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August 22, 2013
The Real Issue
Expensive Birthday Parties
by Cyndie Swindlehurst


We live in a nice neighborhood, and all the families give elaborate, expensive birthday parties for their children. They also bring expensive gifts to other children’s birthday parties. The over-the-top spending makes me very uncomfortable, and I am hesitant to have the kind of modest parties that I prefer for my children because I know people will bring expensive gifts. I also feel pressure to purchase expensive gifts for the neighbors.

One of my children is having a birthday soon, and I am considering a “no gifts” party so I can just avoid this whole conflict.

What do you think?


I do not like “no gifts” parties for children.

I understand the impulse: You don’t want people spending gobs of money on toys for your child, especially if they can’t afford it. But receiving expensive gifts from your neighbors once a year is unlikely to actually harm your child. And you should assume that people are sensible enough not to buy birthday gifts they cannot afford.

More importantly, shopping for a friend’s birthday gift is an important exercise for any child. It requires the child to think about what someone else would like to receive, and to purchase or make the item within a fixed budget. It is important, when shopping with your child for a friend’s gift, that you not purchase anything for your child at the same time. The whole point of the exercise is to think about someone else.

(Also, a child’s birthday party is one of the occasions to which you should always bring a gift. Declaring “no gifts, please” on the invitation seems like a trick question.)

If you want to celebrate a child’s birthday with friends but without gifts, you might invite a few friends to some kind of activity. Just don’t call it a party. The invitation would be a phone call: “We are going to play mini golf and get ice cream on Saturday and my mom said I can invite a friend. Can you come?” You would pick up the friend and pay for him.

If you decide to have a birthday party for your child, remember that the parties your neighbors throw and to which you are invited are not a binding social contract that requires you to host similarly expensive parties. (Although being invited to a person’s birthday party usually obligates you to invite him to yours.)

So plan your child’s party without reference to your neighbors. If you think traditional party games are fun, play them! If you despise favor bags, don’t buy them! If you want to make the cake yourself, bake it! If your child is old enough, have him participate in the planning. Show him how to set a budget, plan a menu, issue invitations, decorate, and host a charming party.

Depending on your child’s expectations, you may need to discuss why you are not having the same kind of party as your neighbors: no bounce house, no manicures, no catered fondue. But there comes a time in every child’s life when he notices that he has less of something than someone else, and he asks why he can’t have what other people have.

“It’s not in our budget,” you might say, and then explain that different families choose to spend money on different things. It is very important for children to learn (1) that they will not always have as much as their friends and (2) this is not the end of the world.

That said, your problem goes beyond birthday parties. Your biggest problem seems to be the way you feel about your neighbors. Instead of seeing them as fun-loving or generous, you seem to have ascribed negative motives to their spending habits.

I’m not disagreeing with you on the merits of throwing expensive birthday parties for children. I think it is somewhere between unwise and unseemly, even if you have the money to do so.

But it is unfair of you to assume that your neighbors give these parties for some bad motive (showing off) or because of some character flaw (frivolity). It is just as likely that some of your neighbors are really into birthdays and parties. And that others are simply trying to fit in by doing what everybody else does. That might not be wise, but it is not vicious or wicked.

Further, you never really know how much money a person has or how much he paid for something. This is an important point that you should teach your children when they comment on the fancy things that other people have and do.

Finally, teach your children to be equally gracious at any party, elaborate or simple. Even at a fancy party, bring a gift that is within your normal child’s-birthday-party budget. There is no rule that you must spend more on a gift when the party is fancier, or that you must purchase a gift equal in price to the one someone bought for you. Any host with any manners would be horrified to think that his guests thought of an expensive party as a solicitation for bigger gifts.

If you think your gift might not cost as much as the others at the party, make sure to choose something you know the birthday child loves or something unique. Don’t act ashamed of your less expensive gift — it is just as good as the others. And it might even give some other parent courage to rein in spending on gifts.

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