Suburban consumption challenge: Kid birthday parties
Both me and Mrs. JF are the product of public schools, and the idea of spending $15-20k a year for a school to teach our kids basic arithmetic and reading was never an option. But we value education, and thus we sought out the best school district we could find and moved there about eight years ago. A district with highly rated schools has a way of attracting an affluent cohort, and in our case–unfortunately–of even developing a bit of cache. I have heard people boast “Yes, we live in District A, where the schools are just fabulous!” in the same way that they say “why yes, that’s my new 7-series BMW that you saw me driving yesterday!” Some of the people here are bank-rolled by others, some make a lot of money, and some are simply financing consumption with debt (and are therefore trapped in work). This population creates an environment where spending without limits and hyper-consumption is the norm, and you are a deviant if you have a mindset of frugality and anti-wasteful spending.
Whether classified as an asset or a character flaw, I’m mostly devoid of concern for what others think about me. Not so for Mrs. JF, at least in the context of social relations. So we must strike a balance between my preference (freedom) and hers (social respectability). We face this dilemma regularly.
Today’s consumption challenge came in the form of planning a birthday party for our 11-year-old daughter. Time for another personal admission: we have not done as good of a job as I would have liked in preventing a sense of entitlement in our children, and now we’re digging out of that hole. Our kids don’t feel entitled to material things–we’ve done OK there–but they do with respect to experiences and social “norms” like eating out regularly, vacations, and birthday parties. In hindsight we could have done better in conditioning these expectations at an early age.
Birthday parties are a regular and persistent challenge in our community. There is constant peer pressure to both regularly attend the lavish parties hosted by others (and bring lavish gifts to fete the golden child) and to host your own three-ring circus on your child’s “special day.” Our challenge-du-jour was to decide what we wanted to do for our oldest daughter’s 11th birthday. My suggestion to skip the party and just enjoy the day together was vetoed, and I decided not to fight that fight. My next suggestion was to get some pizzas, have a few friends over, make a birthday cake, and roast marshmallows over the backyard fire-pit. In a peer group where people routinely pay to have service providers bring in a petting zoo and ponies for your backyard birthday party, this is a fairly minimalist proposal. I also calculated that it would cost a lot less than the next-best proposal (not by me) of taking 10 kids to dinner followed by an IMAX movie, which I estimated to yield a price tag of more than $300.
By foregoing the lavish event designed to impress the Joneses, and instead focusing on spending quality time with family and friends, we will be affirming our core value of freedom over stuff.
*And note: We will be doing our part to contain the birthday-party arms race by telling our invitees in very clear terms to NOT bring presents. Some will anyway.