Helaine Olen Explains “Expenditure Cascades” As They Relate to Birthday Parties

Earlier this week, we wrote about the family that invoiced another set of parents after their five-year-old child failed to appear at a “ski and snowboard center” birthday party.

Now, Helaine Olen — who will be joining us next Wednesday at The Billfold LIVE — is on Slate discussing how birthday parties went from box cakes to blowout extravaganzas:

Once upon a time, back in our childhoods, a few rounds of pin the tail on the donkey and a bunch of balloons and candy were all that was expected of the average parent hosting a child’s birthday party. If a mom wanted to go all out, she skipped the homemade Betty Crocker or Duncan Hines cake, and splurged on a pre-made one from the local bakery instead.

Yup, that’s exactly what I remember birthday parties being like. My mom would make angel food cake in a Bundt pan and hang it upside down over a wine bottle.

So what happened?

People spend. Then other people spend more. So more people spend even more. That’s how an expenditure cascade works. As our economic winners spend ever-larger amounts of money on their children, the standards increase for everyone, even those falling behind.

No one wants to be seen as a cheapskate on his or her child’s special day, after all.

How much have expenditures cascaded since the days of box cake and paper hats? Olen writes that 7 out of 10 US parents spend more than $300 on a birthday party, while 1 out of 7 spend more than $1,000.

Gillian Marriott, the owner of Sweet Cheek’s Cakery in Cañon City, Colorado, told me that in the past two years, she’s seen parents go from spending $15 to $20 on a simple basic birthday cake to $60 to $80 on stacked and tiered cakes. “I have the biggest demand for first birthday cakes that are larger than life,” she said.

Olen doesn’t mention whether there’s also a “experience cascade” that goes along with this economic cascade; I mean, I feel like I can remember the days when you got a piece of cake, at best, once a month, and now both kids and parents are surrounded by treats and snacks wherever they go. So what makes the birthday party cake special? Professionally-styled fondant, that’s what. What makes an afternoon with your friends different than a playdate? A $1,500 professional DJ.

I wish there was a way I could ask Helaine Olen whether she agrees with this experience cascade theory. If only there were an event we were both attending next Wednesday.

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