The Joneses Can’t Keep Up With Me

Last weekend, on a beautiful California day, the BITA backyard was overrun by a mob of toddlers. We hosted Toddler BITA’s birthday party. Forty guests were invited, fourteen of whom were children.

Today I am going to cover how we went about planning this party and, of course, given our mad love for numbers around these parts, I’ll also reveal how much it cost us.


What Did We Want and Why Did We Want It?

When I sat down to plan the birthday celebration, I couldn’t help but think of some of the birthday parties we have been invited to.

  • At a neighbourhood park, and the parents hired a teacher from Music Together to entertain the children.
  • In a backyard, and the parents hired a magician to regale the children.
  • At a party hall, and the parents had hired not one, but two Disney Princesses to amuse the children.
  • At a restaurant, and there was a balloon lady who made custom balloon creations for the children. Toddler BITA asked for and received a balloon dog on a balloon leash.
  • The parents hired out a rock climbing gym, along with the instructors to teach the kids how to climb.
  • Tickets to a Giants ballgame, including snacks and drinks. The kids were invited to run the bases at the end of the game. Also included were tickets to the Family Fun Zone at the arena which features an inflatable slide, a t-ball game, a jump house, and two different pitching games.


We live in Silicon Valley, and most of our social circle take home healthy salaries. Some have been involved in successful startups. And they choose to spend some of their hard-earned wages on the birthday parties they throw. The question I had to answer was: should we attempt to keep up with the Joneses?

It is easy not to worry about the Joneses, when the Joneses aren’t up to much. That is like the overweight couch surfer with more pimples than there are craters on the moon who prides himself on his faithfulness and steadfast monogamy. It is easy not to give in to temptation if no temptation ever comes your way. Here in Silicon Valley though, we have an infestation of Joneses strutting their stuff.

The other factor was: we could certainly afford to spend $500-$1000 on the birthday party. It wouldn’t make a perceptible difference to our financial independence plans.


No, we decided. We did not want to keep up with the Joneses. Just because we could spend the money, doesn’t mean that we want to, or that we choose to. The decision was as much a philosophical one as a financial one.

We don’t want Toddler BITA growing up equating fun with money spent.

We don’t want her absorbing the lesson that in order to create fantastic memories dollars must be sacrificed at the altar of consumerism.

We don’t want Toddler BITA to equate frugality with lack of fun. We don’t want her to spend her childhood lusting after what her friends have, and wishing that she had more. It is important to us that she grows up with a mindset of abundance, not of deprivation. We just don’t want that feeling of abundance to come from Mom and Dad throwing cash around.


The How of the Matter


We knew what we wanted, and we knew why we wanted it.

We needed to figure out the how. How do we plan a party that met all the criteria we had set for ourselves?

My parents made a big deal of my birthday when I was growing up. They didn’t have much money – so ‘a big deal’ did not translate to fancy parties or expensive presents. What they did was make it clear to me that they were super excited about my approaching birthday and make the day something to look forward to. Birthdays were days on which rules were bent, and gluttony was not frowned upon. They made me feel special. They made me feel special not because they hired jugglers, clowns or magicians, but because they put in the effort to give me experiences worth remembering.

I wanted to give Toddler BITA the same experience. How? By following the example of my parents.


I would substitute effort and creativity for money.


And so I spent some time thinking about the answer to the question: What would make a three year old ecstatic?

The answer that presented itself: Making a godawful mess.

And thus was born the idea of our “Come make a mess with us!” party.


The Party!

We started the party off nice and slow. We had sidewalk chalk and an area to draw.

We had giant bubble wands ($1 each from the Dollar Store).  We bought some face paint and broke out Toddler BITA’s stamp kit to create a face-painting and tattoo station manned by Toddler BITA’s aunt.

Then we took a break for lunch.

Pizza: $76
Chips: $4.99
Bean and cream cheese dip: made by our friends
Peeled oranges from our tree: free
Watermelon and strawberries: $12.96
Iced tea for the adults: $7.50
Apple juice boxes for the kids: $9
Ice: $6


After lunch, we kicked things up a notch.

We brought out squirt bottles ($1 each from the Dollar Store) filled with water and colored with food color.

Then we filled kiddie pool with shaving cream ($1 per can from the Dollar Store. We used 5 cans) and placed the pool at the base of Toddler BITA’s slide.

To say that the slide was a huge success is an understatement. Never before or since have so many children adored me quite so much. As you can see, the carnage that resulted was pretty extreme.

We filled her water play table and set that up next to the slide for the kids to rinse off and to splash in.

Next we gave each of the kids a wooden letter (the starting letter of their names, $16.23 for the lot from Michaels. I used two coupons) and sat them down on the ground around a plastic table cloth ($1 from the Dollar Store). We gave them glitter pens, brushes, stickers, paint and markers and let them loose.
As the grand finale of messy fun we took the kids out to our pre-dirtied car (shaving cream again, and washable paint), gave them all rags and set them to work. Mr. BITA was armed with a garden hose and ‘helped’ them wash the car while accidentally on purpose spraying the kids.

Messy and happy, we regrouped in the backyard to sing Happy Birthday and cut the cake (chocolate, with a layer of ganache in the center and a cream cheese frosting).

Cost of cake: free (made by a friend of mine as her birthday gift to Toddler BITA).


All’s Well That Ends Well


We hid a bunch of tiny plastic dinosaurs in the sand box and had the kids search for them. We sent the kids home wet, dirty and happy, with candy, the letters they had decorated and the dinosaurs they had dug up from the sandbox.


The damage to our wallets? $234.27


This party was certainly more work than it would have been to hire some sort of professional children’s entertainment, or if we had just outsourced the whole thing to the staff at a party venue. Would I do it again? Absolutely. It was incredibly satisfying to come up with fun things to do and because the whole thing was DIY we got to interact with all the children a whole lot. There are few things as satisfying as watching a kid’s face light up, as hearing the uncontrollable giggles of children, and knowing that you are the cause. A week later Toddler BITA still suddenly pipes up with “Remember the…..” and wants to discuss some memorable detail from her birthday party.

Most satisfying of all? We used effort and creativity to achieve all our party goals.


I didn’t keep up with Joneses. I gave the Joneses something to keep up with instead.


28 thoughts on “The Joneses Can’t Keep Up With Me”

  1. I love this idea – I might just use it for my little guys third birthday next year! I’m all about parties at home, using creativity instead of money to have a great time. I make homemade cakes for fun, a tradition that started when my oldest had severe allergies to dairy/eggs/nuts and the cost of those kind of cakes was out of my price range. I too have been to a number of preschool parties where parents are spending a ton of money on some sort of activity for the kids – for a party they will never remember. I’ve never seen the point of it, frankly. These are not people making Silicon Valley-level salaries, but they spend as if they do. Looks like a great party!

    1. Thanks CMO! I’m grateful that I have a friend who baked for me. I’ve never tried my hand at that particular skill, and a cake for 40 people would not have come cheap. I really should just bite the bullet and learn how to bake.

  2. LOVE this! Birthday parties are out of control for little ones. This was a ton of effort – but so much fun!! It gets back to what little ones need and want – and its developmentally so appropriate. Birthday parties can be stressful for kids too, when they aren’t planned right. Thanks so much for sharing!

    1. “Birthday parties can be stressful for kids too, when they aren’t planned right”

      This did not occur to me, and it is so true.

      You are also right about the effort – especially to clean up after. I am grateful that my in-laws were around and so we had a ton of help getting all the paint and shaving cream out of our backyard.

  3. Nice story and great inspiration for our upcoming party next year.

    We are already quite creative for birthday parties with treasure hunts in the garden, local olympic games and alike…

    Next year, around this time, our oldest has her “communie” (no idea how to translate). We are looking into ways to throw a party, make it an experience and not pay 2-4K to have the party. We are thinking along teh line of a BBQ in our garden to save on the party venue, maybe have friends that do the cooking… More ideas to come!

    1. Love both those ideas. I remember we had a family get together at a beach when I was around 10 and my aunts/uncles organized mini-olypmic games for all the cousins. It was so much fun. I won exactly one medal and I suspect they gave me that one out of pity. I wasn’t a particularly well-coordinated child.

      Is communie like a Holy Communion (my mother is Catholic and all my cousins on that side of the family have had one of those – the first time they receive holy communion at church)? If so, I’d love to see how you keep the costs down, because those tend to be fairly elaborate affairs – the few that I’ve been to they seem to invite nearly the same number of people that you would invite to a wedding! I attended one last year in Spain ( for my brother-in-laws niece) and her mother mentioned that they spent about 80 euros/guest!!

      1. So, you won the gold medal for most uncoordinated moves! excellent!!! I hope it goes better nowdays.

        Yes, it is holy Communion. we will not invite the same number as a wedding. We do the grandparents, brothers/sisters and godfathers/mothers. A groups of about 30 people.

    1. Three year olds make crappy workers. No pride in a job well done. Kids these days, I tell you.

    1. I was exhausted that evening, but fully recovered by the next day. I would have been a lot more exhausted if I hadn’t had a lot of help in the form of Mr. BITA, my FIL, MIL and sister-in-law.

    1. I can just imagine him hogging all the dinosaurs. It is probably a good thing he wasn’t on the invite list.

  4. This sounds so amazing! We don’t have kids ourselves, but my own birthday parties back in the day looked a bit similar like this. And I just loved it! Kids don’t care about the money, is’t the fun that matters. And often that includes doing things (like a search, being creative or running around).
    When I was a kid, my parents always threw the best birthday parties of the whole neighborhood. Still looking back with a smile.

    1. This exactly. Like you, I loved my childhood birthday experiences and I want to reproduce them for Toddler BITA. What better way to truly appreciate what my parents did for me back then than to carry on their birthday party legacy?

  5. Awesome job, BITAs! I love a cheaper DIY birthday! You’re inspiring me for my four-year-old’s birthday coming up! Making messes is what they do best 😊

    1. Thank you! Have you ever played with oobleck (cornstarch + water) with your 4 your old? I highly recommend it.

  6. My kids had a bonfire party (hotdogs and smores), a Pocahontas party (I can’t remember what we did), princess party (we made princess hats and dug for jewels), Oscars party (everyone dressed up and received an award-old softball trophy-and gave a speech with photos), rock-star party (we gave manicures and spray-colored their hair and they could see themselves dancing on video live), Harry Potter party, etc. Whenever I asked to have a party at another location such as bowling, to make my life easier, they gave me a resounding NO! They loved to help come up with the ideas and plan and prepare from 2nd grade on. They got a budget and picked the food, invitations-which they usually made themselves, and what they wanted to do. That is another reason why they loved their parties.

    My children are 21 an 19 now. Enjoy these times, they go faster than you think!

    1. Every one of those sounds awesome, and I will be thrilled if I can follow in your footsteps as Toddler BITA grows up. I look forward to her getting older and contributing more to the ideas, preparation and general level of excitement leading up to the event. 21 seems like the distant future, but I know you right about time simply whooshing by.

  7. I can’t decide what’s better – the shaving cream pool or the car wash showers.

    I will trade you (non fancy) baked goods for some creative partying! This is a child’s birthday party that I would have loved attending. I wouldn’t be too mature to enjoy something similar for my own birthday but I’m definitely too lazy to go through all the work. Plus it’s easier to douse little people. We hear tell of the Silicon Valley level parties in our extended circles, complete with some friends insisting that when JuggerBaby is born we’d HAVE TO step it up and do the same, but we refuse. I don’t know what we’ll do but it should involve our own backyard when we have one and just a lot of good cheap fun. Thanks so much for sharing, I love that this was so much more like a real childhood party than the fancy stuff we see these days.

    Is pizza standard fare for all kid parties, though? I always wonder about that.

    1. I will take that trade any day of the week. Seriously.

      I will confess that I was tempted to go down that slide myself, but was afraid that my significantly-larger-than-a-toddler’s-butt would get stuck on that teensy slide. After all the guests were gone I spent some time standing barefoot in the kiddie pool stomping on the shaving cream remnants. I highly recommend this activity.

      We didn’t have pizza for Toddler BITA’s first or second birthday party. This year she specifically requested it, and since she requested nothing else in the way of presents or party demands, we decided to let her have that. I blame her school and the fact that her father is not friends with gluten. Her ‘school’ always serves pizza for any special occasion and we rarely have pizza at home because of Mr. BITA’s stomach, so she equates pizza with ‘very special food’. I considered making pizza at home to save on costs. Then I took a long hard look at reality and wussily backed off.

      1. We’ll have to talk : )

        Oh that makes sense. We rarely eat pizza but JuggerBaby also doesn’t really care for it when we do. Nor does ze like burgers. This child is weird. I find that pizza is actually relatively easy (and BOY do I have stringent requirements for how easy something has to be for ME to take it on) to make but whether it’s worth it in bulk is another question.

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