My two children are quite the socialites. Every weekend, it seems, they have at least one birthday party to attend. Those parties have created a small but not insignificant dent in our household budget.
Last year, my husband added up our "birthday bills" and we were amazed we'd spent several hundred dollars. So when I opened the invitation from a co-worker for her son's birthday party last month, I got a surprise that warmed my cheap little heart. There was a note with the invitation asking guests to bring a book to exchange instead of a gift.
I was so happy, I wanted to party.
"I looked around at all this stuff that Robbie has in toy boxes, bins and baskets and I decided he needs no more toys," my friend explained. "I really wanted him to know what fun is without expecting toys."
This is a lesson that shouldn't be lost. Many of us are overindulging the kids in our lives and we aren't stopping to think what kind of consumers we're creating.
"I figured the parents of the kids whom I was inviting didn't need the expense and the headache of trying to buy a toy for a 3-year-old who has everything," said my friend. "So I decided then and there that this party would be about creativity."
I'm certainly not calling for a moratorium on giving or receiving gifts at birthday parties. But shouldn't we consider toning down our largess? Kids are getting so much stuff it's hard for them to appreciate what they get.
I can't count the number of times I've been at a birthday party and watched the birthday boy or girl tear open gifts as though they were bags of chips. They sit in the honored position as gift after gift is handed to them with barely a moment in between to really cherish each one. It's "gimme," rip, "gimme," rip, "Can I have the next present, Mom?" Rip. "Is there more?" Rip. "Can I go play now?"
Then all the presents get piled on a table to be toted away and dumped in the kid's room.
"When it comes to birthday parties, parents have been known to get more carried away than their kids, turning what should be fun into an exercise in one-upmanship," writes Janet Bodnar, the author of a new book, "Dollars & Sense for Kids: What They Need to Know About Money--and How to Tell Them."
"If you start early on this treadmill you will get stuck on it," said Bodnar, a senior editor at Kiplinger's Personal Finance Magazine. "Kids take their cues from you. If you give them too much stuff now, they'll expect a lot of stuff as adults."
In her book, Bodnar jokingly recommends that we form a group called Birthdays Anonymous to support parents who want to control the "gimmies." Sign me up.
Bodnar recommends that as part of our 12-step process we first avoid getting hooked. Invite fewer children to your kid's party. One rule of thumb is to invite the number of children equal to your child's age, with one more to grow on. She also endorses the idea of coming up with a creative way to celebrate. Once, I invited a small group of my daughter's friends to a free neighborhood Easter egg hunt in lieu of a big party. Then we just had cake and ice cream afterward. It was a cheap party, and the little tykes didn't trash my house.
Finally, consider occasionally forgoing gift-giving. Do as my friend did. It's okay to break the routine by coming up with alternatives to presents, such as having the kids swap old toys. If you don't want to do that, then set a price limit for gifts. Bodnar recommends no more than $10 for a preschooler, not including batteries.
Now, you might be inclined to say, "It's just a birthday party." But year after year of overindulgence will make it harder to teach your children about moderation later. Already we have an epidemic of overspending among adults. Perhaps this is how it starts.
"I think birthday parties are all part of teaching children about the value of money. Teaching them restraint in this area will kick over in other areas as well," Bodnar said.
Here's a test Bodnar believes might help you determine if want a membership to Birthdays Anonymous. Does your kid, in the middle of opening gifts, get bored? Are you running out of places to hide all the gifts before the party? Does your kid resemble a shark in a feeding frenzy in his or her zeal to open all their gifts? If you answer yes to any of these questions, join the club. Let's stop overdoing it before our children party us out of house and home.
While Michelle Singletary welcomes comments and column ideas, she cannot offer specific personal financial advice. To discuss today's column online, join her tomorrow at 1 p.m. at www.washingtonpost.com. She also will be discussing this column Wednesday at 6:40 p.m. on the "Insight" program with Herman Washington on WHUR (96.3-FM). Her e-mail address is singletarym@ washpost.com. Readers can write to her at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.