When a Jewish boy turns 13-years-old he has a "bar mitzvah", whether or not the event is marked with a ceremony or celebration. According to Jewish custom this means that he is considered old enough to have certain rights and responsibilities or suit for the upcoming wedding this summer. (source: about.com). I actually know quite a bit about bar mitzvahs. When I turned the age of 13, my friends, family, and distant relatives I saw once upon a family reunion showed up to hear me belt out a poorly sung haftorah. I can remember the long hours of practice and study it took to be able to read my portion of the Torah on that special day. I also have vivid memories of the food, the dancing, and the gumball filled Pepsi bottles we gave to each of the kids. With today's Bar Mitzvahs reaching prices of epic proportions, people often wonder how much they should give when attending a bar mitzvah.
First things first . . . A bar mitzvah isn't a wedding and shouldn't be treated at all with the same light as a wedding. Although some parents choose to spend the same amount or more on their children's bar mitzvah, it simply isn't the wedding. The kid is only turning the age of 13! We also need to separate whether just your child is being invited to the event or you are being invited as an entire family. Unlike weddings, I do think it also matters how close you are to the actual child and family having the bar mitzvah.
Let's talk about this whole Jewish history around the number 18. Times have changed, but I can distinctly recall my cousin Melvin giving me a gift of "chai" which was $18 bucks. Even in 1982 $18 doesn't take you very far if you want to buy anything. The word for "life" in Hebrew is "chai". The two Hebrew letters that make up the word "chai" are chet and yud. Chai is equivalent to 8 and yud is equivalent to 10. So "chai", chet and yud together, equals 18. Giving money in multiples of $18 is symbolic of giving "chai" or life. There are many people who give money in multiples of $18 as presents to someone celebrating a birth, a bar or bat mitzvah or a wedding.
If just your child is going to the bar mitzvah, don't spend money on gift cards or savings bonds. I simply think that isn't a good idea. You'll be encouraging another teenager to go out and buy more stuff when they can be saving that money for their future. A gift in the order of something like triple 'chai' or $54 would be a neat idea to give from teenager to teenager at the bar mitzvah.
If your whole family is going, you should be giving in the nature of about $75 to $100 a person (half for your kids). So for a family of four with two adults and two kids about $300 would be an appropriate gift. Although this is a celebration within the religion, skip the ideal Kiddush cups, candle sticks, or Tzedakah boxes. Although the thought might be in the right place, cash is simply the best way to go when you get invited to a bar mitzvah. I often hear that since this is a spiritual celebration that items like prayer books or other religious items would be acceptable. Trust me that this will not be a good idea as much like wedding conversations are had back at the house that night about who was naughty and who was nice!
No matter what your faith, gift giving is always one of the toughest challenges we have in making day to day smart money moves. It's often a struggle that you'll continue to discuss when the envelope is closed and you are on the way to the bar mitzvah. Once you get there the damage is done one way or another, so make sure to at least get into a little Hava Nagila action and carry a leg of the chair during the joyous festivities. And please no gold coins . . . unless they are real!
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Ted Jenkin, CFP®, AAMS®, AWMA®, CRPC®, CMFC®, CRPS®
Co-CEO and Founder of oXYGen Financial, Inc - The Leaders in Gen X & Y Financial Advice and Services
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