Theme Party Rescue: 5 Easy Steps to DIY on a Budget

I don’t remember having many themed birthday parties when I was younger. Perhaps I did but I mostly remember asking for a sleep over every year. Maybe there was a campfire. Maybe there was a late movie. Definitely there was giggling far past lights out and there was chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream. I freely admit we opened every side of the carton to pick the chunks of cookie dough out with spoons then left most of the vanilla ice cream behind.

Theme Party Rescue5

I am a theme-type person. I like having a focus. So when it comes to planning my son’s birthday parties, we’ve always had a theme. His first birthday was Jungle and Monkeys (going along with his nursery décor). Year two was Curious George because he loved him. Last year was Scooby Doo; thanks, Netflix, for inspiring that one, but I love Great Danes so it’s OK. Months ago I asked him what he’d like to do for his birthday this year. I gave him all the choices from last year, of which we brainstormed many. And he chose Jake and the Never Land Pirates; thanks, Pull-Ups, for first introducing us to Jake.

While I love cute ideas and themes, I do not love spending gobs of money on a party. I like making it look like we did a lot without actually spending too much. But for us, this is part of his present. We will always have a big birthday celebration for him. Somewhere along the road, you grow up, and birthdays mean less to you or we even dread them as another year older. He doesn’t know those things. He only knows it’s a time to have fun and celebrate. I enjoy telling him his birth story, too. For now, I am glad I get to help make the day extra special with a rockin’ pirate party! Here’s how I do it:

5 easy steps to throw a cost-saving, DIY theme party:

  1. ReTheme Party Rescue2search:

    Plan ahead and get inspired by looking at what others have done. It also gave us time to use Pinterest and anything Google helped us find. Use Pinterest sparingly though. I have to remind myself so I’ll remind you, it’s NOT about making it perfect. It’s just for DIY ideas! For example, I never would’ve thought about making the front sidewalk into a treasure map with dotted lines and an X marking the spot, but it turned out great and it was pretty easy. If my mom hadn’t found Jake goodie bags I would’ve drawn maps on plain brown bags. There are a lot of fun ideas out there! Cal loved sitting and helping me find images he liked to use as inspiration. He was also in awe of some really amazing cakes, which I assured him his mom would not be able to pull off! He’d also find items around the house and say “Maybe we can use this for my Jake party?” We used old wooden jewelry boxes as pirate chests for decorations, found random jewels, and even a pirate flag (still no idea where we got it). This all gave us quality time together to dream and scheme what we were going to do for his 4th birthday. I love that time together and that he helps me plan!

  2. Bargain Buys:

Dollar Store, Craigslist, garage sales! I’m all about making what you can yourself, but knowing his party theme early gave me plenty of time to keep an eye open for Jake or pirate deals. Find some theme-specific goods at a party store if you need to, but not too much. The rest you can get at the Dollar Store and coordinate colors. Why spend $5 for 8 plates when you can get 16 for $2? I mean, they go into the trash at the end of the party. I also found used decorations on a Facebook garage sale site. Deals are all over, but you have to be looking for them! There’s also nothing wrong with using generic, especially when you slap your own label on it. You can buy the bargain groceries at Aldi and no one needs to know when you put them out on a platter. You can get the no-name brand from the Dollar Store. Who cares!

  1. Theme Signs:

A really simple, cheap wTheme Party Rescue6ay to continue a theme is to make signs. I used them to show various stations around the house such as Bucky’s Bubble Station, Bowling for Bad Guys, and Never Land Hide Out: Jake’s Crew Only! Of course I also used them for the food. The party food and drink gets cute names like “Pirate Pasta Salad,” “Veggie Island,” “Peter Pan Pop” and “Tinkerbell Tea.” Voilà, theme! I asked Cal what other signs could we do, and he told me “Captain Hook, don’t come in the back yard!” Brilliant idea, kiddo!

  1. Games:

It doesn’t have to be Pin the Tail on the Donkey, piñata or board games. Use what you already have around the hoTheme Party Rescue4use or make something new out of old items. We used his musical equipment for a Pirate Rock station. I also cut out pictures and created a carnival ball toss game out of tin cans just waiting for me in the recycling bin. I added pictures of Captain Hook’s crew to a garaTheme Party Rescue3gesale bowling set. We had a dress-like-a-pirate station the kids loved, and it was easy to set up. My mother-in-law turned an old pillow case into a kid’s pirate shirt. None of these games required purchasing much or anything. Most of them required very little set up but were a big hit! You can even incorporate a present into it! This year we decided to get him a sand box, which was a perfect surprise when we buried gold doubloons, jewels, and pirate figurines in the sand. Then he and his friends would dig for buried treasure. It was the most popular game!

  1. Presents:

When you just don’t want another toy in the house, how about asking family for party help instead? My mom has more party stores near her than we have here. So she often finds a few theme items there. Could someone help you with the food as his or her gift? Could a fellow parent help with one of the games? Just ask for what you need, and you just might find that people are willing to help!

There isn’t right or wrong when it comes to birthday celebrations. You can do a little or you can do a lot. These are just a few of my tricks to make it easier and save some money while still having a great theme party! But now I wonder if we have to be pirates for Halloween this year…


Kellie Osler
Kellie received her BA in Psychology from the University of Iowa and stayed around after college instead of returning home to SW Iowa. She went to high school with Mike and they met again downtown after her college graduation. They’re now married and live in rural Riverside with their son Calvin, age 4. She owns Motherly TLC as a birth and postpartum doula, and is an active member of the IC Doulas. When she’s not building her business or chasing her son you can find her making vegan recipes, hunting for deals, volunteering at her bi-monthly eating disorder group, or putting in sweat equity on home remodeling projects. If she had spare time she’d love to write a book, do craft projects like hand decorated birdhouses, volunteer more and curl up to watch a favorite show with a hot cup of tea.


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