In simpler times, birthday parties were often held at the celebrant's home and involved playing games in the backyard, colorful balloons, probably pizza or other finger foods, and possibly a themed cake. Now that millennials have grown up and become parents themselves, the pressure to put on a major production for kids' birthdays has reached a fever pitch. From renting out bounce houses to entire venues, the scale and cost of birthday parties are on a whole new level: Recent estimates show the average cost of a kid's birthday party at around $500. But that might skew a bit low, considering a survey by supermarket retailer Asda that found the average parent in the U.K. drops $28,000 on their kid’s birthdays through age 21.
With gasp-worthy numbers like that, it's almost no wonder that recent viral stories have highlighted parents turning to admission fees, invoices, crowdfunding, and other schemes you'd assume would make guests and most etiquette experts cringe. Here's what experts have to say on this sticky subject.
Who should pay for a child's birthday party—the host, the guests, or both?
Evie Granville, M.Ed. and Sarah Davis, Ed.D., parenting etiquette experts who write and podcast about modern manners for moms and dads, say the bottom line of a child's birthday party is the responsibility of the host—full stop.
"Although it's not uncommon for families to choose a party venue or activity that lands the budget in the hundreds, we should never make the mistake of thinking we can ask our guests to help foot the bill," Granville notes. "Asking guests to pay to attend a party is a huge faux pas."
The reason? "When we host a party, we're requesting the honor of someone's attendance," Davis explains. "This social standard definitely has not changed. We're asking people with busy lives to pause to celebrate our child's birthday. And, out of generosity, most parents will show up with a gift in hand. But to ask a bigger financial commitment of them is going too far."
Season Skuro, a mom of two from Calabasas, California, agrees, noting, "Guests who are invited should not be expected to pay anything, other than bringing a birthday gift. Whoever invites is the host, and the host pays for the guests."
The only exception, in her opinion? If the party is being held at a venue where there's an admission fee, and the guest would like to bring a sibling who was not formally invited. "Most of the time, the invitation will say whether siblings are invited or not," Skuro says. "Most parents know that you don't ever just bring a sibling without asking first due to space, or if you need to, you pay your other child's admission, etc. Most of the time, if siblings come, the host has to pay 'per child' or count that child in for food."
Is it acceptable to crowdfund a birthday party?
Setting up a GoFundMe site or donation page on Facebook to fund your L.O.'s celebration is an etiquette no-no. "Crowdfunding a party can work when there's no guest of honor, and no true host, like a Cinco de Mayo party in a college dorm," Granville allows. "But funding for parties like a child's birthday celebration can't be outsourced. There's a clear guest of honor, a clear host, and a clear funding source: the parents."
What about crowdfunding a birthday gift?
Multiple guests might go in on a big gift (like a new bike) collectively. After all, that's something that has been done for generations—well before sites like GoFundMe existed.
"This type of 'crowdsourcing for gifts' is fine, as long as the host doesn't organize it herself," says Davis. "A host asking guests to pitch in for one big present, or asking for cash toward a big gift or trip, can come off as greedy and self-centered, and can even deter guests from attending the party. If they're unable to or choose not to participate in the group gift as directed on the invitation, they may feel their presence isn't warranted at the event. On the other hand, if guests choose to come up with their own group gift, that's completely acceptable, as long as everyone signs the card."
The Bottom Line
As far as etiquette experts are concerned, the cost of a birthday party falls to whoever is hosting that party, which, in most cases, is the child's parent. "If the parents are choosing to throw a kid’s birthday party, then they should pay for it," Holden concludes. "It would not be fair to throw an extravagant party and expect guests to pay. Some may not want to pay or may not be able to pay and therefore they just won’t attend the party at all." And when it comes to throwing a successful celebration, it's more about the memories you'll make with the people who were there than fancy bells and whistles anyway.