Of my children's many birthday celebrations, from house parties to celebrations at party venues and attractions, the one that truly stands out is my son's third birthday.
If not for pictures, most of the others would be vague recollections or even completely forgotten moments.
But not that third birthday. Who could forget shelling out $450 on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle costumed characters (plus turtle-themed paper goods, accessories, cake and piñata), only to spend most of the party coaxing the birthday boy out from under the table because he was so overwhelmed? Ah, the memories.
I wouldn't trade them though. During the final half hour of that party, my son got piggyback rides, learned to wield a sword and danced with his larger-than-life heroes. My mom and friends thought I was nuts, but I thought the expression on my little boy's face was worth every cent and still do.
To Each His Own Every parent is entitled to his or her opinion regarding what's important when planning a party for a son or daughter. The child's interest is paramount, of course. But, the truth is, kids can be happy doing just about anything, if you present it right. Mom and Dad are a different story.
"Parents should focus on their own preferences, time allotment and budget, as well as their child's interests when planning a party," said party-planning expert Lisa Kothari. author of "Dear Peppers and Pollywogs, What Parents Want to Know About Planning Their Kids' Parties." Before even involving kids in the planning process, she recommends determining what you can realistically tolerate and afford.
For example, if you're not into entertaining, will you really be happy with 30 kids and a crowd of parents roaming around your home? If you work a bazillion hours a week, do you have time to find entertainment, cook and buy goodie bag items? If you cut back on the number of guests, will your child be upset? If the budget is tight, will you regret that over-the-top extravaganza at the end of the month? Is your child dying for his own bounce house and won't think it's a party without one? Once you've answered your own set of questions, explain to your child what he or she can and cannot expect. "It's a parent's job to get their child psyched for the party they are going to have," Kothari said.
Plan at least eight weeks ahead, make a budget and choose the things you want to spend on.
Downsize the Rest Birthday parties are about making your child's special day special. Party City's Judy Klein has been in the party and event planning business most of her life and assures parents that a great party can be had at any budget level. "Focus on a few significant things rather than trying to incorporate every single element," she said.
Decide where your hard-earned dollar is best spent and where you can cut corners. What's important for some won't be important for others.
"I tend to spend money on special things that the kids will remember, like entertainment and goodie bags," said Davie mom Kristen Dever, whose children are 2, 7 and 9 years old. By not putting a lot into the cake or decorations, Dever was able to hire a train for one party, and she gave beach towels as take-home gifts at a pool party and Build-A-Bears at another.
For Miramar mom Patricia Cantore, careful budgeting is a necessity, because her children, ages 3 and 7, have birthdays just one day apart. "I have to cut some expenses since it means two parties," she said.
Her must-haves include a good venue and good entertainment. Cantore does the cooking because it's healthier and less expensive. "I used to bake the cake, but the cost is almost the same, so I save my work with that," she said.
"Keeping the kids entertained and happy" is a priority for Kristen Kelley. The Wellington mom doesn't think decorations are important to her 3-year-old. "Kids her age don't notice that," Kelley said. "But maybe when she gets older it will move up on the list."
Keeping Up With the Joneses Klein urges parents not to think in terms of bigger and better, but to focus on fun. "Don't worry about who did what at their child's party," she said, cautioning that going beyond your means is a recipe for disaster.
Kothari agrees that parents cause themselves even more stress when they get caught up in peer pressure situations. "We see all these other kids' parties and want to give our child the same," she said.
As natural as it is to feel that way, the economy alone is good reason to carefully weigh where and how to spend your money.
You don't have to cut corners everywhere. Said Erin Miller of Vero Beach, "There definitely are some places I cut back and some I feel I can't."
For her daughter's fifth birthday, Miller splurged on an elaborate tropical-themed cake made by the same company that made her wedding cake. The party was at a city pool and required minimal decorations. Miller served pizza. To this day, her friends still talk about the cake.
"I believe that was money well spent," she said. On the other hand, she's held two parties at McDonald's because it's fun, inexpensive and hassle-free.
Change is Good As your child grows, his interests, priorities and values change, and so will yours.
Inviting the entire class to a party at Chuck E. Cheese's gives way to a smaller group gathering at any number of party or activity-based venues. A cake made with the help of Betty Crocker, an inflatable in the backyard and a hired entertainer may be more appealing than that catered affair you usually have.
The full-house parties with relatives, friends and neighbors transform into sleepovers with five or six close friends. The allocation for costumed characters and entertainers might now be put toward mood-setting, themed decorations, an elaborate cake, fancy food or a special gift.
One Final Thought Although the party is for your child, remember you should enjoy this special day too. Lake Worth resident Cyndi Lower recommends hiring someone or asking a good friend or relative to chaperone the party so you don't have to. Said Lower, a mother of five, "My biggest regret is the number of my children's parties that I missed out on because I was too busy racing about during the party."
Susan Frasca is a freelance writer and frequent contributor. She lives in Coconut Creek.