Family Celebrations: Getting the Spending Under Control

by Thursday Bram · 12 comments

No matter what culture you come from, there are at least a couple of big life events that you celebrate with your family. Whether we’re talking about weddings, quinceañeras or bar mitzvahs, it seems like these family celebrations just keep getting bigger and bigger. The budget for the average wedding in the U.S. is just over $20,000, but other events are certainly catching up. Even a down economy hasn’t kept spending down. I even know one mom who spent more than a thousand dollars on her daughter’s second birthday.

Creating That Special Day

The idea seems to be that if you throw enough money at creating the perfect event, it will stand out as a wonderful memory for your family — more so, apparently, than if you spend less. While the question of making a perfect day seems to pop up most with weddings, it is present at coming of age events and other occasions, too. But we have to ask, is spending all of that money necessary?

Is a bar mitzvah any less a bar mitzvah without dinner for a couple hundred people? Is a quinceañera less a quinceañera without a live band? Of course not. Reining in a family celebration, though, is becoming increasingly difficult.

Keeping Up With Cousin Jones

It’s far easier to convince yourself that you don’t need to keep up with that family down the street than it is to realize that keeping up with cousins, siblings and other relatives isn’t necessary. How much of your time Christmas-shopping is spent trying to find a gift of equal or greater value than whatever you received last year. Our families are the ones that we learn many of our spending behaviors from, and that doesn’t stop when we grow up and move out. And we all want to impress our relatives, if only to show them how well we’re doing and how happy we are — a cousin’s opinion of you can feel a hundred times more important than a friend or neighbor’s.

That can make for some problems when you’re planning an event that the whole family is showing up for. Even a Mother’s Day brunch has to not only live up to the expectations of your family, but actually impress them. That leads to expensive get-togethers, along with plenty of stress even if everything goes perfectly. It isn’t a matter of setting a budget or sticking to it after all. If it’s for a celebration, why shouldn’t we be willing to spend whatever it takes to get things right?

Coming to terms with whether you’re throwing a party to impress or if your main focus really is the life event you’re celebrating can be a difficult question to consider. But, hard as it may be, it is a question that should be kept in mind when setting the budget for both big life events and smaller family celebrations. The right amount is rarely every cent you can afford to spend on throwing a big party. Yet, setting a lower budget can be difficult. It’s necessary though: consider not only the event in question, but your goals and what you actually think is important to spend. If your goal is for your family and friends to have a good time and to celebrate with you, the accoutrements are less important — you can probably get away without the ice sculpture or whatever else all those magazines say is in fashion.

A Few Awkward Conversations

Choosing to throw smaller events, cut guest lists and so on can lead relatives to wonder about what’s going on. There may even be a few awkward questions or even a relative trying to help with costs if they think a bigger deal should be made out of whatever event you’re celebrating. No matter your reasoning for spending less, it’s easy for a parent or a cousin to think that you might be in financial difficulties.

Be prepared for those conversations. Not everyone will understand an explanation that, while you think a family celebration is worth having, it isn’t worth spending heavily on. Many people after all, don’t just budget what they think they’ll need for something like a wedding — they budget every cent they can afford or even think about taking on debt to spend as much as they want to pay for that special day. But while that special day may only happen once in your life, is it really worth paying for a big cake and a fancy dress for the rest of your days?

Spreading Restraint Among Family Members

One of the biggest difficulties most of us face when trying to control spending for family celebrations is the fact that most of our family members aren’t exactly on board. No matter what they see you do, everyone else is going to make their own decisions as far as things like how much to spend on the next confirmation party. You can explain until you’re blue in the face how you feel about spending astronomical amounts of money, but it’s not going to stop a sibling from adding a zero to the budget for his or her wedding.

But that doesn’t mean you’re out of options. Offering to help with the next big event can be a step in the right direction — something as simple as offering to set tables or make decorations, can cut a few costs while reinforcing the idea that not everything requires the help of a party planner or a professional. It can take some time to change the mindset of family members, but offering an alternative to big spending can be key.

Some families do better than others, of course. Maybe your family has low-key get-togethers or maybe you’ve put some spending constraints in place, like an upper limit for spending on gifts between family members. But for many of us, working on the need to impress our families is something that requires some work.

The good news is the change can be permanent, as long as you work at it. Just like everything else, your responsible mindset will eventually shine through and influence everyone around you.

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  • Friendly says:

    We have parties by not going to restaurants, hairdressers, and other activities people think are normal expenses.

    Our kids get a party every year, also party for their First Communion and Confirmation. We spend more on the milestone birthdays, so my sons 16th was around $2000, which included mocktails, dinner, special occasion cake, DJ, security guards, decorations etc. the evening was a huge success.

    My Hubby’s 50 th was also around $2-3000. It was held in a heritage cinema, we showed a vintage movie, hot meal, cocktails, drinks, DJ, prof cake., Flowers, palm trees. Hubby and I rarely drink and never smoke or gamble. From long experience I know where you can cut costs. However, as soon as you say the word wedding, the cost goes up by 5x. Costs mentioned are in Australian $.

  • says:

    Marketing efforts in the USA have led us all to believe we need to blow-out every special occassion. Two months salary on an engagement ring, some sort of “day” for every occassion (mother’s, father’s, boss’s, secretary’s – they all have a day). Where does it stop?

    Gifts of the heart certainly mean more than expensive items that fade away over time.

    Don’t get overloaded by the media and marketing blitz and stay within your means when gift shopping.

  • Money says:

    Celebration Family is a made for television drama film. It is based on the real story of a married couple, James and Janet Marston, who, after discovering that they are not able to have more children naturally, start to adopt instead. The result was a fanmily of sixteen children, who were often sick, disabled or sufferred from behavioural problems


  • Squirrelers says:

    Its all about the people, the time spent together, and memories created. That’s what will be remembered. Family events where a lot of money is spent tend to be cases where people feel some type of cultural pressure within the family to impress the relatives. Its so fascinating to me how adult siblings and cousins feel the need to spend lavishly to make themselves look good.

    I may have been impressed by such acts in the past, but no more. Life experience has taught me that people that do this are truly overspending out of the need to impress, which may be for their ego and image – or, it could be because they think that’s what their guests expect.

    When getting together with family or friends, I make it clear that they don’t have to do anything expensive when I’m involved, and that I’m easy to please. This I have always done. In the past, however, I would have felt guilty and would have spent more money on them anyway. Again, no more. Now I treat them as I allow them to treat me, and I feel good about it because I feel like its truly a win-win anyway.

    One way to have inexpensive get togethers are potluck dinners. No need to go out to an expensive restaurant – have people come over to your home (or rotate hosting), and enjoy a relaxed evening of fun for a far lower cost. Or maybe a “progressive” dinner, where everyone spends an evening going from home to home for appetizers. Of course this only works well when folks live near each other.

    Anyway, the bottom line is that its the people and relationships that matter most, not the show. If folks judge you negatively because you don’t overspend money you shouldn’t be spending, then you have to think – do they like you for who you are, or for your place on the status pecking order? When you take high level of expenditures out of the equation, its all about the people.

  • Cd Phi says:

    I feel that the reason as to why people spend so much money on certain occasions like weddings, milestone birthdays, and a load of other events are because they’re like a one-time purchase so people don’t mind going all out just once. When a person gets married, this is the person they intend to spend the rest of their lives with so there will be only one wedding which is seemingly valid enough to splurge on. However, I certainly wouldn’t go ALL out especially when you can use that money to take a nice vacation after your wedding or special occasion.

  • WR says:

    Great post.

    I am amazed at how many birthday parties we have been to that have been almost obnoxiously expensive. These are 4 year old children. No better way to give a kid a god-complex than to pay $1500.00 for a birthday party.

    There is a certain amount of competition that is evident here but I personally think these activities send a plethora of negative messages to the children.

    The best family events I have been to have focused on good food and conversation. I’ve been to opulent upscale affairs and potlucks (and bot do I like the potlucks so much better)


  • kt says:

    something that i find hard to control is controlling spending when everybody else is bent on buying everything in the world. The most effective albeit not pleasant silver bullet is avoiding my friends when they are on a spending spree. The disadvantage is the fact that i never have stories to tell but the upside is that my finances are not in a hole.

  • Lynn says:

    I wish I had known this when I first got married. I thought I was being thrifty by having a $1000 budget and yeah, relatively I was, but that was $1000 we could have had for our honeymoon (the part that really counts, LOL). And then no one showed up because it was a Friday (or so they said), so really, we could have skipped the reception and just taken our parents/pastor/few friends that did come to a buffet or IHOP for much much less and I could have slept the night before.

    So yeah. Weddings especially…just be yourself and don’t join wedding plan communities.

  • Stephan says:

    couldnt agree more wes. the fancy things are usually not necessary as my family has a great time inviting just close friends and family, grilling outside ourselves, and having everyone bring something to the party to share. It makes the whole event cheaper and also allows my mom to not worry about all the food that needs to be made, just her part.

  • Wes says:

    My sister got married last summer, and neither her (or her husband) or any of her friends have much money. They all go to school in Vancouver, and our family is from the Northeast. They chose to have the wedding at my grandparent’s ranch outside Seattle – within driving distance for her friends. My grandparents were able to provide a roof for just about everyone, and they got a port-a-john brought in for a week as well. Her dress was second-hand, bridesmaids just wore whatever black dresses they already owned. All the preparations were done by family and friends, the ceremony was in the front lawn with folding chairs, officiated by a religion professor from their university. The biggest budget item: food and drinks. They got an amazing local bbq place to cater the dinner, and brought in some local craft brewer to provide beer. Everyone absolutely loved it.

    It’s amazing how much more fun you can have when you’re not tied up in knots about everything being 100% perfect. Great food and drink plus good company is worth so much more than perfectly coordinating flowers, streamers, napkins, and invitations.

    • MoneyNing says:

      So true. People are the reasons why an occasion is special, not dresses or food or decorations.

      Too bad the retail industry will never admit that and they are the ones with the marketing dollars.

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