Psychological Schemas & Spending: Children’s Birthday Parties

When our first daughter was very young–not quite two years old–we attended our first-ever birthday party for a three-year-old. (I recently talked about this experience on the Afford Anything podcast with Paula Pant). We went as a family of three. It was 2:00 in the afternoon on a Saturday. We arrived and were somewhat taken aback by the scene: was this a wedding reception? Considering the evidence of the multitude of adults milling around the yard, the free-flowing beer and wine, and the full buffet of tenderloin and fancy appetizers, it would have been a reasonable conclusion. But then the bounce houses and “game stations” indicated otherwise. I’m reconstructing a memory here, which is of course dangerous, but I suspect that there were at least 100 people at the party at any given time; a good bit more than that over the three-hour event.

This first experience with a toddler’s birthday party created a schema for me, essentially a model of how this sort of event  “works” and the mental checklist that would be necessary to complete in order to create the “right” sort of experience. Subconsciously I internalized the idea–to quote Seth Godin–”people like us do things like this.”

Aside from rank speculation, I didn’t know anything about the financial situation of the party hosts, so I don’t know how spending on an event of this type fit in with the personal financial plan. Or even whether they had a plan. Therefore it is entirely possible that the host family could afford extravagant parties for their children and still be able to save for retirement, college, and any other meaningful financial goals they may have set. Or maybe they made a calculated decision that the benefits of the celebration outweighed the cost of working longer in order to fuel this type of consumption. Or maybe (maybe even most likely) they didn’t think about any of these things and just wanted to have a party.

When it came time for my oldest to have her own three-year old birthday party, I unwittingly relied on this schema in planning our own celebration, albeit in a somewhat more budget-friendly manner. We passed on the bounce houses, open bar, and tenderloin buffet, but did host an excessively large crew of adults (and kids). It is only now, with the benefit of a marginal amount of increased wisdom that can only come with time and age, that I can clearly see how much my first experience had influenced my own party-planning behavior.

The point of this piece is for us to consider not the impact of such a party on our hosts, but instead the impact of this type of experience on us, the guests. Let’s be clear: there isn’t anything wrong with celebrations, parties, and entertaining per se. The learning exercise is to consider how we take this new experience and incorporate it into our own lives: in other words, unknowingly assuming this is the model we need to apply to how we live life. If we take this schema for what a child’s birthday party should be, and apply it to our own lifestyle, even if the cost of that party is not aligned with our own financial goals.

Of course, in addition to using our past experiences to influence our future behavior, the concept of social indifference is at play here as well. If you are able to ignore the consumption trends around you, perhaps you’d be more likely to question what you saw and experienced before forming such a model of entertaining. This can become even more difficult when it comes to spending for our children: many of us may be frugal for ourselves but would do (spend) almost anything when it comes to our kids.

The psychological schemas we use everyday come from somewhere–maybe even experiences that you do not realize until they are well into the rearview mirror. In this respect the concept mindfulness can be helpful; consider spending some amount of time evaluating where we came up with our own concepts of “appropriate” experiences for our children, including appropriate levels of consumption. What’s your “model” of how much to spend on back-to-school clothing for your children? How did you come up with your idea of what is the “right” amount of spending money you give your 13-year-old when she asks for cash for the movies? Are you assuming your children have to have the same experiences you did while growing up? The same experience that her peer group will have today? Maybe it’s time to review our schemata of what childhood should look like.

The social influence of “people like us do things like this” concepts don’t end after preschool. They only grow more frequent–and more expensive. Recently one of my neighbors with a child in high school informed me of a new trend: ”prom picture parties” where parents rent locations and hire professional photographers to create Instagram-worthy images of their children before the big event. This is the new schema of pre-prom celebrations in our area. Consider yourself warned.

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