Lavish Kids' Parties Get Trimmed in Bad Economy

Parents still willing to spend big on kid's bashes, just not quite so much.

February 3, 2009, 4:09 PM

Feb. 4, 2009 — -- In the battered economy, some of the most extravagant moms are cutting back on their usually over-the-top kids' birthday parties, though not in the ways one might think.

As Americans look to cut corners in whatever ways they can, many parents are figuring out ways to take costs out of the party, while still managing to keep the lavish in.

Mom Amy Oztan says that no matter how bad the economy gets, a birthday party for her two kids will still remain a priority.

"Even if my husband lost his job, we would still find a way to have a few friends over and have some fun," said Oztan, who is a writer for the New York City Mom's Blog.

"No matter what's going on in the economy, I don't want my children to think that they can't have something as basic as a birthday party," she said.

But "basic" isn't usually the word used to describe some children's birthday parties, which party planners say have only become more outrageous, more creative and, of course, more expensive over the years.

Linda Kaye, a New York-based party planner for over 25 years, said that lately she's seen parents -- who had typically not batted an eyelash at $1,500 price tags for their kindergartener's party -- less willing to "go all out" on their tot's celebrations.

"The last place people want to save money is when it comes to their children," said Kaye. "But now they are just more sensitive to how they're spending it."

"Before [the economic crisis] they'd say, 'Johnny wants Barney at the party, I don't care how much it costs,' and now they're settling for Barney on their child's birthday cake instead," she said.

Is Nothing Recession-Proof?

Kaye, who has helped organize parties that included a three-ring circus with elephant rides, as well as one that boasted an authentic native American teepee as the main attraction, said more parents are coming to her, asking for ways to cut party costs while still remaining competitive with other parents' soirees.

"I'm sensing a big change," said Kaye. "People are uncertain, they're extremely meticulous when it comes to going through any of the items they have to spend money on for a party.

"There is a concern about the whole cost," she added. "People who would usually ask us to plan the whole party want to do more of it themselves."

Jessica Gottlieb, a mother of two from Los Angeles who contributes to the Silicon Valley Mom's Blog, said she's shown up at birthday parties and been "aghast" at what she's seen.

"For one 2-year-old's party, the parents brought in an entire theme park," Gottlieb recalls. "They did pony rides and a little roller coaster and a carousel. And it was catered.

"It must have cost more than my wedding," she said.

And while Gottlieb said she tries to tone it down for her own kids' parties -- her most recent one involved a simple flag-football game as the main attraction -- she's been known to make custom t-shirts for party guests and has even hired a private lifeguard for her son's summer pool parties.

Finding ways to cut costs is something Oztan said she'll be faced with more than ever, come this year's round of birthdays, which start for her in May.

"In past years we've gotten a giant red velvet sheet cake, which cost more than $100," said Oztan, who has been to parties thrown by her children's friends that have included pony rides, clowns, a petting zoo and face painters. "This year I'll bake my own cake."

Oztan's expensive goody bags will also be replaced with more cost-efficient giveaways.

"In past years we've given a favor -- a bag filled with crap, a lunch box, or something else -- worth about $10 to each kid," said Oztan. "This year we'll be spending much less per child on favors."

The days when Oztan arrived at birthday parties with her kids to find pony rides, clowns and face painters available may be gone, she said.

Corinne Dinsfriend, the vice president and owner of party planning company Over the Top Productions in Southern California, said she's also seen business decline in recent months.

"With the economy not booming, parents are thinking outside the box more when it comes to parties," said Dinsfriend.

But the way parents are downsizing is not in the decor or the catered food, said Dinsfriend, but rather, in whom they invite to their parties. This may mean a decrease in the number of people making the guest list cut -- even if the parties themselves are still as lavish as ever.

"The change I have seen would be that the parties are smaller in numbers," she said. "The guest list isn't as big and it's a much more intimate setting."

Parties Mean Parents, Too, Raise Expenses

For those parents who aren't willing to part with their kids' parties, despite their dwindling bank accounts, they must also now be willing to pay for the parents who accompany their kids to various parties.

"Parents are the biggest difference I've seen between parties now and when I was a kid," said Oztan, 36. "When I was a kid, the parents never stayed for the party; now, if it's a drop-off party, it will be so rare that it will be specified on the invitation.

Oztan says she isn't sure whether parents stay at parties now because they're more overprotective these days or just because they want to enjoy the festivities themselves. But either way, Oztan says it adds an expense to an already costly event.

"Not only does having parents at the party add to the stress, but it makes them much more expensive," said Oztan. "If I invited kids over, I can feed them for 20 bucks, I'll get a pizza and cake and be done.

"But if there are parents there, there's more pressure -- we'll get bagels and lox and a fruit plate and a bigger cake," she said. "It all adds up pretty fast."

Not to mention the price of liquor -- a much-anticipated staple of children's parties.

"I've never seen as much drinking as I do at children's birthday parties," said Oztan.

"I'm talking about mojitos at 10 a.m. in the park."

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