The Right Price for Your Kid's Rite of Passage
Teen celebrations are getting expensive. Does showing the love always mean spending the cash?
By Jean Chatzky

(MONEY Magazine) – Have you seen this show on MTV, My Super Sweet 16? It's a reality series in which insane parents spend piles of money throwing parties for offspring who can barely drive. According to the show--and maybe, ironically, because of it--children's coming-of-age celebrations, like weddings before them, are getting out of control. The bar and bat mitzvah (for Jewish children turning 13 or 12, respectively) and the quinceañera (to celebrate a 15-year-old Latina's transition to womanhood) have come to rival the Grammys in terms of over-the-top cost and glitz. Sweet 16s may be the worst of the bunch--it's not unheard-of to see chocolate fountains, designer dresses I'd kill for and the child of honor's name lit up in neon, all with a price tag of $20,000 or more. Sometimes way more.

"There's an extreme spending level. These celebrations look so much like weddings that there's very little to indicate that it's a teen party going on," says Kate Wood, associate editor of PartySpot.com, a party-planning site with a sizable teen clientele. "Bridezillas have been replaced by teenzillas."

My son's bar mitzvah is coming up, and in light of all this, I'm in a panic.

I'm fairly certain that I'm not the only parent who doesn't want a teenzilla living in the upstairs bedroom. But escaping the phenomenon isn't easy. We all want to mark these milestones in a way that lets our children know we're proud of their accomplishments. If you don't throw a humdinger of a fiesta, do you risk sending the message to your child that you don't love him as much as his friends' parents love their kids? And the parents who go over the top only make it harder for the rest of us. "Mom, they had Beyoncé at the party I went to last weekend. Can we have her at mine?"

So how do you honor your child without spending the equivalent of the GDP of Togo? With the date approaching fast, I decided to get some help figuring this one out.

• LISTEN TO YOUR CONSCIENCE The first thing you have to figure out is how much is too much, says Harvard professor Dan Kindlon, author of Too Much of a Good Thing: Raising Children of Character in an Indulgent Age. "The axiom in the trust fund world is that you want to give your kids enough so they can do anything but not so much that they can do nothing," he says. "You want to give your children nice experiences, but you don't want to flush them with too much stuff. It's kind of what happens when you take drugs: Your neurons get flooded with artificial material that is beyond what you can produce naturally. You crave that experience and become dissatisfied with the rest of your life."

Only you know just what kind of budget makes sense for you and your child. But a rule of thumb is not to plunk down more than two weeks' pay on a party, unless you decide to really do it up.

• SET CASH ASIDE Look, as painful as it may be to drop $8,000 on a quinceañera (the average cost, according to PartySpot.com) or the $10,000 that party planners told me is the norm for a Sweet 16, it'll hurt even more if you end up forking over the plastic. One year of interest on that quince alone could add another $1,500 to your bill. Twelve to 18 months in advance of the shindig, figure out as accurately as you can what it's going to cost you. Include everything: invitations, decorations, entertainment, food, new clothes, giraffe handlers and so on. Then divide your total by the number of paychecks you get in a year and start automatically shuttling that much money into savings. Trust me: When you remember on the day of your big event that you didn't have to borrow to pay for it, you'll celebrate even more.

• FOCUS ON THE RITUAL At a bar or bat mitzvah service, a child becomes a son or daughter of the Commandments. A quinceañera signifies becoming an adult in the community and taking on more responsibility. Even a Sweet 16 is a meaningful transition to adulthood. But sometimes you have to make that connection for your kids. Talk to them about becoming an adult, taking charge of their finances and even giving back. By taking their thoughts off how big the ice sculpture should be, you'll be able to make sure the rite of passage doesn't take a backseat to an expensive party.

In some congregations, community service is a requirement for becoming a bar or bat mitzvah. There's no reason this can't be a part of other parties too. "The most meaningful celebrations come about when a boy or girl has accepted responsibility in an age-appropriate, hands-on way. When a bat mitzvah student creates a project that taps into her talents and interests and she realizes she can make a difference in our world, she really learns something," says Rabbi Lisa Greene of North Shore Congregation Israel in Glencoe, Ill. Greene cites the example of a student who created cards and sold them on a website to benefit Ethiopian Jews. She notes that it's crucial to partner with your child on this. Taking command of a project for them is as unproductive as doing their homework.

• TALK TO YOUR CHILD During their teenage years, your children will probably attend far more of these celebrations than you do. They may well have their own ideas about how to keep the event from spinning out of control. That's what happens in the recent movie Keeping Up with the Steins (if you have teens who are currently on the big-party circuit, see it), and that, thankfully, is what recently happened in my household. My son, it turned out, wanted his celebration to be casual--shorts, T-shirts, cotton candy. Perfect, I thought. Then he said he wanted everyone to be required to wear basketball jerseys to temple. We're discussing that part.

Editor-at-large Jean Chatzky appears regularly on NBC's Today. Contact her at money_life@moneymail.com.

MY SUPER-EXPENSIVE PARTY

Teen celebrations, like this California quinceañera, have grown-up price tags. Check out these averages:

$10k - Sweet 16 party with all the trimmings

$9.5k - Bar or bat mitzvah, the Jewish rite for young teens

$8k - Quinceañera, coming-of-age for 15-year-old Latinas

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Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer LIBOR Warning: Neither BBA Enterprises Limited, nor the BBA LIBOR Contributor Banks, nor Reuters, can be held liable for any irregularity or inaccuracy of BBA LIBOR. Disclaimer. Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.