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Why Splurging On Over-The-Top Bar Mitzvah Sets Your Kid Up For Financial Failure

It was when my daughter turned twelve that I realized how utterly financially illiterate she was — I had yet to teach her the meaning of a dollar, the definition of a budget, the art of choosing priorities.

The realization came to me when I heard an NPR interview with financial expert Beth Kobliner, author of Make Your Kid A Money Genius (Even If You’re Not). Kobliner shared that research shows that parents are the number one influencers on their kids’ financial behavior. We’d never talked that much about money before — and now I wondered how to have “the money talk”, share our values around saving and spending and transmit important basic lessons to her—without creating undo anxiety?

It was around that same time that my daughter had started weekly tutoring sessions to prepare for her Bat Mitzvah and began to make time during the week between homework and choir rehearsals to practice her Torah portion and prayers. My husband and I realized that it was time to get clear about our budget for her Bat Mitzvah celebration, and we began talking through different aspects of the event planning based on our bottom line. Our challenge was to create an intergenerational party that would feel fun for all of us — without going over-budget.

Reading Kobliner’s book inspired me to get real about money with my daughter — in a developmentally appropriate way. It made me realize that as a parent, I have a very real ability to impart lessons about money that she can take forward into her adult life. And because of the synchronicity of reading while planning for her B’nai Mitzvah, I imagined that financial literacy — just like learning to take leadership in our Jewish community — is something that I want her to internalize as she transitions from a child into an adolescent…and eventually into an adult.

So planning her bat mitzvah gave us the opportunity to teach her not only about the basics of money and budgeting but also about the values associated with what we choose to spend on and why.

For many families, the bar/bat mitzvah is a moment of incredible financial pressure. There are communal expectations about what bar/bat mitzvah parties have to be that we don’t generally talk about—and we know that there is much more economic diversity in our Jewish communities than we realize. Too often, both parents and teens feel the need to plan an event that they may not be able to actually afford.

I didn’t want to submit to that pressure. It took a lot of conversations, some real back and forth between my daughter and me to use the year leading up to her bat mitzvah to clarify what we could afford, commit to creating a really fun, inclusive celebration—and also transmit some important financial lessons that I hope will build a foundation towards becoming a financially literate and responsible adult. I encourage other parents to think about this time in a similar way — and hope our takeaways can serve your family well:

Open a savings account: Kobliner shares all of the important reasons to open a savings account for your children — and I wish that I had done so for my daughter when she was younger. Until recently, when she received checks or cash from grandparents or aunts and uncles for Chanukah or birthdays, she saved it in her piggy bank and spent it when she wanted to buy something special. We knew that she would receive more significant gifts for her Bat Mitzvah and we wanted to encourage saving. We made a special day of going to the bank and were so fortunate to be met by enthusiastic bank professionals who were genuinely excited to hear about her upcoming Bat Mitzvah. Opening the savings account with my daughter definitely made an impression on her; when she received her Bat Mitzvah gifts, she decided to put them all into the account, although we told her she that could spend a portion on buying something she wanted. It’s been over two months and she hasn’t touched that money.

Work within your budget: When we initially started talking about the kind of party that my daughter wanted for her Bat Mitzvah, it was clear that, like many kids, she didn’t have a sense of how much many items costed. We presented what we felt was important to spend money on and why doing so made sense in terms of our values. For example, hiring an amazing photographer who would give us photos that we can cherish both now and into her future felt like a priority to my husband and me. My daughter was able to identify what elements she felt her party really needed: great music, kid-friendly food and a photo booth. Working with those elements gave us focus and made us all feel excited.

Do it DIY: Planning a party with a DIY approach can be really creative and fun—especially when you engage your talented family and friends. When I wrote The Creative Jewish Wedding Book, I talked about how to engage in DIY projects in a way that doesn’t burn out you or your friends—and I shared that perspective with my daughter. For example, she and my sister-in-law, who is an excellent seamstress, took on the job of making her tallit — and they created the most beautiful, unique tallit together. Another friend of ours who is a gifted video editor and producer made her an incredible montage video. These gifts, invested with time, energy and creativity, are priceless and taught my daughter the life lesson of sharing your gifts.

Tzedakah: For my daughter’s mitzvah project, she and a friend organized and performed in a musical fundraiser to benefit a favorite cause, Tikvah Family camp at Ramah in the Pocones, a 5-day camp experience for families raising children with special needs. When talking about the fundraiser goal, I encouraged them to set something real—the camp costs families $850 to attend and we explained that if they could raise that amount, a family in need could get a full scholarship. This made the abstract project of fundraising into a real world thing with a clear goal. My daughter sent personal emails and made calls to family and friends. She and her friend actually made 3 times their original goal (over $3,000). They felt incredible about using their musical and fundraising skills to raise that money. One of the financial lessons that she will take away from her bat mitzvah is that she has the ability to use her skills and talents to give back to others.

College is on the horizon: Because my daughter has older cousins and family friends in college, we know that the time between bar/bat Mitzvah age and applying to college can go…quickly. We have conversations now about the cost of college, share the examples of her cousins who work as RA’s to get free housing and and other friends we know who have started out at community colleges and then transferred to four year colleges. Thinking about college tuition is stressful for most families…but bar/bat Mitzvah age is not too early to bring your child into that conversation with you. We had focused savings leading up to her Bat Mitzvah on her party—and now more savings goes to her college fund. It’s important that we can explain that is where our money is going when we need to say no to spending money on something else.

In the end, her bat mitzvah was an incredibly beautiful experience for all of us—and her celebration was a blast. By the way, I ended up adding a cotton candy machine when the food vendor offered to add it on for another $125.

To any parent looking for an inexpensive way to make your kids’ party unforgettable, two words: cotton candy.

Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer is a mom of two who lives in Philadelphia. She directs Whole Community Inclusion and is a writer/speaker on lots of different topics.


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