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There's a certain irony about spending a lot of money on a young child's birthday party - it's something they will have no memory of a few years down the road.

Despite this, the cash spent on parties boggles the mind. Popular features these days include a rented bouncy slide or castle ($250-$350), a drop-in by a perky Cinderella ($150-$200), even a visit from an ice cream truck ($50-$100). When you add a custom cake, themed decorations and prepackaged loot bags, you're talking well over $500.

But you can create a fun-filled party for your child (and their BFFs) for less than $50. Evite and colour printers have eliminated the need for expensive invitations. Pick up plenty of balloons from Wal-Mart or the dollar store (you'll get 20 or so for a couple bucks), and your decor is taken care of. Throw your party in-between mealtimes to avoid that extra cost: Cut-up veggies, fruit and chips are cost-efficient snacks that always score high.

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For loot bags, buy candy in bulk and portion it out into dollar-store baggies. For anti-candy parents, check flyers and "front-of-store" specials at places such as Toys "R" Us for small books, bubble wands or sidewalk chalk, or visit toy warehouses (such as Samco & Miko in Toronto and JRC in Montreal), Wal-Mart or Zellers.

And if you think your pint-sized guests won't be satisfied with simply running amuck in your home, pick a theme and get creative.

1. Backyard beach bash (ages 2-8)

Got a sprinkler? Tell the kids to bring their suits and let loose the H2O. Or invest in a Soak 'N Splash water slide for $10 (at Toys "R" Us). Throw beach towels and blankets in a corner and make it your picnic area. Party games can range from limbo to water balloons to never-fail classics from your childhood - three-legged races, freeze tag, Red Rover. Raid the dollar store for inflatable beach balls ($1) and leis (five for $1). Throw on some Dick Dale or the Beach Boys and serve freezies. And go online for instructions on how to make your own pinata - a fun activity to share with your child before the party.

2. Goin' on a bug hunt (ages 3-5)

Yard + summer = perfect birthday shindig. Create an outdoor scavenger hunt by compiling lists of things your small adventurers can look for (a weirdly shaped rock, an ant, a caterpillar, a flower). Plant some "treasures" - dollar-store dinosaurs or army men look extra cool when perched under a shadowy bush. Rather than a list, Google images, and print and staple together for reference. Make your own bubble mixture in a couple of large plastic bowls, set out bubble sticks and let 'em at it. Buy a whack of gummi worms to top chocolate "dirt" cupcakes.

3. Make stuff (ages 4-6)

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Is your child a Lego fanatic with tubs of bricks cluttering your rec room? Hold a Lego tower contest, in which the tallest/weirdest/most fanciful creation wins a prize. Scads of craft materials? Set up creative stations: painting in the kitchen, bead stringing in the dining room, paper bag puppet making in the living room and Popsicle stick building in the bedroom. Loot bags can be a bundle of craft materials and some dollar-store stickers.

4. Top chef (ages 5-7)

Make chef's hats out of white bristol board and tissue paper, and let the kids personalize with markers, stickers, glue and construction paper. First course: Kids concoct their own smoothie flavour. Give them plain yogurt and ingredients - chopped-up fruit, cookies, cocoa powder, whatever. (You'll need to operate and clean the blender between flavours.) Second course: make your own pizzas. Then let your budding Gordon Ramsays blow off steam in the backyard with food-related games (such as egg races). After that, it's back to eat their pizzas and on with the main event: sugar cookie decoration. Dole out cookie cutters, sprinkles and candy.

5. Get snap happy (ages 7-9)

There's a sweet spot between kids being too young to handle a "real" camera and being too old to care ("Like, duh, I have one on my phone"). At about 7 or 8, kids will like nothing better than to run around snapping photos of anything that moves. Let the kids loose with digital cameras (ask the less Type A parents to lend one or two). A shot list works well (shoot someone's silly face, big toe, the family pet, something delicious etc.). Then print out masterpieces, and create a birthday collage on bristol board or make scrapbooks they can take home. Finish your "on camera" theme with a movie at home and buckets of popcorn.



Special to The Globe and Mail. Shelley White writes for Globe Investor's Home Cents blog.

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About the Author

Shelley White is a freelance writer, editor, video producer and mother of twins. Before taking the plunge into the wild world of freelance work, she produced educational programming at TVO, explored digital culture at the late lamented Shift magazine and entertained young minds at MuchMusic. More

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