I’d like to throw a birthday party for my kid without breaking any mutual funds, please (2022)

Because memories are priceless, but parties don’t have to be

Imagine going to an event at a swanky five-star hotel: Mumbai’s Sahara Star. There’s a brilliant blue pool flanked by palm trees in the lobby, and a massive diamond-patterned star across the ceiling. You make your way to a private party, where a lively casino table awaits and waiters mill around with trays of hors d’oeuvres. There’s a photo booth full of props, games tables, and luxe swag bags for each of the 150 guests. It sounds like a wedding reception, but this scene is from a child’s birthday, and 50 of those guests are primary school kids. We’ve come a long way from the ‘90s, when kids birthday parties featured samosas and the ubiquitous black forest cake, and the chief entertainment was musical chairs.

Just ask Mumbai-based dad Raj Kanwalkar*, who wanted to celebrate his daughter’s second birthday with an intimate guestlist of 50. “For the food, DJ, decor and venue, the banquet hall gave me a cost of Rs 6 lakh,” he recalls. Kanwalkar decided to treat close friends and immediate family to a five-star buffet instead, realising that his daughter was “too small to remember the celebrations”. Luckily, Raj says, “she actually enjoyed the intimate party more.” The thought of spending the equivalent of a car payment on a single birthday party — especially for kids who are too young to appreciate or even remember the big event — keeps many parents up at night.

Parenting costs are already inflationary, as school fees balloon and — particularly in the wake of the covid pandemic — expensive electronics are essential even for toddlers. Add to that the hundreds of tuition classes and extracurricular lessons required to create a well-rounded child and it’s a wonder that there’s anything left over for a birthday cake, let alone a banquet hall.

For some parents, these big bashes are just barely affordable. In 2015, Slate examined the bizarre case of a 5 year old who RSVP-ed to a birthday party at a ski resort, then failed to attend. The party-throwing parents sent the child’s parents an invoice for his no-show ticket. Event planners and bespoke invitations are commonplace in parenting circles these days. Pool parties, foam parties, extreme sports, and exotic themes abound, perpetuating what Reuters refers to as the ‘birthday-industrial complex’.

The resistance to following this extravagant birthday trend isn’t just about money, either. “I do delay gratification because I know my kids need to value everything they get. Even if we can afford whatever they point at, we think, let’s prioritise our expenses,” says Kashish Ramchandani, who has thrown nearly twenty birthday parties between her two kids. Mom of a 6-year-old, Sabah Khan Naik adds, “I feel someone has to draw the line somewhere. The pressure is even more on those parents who don’t believe in spending this way.”

I’d like to throw a birthday party for my kid without breaking any mutual funds, please (1)

But it can be hard for parents to chart their own course. Today, kids’ birthday parties are events, according to Ruchi Mehta, who organises them at Paint Social in Mumbai (here’s a list of ways you can get in touch with your creative side). “Big One, Two Wonderful, Amazing Three… that’s what they’re called now.” Mehta, also a mom to two daughters aged 4 and 1, often hosts paint parties for 40 kids at once, and sends them home with goodie bags that resemble suitcases.

“The kids are so exposed to splashy parties that they start to demand them,” laments Naheed Handa, mother to a 6-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter. Samantha Bhalla*, who has an 8-year-old boy and 3-year-old girl, agrees. “It cuts across schools and social strata. They think this is what celebration looks like. And they’re unable to dissociate from that because they’re so young. Kids are wired to remember what’s larger than life.”

Parents, too, are facing their own form of peer pressure to provide their kids with the same experience that everyone around them is getting. No one wants their child to feel left out or less than. Nor do they want to look like cheapskates who send their children to fancy parties but refuse to throw their own as reciprocity. “You feel like you have to match up to what another parent has given you,” explains Bhalla.

It doesn’t get much better as the kids get older, according to Jocelyn Ribeiro*. Her 16-year-old daughter wanted to host a birthday dinner at a pricey Italian restaurant — no parents were allowed, just their credit cards to pick up the tab. “It would turn out to be at least five thousand per kid… we can’t say no because she has attended the other girls’ parties,” Ribeiro says.

To ease that pressure, we called on parents and experts to offer ideas for kids’ birthday parties that would allow for a fun new experience without creating a little monster, or going broke, in the process.

Tips for throwing kids’ birthday parties without throwing in the towel

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Focus on the child, not the adults

Both Handa and Ramchandani agree that these fancy parties are more for the adults than the kids. “The parents want to show theirs is better than the previous party. The kids don’t understand. It’s a normal play date for them,” says Handa. Ramchandani points out, “When it’s for the parents, the essence of the birthday party gets diluted. How is the birthday boy or girl going to have a good time?”

Mehta recommends child-specific parties to ensure your kid has a birthday they love without spending extravagant amounts of money. If they like Peppa Pig, unicorns, or dinosaurs, it’s better to keep your party theme around their interests rather than following the latest trend. If your child is a toddler, follow in Kanwalkar’s footsteps and organise a memorable but intimate dinner at a hotel. This way, you won’t be stuck in the kitchen for the entire duration of the party, and cleaning up after.

Get creative with DIY

When you get your kids involved with DIY, it can be fun and cost-effective, too. Naik suggests providing printouts for kids to colour, then using them as funky background. Kids won’t notice or care that your homemade craft paper decorations aren’t perfect.

Here are some simple DIY decorating projects, like pretty crepe paper flowers, origami cutouts, pennant banners, and balloon displays.

Little fingers can always help stuff gift bags, which can be inexpensive to prepare at home with a few essentials. Buy colourful paper bags and fill them with on-theme stickers, candy, bubble blowers, and Playdoh or homemade slime.

Not only would the birthday boy or girl be kept busy in the run-up to the party, you’ll also gives them a sense of ownership over it.

Bhalla says, “We do paint parties where I just buy a tonne of chart paper, and groups of kids are given paint and brushes. The food is all home-cooked.” For a useful and unusual return gift, kids can take their own art home, along with a small package of paints and art paper.

Ramchandani once put together a scavenger hunt in her building premises. “The event planner was so pricey, I did it myself. I can cook so I made the food myself. The only thing I spent on was the cake and the decorator, as it was a Harry Potter-themed birthday.”

She put together two different sets of clues for the two teams, so they wouldn’t overlap in their searches. Apart from writing and stashing the clues, all you need is a few themed gifts at the end for the winning team, and the consolation prizes. You could hide individual pieces of a puzzle or object for kids to put together, or use easy-to-find objects as clues. For example, a jungle gym could function as a portal to the Basilisk’s dungeon, or an old necklace with a green marble could be Doctor Strange’s amulet. Let your imagination run as wild as your kids.

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Prioritise your budget — and get your kids to help

When Chandni Tandon’s husband was keen to throw a lavish party with a 100 guests for their twins who were born during the Delta wave, she convinced him to rethink the expense. “What we’re doing instead is: donating food to an orphanage and sponsoring the education of two children. Whatever we have left over from the party budget, we’ll invest for our kids.”

Tweak reader Munira Mithani suggests luring the kids on a family vacation, and Tandon also doesn’t mind spending on a holiday, or something that offers a more lasting experience than a party. Ramchandani’s strategy is to let your kids prioritise. “Always a month before their birthdays, I ask them, ‘Do you want a holiday or do you want to celebrate with your friends?’ And every year, they want to bring it in with their friends.”

Jonquil Sudhir also leaves it to her child. “Before his eighth birthday, I told my son it was time for him to distinguish between friends and acquaintances. From 35 kids, the guest list went down to six.” What a way to combine savings for parents with a life lesson for kids.

Make the most of public spaces

If you’re lucky enough to have a playground in your building, or even a garden, there’s no need to book a banquet hall. With a few shaded awnings and snack tables, the kids will have a lot more fun running around than they would in a five-star. For instance, Handa threw her daughter’s third birthday on a small patch of Juhu beach, renting out a Ferris wheel ride and asking parents to come equipped with shovels and buckets. The kids had a blast making sandcastles.

Last year, Bhalla booked a double-decker BEST bus that just drove around Mumbai. “It was significantly less expensive than a regular play area. We did it because a lot of children don’t experience bus travel anymore. We got healthy food from home. It turned out to be a lot more sustainable and fun for the kids than something indoors.”

Football or sports turfs are another popular option for older kids. In 2017, a Mumbai couple brought in their son’s 10th birthday with a cycling expedition in Sanjay Gandhi National Park. They wanted to have a unique party without any screens or gadgets, so they rented out 40 cycles for the parents, who brought their kids’ cycling equipment along. They cut a cake outside after their ride. It was an inexpensive and enjoyable day out for the adults and the kids.

For outdoor parties, ensure you have a hearty picnic of kid-friendly foods that travel well — think sandwiches, pasta, cocktail sausages, packaged snacks, and fruit. Remember to stock up on water, as well as first-aid essentials and outdoor mats.

Manage your child’s expectations

Bhalla says, “As a parent, I try to talk about mindful consumption. I won’t ask for a sustainable gift as it’s a lot of pressure on the other parent as well, but I try and stay true to giving the kind of gifts I’d like my child to receive.” She started teaching her son about sustainability budgeting early, even for his personal expenditure. “We pick up stuff that’s gently used. We talk about how anything that we purchase has an environmental impact. He always has the option to contribute from his allowance if he wants to buy something more for a friend.”

For their own birthdays, Mehta recommends spacing out the opening of gifts so the kids don’t get overwhelmed. “You can get them to unwrap a gift every day, or every ten or 15 days,” she says. It extends the anticipation and joy of their birthday, and prevents them from getting bored of the expensive presents quickly.

Manjari Sharma’s approach when her kids were clamouring for an expensive birthday blowout was to give in, but only once. “We told them that you can have one big party where we do everything you want, but don’t expect the same every year.”

Remind yourself that real life doesn’t come with Instagram filters

It isn’t just celebrities posting over-the-top kids’ birthday parties that look more like a Cirque De Soleil set. Even the Whatsapp moms from your kids’ school hire expensive party planners and buy mommy and me outfits for the ‘gram.

Ribeiro’s daughter was a big fan of Logan Paul, so she was forced to search for Maverick merchandise for her birthday. “Then there was a Polaroid camera on the list. We Google extensively to appear all caught up… when in fact, I think we are dying a little on the inside.” You can try to keep up with your kid, until your kid wants you to keep up with the Kardashians.

Like with anything we see on social media, it’s important to for kids and parents to know that these aren’t realistic or reflective of what goes on behind the scenes (here’s how social media influences our brains). Remind your kid that a pair of pricey sneakers is not going to make or break their social status, and set the same example yourself.

That Insta-mom’s flawless floral maxi eventually had ThumsUp spilled on it, and her daughter ended the day in tears because she missed her nap. In short, exactly what would have happened if she’d bought her decorations from the local party store and worn an old pair of jeans.

*Names changed for privacy

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