I grew up in a family not given to extravagance with regard to birthdays. Not that we could have been extravagant if we would have wanted to. With five children close together in age, a dad who'd pursued ministry as a career (and not one of those relatively lucrative evangelical TV ministries, either), and a mother at home with us, money was tight.
As an adult in my 20s, birthday parties meant dinners out at a nice restaurant; perhaps a very nice one, but never more than $100 all told.
And then came parenting. We had a pretty good-sized bash at the zoo for my oldest on his first birthday to the tune of $200 or so. But by the time he was 3 years old and I was the mother of more than one very small child with a full-time job, I didn't have the energy for big birthday parties nor the inclination for something extravagant. I baked cupcakes for everyone. We bought hot dogs from the local hot dog place. This was pretty much the extent of it.
Lately, though, I've been observing friends planning huge bashes, usually for their beloved, only children, or hearing about wedding-style fiestas for quinceaneras. From my years living in the Northeast, I've been exposed to the enormity of coming-of-age parties for bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs. I know friends spend upwards of $1,000 for their children's birthday parties. And those rite-of-passage-style parties can be 10 or 20 times that.
I've come to believe that, while experiences are the things that make us the most happy (if we're determined to spend our money on something), parties are rarely the best way to spend resources. Surely, I have thought, the same joy and celebration could be achieved through less profligate means. I've never been so happy as during an especially hilarious writers' group evening (wine: $20 between seven people; cheese and bread and chocolate: $15; babysitting: $40) or a night out with a friend at a play (tickets: $40; snacks afterward: $20) or reading (free!). But there must be some guidelines for when it's OK to spent the big bucks for a party, right?
Well, maybe. Here are my rules:
1. Party when it's an important part of your culture.
Quinceaneras and bar/bat mitzvahs are both cultural festivals that celebrate not just the child's progress from childhood to adulthood but also connect them to the community at large. They are markers of identity and self-assurance. They are meant to give young adults confidence in themselves and show them how their family and community embraces them as they transition from the family of origin to the world at large.
2. Party when you or your child/family member has reached an important milestone.
Not Jewish or a part of a Hispanic community? Perhaps you have managed to make all those goals you set for yourself when turning 40. Maybe your teenager has wowed your family and his high school with grades and community service, and you want to throw a graduation party to remember. Or maybe your partner has sacrificed herself to a service-oriented job for decades, and you want to mark her retirement in a huge way. (Or maybe it's a boring corporate job, and you honor her for her stick-to-it-iveness. I'll drink to that!)
There are so many times in our lives when we or our family members have shown an exemplary spirit or accomplishment that make them worthy of celebration. By all means, throw a party! But…
3. Party when you can do so without incurring debt.
I was all for the quinceaneras celebrated on the NPR show I was listening to until I heard, “$6,000 on credit cards.” (The whole party was $15,000.) One of my biggest regrets as an adult is financing my wedding through debt. In retrospect, I would have been happy with a DIY wedding worth one-eighth of that cost, if only I'd had the right perspective. Yes to the party. No to the credit cards.
If you're celebrating a cultural event or an important milestone, chances are you've had plenty of time to think about this. Save what you can and make that your party budget. If your friends and family are celebrating with a spirit of love and generosity, they'll understand if you can't throw a $100-per-plate party for 200 at the art museum. (And if they can't, who wants 'em?)
4. Party for the celebrant alone.
My husband worked for many years for a leading local caterer and would come home with tales of parties that blew my mind. So often it would seem that the party was not so much for the person being celebrated as for the throwers of the party, and I think this is most often true of some parents. You don't need to blow anyone's mind. You just need to have a good time and show someone you love them. Throw a party with a spirit of personal humility. Don't hire two bands, or the top-of-the-market caterer, or the ballrooms usually reserved for society weddings. You can manage to demonstrate the importance of the event to the celebrant without also showing how you're the richest, spendiest, most tasteful parent or spouse or sibling ever to grace the streets of your community. Be humble. Make this about the person being celebrated, not about yourself, and you'll find the spending can be a lot easier to keep under control.
5. Party with people who want to party.
I look at my wedding photos and wish I could do it all over again. Lots of the people there are no longer in my life, and it's through no fault of theirs. They were colleagues of myself or my husband, or distant family we felt obligated to invite. Better a small party with people whose photos you will still look at fondly in years to come than a big party whose debts you will still be cursing in years to come.
Similarly, I am often bowled over with both gratitude and exhaustion with the way parents in my children's classes invite every single child to birthday parties. I admire their spirit of generosity but find it hard to attend as many as we are invited to in busy birthday months. Birthday parties for 5-, 6- and 7-year-olds can be terrific, but they take an enormous amount of energy. They can be more fun for parents and children alike if they're kept cozy.
6. Party for a cause?
This isn't for everyone, but I think it's a great (and almost subversive, but still admirable!) idea. One of my friends turned 40 during a period of unemployment. Determined to celebrate anyway, she organized a charitable bash for a local non-profit in honor of her birthday, selling tickets to cover food and drinks and negotiating a donated venue. It was fun, it didn't strain her non-existent budget, and she also made a big donation that day. Win-win-win!
7. Party low-key.
We've all heard of “bride-zillas.” If not, they're the women who become monsters while planning their weddings. I can see how I could so easily become a mom-zilla for my children's parties, in a parallel universe in which I kept at the six-figure job. The bigger the budget, the easier to let the party take you over and become a thing of such enormous expectations that it stops being fun. I'm hoping to plan a 40th birthday celebration for my husband this spring, and I'm hoping to make it a potluck, asking friends to bring dishes that remind them of him. I hope it will keep me from becoming an anxious wreck, show him his friends and family care about him, and keep to my budget. Maybe I won't be able to add the decorations to Pinterest afterwards, but I'll get over it.