Cut the cost of children’s birthday parties and get your life back

Parents are coming up with ingenious methods of escaping the tyranny and expense of the behemoth birthday party

Group birthday parties can cut down on presents and reduce the environmental impact of buying plastic toys that are discarded soon afterwards. Photograph: Thinkstock

Group birthday parties can cut down on presents and reduce the environmental impact of buying plastic toys that are discarded soon afterwards. Photograph: Thinkstock

 

How many birthday presents are you buying for your children’s friends? How much do you spend on parties where every last child in the class has to be invited? And how many hours of your precious weekends are spent dropping them back and forth to that very special eighth birthday celebration?

Children deserve a bit of fuss on their birthdays, and adults naturally want to provide it. But the weekend birthday party routine can be wearying.

Some parents at Holly Park, a national school in south Dublin, have developed a simple solution. Every month, they send out an email with a list of the boys who have birthdays, and the parents of those children get together to hold one big party.

Barbara Moran, one of the mothers in the initiative, has a son in senior infants. “There could be four or five birthdays in the same month. Those parents get together and pool the costs of a party. We’d often have it in a place like Fun Fitness, which might cost around €10 a head. If every child in the class was to be invited, that could come to at least €300. A lot of parents just couldn’t afford that, which would mean restricted numbers and leaving some people in the class out. When the costs are split between five, it’s only around €60 each, and everyone can go.”

Parents taking part feel it eliminates the pressure of buying birthday presents for children all year round. “Instead of the kids getting 30 presents they don’t need, and being totally spoiled, they go home with around five each. It’s more than enough, it reduces clutter at home, stops the sometimes frenzied and relentless consumer focus on accumulating stuff which is usually disregarded shortly afterwards, and reduces the environmental impact of buying plastic toys.”

And, she says with a slightly guilty smile: “You get your life back. You’re not spending your entire weekend ferrying the children back and forth to different parties. If you’re bringing your child to one of his classmate’s birthday parties, the other parents don’t expect you to stay; if it is your child’s birthday, you and the other parents take responsibility for those children for a few hours. It’s a good trade-off. ”

 

Social lives

Prof Alison Clarke, a lecturer in social anthropology at the University of Vienna, wrote in 2007 that children’s birthday parties form an integral part of the social lives of parents, particularly mothers, who tend to do most of the gift shopping.

From choosing the “right” present to arranging the perfect party theme, she argued, women face enormous pressure to strike a balance between holding a fun party for their children and ensuring their party is not seen as too lavish by other parents in their social circle.

By 2013, researchers at Monash University in Australia identified a new, more competitive trend: mothers creating a picture-perfect birthday party with homemade iced cakes and handmade costumes and crafts, before posting the fruits of their labour on Facebook or Pinterest.

It’s all leading to anxiety, competition and stress, they concluded. Is Ireland different from Australia, or is the situation broadly similar here?

Heather Kennedy is the entrepreneur behind GoLolly.com, a new website that allows parents to club together and send cash gifts for special occasions, such as a child’s birthday. The money is put into a fund towards one big-ticket present for the child, such as a bike or a computer.

As part of her market research, Kennedy interviewed 165 parents about birthday parties. She found that parents tended to spend about €15 for every gift, unless the hosts explicitly specified an upper limit.

“It’s a social minefield,” says Kennedy. “One mum’s trash is another mum’s treasure. Gifting becomes another task on a mother’s to-do list. It’s not sustainable because, with all the goodwill in the world, many gifts purchased by parents end up in landfill.

“It has become harder, as families grow, for parents to trade up to bigger houses, so there isn’t room for all this stuff that they don’t need. Sometimes people accidentally re-gift the present bought for their child back to the very child who originally gave it.

“One woman we interviewed was mortified, on collecting her little one from a party, to find that the gift she had just given – which was a respectable €15 – was the same gift in each of the goodie bags.”

Kennedy’s solution is raising a few eyebrows, at least in Ireland. “Last year, one child, Polly, wanted a bike for her birthday. But it was too expensive for her mum. What Polly got was lots of well-meaning gifts that ended up as clutter. No bike. This year they joined GoLolly to plan their party, asking friends to contribute a small amount towards the gift she really wants.”

Children have always exerted their spending power through their parents. Now, says Kennedy, these young people, including the so-called “tween” generation of eight- to 12-year-olds, are comfortable buying online from about the age of 10.

Kennedy’s way, children can opt to save their money or to donate their funds to charity. They use GoLolly to send out thank-you notes and a picture of their gift, and there’s a social element where mums can interact with each other.

It’s not for everyone, Kennedy acknowledges, and she expects there will be some resistance among people who feel uncomfortable asking for cash. It seems more suited, perhaps, to the US than Ireland, where discussion of money is more taboo.

One parent who used GoLolly said that, although she found it handy to give through the site, she would find it “too forward” to ask for and receive money through it.

Then again, maybe it does have potential. Another Dublin mother, Lisa Ryan, tells Pricewatch that parents in her child’s class agreed that they would all buy a €5 voucher for a local toy shop for parties.

“Kids get a really decent present instead of rubbish, and the pressure is off parents to spend a fortune,” says Ryan.

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