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Children's birthday parties: Stop the madness!

Limo rides? Live bands? $150 party favors? Resist the pressure to create bigger and better bashes each year.

By Donna_Freedman Feb 19, 2013 12:18PM
Logo: Birthday party (Bananastock/Jupiterimages)Show of hands: Who here remembers his first birthday party?

Yes, that does sound silly. But when Dr. Bill Doherty became a grandfather, he was startled to learn his daughter was being asked what kind of "bash" she would throw when the baby turned one.

A professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota, Doherty visited a party store and saw "shelf upon shelf of first-birthday items." He also overheard this interaction between a woman and her son, who looked to be about 9 years old.
Boy: "This one's nice."
Mom: "That's not your color scheme!"
This led Doherty and others to create the Birthdays Without Pressure project, a series of conversations about and strategies to combat birthday-party madness.

Increasingly pressured to keep up with the pint-sized Joneses, parents are spending hundreds or even thousands of dollars on fetes at commercial venues or home parties that feature live entertainment, pony rides, bounce-house rentals, and party bags crammed with toys and treats.

Do kids expect this? Too often they do. One child complained that her birthday party "just wasn't magic enough." 

At another party, a 7-year-old guest wanted to know why he hadn't been given a party bag. Told that the family had decided to forgo this custom, the boy responded, "This is a rip-off!"

No expense left behind?
Shocked by that kind of entitlement? Remember: We built those children. Ours is a culture of entitlement and consumption -- and, more to the point, of competition. If your neighbor has a clown and a magician, you'll feel pressured to have a clown, a magician and a petting zoo.

Next year that won't be enough, though. Your kid will say, "Billy's party was at a pizza-and-games place and we each got $20 worth of tokens." Fearing that your child will be looked down on, you invite his entire class of 28 kids to a similar extravaganza even if you can't afford it.

"There are some parents who are competitive and they drive this," Doherty says. "Then there are parents who don't want their kids to be left behind."
It's tough to hold the line against this kind of conspicuous consumption. But it can be done.

The Birthdays Without Pressure site offers tips for family birthday rituals, party games and other techniques to help parents celebrate without breaking the bank or compromising their own beliefs.

Reflecting on your family's values is an excellent starting point. For example, if your family is on a budget (or even if it isn't), you might choose an inexpensive, low-key celebration and put the rest of the money you would have spent into a college fund.

Parents who think their kids already have enough toys could insist "no presents, please" and donate to charity any gifts that do show up. Those who want to reduce their environmental impact could opt for a creative party at home without disposable plates and cutlery and party bags stuffed with plastic junk.

There's no law that says kids have to have parties with all their friends, let alone the "party week" -- one celebration with family, one in the classroom and one with invited guests -- that's becoming the norm in some areas.

Some creative alternatives

Here's how a former co-worker handled it for years: A dozen or so of his son's friends would show up at 10 a.m. Richard handed each one a Super Soaker and sent them all to the wooded area on his property. There they could form teams or just run around like crazy beasts, squirting one another at random.

The boys also got got to decide when it was time to eat (caribou hot dogs on the grill), watch Will open his gifts and cut the cake. At 4 p.m. they'd go home, having attended the Best. Party. Ever.

Another friend of mine lives in an affluent area where birthday one-upmanship is fierce. Think "a pair of Ugg boots" (which cost as much as $150 per pair) rather than a goodie bag for each girl at one party. I wish I were making that up.

Meghan doesn't want to buy into the competition, so she gets creative. She received free use of a swim-club room to stage a "Fake Pajama Party" for her daughter's fifth birthday. In the middle of the room she set up a small camping tent and filled it with big teddy bears she got for less than $2 each at a post-Valentine's Day sale.

Each of the pajama-clad girls was allowed to enter the tent and choose a bear to take home. Although Meghan had a list of games planned, the kids seemed more interested in running around, screaming and whacking each other with the teddy bears. She decided to ditch the games and let them run and scream.

"Kids' lives today are so structured and scheduled and categorized. The chance to have no structure for two hours worked really well," she says.

After all, the party is supposed to be about kids. It's not about adults competing to throw the best bash. Have the party that fits your child's needs -- and your budget -- rather than giving in to grownup peer pressure.

Got any tips for fun celebrations that won't break the bank?

More on MSN Money:

Feb 19, 2013 3:54PM
Boys and water guns! nothing more needs to be said. Cheap. Fun. All afternoon entertainment!

 I don't really have anything to add to the article, but I wanted to say that I was glad to see this line:


"Shocked by that kind of entitlement? Remember: We built those children."


Yea, it's time we take responsibilty for some of this nonsense.



Feb 19, 2013 8:54PM
I think it is all about education. I mean what you teach you kids.

I have a son who is 11 years old and had no birthday party at all. The best thing he can get at birthday is a gift and a cake, that is all. And we told him why, " we are poor, we need to save money for the future, so let's not waste money".

You might think he would be unhappy especially other kids may have a party. But he is not. He totally understand what is the priority. Although we do not throw any party, we spend 700$/month for his education for his education beyond school, and he likes it.

Feb 20, 2013 2:54PM

Birthday parties can be a lot of fun but unfortunately some of them seem to be focused on the presents. It is all the kid talks about. They have a gift table decorated like a wedding gift table. Growing up, my friends and I would exchange gifts but it wasn't a big deal and we certainly didn't have a dedicated table for it. I've thought about having parties for my kids with giant letters that say "No Presents Please" as many places as possible just to see if I can get other parents to do it. I'm not poor but I have no desire to spend my time or money looking for silly little presents and I certainly don't want my kids getting a bunch of silly presents every year. They have enough toys and we have a hard enough keeping those picked up. Why do I want more? I really don't have a problem with a party even if it is fairly big. To me they turn into as much of an adult social time as a kids party so it is fun BUT PLEASE say, "No presents Please" on the invitation. Don't make me feel obligated to waste my time and money getting your punk kid a gift or I will probably just "forget" the date.

Mar 6, 2013 2:02PM
My son's birthday parties ranged from water fights with balloons or water guns to gaming in the basement when he was older. He would choose what he wanted to do and invite his friends, not everyone in his class. As a teenager, one of his favorite parties was playing a role-playing game in our basement. We bought  a couple of cases of IBC rootbeer and some snacks and told the kids to 'have at it'. The kids loved it. The author is right; it is the parents who have built these entitlement children.
Apr 16, 2013 9:31PM
Here is a new way to arrange a birthday party in the comfort of your own home: Story-based parties. These parties can fit any budget. All the parties have a storyline that ties everything together: the activities, the crafts and the decorations and snacks. There are several themes to choose from. Go to: and make a tale come alive!
Mar 4, 2013 2:33PM
Our local park service has a nature center and you can arrange a "demonstration" with a high-school-aged volunteer, some of the centers animal residents and a quick guided nature walk, all with a covered park pavillion for less $ than reservations at Chuck E. Cheese.  BTW, even with all that, the kids enjoyed free time with two soccer balls the most.
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Donna Freedman's Frugal Nation blog is for readers who want to live cheaply -- whether due to necessity or a lifestyle choice. It explores living sustainably and making life more meaningful at the same time.


Donna Freedman

Donna Freedman, a writer based in Anchorage, Alaska, writes the Frugal Nation blog for MSN Money. She won regional and national prizes during an 18-year newspaper career and earned a college degree in midlife without taking out student loans. Donna also writes about the frugal life for her own site, Surviving and Thriving.