Free Yourself From the Kids’ Birthday-Party Trap

Sometimes the most outrageous birthday parties are for the kids who probably care the least.

One-year-olds, for example, won’t remember that you spent $700 on a standing birthday cake shaped like a My Little Pony, nor will they appreciate the fact that you hired a professional photographer for their “big day.” (Yes, that happened.)

But has reality ever stopped excited parents from shelling out some serious cash for their kid’s parties? I think not. In addition to the My Little Pony cake incident, one birthday party I attended a few years ago featured an inflatable obstacle course that cost $900 for a one-day rental (I know because I asked). And at yet another, the food was catered by two high-end restaurants in town.

The bottom line: Kids’ birthday parties in 2015 are infinitely more expensive and complex than they were a few decades ago. And they have gotten bigger, too. It’s not uncommon for kids to feel like they have to invite everyone in their class to the party, and for their parents to feel obligated to host them all.

But does it have to be this way?

How Not to Overdo It

Obviously, the answer is no. No matter what your friends or neighbors are doing, you are ultimately in control of what your kid’s birthday parties look like. And if you want to avoid having parties reminiscent of MTV’s “Super Sweet Sixteen” one day, you will be much better off to nip the issue in the bud right now.

Here’s how to free yourself from overspending, and how it will benefit you in the long run:

Create a Birthday Party Budget

This is the easiest way to keep your spending in check. Start with the basics – a cake, some simple party favors, any gifts you plan to purchase, and some decorations — and go from there.

Once you come up with a figure that represents the bare minimum you’ll need to spend, ask yourself if it makes sense in the context of the rest of your budget. (For example, does it make sense to spend $600 on a birthday party when your monthly mortgage is $800?) If something doesn’t add up, take a step back and look for ways to save.

Figure Out What You Can DIY

Speaking of ways to save, there are probably some aspects of the party you can take care of yourself. For example, consider making the birthday cake. Even if you don’t have amazing baking skills, almost anyone can pull off some birthday-themed cupcakes. (Try browsing Pinterest if you need some inspiration.)

Make up your own free games or outdoor activities for the kids to play. For example, just adding water balloons to a game of Capture the Flag will turn it into an epic experience for kids. If you’re stuck inside with toddlers, a plastic pool full of packing peanuts makes a big mess — and big smiles, too.

Meanwhile, consider purchasing some cheap party decorations or favors at your local party discount store or dollar store. If you live near a Dollar Tree, you can buy solid-colored tablecloths, plate sets, napkin sets, and streamers for $1 each. No matter what, the more you can in-source, the more you can save.

Limit the Guest List to Actual Friends

Even though big birthday parties have become the norm, you shouldn’t have to host every child yours comes in contact with in a given year. And if you can whittle down the guest list to include only your child’s real friends, you will ultimately create a more intimate experience.

Obviously, a shorter guest list can lead to serious savings as well. The fewer kids you have, the fewer favors you’ll have to make or buy and the less food you’ll have to prepare or purchase. Don’t worry about hurt feelings; it’s okay to put your family first.

Remember: It’s Not a Competition

The fact that Suzie’s mom spent $500 on a petting zoo for her party does not mean you have to, and it certainly doesn’t mean she loves her daughter more. Even though birthday parties might seem like a competition, they definitely aren’t.

And no matter how much you spend and how creative you get, you won’t get an award – no trophies, no accolades. So when you’re preparing your birthday party budget, try to remember that kid’s birthday parties should be about having fun, not one-upping your neighbors.

It’s easy to get caught up in the idea of a big birthday party for your child, but the reality is, expensive parties are never a good investment. Imagine if you could find a way to escape the kid’s birthday party trap altogether and use those extra funds to save for your children’s college education instead. Money spent on over-the-top parties will be gone in a flash, whereas saving for your child’s future is always a good bet. Try to remember that when you’re pricing out clowns and ponies and wondering if it will all be worth it.

And no matter what, remember that only one person can save you from the kid’s birthday-party trap — you.

Holly Johnson

Contributing Writer

Holly Johnson is a frugality expert and award-winning writer who is obsessed with personal finance and getting the most out of life. A lifelong resident of Indiana, she enjoys gardening, reading, and traveling the world with her husband and two children. In addition to The Simple Dollar, Holly writes for well-known publications such as U.S. News & World Report Travel, PolicyGenius, Travel Pulse, and Frugal Travel Guy. Holly also owns Club Thrifty.