Upping the birthday party ante

ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

Kiddy bashes are getting more elaborate but youngsters could be just as happy with a simple cake-and-games affair

My children attended a very special birthday party last month. Held in an HDB flat, it featured a cake, several home-cooked dishes, some games and 14 thrilled kids.

Did I say special? Yes, because of the nearly 20 birthday bashes that my two kids have been invited to since they started school, this had to be the most homely, DIY affair.

No fancy venue, no bouncy castle, no catered food, no magician. The hosts, my brother-in-law and his wife V, even made the pinata themselves.

No frills doesn't mean no fun, though. My two kids happily recapped the highlights on the way home, just as they usually do after other parties.

Impressed, I told V: "This is the kind of birthday parties we used to have as kids."

It is, I suspect, not the kids who expect posh parties, but parents who think they owe it to their children to throw them one. And after witnessing the simple yet successful party hosted by my brother-in-law, I believe nothing has really changed since my childhood when it comes to keeping young birthday boys and girls happy.

And the kind that is clearly dying out.

I'm not sure when a simple cake-and-games party at home fell out of favour, but the effort that goes into planning a kid's birthday party these days can rival that for a wedding.

It is the result of what Cornell University economics professor Robert Frank calls an "expenditure cascade".

This is when people at the top of the income pile spend more on an item, causing everyone else to upgrade their expectations and expenditures, says American online magazine Slate in a January essay on what it termed the birthday-party blitz.

In May, The Telegraph reported that the average cost of throwing birthday parties for children in Britain until the age of 21 is £19,425 (S$41,500) - more than that of a luxury car or chartering a private jet, it noted.

Nearly half of the 2,000 parents polled said they fork out up to £500 on their child's birthday each year, and 15 per cent of them admitted to feeling pressured to spend more than they can afford.

I have not come across a similar survey in Singapore, but I reckon that the results would not be too far off.

The invitations for us started streaming in last year when my son entered Primary 1, and nearly all were to commercial venues that offered birthday packages.

So far, my son has tried laser tag, played miniature golf, made pizza and run riot many times at well-equipped indoor playgrounds.

He had to miss a bowling party and a soccer one, but he has caught his fair share of gigs by professional clowns, entertainers and balloon artists.

I didn't know how much these things cost until he asked for a party to mark his turning eight in June.

My husband and I agreed because we had celebrated his birthdays so far without fanfare at home, with just his cousins and grandparents.

Besides, he had grown close to many of his classmates after two years and the boys were likely to be assigned to different classes next year. It would be nice to give them a reason to hang out and part with fond memories, I told my husband.

My son's first choice was for a laser tag party. Boys, non-lethal weapons and lots of running around - it sounded like good, harmless fun to me.

But I blanched at the cost - up to $40 per head for a weekend slot. With a guest list of 15, I was looking at a bill of $600, and that was before factoring in the cost of a cake, goodie bags as well as food and drinks.

I checked other options but grew increasingly disheartened. Most cost upwards of $600, excluding the same party staples. Rental of an indoor playground, a popular option, started from about $1,000.

Over at a city branch of a trampoline park, renting the facility for two hours on weekends cost more than $2,000.

We cannot, in all good conscience, blow this kind of money on a party, my husband said. I agreed. So we explained to our son how most of these venues were too expensive and suggested holding it at our place instead.

You can have fun without spending a bomb, we added.

"Can I invite more friends then?" he asked.

Yes, that could be arranged, and we had a deal. He seemed to have grasped that it is the company that truly makes a party, and we were happy for the chance to confirm his belief.

I booked the function room at our condominium the next day and began planning our first large-scale party.

I printed the invitation cards on our home printer using a free template from a website recommended by a friend.

Then we trawled the Web for fun ideas on fuss-free party games and bought the required materials from Daiso. An artistic friend made a lovely birthday sign that we could use as decor and produced the props for a makeshift Polaroid photo booth.

I wish I could say we whipped up a sumptuous spread to feed the 25 kids and 20 adults but, alas, my DIY talent couldn't stretch that far.

We ended up paying about $600 for a catered lunch and $90 for a 2kg cake. Perhaps in a subconscious effort to make up for the lack of frills, I spent another $200 on toys, snacks and stationery that made up the goodie bags and game prizes. This pushed the total beyond what we had planned for.

But looking at my son's flushed, beaming face afterwards, I couldn't say the money had been wasted.

This is why many parents splurge on parties year after year, I realised. Not so much to keep up with the Joneses, but to give their kids a good time and great memories.

And I could now appreciate why time-poor folk would rather pay more to farm out the job.

Over an informal post-mortem that night, my husband and I summed up the ways we could have saved ourselves much money and hassle.

We should have ordered half the amount of food and cut down the number of games.

Better still, we should have fed the kids and just let them loose at the playground, which was what a few of them had pleaded for midway through the games.

It is, I suspect, not the kids who expect posh parties, but parents who think they owe it to their children to throw them one.

And after witnessing the simple yet successful party hosted by my brother-in-law, I believe nothing has really changed since my childhood when it comes to keeping young birthday boys and girls happy.

All they need are some cake, nibbles and a place in which to run around with their friends, never mind if it's a cookie-cutter playground in an HDB estate or one with all the bells and whistles in an upscale shopping mall.

Maybe, just maybe, we could attempt to throw another DIY party next year at half the cost.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 03, 2015, with the headline 'Upping the birthday party ante'. Print Edition | Subscribe