Should you theme a birthday party?

Oct 10, 2009 at 3:00 p.m. ET

Besides being a wonderful way to boost a child's self-esteem and create fond memories, birthday parties also can take a toll on parents' finances, time and mental health.

Although many celebrations these days are themed to the hilt (think firefighter party with a real fire truck), moms do still have a choice. Throwing a simple, non-themed birthday doesn't make you a bad parent, and no one will report you to the department of children's services. Here's what to consider when deciding whether to theme your child's next party.

Pink Birthday Party

How old is your child?

If you have a preschool child, chances are she and her friends won't care much about anything but cake and ice cream. At this age, the cake is the focal point, and as long as you have one, the occasion will be memorable. So, keep it simple -- no theme necessary.

Children aged 5 to 10 are more likely to have attended their friends' character-themed celebrations and expect the same for their own parties. If you don't have the funds for the full-on plates, napkins, cups, goody bags, ad infinitum, purchase a few themed items plus a few in a complementary color.

If you have a preteen child, choose a theme that reflects his interests. At this age, he can help with invitations and decorations, and he will appreciate your efforts.

What's your budget?

Greeting card company Hallmark estimates that people spend more than $600 million on kids' cards, gift-wrap and party ware every year. Themed invitations, decorations, paper plates and cups, cake, goody bags and balloons can run you a small fortune, especially if you're hosting more than a few kids.

If your child is old enough, go with a theme party if you have the budget to carry the theme through. If money's tight, fudge it by purchasing a few themed items and a few in a complementary color. Another way to control expenses is to forego the elaborate goody bags in favor of a few stickers or balloons.

How much time do you have?

Many parents find that organizing a party around a theme -- especially a popular Disney or television character -- makes things simpler. All you have to do is find time for one trip to the party store and the supermarket bakery, and you're done. Absolutely no creative thought necessary.

On the other hand, if you enjoy planning parties, your child is old enough, and expense is not an issue, go all out with a party that reflects your child's interests. Does she have a favorite book, movie, hobby or television show? Star Wars, Hannah Montana, NASCAR, Littlest Pet Shop, Harry Potter... the options are as endless as your imagination and the Internet.