GREENBELT, Md. — Jarratt Hughes and Marcia Harris splurged last year on a birthday party for one of their eight children. A show at Medieval Times dinner theater — complete with a four-course meal, Hollywood special effects and a jousting tournament — cost $500 for the whole family.
On Sunday, another daughter turns 13, but the festivities will be more reminiscent of the 1930s than the 11th century.
“She won’t get much,” said Hughes, who lost his job as a courier for a doctor’s office late last year. “We might just sing ’Happy Birthday’ and have cake and ice cream with just the family.”
As the recession drags on, moms and dads are finding ways to dote on their kids without opening their wallets. Fancy birthday parties, music lessons, sports leagues and gifts are being scaled back or eliminated. Even the Tooth Fairy has been put on a budget.
The pain is not limited to the kids. Businesses are also feeling the pinch. And even parents with reliable incomes are saying “no” more often.
“Parents are cutting back across the board,” said BMO Capital Markets analyst Gerrick Johnson.
Hughes said the family began trimming costs after he lost his job. But the situation worsened after the recent death of a generous family member who had helped with mortgage payments. The couple decided Harris would support the family through her job as a maintenance worker for the federal government while Hughes stayed home with the kids, allowing them to avoid paying a heap of money for child care.
“It’s a big change,” Hughes said at a Target store in Greenbelt as he calmly turned down his kids’ pleas. Sons Jonathan and Joshua pointed to toys; daughter Ashley begged for a doll.
It’s a change for corporate America, too.
In 2008, sales of toys fell 3 percent to $21.6 billion from the previous year. Children’s clothing fell 2.2 percent to $36.8 billion, according to the research firm NPD Group.
At RockNfun Music in Falls Church, Va., the number of people, mostly children, taking guitar, piano and other lessons has fallen 5 to 10 percent in the past four months, co-owner Kevin Glass said.
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Paul Feciura, owner of Youth Sports, Virginia Training Center Inc. in Woodbridge, Va., said business has dropped 15 to 20 percent since last summer — even though the Beijing Olympics should have provided a boost. The company is trying to accommodate some hard-hit parents by reducing rates.
“Things are pretty tight lately,” he said.
For some families, the belt-tightening is about survival.
Heather Parrott, a stay-at-home mother of three sons in Portland, Ore., said her family cut spending after her husband was laid off in January from a software company.
The Parrotts have yet to have a birthday party this year for son Zachary, who turned 8 in February. The boys are also sitting out extracurricular sports because they cannot afford the fees.
For Suzanna Tegegne, the lowest point came last year when she and her husband could not buy Christmas gifts for their three children. The family has struggled since she left her job as a caretaker for mentally disabled people in 2007 so she could watch her daughter. She’s working now as a house cleaner, but the bad economy means less business.
“I feel like sometimes I cry by myself,” said Tegegne, who lives in Montgomery County, a Washington suburb.
The economy is leading some to rein in spending, even though they have not lost any income.
Margaret Gormly of Kensington, Md., and her husband, an attorney, are worried about the decreasing values of both their home and their daughters’ college savings.
She had to pass on placing her two daughters in a singing class because she could not afford the hundreds of dollars in fees for Maggie, 4, and Mary, 2, in addition to paying for swimming and ballet lessons. Even private school may be on the chopping block.
Gormly says the family wants to send Maggie to a Catholic school, but it would cost $6,000 per year.
Gormly has managed to pinch more pennies by buying the girls used items, like a slide, chalkboard and table and chairs, on Craigslist.
“Fortunately, at this age, they don’t want expensive electronics,” she said.
Susan Newman, a parenting author and researcher, said parents need to get used to saying “no,” and she suggests they be honest.
“Frank, open discussion is far better in getting your children’s cooperation and easing your parental guilt,” she said. “The biggest issue is we’ve been a culture of ’yes’ parents, giving in to every want we can afford. The downturn in the economy is really an opportunity to teach our children to deal with disappointment.”
Kids, meanwhile, are learning to live with the new frugality.
Ismael Sangare, 12, of Takoma Park, Md., said his father’s job as a mechanic has been unsteady. So the sixth-grader no longer goes to the movies as much or gets the $200 sneakers he prefers.
And Denny Tra, 16, said it’s harder for his mom, who cuts hair, to make money. So he’s paying for his tuxedo and flowers for this year’s junior prom at Loch Raven High School in Baltimore.
As for the Tooth Fairy, the average pillow payout is now $1.88, down from $2.09 last year, according to a recent survey by DeCare Dental, a Minnesota-based benefits management company.
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