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Blow up balloons, not budgets How to save on kids' birthday parties

So, there's this show, "My Super Sweet 16" on MTV. You've seen it?

Episode after episode, parents drop hundreds of thousands -- sometimes millions -- of dollars throwing their kids the birthday party of the century.

Each parent and child tries to top the next. Guest lists reach into the hundreds. Celebrity recording artists provide the entertainment.

The birthday girl or boy, elaborately decked out in designer duds and dripping with diamonds, arrives in a horse-drawn Cinderella carriage, or makes some similarly elaborate entrance.

In one episode, a girl named Audrey steps off the curb at school to find a brand new Lexus wrapped in a big, red bow for her 16th birthday. How does she respond?

"That's not even the car I wanted! She's such an idiot! She just ruined the whole party!" she screamed, crying.

Audrey's birthday outrageous birthday expectations might be an extreme example, but experts said a similar type of extravagance has permeated Western New York culture.

"When I was a kid, we had four or five friends over for cake and ice cream. Now it's all about competition. They're comparing who did what, what did they spend, where did they go?" said Nicola Adimey, owner of Party Paradise in Williamsville. "All of the parents are trying to outdo each other."

The first big milestone birthday has become the five-year mark. Packs of children arrive in limousines. Goody bags rival the celebrity swag handed out at awards shows.

To avoid ending up with a sweet 16 party worthy of an MTV reality show, and the spoiled child that comes with it, experts suggest scaling back now.

"It looks like the economy may take care of it in the short term. These high-dollar parties come out of parents' discretionary income and most will know they can't afford it," said Sampson Blair, associate professor of sociology at the University at Buffalo.

As household budgets tighten, parents may find themselves returning to the days of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey out of financial necessity.

Consider this sampling of local birthday party options and Money-Smart's cheaper alternatives:

* Children's Gym Romp: $250 for 15 children, $10 each additional child.

Includes: 1.5 hours of supervised play on things like zip lines, rock walls and trampolines. Invitations, balloons, plates cups and napkin are provided. Food, cake and party favors are not. Rolly Pollies, East Amherst and Orchard Park, 689-6151.

MoneySmart Alternative: In summer, it's easy to keep the kids occupied and on the move -- just hand out water balloons and turn 'em loose. It gets trickier as the weather turns cooler and parents find themselves cooped up indoors.

In winter, a sledding party could be just the trick. Have parents and kids bundle up and meet you at your favorite sledding destination with sleds in tow. Try Bond Lake Nature Center and Park at 2551 Lower Mountain Road in Ransomville, 731-3256.

Bring thermoses of hot cocoa and soup, and hand out doughnuts when it's time to sing happy birthday.

* Fairy Tale Tea Party: $189 for 8 kids, $15 each additional child.

Kids get a chance to play dress up, walk in a fashion show, then sit down to a fancy tea party.

Includes: tea, lemonade, finger sandwiches and cookies for the kids, cake, party favors, invitations, supervision, dress-up clothes and jewelry. Coffee is provided for parents. Fairy Tale Tea Parties, 6989 Transit Road in East Amherst, 695-0595.

MoneySmart Alternative: Host an old fashioned tea party of your own. Bring out your (or your mom's) old clothes, heels, hats and costume jewelry. Pick up a feathered boa or two at the dollar store. You can get mismatched china tea cups and teapots for a quarter apiece at thrift stores like Amvets and the Salvation Army.

Make a big batch of iced tea and some tiny peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with the crusts cut off. Set the radio to 94.5 FM for some classical music, and drink with your pinkies up.

* Character Appearance: $250.

Includes: A one-hour performance by a costumed character, such as Brown Dog or China Girl, balloon animals, boombox background music, favors, face painting and a balloon bouquet for the birthday child. TEC Entertainment, 3049 Delaware Ave. in Kenmore, 877-4400.

MoneySmart Alternative: Rent a mascot costume, such as a lion, tiger or dinosaur ($65, DC Theatricks 747 Main St., 847-0180) or make your own. Clowns and pirates are easy. Let the ham in your family take the stage.

Snap up some face paint from the Halloween clearance sales or year-round at party supply stores and hobby shops like Niagara Hobby and Craft Mart on Union Road in Cheektowaga (six crayons, $2.99). You don't have to be Rembrandt to paint a heart on a little girl's cheek.

Buy a jumbo pack of balloons from the dollar store and let the kids make their own balloon animals. They'll probably come out looking like Steve Martin's in the movie "Parenthood" (Ta-da! "Your lower intestine!"), but kids will enjoy it a heck of a lot more than sitting still for a demonstration.

* Cooking Party: $175 for 10 children, $15 each additional child.

The Food Network has spawned a generation of pint-sized Rachael Ray and Bobby Flay wanna-be's.

Includes: Two-hour cooking instruction with one instructor and two assistants. Invitations, menu ingredients, themed decorations and supervision are included. The birthday child receives a gift certificate for an upcoming cooking class.

Tops Markets Cooking School, 355 Orchard Park Road in West Seneca, 517-3006, or 3980 Maple Road in Amherst, 515-2000.

MoneySmart Alternative: Line up the ingredients kids will need to make their own entree and dessert.

Pizzas are easy and fun. Kids will love playing with the dough, smearing on the sauce, choosing and placing their toppings.

For dessert, bake a few batches of oversized sugar cookies and birthday cupcakes in advance and mix up a big bowl of frosting. Portion the frosting into smaller bowls, each tinted with a different shade of food coloring. Scatter about bowls of M&Ms, sprinkles and other toppings and let the kids go to town.

When it's time to eat and sing happy birthday, all the kids can push their cupcakes together to be stuck with candles.

To keep kids away from the hot oven, drape the table with a sheet of butcher paper and have kids decorate the "table cloth" with crayons while their food is cooking.

Don't forget to warn parents to send kids in play clothes.



>Helpful hints

* If you belong to a fraternal order, club or church, you can often rent their hall or party room at a discount -- sometimes for as little as $5.

* Many apartment complexes and condominiums have large community rooms that can be used to host parties. If you?re short on space, see if a resident friend or relative will offer to host.

* Driving up costs is the new trend of inviting a child?s entire class to a party. Try inviting just the friends your child actually knows and plays with. Another great rule of thumb: let them invite one child for every year of his or her age. For example, a 5-year-old will have five guests.

* Birthdays don?t have to be marathon events. One-and-a-half hours is plenty of time to party.

* Ask yourself how much of the preparation is for the kids and how much is for their parents. Kids couldn?t care less about fancy decorations or a gourmet menu. They just want to get messy and have fun.

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