Birthdays on a budget: Putting on parties that 'pop' - without breaking the bank

THIEF RIVER FALLS, Minn. - Jackie Gonzales doesn't think of herself as a creative person, but others do. They've seen how cleverly she uses inexpensive items to add pizzazz and personal touches to themed birthday parties.

At a "pirates and mermaid" party celebrating both her children's birthdays in 2011, Jackie Gonzales rolled out a deep seas theme by serving blue Jello topped with red lobster gummy candies, marshmallow pops dipped in frosting and rolled in multi-colored sprinkles ("jewels" in a treasure chest), mini fish cheese crackers, and "Pirates Booty," a puff-ball snack that's "a little healthier" than similar treats, she said. Submitted photo

THIEF RIVER FALLS, Minn. - Jackie Gonzales doesn't think of herself as a creative person, but others do. They've seen how cleverly she uses inexpensive items to add pizzazz and personal touches to themed birthday parties.

The Thief River Falls mom goes all out to delight her young son and daughter - as well as guests - on their special day. She's learned to plan customized soirees at home using her own creativity to keep costs down.

Her family's response to her hard work makes it worthwhile.

"I love seeing my kids' reaction to it," she said. "They wake up in the morning and see everything - that's really priceless to me."

For those who don't feel particularly crafty, Gonzales recommends scanning Internet sites, such as Etsy and Pinterest, for a wealth of ideas and supplies that stir your imagination and take an event from so-so to sensational.


For example, "Type in 'Hello Kitty birthday party printables'" in the site's search box, she said. "You can always make things seem a little more festive if you spend a little time."

For her daughter's birthday, she found an array of "Hello Kitty" party supplies, including decorations, cupcake flags, banners, invitations, little signs and thank-you notes. She ordered the items customized with "Grace" and "4" to signify her name and age.

"You can purchase and download digital files on Etsy and print (the materials) yourself or take it to a print shop," she said.

Gonzales emails the file to a local printer to produce the items she wants. The files usually cost between $15 and $20.

Smart shoppers can find an array of decorations to reinforce the theme - cupcake wrappers, water bottle labels, tags for party favors, table-tent labels. She even found little Hello Kitty candies to adorn the bottom of Hershey kisses.

Start with theme

Planning for the party usually starts with deciding on a theme, she said. Because her children's birthdays fall around Halloween, they often revolve around costumed characters.

"We've done Minnie and Mickey (Mouse), Cowgirl Jessie and Woody (from the movie, "Toy Story") and a pirate-and-mermaid party," Gonzales said.


When her son Noah was in kindergarten, he requested a football-themed party, featuring the colors of the family's favorite team, the Philadelphia Eagles.

Gonzales made individual cups of popcorn and "stadium dogs," hot dogs wrapped in foil, and set up a water cooler paired with football cups -- all to enhance the feeling of being at the big game.

"We had fun food for the boys (that was) reasonably priced," she said.

The day was made more special by the games that she and her husband, Xavier, set up in their yard: a football-kicking contest.

She made goalposts out of PVC pipe and braced them in buckets of sand. The boys took turns trying to kick the football between the posts.

She also painted goalposts on a $4 bed sheet she found at Walmart and cut a circle in the middle. The kids competed at kicking the football through the hanging sheet.

"My husband taught them how to kick. It was right up his alley," she said. "It was actually fun - so much fun."

Gonzales also buys inexpensive tablecloths and customizes them "to make them a little more special." She applies ribbon in the theme color to the edge of cake stand.


She suggests using pieces you have on hand, such as dishes and other serving pieces that could be turned over to present food items.

Empty Starbucks Frappuccino bottles serve as little milk bottles when filled with regular or chocolate milk for her young guests.

At the end of the football party, guests received party favors to take home.

"We basically took a brown lunch bag and painted a strip on the bottom and top ends and 'laces' down the side" to look like a football, she said.

Fun with food

Because she loves to cook, Gonzales is especially interested in creative ideas for party food.

"People think, 'We have to have cake,' " she said. Not so.

Her friend, whose son doesn't like cake, served frosted Rice Krispie bars for his birthday.


For Grace's birthday, she once hosted a brunch. The menu included birthday pancakes - instead of cake - and mini donuts.

"I got a little mini donut-maker," she said, which "makes super-cute donuts, and it's easy to use."

She's also tried "cake pops," which start with a baked box-mix cake. She crumbles the cake and adds frosting to make balls that are dipped in white chocolate and decorated with sprinkles or mini chocolate chips. Green sprinkles were used to mimic grass for her football-themed party.

Using Grace's favorite book "Purplicious" as inspiration, Gonzales created an event steeped in purple, her daughter's favorite color. Yogurt was dyed with a combination of pink and blue coloring.

For her kids' pirate-and-mermaid party, she rolled the cake balls in multi-colored sprinkles, "so they looked like jewels," and placed them in a treasure chest.

She also mounts marshmallows on lollypop sticks and dips the tops in white chocolate and then sprinkles representing the theme or chosen color. She's made Hello Kitty faces to decorate the marshmallows.

"These are always the kids' favorite treat," she said.



She used to focus on the birthday cake, she said, working hours on elaborate cakes that would not get completely eaten, she said, leaving her with lots of leftovers.

"Now I'm more focused on the details" aside from the cake, she said, "and on the activities that we could do with the kids."

A recent family excursion to a rodeo sparked her son's interest in cowboys.

"He said, 'Maybe I should have a Western-themed birthday party,' " she said.

Gonzales was off and running, suggesting they build a jail and have a "Wanted" poster.

"We could take photos," she said. "Noah was like, 'NO'... I had to laugh at that."

She credits Xavier as a good partner in her efforts.

"My husband thinks I'm crazy half the time, but he goes along with it," she said.


"It's kind of ridiculous but it's so much fun. We have a blast with it."

Jackie and Xavier Gonzales are shown with children Noah and Grace in a photo taken in 2011 at their "pirates and mermaid" party. The family dressed as pirates, save for Grace who opted to be a mermaid. Submitted photo

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