(LifeWire) -- Two years ago, Stephanie Kaster of Manhattan set out to plan the birthday party of a lifetime for her daughter. Granted, little Sophie didn't have many parties under her belt with which to compare it: She was not yet 3.
Elisa Strauss' Confetti Cakes created this $1,500 Coach bag-themed cake for a 10-year-old girl's birthday party.
"I just thought, 'If I go to another paint-a-ceramic-bowl or stuff-a-bear party, I'll shoot myself,'" says Kaster.
So she booked a fondue restaurant, hired a musical troupe to perform as the Wiggles (her daughter's favorite group) and ordered a four-layer cake. Each guest took home a Fisher-Price guitar and custom CD.
The price tag? $5,000.
"I couldn't believe that I'd ended up spending that much," Kaster says.
Some birthday parties now rival weddings in scale and price -- with some costing tens of thousands of dollars. Maybe it's the ever-growing number of millionaires; maybe it's the conspicuous consumption celebrated on reality shows like MTV's "My Super Sweet 16." Whatever the reason, it's keeping Corinne Dinsfriend in business.
She owns Over the Top Productions in Orange County, California, a full-service children's birthday-party planning company. "We really promote a healthy balance of living year round," Dinsfriend says, "but it's OK to indulge your child once a year, because it's about making a memory." Tell us about your parties
$1,000 birthday cake
Each Over the Top party has a theme and is run by a team trained in child development, says Dinsfriend. Her events -- from tea parties with fine china to military-themed parties led by former Marines -- usually take six weeks to plan and cost as much as $10,000.
That's small potatoes compared with some celebrations. FAO Schwarz, the New York City toy retailer, rents out its store several nights a week for parties. The base cost is $25,000.
Even more extreme is the $10 million that former defense contractor David H. Brooks of Long Island reportedly spent in 2005 on his daughter's bat mitzvah. That soiree, at the storied Rainbow Room in Rockefeller Center, featured 50 Cent, Don Henley and Aerosmith, among others.
Other trends: lavishly sculpted confections like those by Elisa Strauss, the designer at Confetti Cakes in Manhattan, who charges at least $1,000 per cake. Invitations are custom-made.
And the activities?
"You can get cotton-candy machines, jumping castles, you can rent a gym or movie theater, or have a real astronaut come, do it at Yankee Stadium ... you can do anything," says Lyss Stern of DivalyssciousMoms.com. She recently organized a fair where 40 high-end birthday-party purveyors pitched their services to parents at the private Park East Day School in New York City.
Some parents, however, worry that expensive parties for children result in mixed-up values -- and leave many feeling obliged to overspend.
Last year, a group of five parents in St. Paul, Minnesota, started BirthdaysWithoutPressure.org, which promotes simpler celebrations.
"We are trying to raise awareness that lots of parents are feeling pressured to throw bigger parties than they are comfortable with," says co-founder Julie Printz.
"I have friends who've spent $1,000 on a party and then (felt) remorseful. For me, it was more about the insanity in my head. I'd go crazy trying to figure out the perfect craft, special foods, gift bags ... I'd get caught up in this birthday anxiety."
Two years ago when her daughter Emily turned 6, St. Paul stay-at-home mom Laura Forstrom threw her a birthday party for the first time. Emily invited sixteen friends to celebrate at a Color Me Mine ceramics painting center.
"I didn't think all 16 would come, but they did, and it was $15 a person," she said. Add in the cake, favors, pizza and soda, and Forstrom spent over $1,000.
"After we got the bill I was like, 'Oh my God!' It was more expensive than fixing the dog's broken leg. It just got out of control so quickly," she said. "There are so many other things we could've done with the money. ... We haven't had a birthday party for any of our kids since."
This year, Kaster decided to try a slightly simpler approach. For Sophie's party, she booked a small theater that does plays for children, hand-decorated a sheet cake from the supermarket, and got inexpensive favors from a discount store. The whole event cost less than $500, "and everyone said it was the best party they'd ever been to," Kaster says.
"I want to give my children all I can, but it's not a monetary thing," Kaster says. "A $500 party doesn't mean I love them any less than if they had a $5,000 party, as long as they have a good time. And that's what it's all about."
Parties under $50
Lynnae McCoy, of Talent, Oregon, runs BeingFrugal.net and has never spent more than $50 on parties for her two children, ages 5 and 10. Here's her advice:
• Do it at home, even if it means more cleanup.
• Make the cake yourself. Decorating it together can help the kids get excited for their party.
• Limit guests to close friends and family.
• Plan a late-afternoon party to save money on food by serving snacks instead of a meal.
• Find low-cost art projects, like painting pet rocks.
• Use the library as a resource. You could rent a dance instruction video, for example, and have that be your activity.
On the Web
Here are some sites that offer tips on low-cost party planning for kids:
LifeWire provides original and syndicated lifestyle content to Web publishers. Anna Jane Grossman is a freelance writer in New York..
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