How Much Should You Spend on Kids’ Birthday Parties?

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kid birthday partiesMy son and many of his little buddies turned one this past year.

I polled fellow first-time mommy pals about their plans, and they ran the gamut. One was celebrating at home with family and a few friends; another hosted a shindig at her baby’s gym. Moms with summer babies hit the local parks, and one woman—a friend of a friend—topped off her daughter’s first year with a swanky affair at a country club—complete with an open bar (for the adults).

With the news of this over-the-top ode to a toddler, I couldn’t help but calculate the cost and practicality of future birthday parties. Do kids even need a party? Would my son be damaged for life if I didn’t opt for pony rides or put a pin in his plans to rent the world’s largest bounce house?

Here, Dr. Susan Bartell, parenting and child psychologist and author of “The Top 50 Questions Kids Ask,” shares her advice on the importance of throwing a birthday bash when you may not have the cash.

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1. Age Matters
Kids between the ages of four and ten typically have parties, says Bartell, so pay attention to the trends in your area. If your daughter is racking up invitations, it’s important to plan a celebration so she doesn’t feel left out.

2. Apply the Golden Rule to Your Guest List

Invite either all girls, all boys or the entire class. If your party will truly be a small get-together (think three or four kids), then you can justify taking classmates off the list.

3. Talk to Your Kids if Strapped for Cash

If you can’t afford to have a big party, give your child specific examples as to where that money will go instead, says Bartell. Explain that the cost of a party will help to pay for your family’s food, or new spring clothes or summer camp. Then discuss other ways in which you can acknowledge her birthday. If your 11-year-old pines for a mani-pedi spa party, cut the price tag in half by painting her nails at home. Or take advantage of a public park, or host a sleepover in your basement.

RELATED: The Reality of Raising Kids When You’re Strapped for Cash

4. Get Real

Kids may not expect a “My Super Sweet 16″-style bash, says Bartell, but after watching a crazy expensive birthday blowout on TV, they’ll surely be wishing for one. “They may feel let down,” she says. “But that’s not any different than all of the other [unattainable] stuff you see you on TV, like models with fabulous clothes. It’s a part of life, and someone has to be educating children along the way about how that’s not reality for most people.”

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5. Manage Expectations by Setting a Budget

Clue your kid in on your budget and stick to it. If your son still can’t shake the overwhelming need for a $500 fete at the local laser tag, try to soften the blow by giving him options that do fit into the budget. Let him choose between a pizza party with eight friends at your house, for example, or a dinner out with just one or two other kids. “You can’t be vague [about what you can do] because you’re afraid you’re going to disappoint your child,” says Bartell. “It’s healthy for them—they’re going to be disappointed in their lives many, many times.”

6. Plan the Event Together

You’re planning a party for your child and their friends, so make sure your kid is involved in creating the celebration. Bartell suggests collaborating on the goody bags, which can be costly if you have a long guest list, as a way for children to relate the price of a party to their real life. How many items can you include in the bag if you only have $3 to spend? How much of the budget should you set aside for a party favor if you’re going to invite 25 people? “He’ll have a better understanding of how much work, money and effort goes into a party,” Bartell says.

RELATED: 5 Financial Conversations to Have With Your Kids

7. Be Gracious About Gifts

“Kids are constantly comparing how much things cost and what their value is,” says Bartell. Teach your child to appreciate the person behind the present—even if it’s something they don’t like or already have. “It’s important for them to value the gift giver separately from the gift itself.”

  • bcalnyc

    I’ve raised 4 kids (well, I’m still raising one, who is 7). We’ve never had parties which cost much because we’ve never HAD much. But our parties have always been favorites of the guests (and the guest of honor). Our rule is not just boys or just girls, but rather the number of kids is your age. (That’s about as many as an adult can handle). The locations have either been our place or occasionally a museum with a low entry cost (and no, we don’t buy their packages). The food is simple – pizza works for most people – the games are homemade, and our goody bags are legendary. And often also part of the party activities. Last year Alex wanted a Sponge Bob theme so I sewed simple yellow tote bags and the kids decorated them (and then we added inexpensive but practical goodies like Sponge Bob pencils). This year he wanted (totally his idea) a “green party” so I bought plain pots which the kids decorated, seed starter and seeds and the homemade pinata was a globe. Everyone got a reusable lunchbag to hold everything (from the 99 cent store).

    Parents and siblings are NOT invited (tho’ some insist on showing up so I make sure the kids are covered goody-bag wise and the parents get offered whatever the kids are eating – AFTER the kids have eaten)

    Anything else is NOT a party for the kid but for the grown-ups.

  • sjdemo

    this year we had too much going on around the time of my daughter’s 4th birthday, so we did cupcakes at school, took her for a haircut (what she wanted because we usually just trim it at home), and went out for burgers. she had been talking about her birthday and the numerous parties and friends she wanted to have for about six months prior, and i was worried she’d be upset about not having a party, but she wasn’t at all.

    our son’s 7th is in a few weeks and we’ve already told him since his sister didn’t get a party he won’t either. he’s okay with that because he knows we are going to make the day special regardless.

  • Caitlin McLeod

    Good grief! I’m so lucky not to have kids, if they expect huge parties and goody bags at their birthday parties! When I was growing up in rural VT, our birthday parties were simple and tons of fun. Because I’m a February baby, my party usually included cross-country skiing or ice skating–right at home! We had sugar-on-snow, games, home made cake with ice cream, and presents for the birthday child. I don’t recall everyone else getting goody bags! I would say that kids between 1-3 are not so likely to notice what kind of party you have; a few friends or just family to celebrate sounds just right. My advice: keep it simple and affordable!

  • Anna

    It’s insane to me the way people succumb to social pressure and allow that to determine how they raise their child. I only remember having ONE birthday party that was not a few friends and a cake my mom(or grandma or aunt) made. Not teaching your kids that they don’t always get to have everything their friends have or that they want is a virtue that will serve them greatly later in life. I am currently expecting and am already hearing the “the baby MUST have this” about something completely superfluous. The only thing the kid needs is food to eat, a roof over her head and people to love her. The rest is icing on the cake.

  • Chemgeek

    We are Hispanic. I am 2nd generation and all my daughter’s parties have cost between $400 to $800. The reason I mentions ethnicity is because if we throw a party we have to invite all the family usually between 50-65 people. If we don’t, we are considered rude. This year I set a budget and I have kept everything under $500. It may seem like a lot but we are expecting ~70 people this year.

  • LJ

    I liked this article, except for 3. If you are having a financial crunch, it should NEVER be your child’s problem. I mean, how psychologically damaging is it to tell a kid that either they can have a birthday party or the family can eat that week?

    If a big party is not in the budget, that’s perfectly ok, and you can give the kids an allotted budget for them to help plan out their party and offer them low-cost alternatives. You can also give them a comparison of the cost of the party vs other activities they might want to do instead. For example, “Would you rather go to the amusement park twice this summer or would you rather have a party with 10 of your friends?” This way they understand the value of their party and realize that proper money management is about determining priorities.

    Being a child can be stressful enough without them feeling personally responsible for the family’s financial situation. You can teach them to be fiscally responsible without making them anxious about whether or not their basic needs will be met.