How much should I spend on my kid's friend's birthday present?

| “Yellow Escape,” by  Eric & Aiden Barger

| “Yellow Escape,” by Eric & Aiden Barger

Welcome to Bust All Your Balloons, snackdinner’s new series about kids’ birthday parties. We’ll explore the all the internet has to say about whether you dare bring cupcakes to school, why we’re still singing “Happy Birthday,” and what “no gifts” really means.

How much should you spend on your kid’s classmates birthday present? This used to be an easy question to answer with a little field research: just accompany your kid to a party and watch the birthday kid open presents while taking inconspicuous notes. But in our invite-everyone-in-the-class era, kids typically aren’t opening gifts at parties. If you want to get a general sense of spending, you’re going to have to poll the parents in your area or throw a birthday party.

Because both of these solutions include actually talking to people, it’s unsurprising that parents are turning online to find answers to this question. Parenting forums and budgeting websites will often offer dollar amounts, based on scattered reporting of what individual parents spend, usually somewhere between $5 and $30. Reviewed, a product recommendation site affiliated with USA Today, claims that “experts” say the average rate is $25, but they don’t offer particularly compelling evidence for this conclusion.

Other sites offer context-specific price points, which will encourage you to spend less on those kids whom you can barely recognize from the class photo, slightly more on your kid’s “best friend” of the season, and the most on your kids’ friends.

There might be some small value in reading about reported spending, because you could theoretically just keep clicking until you found a price point that works for you. Read too many of these sites, though, and you’re likely to wind up feeling shame over your lack of a well-organized gift closet.

Even if there was a site out there with huge polls or dozens of expert opinions, I’m not sure such a website would be very helpful, because kids’ birthday party spending is hyper-local, even from classroom to classroom in the same school building.

What you should be realizing by now is that you’ve asked an Ungooglable question. Unless there’s a website called Whatpeoplespendonstuffinmytown.com, the answers you find aren’t specific enough to tell you about where you live.

The other reason this question is so hard to answer is because you’re actually asking a different one. Your question isn’t about how much money to spend. It’s about how the gifts you buy will affect your child’s relationships. That question-behind-the-question is clear in posts like this one on babycenter:

DH (dear husband) and are not big spender type of people. But this is a private school and I also don't want to be the cheapo parents and my kiddo misses out on being invited to things in the future.

Or this one on netmums:

Since my DD started full time school birthday parties are left right & centre and she wants to go to every one! How much do you spend on a gift for the birthday child? I feel like I'm judged on the gifts I get and how much I spend.

Financial advice forums like Mr. Money Mustache get in on this too:

My kids love birthday parties, so I am hesitant to tell them they can't go anymore because of the cost of gifts, but I'm also not comfortable not bringing a gift to a kid's birthday party. What do all of you do?

Looking at these questions makes it clear why there’s so much advice about how much to spend on kids’ friends’ birthdays. It’s not about the money, it’s about your kid’s relationships with friends and your relationships with their parents. How will my spending influence my kid’s relationships? Will he be friendless if we don’t spend enough money? Will other parents judge me?

I could help alleviate this social pressure by naming a dollar amount that ensures your child’s continued social standing. I could offer advice for thrifty fun presents that look expensive. I could tell you not befriend people who would shame you for your gift offering.

But there’s an even better solution, and that’s to remember that, aside from being a willing chauffeur/chaperone and offering the occasional bit of unwanted advice, you aren’t in charge of your kid’s relationships — your kid is. If your kid is old enough to be invited to a friend’s birthday party, she is old enough to buy, or at least select, and certainly make, a present.

Gift-giving can teaches generosity, but also budgeting, thrift, and creativity. If you pick out the presents, you’re robbing your kid of all these opportunities. Tell him the limit you’re okay with spending and let him figure it out. Or give him a budget for the whole year and help him figure out a good go-to present. Kids are masters of finding the awesome cheap thrill.

Do you have a question you want answered in an upcoming Bust All Your Balloons? Drop me a note!