How to Decorate an Awesome Party on the Cheap: DIY Ideas, Tips, and Examples
I'm a mom of 5 young kids. It's busy here. And loud too, but that's besides the point.
Having a small army of children means I am equipped with endless opportunities for celebrating: we're talking Valentines, St. Patrick's Day, Easter, 4th of July, Halloween, just about any holiday. And there always seems to be a birthday coming up. Plus there's the occasional baby shower to throw.
from a Harry Potter birthday party
All this can get exhausting and expensive real quick.
I've had many, many times when I've killed myself, totally overdoing what I had time and energy for to create the perfect party, but every time I overstep what I should do I end up tired and stressed and steal away the joy that I was trying to create. What I'm able to do changes all the time, based on the load I'm carrying.
I've loved this quote for years but just realized that it actually applies to me. I have a busload of children, for heaven's sake. I can't always do everything I've always done!
I've always loved creating parties, but if this doesn't bring you joy, don't stress about it. We all have things that we don't like. You should see the inside of my purse or my van or my pen drawer. No you shouldn't, actually.
And if you have a lot on you right now, then give yourself and your family the gift of simplifying. Slap up a Happy Birthday sign and call it good. Everyone will be happier. A few years back, one of my kids was invited to a party with an unapologetically handwritten note on construction paper. When we got there, there were zero decorations and the boys just ran around outside shooting each other with nerf guns. I really wanted to be friends with that mom because she had life figured out.
But that all being said, here are some of my real life, best tips for cheaply decorating for a party, whether it ends up being fancy or not.
Have Extra Supplies on Hand
Consider having a container in a closet to hold extra party supplies like balloons, crepe paper, plastic tablecloths, reusable birthday signs, black card stock, whatever generic supplies you regularly use. Then when a birthday or other celebration has snuck up on you, you're not sunk.
My favorite destination for these items is of course the Dollar Tree. The great thing about the Dollar Tree is that everything is a dollar. Ha! But that means you can grab a cart of stuff for the price of a few items from a party store. They have a crazy amount of party supplies in a bunch of colors, but Walmart also has many dollar items. While the Dollar Tree does carry lots of colors of rectangle tablecloths, they only have round tablecloths in white. If you're looking for rounds, Walmart has them in other colors; they also carry gold colored plates/cups/tablecloths/balloons/etc which the Dollar Tree does not.
FYI: Although it very much feels like it, the Dollar Tree is NOT sponsoring this post. I wish. Oh, but any links to Amazon are affiliate, meaning I get a small commission which doesn't affect your price.
My Favorite Dollar Tree Party Staples: (click here for my post on Dollar Tree birthday supplies)
plastic tablecloths, paper plates in both sizes, paper cups and napkins, birthday cards, twine, poster board, tissue paper, tissue paper pom poms, birthday candles, balloons, wrapping paper, roll of brown craft paper
My Other Party Staples:
packs of cardstock in white, black, and brown and variety of other colors, gluestick, tape, paper cutter, 3" circle hole punch (I mostly use my Cricut now, but this circle punch has definitely earned it's keep), clear pushpins
Use Generic Decorations then Use Your Specific Theme as an Accent
Throwing a boy baby shower? Instead of making every decoration baby specific, do something like decorating in blue, white, and gold, bringing in the baby part in a banner and some framed pictures. This is not only cheaper but also gives you way more options than the store bought baby carriage cut outs.
We just did a Sophia the First party for Ms. 4 and basically just did a purple theme with Sophia cupcakes and she was thrilled with it. And I can reuse all the decorations for Valentines Day and just about any other girl party. If I really wanted to bring in the Sofia theme further, I could have very easily just printed some free Sofia images and either framed them or cut them out and taped them around the room.
Also, use what you already have! Look around and get ideas from what you already own. Vases, picture frames, and mason jars are all regularly put to work around here. My dishes and platters are all white so they always match.
Whenever possible, give yourself a little time to get ready days before the party. It doesn't have to take long, but makes all the difference.
1. Decide on a theme and brainstorm. A theme can be as simple as the color scheme or it could be dinosaurs or a favorite tv show. I like to spend like 15 minutes on Pinterest after I've picked a theme, pinning anything that doesn't look too fussy to get me thinking.
2. Finalize what you're willing to do/what you have time for, make a list, then hit the store.
3. Assemble/create anything that requires more than just hanging it up. Tissue paper balls, cutting and gluing, creating banners or garland: it all takes longer than you think and will add major stress to your life if you try to do it all at the end.
Set Up the Night Before
Unless you want to involve the kids, set up the night before if possible while they're in bed. If your kids are little, it is so much easier and quicker to set up without their help. This last new year's I set up the day of with the kids running around and it was so stressful trying to keep the little ones safe and happy and not crazytime (because it's always crazytime here when decos go up- that is some sort of Kid Law) with a party deadline looming. Plus I still had to plate all the food and get dressed, because you know I was still in my pjs at 2:30 that day.
Worried about the kiddos tearing the plastic tablecloth or destroying the centerpiece? Just don't put that on until right before. My kids are pretty trained to leave it all alone but that baby is definitely a wild card. Just get everything time consuming and out of their reach up and set.
Change the Lighting
Best way to make a room feel special and different? Change the lighting. Use Christmas lights, candles, lamps, use your dimmer switch, whatever you've got. These battery powered fairy lights are so versatile and I absolutely love them. Costco periodically sells like an 8 pack or so of flameless pillar candles and those are another workhorse here.
Back to School Dinner: There's fairy lights wrapped around the tombstone and another strand across the table.
Pick a Room & Think Big
Consider where you're going to congregate and focus your efforts there. If it's only for my family, I will just decorate the dining room where we'll be eating. If I'll have more people coming and I am up for it, then I branch outwards to the door, the entryway, the kitchen and family room.
Focus on the stuff that will make the big impact when you walk in. Yes, those perfect-fonted, card stock backed small labels are darling, but they probably won't make much of a difference in the look of your party. If you have time for them, great, but you only have so much time so make sure you do the stuff that's got the most wow factor. Plus, if this is a party for a child, then chances are they won't even notice them.
So what are some ideas for decorating on a budget that don't take a miter saw or a zillion hours to pull off? I'm so glad you asked!
Utilize those cheap disposable tablecloths. This is just 3 pinned up to the ceiling.
After pinning it up, I went through and just eyeballed every 3 or 4 inches or so and cut, leaving some uncut at the top. Then I braided the top of each strand a few times. The whole thing took about a half hour or so. You could totally hang them the long way so the tablecloths hit the ground, but these just about came to the chair rail, which was a good height to keep the 20 month old from destructoing it. (BTW, the hooray sign is $5 at Target and I use it like every party and that 4 was at the Dollar Tree. I'd never noticed numbers there before but it was with all the party stuff.)
Same wall, different colored plastic tablecloths.
from a Harry Potter birthday party
Here we've got them creating a focal point on the ceiling. Those confetti balloons from the Dollar Tree were cute but a big pain in the rear to clean up when my kids decided to pop them, which we all knew was going to happen. Boo.
These are pretty simple to do- just rubber band 3, or as many as you want, tablecloths together then put one pushpin into the ceiling.
Then just pin up the other ends where you want them. Takes about 10 minutes. I hung tissue paper balls and balloons from this one.
from a pink birthday party
Hang balloons from the ceiling. The one thing with balloons is that you have to both blow them up and then deal with your kids playing with them and then popping them afterwards. But they are pretty cool looking. I've also got some cardstock thrown in here for good measure. You can also hang them more clustered above the table.
from a Valentine's party
Tissue paper balls are pretty neat looking. They do take some time to make, but they're cheap and pretty easy. The Dollar Tree does sell both packs of tissue paper and a 2 pack of premade balls for $1 which I've done a few times, but they still take a while to open up. They also sell a tissue paper ball garland which is pretty fun. There's one in that pink tablecloth pic a few pictures back.
from a Dr. Seuss twin baby shower
Hit Joann's or Michael's on their 70% off clearances which they seem to have a lot and grab some neutral floral garlands
This is kind of my new favorite: cut out a bunch of whatever shape you want and sew them together. You just sew a line straight through the shape and keep sewing an inch or two in between. This is a great use for big hole punches or a Cricut or you could just trace and cut, although that would take much longer.
The great thing about these is how easy they are to store and reuse. I just put them in a baggy and pull them back out when the color scheme matches. I was originally going to put the number 4 mixed into this garland as it was for my 4 yr old's birthday but then I starting using my brain and changed my mind real quick. The ability to reuse items is WAY more important to me than the cute factor.
Also, most of my garlands are made out of cardstock, but this heart one is felt which I love. It did take some figuring out on the Cricut to get it to cut the felt, but I'm a fan.
These are so cheap and simple to make and DIYing gives you so many options in colors. Banners can cost a fortune to buy in the store and are another item that can be reused from party to party. If you have a paper cutter these are a snap, but you can definitely make them with a ruler and scissors.
You can put letters on them or not. Before I had my Cricut, if I wanted to put letters on the banners I would punch out circles out of white paper and then hand print them on them, gluing them on.
This banner is made out of felt, with shamrocks from the Dollar Tree glued on and I reuse it every year, along with just about everything pictured here.
Some of the most common shapes to cut out are triangles, rectangles, or dovetail. Just cut them out in whatever colors you want and tape them on twine or ribbon or curling ribbon or whatever you've got.
Choose a few special photos and blow them up. You can just print them at home as an 8x10 or send them off to an office print shop and get them printed bigger.
Make a collage with a bunch of small prints into the shape of a number. This does take forever but it looks so cool. You start with drawing and cut the block number out of posterboard, place the photos, then trim them.
Frame special pictures and place them on tables. Secondhand stores are a great resource if you don't have any frames kicking around your house. I bought a bunch and then spray painted them all gold so they go together. The Dollar Tree also has frames. They aren't great quality but they'd do if you weren't going to use them much.
Hot glue a couple rows of twine across a large, empty frame and close pin pictures to it.
Ask other people a question about the guest of honor in advance, type up their responses siting them, and blow them up. Tape them up randomly around the room.
List accomplishments/facts about the guest of honor and print them on half sheets of coordinating cardstock.
Celebrating a holiday? Post fun facts about it's history or how it's celebrated around the world. Then do yourself a favor and either print them on cardstock or laminate them so you can use every year.
If you're wanting to go fancy you can of course use real tablecloths, but that means purchasing said cloths, ironing them (or not) and then washing them afterwards. There is no shame in putting those plastic tablecloths to work again by actually using them on the table.
unironed tablecloths from my 8 yr old's baptism
Throw down a runner in the middle of the table. This can be an actual runner like above or my very favorite: wrapping paper cut in half. The wrapping paper is fabulous because it's cheap, easy, there are so many options, and you can just toss it when you're done. If I'm just doing one table, I usually just pick up a solid roll of paper at the Dollar Tree as that's about the length of a roll. However, if I'm doing more than that, I'll usually look for it somewhere else.
That Dr. Seuss red striped paper up above was from Hobby Lobby at Christmas. They have huge rolls of really great paper before Xmas. I tend to buy a roll or two of neutral wrapping paper that can be used all year long.
Depending on your color scheme, brown craft paper is another great choice for either covering the entire table or cutting as the runner. Bonus with that is you can throw out some crayons for a little in-party entertainment. And guess where you can pick some up on the cheap? Boom. Dollar Tree.
What are your party decorating hacks and tricks? Any brilliant ideas you've stumbled on? I'd love to hear about them, as there's no shortage of birthday and holidays around here.