitations or purchase the supplies needed for homemade cards. If you decide to go the digital route, design a draft of your e-invite.

planning a birthday

Decorations

Begin brainstorming how to incorporate the theme into the decorations, cake, favors, and other party details. If items cannot be purchased locally, now is the time to make your online purchases. This ensures you have items in time for the party, and prevents extra fees with rush shipping. 

Pro-Tip: The Dollar Store is your best friend when planning a party. Even if you can’t find decorations for a specific theme, you can usually find items in complimentary colors to coordinate with what you have going on.

Three – Five Weeks before the Birthday

Let’s get crafty! Now is the right time to start party-projects, send out invites, plan activities, and order sweet-treats.

Send Out Invites

What is a party without guests? Three to five weeks before the party is the time to send out invitations. And when I say send, I meant that generally. 

If you’re not putting formal invites in the mail, now is a good time to send those evites, digital graphic pdfs, or texts. 

Pro-Tip: Be sure to let your invitees know where to RSVP, and if you prefer phone, text, or email. If there is a theme, let your guests know so they can dress accordingly. 

Keep the list of who has RSVP’d somewhere you won’t lose it, like on your phone or posted on the fridge. Personally, I keep a Note on my iPhone with attendees and update as I hear back.

Plan Activities & Games

Since you already booked the entertainment and venue weeks ago, this is a great time to figure out what other activities and games you want the party to have. Maybe a craft or a piñata? Sprinkler fun with water balloons? 

Plan in advance and get supplies! It’s awful waiting until the week of, and finding out every store is out of what you need.

Start Crafting

If you’re crafty and plan and making some of the decorations yourself….START NOW! There is so much to do as your party gets closer. 

Pro-Tip: Use this quiet time now to Netflix and Chill with a beverage of choice and your glue gun. It will save you lots of burns and tears later.

Order Cake

planning a birthday

If you aren’t baking a cake yourself, be sure to order one. This also includes cake pops, cupcakes, personalized cookies, or any other sweet-treat not made in your kitchen.

Food & Drink

Since the sweet-stuff is taken care of, now is the time to consider the other food and drink. Age of the child is a big factor. 

Pizza or sandwiches may work for older kiddos, but finger food like crackers, cheese, and cut fruit may be better options for the younger crowd. Also consider if you are feeding Parents as well. 

Pro-Tip: Create a yummy juice/punch.  Kids can drink it straight, and parents can add a little booze or bubbly!

Party Favors

Your decorations were already ordered, so now you can focus on party favors and goody-bags. Shopping early gives you the time to shop locally. Support a local business while you celebrate your Little One.

Keep Yourself Sane

Create a quick birthday party checklist (if you haven’t already) so you can stay organized.  

Two Weeks before the Birthday

You’re almost there! This is the lull-before-the-storm.  Now is the time to double check your lists and ask for assistance.

Arrange for Child Care

For those who have a young child, consider asking a friend or relative, or hiring a babysitter to watch the child on the morning of the party to give you time to focus on decorating and preparing the final details of the day.

Ask for Help

This is the perfect time to build your posse. If you’re hoping someone will bring a side-dish, this is the window to ask for that assistance. If you need help decorating, or running games, don’t forget to arrange this in advance. 

Pro-Tip: PreTeen/Teen Siblings can often be persuaded to run activities for a little cash incentive (or gift cards work great too).

Pet Sitter

If the party is held at your home, I suggest arranging to have a neighbor or friend watch your pets during the party. 

Doing so is less stressful for the animals and helpful if any of the guests have allergies or fears.

Three – Seven Days before the Birthday

In the days leading up to your party, take this time to touch base with your guests as well as confirm all entertainment. If items didn’t arrive from on-line orders, this is your last chance to find what you need (sanely).

planning a birthday

Confirm

Confirm all of your vendors. Make sure your venue still has your reservation. Confirm that Princess Elsa will be on her way. This will help prevent disappointment (and frustration) later.

RSVP

Shoot a text to any guests who have yet to RSVP. You want to make sure you have the right head count for the rest of your birthday party preparation.

Grocery Store Run

If you are doing the party food yourself, this is the time to hit the grocery store. Pick up the groceries you need, candles for the cake, and candy for party favors or to fill a piñata. 

Pro-Tip: Host a Wine-Night for your friends and have them help you with the birthday preparations. They can assemble party favor bags and decorations.

Agenda

Write a rough agenda for the party. This will allow you to visualize how the party will run, beforehand.

Two Days before the Birthday

Two days before the party, go through the birthday party checklist from the weeks before and make all final confirmations. Finish all prep-work. Wrap gifts, build toys, check the weather.

Final Confirmation

You already confirmed your venue and entertainment. Use this time to confirm food delivery services (like pizza).

Hello, Weatherman?

Double-check weather conditions for the day. Check for the whole day as well as the designated hours of the party. Neglecting to do so can really rain on your parade if you’re not prepared.

Birthday Supplies

Buy any party supplies still needed, such as plates, napkins, cups, dinnerware, toothpicks, matches, or candles.

Get Wrapping

Wrap birthday gifts. It’s easier to be sneaky the more time you have. You still have time to wrap gifts at night, or while your Little naps. 

Pro-Tip: If you have a play-kitchen to assemble, now is the time to do so too.  This will prevent a late night building-marathon the night before the birthday.

Saying “Thank You”

If the birthday party is for a younger kid, make sure they are prepared to say “thank you” for every gift.

One Day Before the Birthday

You are one day away from the big day! Final preparations are underway. Use this time to clean up your space and do final cooking/food prep.

Clean House

If the venue is your own home, some of the final birthday preparation will be cleaning. Make sure anything dangerous or fragile is put away. Sweep the floors or vacuum. Arrange furniture to allow more movement/space.

Get Cooking

Once the party area is clean, it’s time to make a mess in the kitchen. Prep any party snacks or appetizers. Take out the serving dishes in advance so you’re not scrambling. If you’re taking food to a venue, make sure you have the proper containers to safely move everything.

Decorate

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Do any decorating at this time, such as hanging streamers and banners

Pro-Tip: If any decorations are going outside, wait until the DAY-OF! Weather can be unpredictable, and you would hate for all of your hard work to be ruined in an untimely rainstorm. TRUST ME…I’ve had this happen! Yes, even in Reno it can rain.

Bake The Cake

Make the cake or confirm the order with the bakery. 

Pro-Tip: The actual cake can be baked in advance and frozen. Take the cake out in the morning to defrost, and then ice your cake as normal.

Set-Up

Set up whatever won’t be disturbed between now and the party time the following day. This includes setting the table, setting up party game props, and even placing buffet servers (or bowls/platters) that can be filled with food just before the party.

Four – Five Hours before the Birthday

It’s the final countdown before guests arrive! You can feel the excitement in the air. Triple-check your lists and confirmations.

Call In The Troops

Now is the time for those helpers you arranged weeks ago to get to work! This is also when that pre-arranged babysitter will become a life-saver! Drop off the pet at a neighbor or friend’s house, if that has been prearranged.

All Charged

Double-check that all of your electronic devices are charged. There will be ample photo-ops in a few hours, and you want to be fully prepared. Charge your phone now! 

Pro-Tip: Also use this time to locate back-up chargers. You (or your guests) may unexpectedly need them during the party.

Final Confirmations

Confirm pizza delivery or other food arrangements. Yes, you did it a few days ago and this may seem redundant.  But TRUST ME, it’s easy for an order to be misplaced through shift changes. Better to be safe than HUNGRY.

Finish Decorating

Set up all the party decorations, fill up (or pick up) balloons. Use balloons to mark which house the party’s at by tying them to the mailbox or front porch. You can also put signs in the yard!

Activity Set-Up

Set up the crafts and activity stations. Double-check that you have all the needed supplies. If your vendors had any specific requests (space, supplies, etc.) ensure you have everything they need before-hand.

Complete Food Prep

Finish any food prep work or party recipes that haven’t been completed, and can be refrigerated.

Goodie Table

Put out the party favors, cookies, and other items that don’t need refrigeration.

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One Hour before the Birthday

As the party gets closer, think of all the details. Is the birthday boy or girl dressed and ready? Is the piñata hung? 

Do you have a stick for said piñata? Are the candles and matches ready for the cake? Make sure all of the food is set up, as well as the first birthday party activity. 

Once all of that party preparation is done, get ready to just enjoy the party.

Set It All Out

Set out the food and drinks. Fill bowls with chips and popcorn. Make sure there is enough ice for all the drinks.

Set The Mood

Turn on some music. Open the blinds and let in the natural light. Open windows and let fresh air in. If in the afternoon, adjust lighting to be warm and comforting. 

Use an oil diffuser to create welcoming scents.

Cake Cutting

Set out the candles and matches to avoid scrambling to find them when everyone’s ready to sing “Happy Birthday.”

Much Thanks

Set out a notepad and pen to write down the gifts that were given, which will be helpful when it comes time to write thank you cards.

Pro-Tip: Have your guests complete their own return envelope. Leave a stack of envelopes on a table/counter with a sign.  This will help you later when sending you the Thank You Cards.  It will also help you keep track of who attended the party.

Pre-Party Pictures

Take some photos of the party scene and cake in case things get too busy once the guests arrive.

Accidents Happen

This is a kids party! Make sure you have extra paper towels, cleaning supplies, stain remover, etc. at the ready. No need for a scene when a spill happens, you can gracefully swoop in and wipe up that juice!

Saying Goodbye

You have hosted a successful birthday party! Now the only thing left is for your guests to depart.

A Friendly Goodbye

Have the birthday girl/boy personally say thank-you and good-bye to each guest at the door. Goody-bags can be handed to your guests at this time.

Clean-Up

Clean the house or party area. Store gift bags so they can be used again. Throw away gift wrap and recycle any paper or cardboard that can be.

Settle With Vendors

Return any rented equipment. Settle any bills with entertainers or venues.

Start Thank You Cards

Write and send thank you cards within two weeks of the party. Try including a photo of the child enjoying each guest’s gift.

Questions Answered by Your Local Party Planner

planning an affordable birthday

I am regularly asked about “proper etiquette” for children’s birthday parties. Here is my opinion on the most frequently asked questions.

What do I do to fill the time during the party?

Pacing is important. It’s helpful to divide the party into 10- to 15-minute increments, with a new activity for each block of time. If you hired entertainment, schedule about 30 minutes (any more time and the kids risk getting restless). 

Then continue with 15 minutes each for food/snacks, cake, and opening of gifts. If a game or craft isn’t going well, drop it, and move on. If kids enjoy a particular game, let it run longer than planned. 

Older kids need stimulation: plan organized activities based on what your child loves to do. Sports are always a great option or hire an entertainer. 

For Toddlers, keep games simple. Stick to games they know well or activities without complicated rules (such as dancing or tag).

Gifts Now or Later?

There are good reasons to open presents during the party, and just as many reasons to wait until afterward. Some kids love seeing their gifts being unwrapped, especially if they picked it out. 

This is also good practice for the Birthday Boy/Girl to practice their thank-you’s. Kids can forget their manners in the excitement, so this is a helpful way to slow things down and thank your guests.

Pro-Tip: So guests don’t get bored, put names in a hat. The one that’s chosen is the child whose present gets opened next. If you decide to wait until guests go home to open gifts, that’s ok too. It may be less chaotic, particularly for young kids, if your child waits. In that case, snap a photo of her with each gift and send it with a thank you.

Now that You Are a Party Planning Pro…

Now that you’ve hit every mark on the birthday party checklist, you can just facilitate and enjoy. 

Make sure the crafts station has clean-up supplies and that you are operating at a good adult-to-kid ratio (again this is where those Teen-Siblings come into play).

Hopefully, these easy tips will help you plan your Little’s next birthday celebration with confidence! 

Just don’t be surprised if all of your friends ask you to plan their next birthday party too.

Sarah Bear Rively is a Reno resident for over 30 years and loves the uniqueness of Northern Nevada. Sarah and her husband are parents to a sassy, smart, considerate “three-anger". Sarah has spent the majority of her career helping Reno’s at-risk populations through non-profit and social service work.  She now proudly works for the Northern Nevada Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association. Sarah considers herself a fun-loving person who enjoys laughing, getting creative, helping the community, and spending time with family.  You can follow her in real life on Instagram and TikTok.