PHILADELPHIA -- When Stephanie Carlucci's son was 6 months old, she started planning his first birthday party.
The 34-year-old Downingtown, Pa., woman picked a theme -- little Dean would be "Mr. One-derful" -- and filled her online Etsy shopping cart with the essentials: matching invitations, thank-you cards, banners, a high-chair ribbon, a custom onesie, and a hat.
She ordered "fancy catering" of charcuterie, pasta salads, and gourmet focaccia sandwiches from Carlino's Market, she said, and secured a smash cake (that's a mini-cake the guest of honor eats with their hands to mass applause). For the grown-ups, she crafted a signature drink, a muddled cranberry spritzer in honor of the January baby.
"It's so over the top," Carlucci said with a laugh. You're "spending all this money for a 1-year-old who hated the cake and cried the whole time." And who won't remember any of it.
Carlucci, who works in higher education, and her husband, who works in information technology, spent between $600 and $700 on the party, which she held at her home for 40 guests. She said it was less elaborate than other kids birthday bashes that she has attended.
"I feel like the bar has been set by those around me," she said. "I just fell into the pressure of it."
NOT A NEW CONCEPT
For a subset of well-to-do parents, lavish children's birthday parties are not a new concept.
But over the past decade or so, a combination of social media, societal pressure and inflation have made kids parties increasingly costly and elaborate, with some Philly-area parents confessing that they've spent thousands for a birthday celebration their kids probably won't remember.
The trend isn't unique to Philly: In Los Angeles, wealthy parents who hire professional planners can spend anywhere from $10,000 to more than $75,000 for a child's birthday, the New York Times reported. Closer to home in Chester County, Pa., Platform 1 Events At The Columbia Station sees people spend $4,500 or more on children's birthday parties, said owners Amy Patel and Fabien Chaigneau.
Across the Philadelphia region, several parents described the cycle as a modern-day, social-media-fueled "keeping up with the Joneses." Others said they feel "mom guilt" if, for example, their daughter asks why she isn't having the same kind of birthday party that her classmates are.
"A lot of people parent from a fear of being judged. There's a lot of comparison among parents,," said Danielle Looper, 49, a stay-at-home mom from Phoenixville, Pa.
For some parents, the pandemic increased the pressure to pull all the stops for their children's next in-person celebrations.
Holly Cronk, 35, of Phoenixville felt twinges of "mom guilt," she said, after her daughter Valentina's first birthday was celebrated with a video-chat sing-along in April 2021. While the human resources director wasn't comfortable having a big in-person party then due to coronavirus concerns, she felt bad that many of her relatives and friends hadn't gotten to spend time with Valentina yet.
So for the second and third birthdays, Cronk went all out. She spent around $1,500 for a 40-person gathering at Owowcow Creamery in Chalfont, Pa., she said, then $2,000 for a 50-person, "party animal"-themed party at Norristown's Elmwood Park Zoo. They also had a small party at their home for friends who didn't have kids.
But for Cronk, it was money well spent.
"For me, it's getting everybody together, having memories for Valentina," Cronk said. Even though she admitted: "She's not going to remember her second birthday party, let's be real."
For her now-3-year-old's first birthday, which was also during the height of the pandemic, Caroline Villoslada, 28, of West Chester, Pa., said she wasn't satisfied with the outdoor party she held at a pavilion in a local park. As the adult guests kept a close watch on their kids, they couldn't relax and talk together, Villoslada said.
So she held the next party at Lulu's Casita, an indoor playground that customers can rent out, and paid more than $1,000. She splurged on a $200 two-tier cake, decorations, a balloon arch, and personalized chocolate lollipops decorated with Sesame Street characters. It was a success, so Villoslada repeated it for her daughter's third birthday, shelling out another four-figures for fun.
For Villoslada, a paralegal, and her husband, an HVAC technician, it's not just a birthday party, but also an opportunity for her to embrace her Brazilian heritage.
"In Brazil, we have this culture to do big parties," she said. "I feel like we're doing a great job because every year she gets so excited for her birthday. ... She gets excited to decide the theme and decorations."
DIFFERENT PARTIES, SIMILAR COST
Even some parents who don't opt for a unique venue said they have spent $1,000 or more per party.
"I don't think any are really cheap," said Jeffrey Zheng, 39, of Merion Station, Pa.
Zheng, a Temple University professor, said he and his wife, a financial analyst, racked up a $1,400 bill at Chuck E. Cheese for a recent joint birthday party for their 7- and 9-year-old sons. Not wanting to exclude any of their sons' classmates, they had about 40 guests, Zheng said, and bought the entertainment center chain's "all you can play" party package, along with pizza, drinks, and goodie bags.
Zheng enjoyed it himself, though, he said, particularly after not getting to socialize with the parents of his children's friends during the pandemic.
Kate Liu, 33, of Rittenhouse, Pa., also looks back fondly at her daughter's first-birthday party, a park party that cost about $1,000. Although the tropical disco theme was an homage to her daughter's favorite things at the time, nature and spherical objects, Liu admits that the gathering was as much for the grown-ups as it was for the kids.
"It was mostly the village of adults that had helped us raise her for the first year," said Liu, a media and entertainment executive married to a professor. "I didn't want to be too too extravagant, but I also wanted it to be memorable. Because we did make it through the first year and it was very challenging."
MOST SPENT ON ALCOHOL
While she spent about $200 on "soft play" items like a slide and a ball pit and $100 on a smash cake, Liu said most of the cost was for catering and alcohol.
"Honestly, it was a really good time," Liu said. "Would I do it similarly for her second birthday? Probably."
In fact, Liu said, she probably has to book a venue for the November party within the next month, because other parents have been telling her they book up fast.
Meanwhile, Ali Bauder, 44, of Phoenixville, said she regrets having recently spent $1,600 on a two-hour, 25-person birthday party for her 4-year-old son at an indoor adventure park.
About $200 of that $1,600 price tag was spent on party favor bags, she said, which she also refers to as "stuff that people are going to throw away."
"I hate them, and I feel like most parents hate them," she said, "but we still proliferate the notion of 'you have to walk out with something.'"
As she has reflected on what else her family could have done with that money, including take an overnight trip, she hopes that her children will opt for experiences instead of parties in the future.
"I have no pictures, even after all that money. In that environment, the kids are really running around. ... It's chaos. It was just handing over money after two hours," said Bauder, a project manager in the pharmaceutical industry. "I don't know that I would do it again, to be honest."