I used to think children’s birthday parties were casual events featuring a cake, some balloons, and maybe a round of Pin the Tail on the Donkey in a humble family home.

I was wrong.

Over the years my daughter has attended birthdays, some of which may have rivaled the cost of weddings. There are rented theatres, DJs spinning kid tunes, photographers, bouncy castles, face painting, and actors dressed as pirates and princesses roaming the party crowd. Add in a buffet meal and personalized party favors, and I’m shook.

As a thrifty parent who hosts a cheap and cheerful party for my daughter each year, I can’t help but wonder – what does this cost? It’s a lot. According to a recent poll by website BabyCenter.com, 26 percent of parents report spending $500 or more for the first birthday party alone. Multiply this cost by two or three kids over the years and it’s a tidy sum that could cover some college tuition or several family vacations.

What’s a parent to do? Here are five ways to throw a memorable kid-sized party without the adult-sized price tag.

1. Find a dollar store

Make your local dollar store the first stop on your party circuit. Serving ware, candles, birthday banners and decor, invitations, and even movie-branded favors can be bought for a few bucks and enjoyed by all for less. Some discounters sell festive balloons filled with helium, so make a floating balloon bouquet to liven up a room with some pop. Each guest gets a balloon to take home as a goody.

2. Smash a piñata

It’s not a party unless something is broken, right? So give the kids something to break with a piñata stuffed full of tasty treats. Piñatas can be homemade or bought for around $25 at big box stores. Stuff it full of Halloween-sized treats and you’ve got an activity that kids love. Just supply little loot bags for the candy and the kids can take home the treats as party favors.

3. Let them eat JUST cake

I am likely the worst host ever, but by scheduling the party at 10 AM or after 2 PM, I’m not on the hook for supplying a full meal to a group of growing and ravenous children. As a bonus I don’t have to clean it up, either.

Parents spend 56 percent of their birthday budget on food according to the Babycenter.com party poll, so I’m saving some serious coin by avoiding a full meal.

Birthday-themed sheet cakes are inexpensive when purchased at a grocer or a warehouse store, and having a personalized inscription added is often free.

4. Get out of the house

Parties planned in public spaces like playgrounds and parks are cheap. Just bring a cake and let the little ones play outside. Older kids may enjoy the novelty of a pre-packaged party at a cooking school, a laser park, or a children’s venue in your area. While prices can vary depending on the activity and favors provided, signing up for a party package with a fixed price may save you time, give you peace of mind, and offer the space if your home isn’t ideal for playing host.

5. Don’t compete

Are you planning a kid’s birthday party or are you looking to broadcast a red-carpet event on Instagram? If you can’t afford the expense – I know I can’t – then don’t let the Pinterest-perfect parties or the neighbor’s princess-themed A-list event get you down. You’re likely feeling a little FOMO (or fear of missing out) and this is what is driving much of the arms race in one-upmanship at birthday parties these days.

Your kid doesn’t need a lavish party to enjoy a new age and stage. Kids just want your attention and some of their friends around to celebrate. So light the candles and break the piñata on your budget, ‘cause the little ones just want a little fun. Promise.

Kerry K. Taylor is a consumer expert at Squawkfox.com.

Remember to check Flipp before you shop for the best prices on birthday party supplies.