From the work Family Action does with low-income parents, it's clear that for many a worrying combination of rapid rises in living costs and welfare cuts is resulting in ever-tightening family budgets. This has real impacts on family life and parenting, For example, for most children birthday parties are taken-for-granted markers of growing up. But for the most disadvantaged parents the cost of these parties can put a tremendous strain on the household finances.
Family Action explores the consequences of birthday expectations against the backdrop of straitened times with our Birthdays on the Breadline report. This report forms part of our innovative Money for Life partnership with Lloyds Banking Group - a money management programme designed to enhance the personal finance skills of low-income and disadvantaged households.
In order to obtain a better picture of the impact of birthday party spending on families we used both national polling and in-depth discussion focus groups with parents who use our services. We were surprised to find that 41% of parents living on less than £100 a week after essential bills say they spend £100 or more on their child's birthday. Meanwhile the national polling revealed that nearly half (44%) of British parents with children under 18 agree they cannot afford to organise parties for them.
I think we should all be concerned about the pressure, whether real or self-imposed, that pushes many low income parents to spend an entire week's disposable income on a birthday party. Though most parents work hard to save in advance, this is often by cutting spending on food and fuel. Our national polling found 21% of parents would cut back on household expenses such as the food shopping budget to enable them to afford the cost of their child's birthday party. This rises to 49% for young parents aged 18-24.
Parents in focus groups told us they are driven to spend on their children's birthdays in part to compensate for their own memories of poor childhoods but also because of pressure to spend from their own children, from wider friends and family and from other parents. One said: "You can literally lose friends and create bullies through a birthday party". The recent trend for taking cake and party bags into school, for the whole class compounds the pressure. Schools could help ease some of the spending pressure by just banning this practice.
At the same time tight budgets have pushed many parents towards more creative ways of reducing spending. Parents we spoke to are trying to cut the cost of parties by not booking external venues, preparing all the food themselves and asking guests for contributions to the party in lieu of birthday presents. Others are taking children to a free museum for their birthday party with a packed lunch or buying party essentials from discount shops.
The background of course to many of our disadvantaged parents' lives is the ongoing cuts to the welfare system. We know household income in childhood is a key indicator for children's educational, behavioral and developmental outcomes. Our research shows that spend on a birthday party may have a real impact on a child's feelings of social inclusion. But we need to ask ourselves - do we really need to spend a lot on a party to ensure that a child has a good time?