How Much Should You Spend on Kids' Birthday Parties?

How Much Should You Spend on Kids' Birthday Parties?

My 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).

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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.”

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