A Birthday Party That Didn’t Break The Bank – The Results

This weekend I tried to do the near impossible. I tried to have a Birthday party for my 9 year old daughter with a budget of less than 10 dollars.

photo credit: Pink Sherbet Photography

photo credit: Pink Sherbet Photography

Sounds crazy? Well to me what sounds even crazier are the prices that parents are paying for their children’s birthday parties these days. Between the cost for renting sites like bouncy places or baseball cages and the cost for pizza or burgers, a store bought cake, ice cream, candy, oh and let’s not forget the goodie bags – things have become insane. One could (and many do) pay well over several hundred dollars for a single birthday party.

I think the most absurd party I ever went to was for a 1 year old child. The parents rented a tent (in case it rained – which it didn’t) had it catered, and hired both a clown and a purple dinosaur to entertain the kids who came to the party (which ended up being relatives and neighbors – I mean seriously how many friends does a 1 year old have?).

Now remember that the Birthday boy was 1 year old. He ended up napping pretty much through the entire party. Was all that really necessary to show that you love your child and are thankful they are here?

Well I love my daughter. I would lay my life down for my daughter. But you’re not going to ever catch me spending that kind of money for a party like that for her.

And then there are the gifts for the birthday child. It is not uncommon for a child to get a 25 dollar gift certificate to a local store – from everyone. At a party we had for one of my sons, he walked away with over 200 dollars worth of gift cards. That’s a lot of money for a kid and completely unnecessary. In fact to me, it sounds crazy.

Here’s a dark, well kept secret. At parties, kids just want to have fun.

They don’t need huge celebrations. They don’t need lots of gift cards. What they need is a bunch of friends who acknowledge that today is a special day. They need to have a blast and laugh, that’s what makes a good party. When I explained to my daughter what my plans were, she didn’t care. I’m not even sure she understood what I was doing, just as long as she got a party.

Things had to change, so I took a stab at it.

I sent a letter to the parents inside each (handmade) invitation telling them my plans. I asked for their help by not sending any gift that cost more than 5 dollars. The parents were thrilled about the idea. “It’s about time” said one mom. She worked in an office and all of her officemates were following this party to see if it could really be done.

To prepare for the party, I set up the decorations from our “Birthday box”. We have a large plastic storage box in which we keep all the streamers, Birthday decorations and the Birthday flag. You better believe that when that box comes out a celebration is near.

Our Ford SUV seats 8 people total (the number in our family) but as these kids were well under 12 years, we only had seats for a total of 6 kids. My daughter originally invited 5 children but one couldn’t make it so we had a total of 5 kids at the party.

We started the party off by taking them to the theater at the local library to watch “Bolt”. (The movie was free). The kids sat on the floor in a group and giggled at the film. I provided each child with a small treat-sized box of nerds to eat during the movie (world’s best candy – it can take about 20 minutes to eat all those little pieces).

After the movie, I took the kids back to the house where we had homemade cupcakes and an ice cream cup. Once the food was cleared, they created heart foam frames using a kit I had purchased at 90 percent off after Valentine’s Day. There were enough frames in the kit for each child to make 3 – 4.

The gifts my daughter received were:

• A 5 dollar gift cert to the dollar store
• 5 dollars to be used only at a dollar DVD rental place
• A diary write-in book
• 5 packs of tic-tacs – (from a friend who could not make the party)
• A horse set – and while it cost a little bit more than 5 dollars, the mom sent me a note saying that she had had the duplicate gift in a closet for 2 years and was thrilled with the opportunity to move it on.

My daughter was ecstatic. The parents were motivated to change their future parties and each child happily left the party with a small goodie bag holding a pencil, a bracelet, some candy, and a lip gloss ring. The party was the talk at the school on Monday (even some of the teachers were talking about what a good idea it was).

And guess what? For a party where the kids got to see a movie at a theater, got to have cake and ice cream and where they were also able to do a craft, the total cost came in at a budget pleasing $3.19.

Not bad, not bad at all.


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59 responses to “A Birthday Party That Didn’t Break The Bank – The Results

  1. We are fascinated by this! How did you buy cake mix, ice cream, and goody bags for under $3? Or was that $3 per kid? We love your idea!!!!

  2. Elizabeth

    Your idea is great. In response to the earlier post, cake mix is $1 at a dollar store, with leftovers. The ice cream could also be found for less than $1 with coupons and you have a fair amount left over. ( only 5 kids )
    The pencils are available in packs for less than $1 with some leftover at back to school sales.
    Bracelets at my dollar store have about 12 to the pack – think jelly bracelets.
    Candy is very plentiful at the dollar or discount stores – after valentines day they were selling candy at $.25 for a bag. The lip gloss rings also sound like party favors from the dollar store.

    The $3 figure may assume that you have cake mix on hand or the basic ingredients to make a cake from scratch and the ice cream is a staple in most households (at least it is in mine). The pencils could also be back-to-school basics that were decorated with stickers/glitter/paint markers/etc.

    At $3 per child, that would still be quite an improvement over some parties I’ve taken my child to!! (like a birthday party at a private club with a swimming pool! – eeek! Talk about having a hard time competing with THAT!)

    The most important statement in this article and the one that we should all latch on to is: “Here’s a dark, well kept secret. At parties, kids just want to have fun. “

  3. You DID it! Great job.

  4. I love it! Fun is something that you definitely can’t buy at a store.

  5. Marisela

    How you managed staying under $3 just blows my mind. I will see if I can manage that one! When my daughter was turning four, I was having a hard time deciding what to do for her birthday. Chucky Cheeses had been overdone. She did NOT want it there, and every other place was too expensive. Even Burger King was going to charge $65. So the day before I put together a couple of ideas. I had my husband pick up a box of burgers, $5, a box of hot dogs, $4,( from a Sam’s club type store) and buns, about $6. We had condiments at home. I told whomever could make it to meet us at a local park the next day.(The heads up had already been given to leave that day open in case we came up with something at the last minute.) We already had charcoal at home as well and aluminum foil. I ran to the $1 store and picked up a bag of assorted candy, $1, party bags $1, plastic forks and spoons, $1, plates, $1, cups $1, and 2 liters of soda, $2. The museum has 1 free day a month and the day happened to fall the day before my daughters birthday. So we had a party a day early. The museum was also literally a 1 1/2 minute drive from the park. This was on a weekday, so it was planned after work hours. Perfect for those who needed to feed the kids and let them release some energy. We grilled out at the park and the kids played and ate, then we headed over to the museum and had a great time on free admission day. Right outside the exit was an employee lunch table. When we were finished, we had a seat, I passed out the party bags and grandma brought the cake out of the car which she wanted to supply. We sang happy birthday and she recieved tons of gifts.With a lot of last minute planning, we had a GREAT day all for under $25.

  6. i hate spending the money too, and my goal is for my kids to have fun; .however, your childs birthday is not the time to be cheap. i say this because it is a day to celebrate your childs birth and every year is not guaranteed. i was going to do a party for my daughter who is turning 1 at home like i did for her sister, which i still spent almost $300 on. i figure she can have her 2nd birthday somewhere. Wrong. My husband and i were just recently told that our daughter has to have surgey 5 days after her first birthday. there could be complications. that is when i realized why be cheap, do you really want to throw your child a $3.19 party and then somehing terrible happens to them, how much guilt would you feel. birthdays are one of the many times you should splurg they only come once a year. so i am going to spend however much i have to so in the event something happens i know i gave her the best birthday she could take with her and i wasn’t cheap about it. i have spent over $100 on toys for her already but i don’t care they are just toys and she should have them. it’s not always about the money. my daughter will have a spectacular birthday on feb 20th and then she will have her surgery feb 25th, but she will have had a party fit for a princess before that surgery comes.

    • What does the cost of the party matter if the child had fun and was happy? It sounds like the kids all had a wonderful time and that is REALLY what matters, isn’t it? She’ll remember having a fun party and that’s all that counts.

  7. Pingback: A little discussion on Cheap vs. Thrifty « Simple Thrift – creative living on less

  8. Pingback: Project Chickens before the Eggs – Lesson 76 – Chicken parties and broken bones « Simple Thrift – creative living on less

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    from eden tal

  10. Kate

    I’m so glad that a lot of people realize that celebrating someone’s life is not about things that are worthless in the grand scheme of life. There is nothing wrong with getting someone gifts or making their party fun, but what truly matters is the love, dedication, time and respect given to that child. Also, some people just have no money to spend for things like this. Should they feel like bad parents because they can’t spend over $100 on presents? NO! Even if the child has a surgery coming up. We must be careful in this society to teach our children to value who they are, and others, not things that money can buy.

  11. Allie

    I am a mother of four young children. I am very concious of teaching my children that things are just things and the real fourtune is having people around you that love you. We are very simplistic in the way we live day to day. A birthday is something that is special and a celebration of life. For our childrens birthdays we allways do a big bash at the house and invite EVERYONE that is important in our childs life including teachers, friends, family, and neighbors. Instead of gifts we choose a charity, animal rescue, or some kind of humanitarian organization and ask people to bring a donation or girft for that cause. It teaches children the importance of having people in your life and giving back. Although I have to mention no matter how many times you tell some people no gifts they still bring one.

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  13. Self-Righteous in Ohio

    “We must be careful in this society to teach our children to value who they are, and others, not things that money can buy.”

    I agree, wholeheartedly. It is not material items that make life worth living, it is the love you have in your life. It seems there are so many anecdotes and stories (even movies for crying out loud) with this as the moral, it’s hard to imagine that people would look down on someone for having this point of view.

    Spending $300 on a birthday party makes me queasy.

    • Wendy Thomas

      I’m right there with you and it’s not that I’m just playing the “in my day” card.

      Children need to know that they are cherished. I’m not saying that you should never buy them expensive things or even have a party for them on occasion, you should (I do) but you just need to remember that money is never a good substitution for a solid foundation of self-worth.

      Thanks for your comments.


  14. Self-Righteous in Ohio

    Here is what we did for my son’s 7th birthday:

    The local Ice Arena has a great group rate, $5/person as long as there are more than 10 people in your group. I wrote in the invitations “Spencer agrees that he has enough stuff, the best gift would be your presence” Meaning rather than buying a ridiculous toy that my son does not need, spend the $5 on your admittance to party with us on the ice.

    There were rooms to rent for parties and such, but we didn’t need those. They have tables set up in the lobby, so we got there early and claimed one to set up shop. I brought homemade cupcakes, two garbage bags, and goody bags for the kids that I filled with pencils and other random dollar store goodies. The kids and adults alike had a blast. A few of the children even said to me “This is the BEST birthday party EVER!”

    I know that my son will remember it for a long time to come.

    • Wendy Thomas

      Sounds like a GREAT birthday party. Not expensive and one that kept the kids active. A winning combination in my book.

      Good for you,


  15. Becki

    My daughter’s ninth birthday is a month away. After just watching a segment on GMA about parents who spent upwards of $30,000 (no, that’s not a typo) on their preschoolers’ parties, I’m motivated to do something a LOT more reasonable. You’re right: kids don’t care how much you spent, they care how much fun they had. Right now I’m thinking slumber party with movie rented from the library, “make your own” pizzas, and some cupcakes.

  16. Maggie

    Wow! That is so cool that you were able to spend such a little amount of money on a party that seems pretty fun to me! I am only a teenager and I never had a birthday party but I always wanted one, and my parents gave me the option of either getting presents for my birthday or a party so usually I chose presents because we went out for my birthday and several times, I chose a friend to tag a long. And now I am turning 15 and I really want to have a party! Not a big one, just one with maybe 6- 10 of my close friends, and I am fine with paying for it myself, it is just simple, pizza, candy, cake and hanging out at my house and having fun for 2, 3 maybe 4 hours, and I was looking at party city because I know what I like and right now, I tried to imagine how many packs of plates and stuff I will need and I am trying to think without sales because with everything (including pizza, cake, soda, chips, candy for my candy buffets, plates, cups, napkins, decorations etc) I was looking at some cute things like necklaces and stuff and banners and just really cute things that I can decorate with and maybe give everyone a feather boa or something ( I am doing pink and black zebra) but looking at 7, 8,9, 10.99 for a scarf or a hat? That is crazy! I know that along the way (considering my birthday is 4 months away) I will find little things along the way at dollar stores, and to be boastful, I know my mother is very talented and creative and I am sure that the price of the party will go from 100 plus tax to 70 or 50 which I know is a lot compared to 3.00 or 5.00 even 25.00 but when my parents always told me my options, most kids where i live will have parties spending hundreds and they would still get hundreds of dollars worth of stuff and I had to always realize that there were 4 other kids so I was fine with it, but it is only now that I am getting older that I want party!

  17. Jen

    I really dont think it’s about how much you spend on a party that makes a party fun. I think people that spend 300 plus on a party is just people that want attention! What are they really giving there kid…..showing them that money buys love?? maybe happiness …not for my kids and not for me. I was brought up that you accept what you get …and in life it’s important to teach our children that as well! I teach mine that you get what you get and that’s that. Both my kids are adopted so every year we have 2 parties each for each child. One for their birthday and one for the date they was adopted. (adoption birthday) we DO NOT go all out though…it’s just pointless and a waste of money. They know they are loved. We did adopt them and save them from a life of misery. I still dont know how she pulled off the 3.19 budget but like previous post stated it maybe things she had on hand. That’s an awesome budget. I thought it was rude that some gave her greif about it. My son has had surgery twice but I would NOT feel bad that i only gave him a 5.00 party if the smile on his face was worth all 5.00 then why would i be sad about something like that??

    • Maybe we shouldn’t make each other feel badly about thrifty partiesand congratulate OR costly ones. You just talked down and made assumptions about someone spending more than you, which is the same thing you are saying the other women did wrong when talking down and making assumptions about someone who paid less.
      How about we agree that different things work for different families and congratulate one another for doing our best.

  18. I love your party idea. At my daughter’s parties the children usually play musical chairs, pin the tail on the donkey, and other games that I grew up playing. At her 5th birthday party I went all out and she and her friends had a Noah’s Ark Animal Workshop party in which they stuffed their own butterfly bear by hand. Since I’m a Noah’s Ark party leader it only cost me the supplies and the children received a Noah’s Ark butterfly bear in their goodie bag to take home.
    A Noah’s Ark Animal Workshop party is very economical because we come to you and the stuffed animal that is created by each child is their take home gift.
    Even less would be one stuffed animal that every child has a chance to help the birthday child stuff and then give that one animal to the birthday child or donate to a hospital or shelter.
    Again, I love your innovative, creative, and fun party idea and I appreciate your wisdom in rearing an appreciative daughter. Way to go!

  19. Daniela

    I think its amazing to be this creative and able to throw a fabulous party to your little one on this affordable rate . It could be and I see it is a great inspiration and encouragement to many.
    I also agree that love, sharing good time with love ones and FUN are the most important assets to the child’s party.
    However I don’t like that almost in every comment to this post, besides phrasing the ” on budget ” celebration idea, I sensed the implications that people who have, want and do spend more on their children parties don’t have fun, are not creative or don;t shower their children with love and attention ?! It sounds almost as those who have are doing something wrong or they are “hard to compete with ” (whats there to compete at first place ?!)
    I just wanted to remind all against generalization , and wrongness equal to the one who says that people can’t make good parties without throwing many $$.
    Saying someone “who is spending $300 is too much” is equal to one who is saying “people who spend only $4 is to little”
    Nobody here should feel wrong! There is no wrong way to celebrate your child’s birthday ( regardless of the bucks) as long as its showered, as someone already said, with the fun and love!

    • bree

      I,agree fully with that I am a single parent with3 boys my oldest is 8 my sister has a boy who is five and she is married.. every year she spends between 1-2 thousand on a party and espensive gifts that he brakes and never remembers I save everything I can from my oldest party and put it in the party box every year I only spend 30 dollars and my boys and the guest love it I can also borrow extra decorations if needed from other friends and family … if your in the south like I am you can even save on food by asking some parents to provide there childs favorite quick dish for the party and everybody shares their fav. Dish

      • Wendy Thomas

        All great ideas, I particularly like the sharing of favorite foods to a party. So often, I’ve wanted to send along a snack but then didn’t because I thought it wouldn’t be a good idea.

        Some of the BEST parties I’ve been to are when everyone pitches in and helps out.

        Thanks for your comments.


  20. Amanda Lawson-Huggins

    I have really enjoyed reading all of these posts! I applaud the budgetary geniuses here, but I must say that I agree with Daniella. It doesn’t matter how much you spend on your child- as long as your child is happy. Don’t get me wrong- $30,000 can buy a very nice car or even a small house in some areas, but a couple hundred bucks isn’t bad once a year. You have to consider the situation- I live in a small town and our dollar stores aren’t that great and we don’t have many resources here- like a good movie at the library. Also, my parents are deceased and I was the only child so I have to do it all by myself. My son is about to have his first birthday party next month and I have purchased a few decorations and a cute outfit for him to wear. I like to save certain outfits for keepsakes and birthday outfits are kept and maybe one day his son will wear it too. My daughter, who will be turning nine in May, also likes to dress up, so I bought a her a “Im the Big Sister” button to wear with her outfit. With everything- toys, food, decorations and special outfits- it will still be under $200 and it is going to be an awesome party. For my daughter’s party, since it is in May, we will have a pool party since we have an above ground pool at the house. We will have some food and I am loving the idea of homemade cupcakes and do-it-yourself toppings- my daughter would love that. She loves to dress up, so we are going to have a Hawaiian pool party Luau because I found some cheap flower hair clips, grass skirts and plastic leis for her and her guests. My daughter was homeschooled for a couple of years and we just found a good school for her in January, so we mostly have family (my grandmother, one of my best friends and my husband’s family) and any friends that she has made along the way. Since she doesn’t have many friends, it’s hard to really make her party alot of fun. However, every year I do try to continually lower my spending without the expense of the party due to lack of local and family resources as I mentioned earlier. My goal is to get down to a total of $100 and it may happen this year- I must say though, the pool is a big help- even if it is warm enough before her party, since it is in May, we don’t get in until her party and that gives her something to look forward to.

    Wishful Thinking-

  21. EggMama

    It is true that everyone’s budget and lifestyle is different, and everyone makes different kinds of money. I echo the blogger’s idea of keeping it simple not simpley because I think we should be “cheap” (there is nothing wrong to be cheap, I am cheap all the time). But what is the meaning behind spending a lot of money vs spending a little bit of money on a birthday. Besides having fun, besides having a lot of birthday party “competitions” nowadays, we should ROLE MODEL that simple things should bring you JOY, whether there is a lot of money involved or not. I personally want our girls to grow up and appreciate little things in their lives… how they can stay happy and instead of having to have a lot of toys, we will share what we have with those in need. This past Christmas… we bought a pig from Plan (Canada) and she received a card so that she knows someone else got a gift because of her. If we can do it for Christmas, then why can’t we do the same for birthday parties? It is okay to have cake, it is okay to have crafts, but all the clowns, pools, lazor tech, are they symbols of your love… do you ever wonder whether your kids will believe that you love them the same even if you do or do not spend that kind of money? If not, then you are spending the money for your own peace. If yes, then may be there are more important things than having a birthday party. It is a matter of teaching a value system. I am never sorry to keep it simple for our kids. They should learn what is important in life and treasure it, and I think even if it is so difficult to carry on in front of all the other parents who did not grow up with today’s “party standards” yet willing to spend a few hundred dollars, it is that much more important to hang on and teach our kids that life may not be always full of material wishes and there are so many others who can use that money to see tomorrow’s sunrise.

    • Wendy Thomas


      You make some excellent points. With regard to birthday parties and gifts, if I ask my kids what they got for their birthday last year, not many will remember. But if I ask them to tell me what the Fall Fairy left them (if you catch a falling leaf without letting it touch the ground and then sleep with that leaf under your pillow, the Fall Fairy leaves you a pair of warm socks for the cold months to come.) every single one of them will remember. You wouldn’t believe how excited the kids are to get their “Fall socks.” It is not the expense that captures their imagination, it’s the creativity, the thought, and the knowledge that you went out of your way to do something for someone else.

      I love the idea of giving a pig. We do Kiva loans in our family, same idea though – it shows the importance of giving to others.


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  24. Anonymous

    HI, this was truly fascinating.see if you can solve my problem, i have a 9 year old cousin who wanted to throw a birthday party, but the mean kids in her class told her they didn’t want to come because she might as well invite cats and dogs instead. The poor kid was heart broken and so am I. So i want to throw my lil cousin the best birthday party… problem is, we are in 2012 and there are no free theaters, nothing costs under 3 $ and its a party for two because she just wants to do something with her only friend now. What can I do ?! Help me plzzzz….

    • Wendy Thomas

      A party for two? Easy, rent a movie from redbox (or better yet, get one free from the library) have popcorn ready to cook (it’s not that hard to do it on top of the stove) and a box of candy for each from the dollar store.

      Get some English muffins and have the kids make their own pizzas using sauce, cheese, veggies, and pepperoni.

      For the birthday cake, why not have them work together to make the batter and then cook it while they are watching the movie (cupcakes don’t take much time to cook)

      Get an inexpensive t-shirt or pillowcase (at a craft shop) and have each person decorate their own shirt (or pillowcase) to take home as a party favor.

      Take a picture of the two of them, print it out and have them autograph it for each other.

      A nature scavenger hunt where they have to work together to solve riddles to get to the next clue. The treasure is a book or bracelet or funny hat (thrift shop)

      There is a lot you can do with 2 kids that you can’t do with a large group.

      Good luck,


  25. hello im turning 18 and i am on a tight budget of 100 dollars and i want to make it the best part ever what should i do?

    • Wendy Thomas

      If the party is to celebrate your 18 years here on earth then use things from your life as decorations. You can make stations, like a toddler station, elementary school, summer time, and High school.

      Have music going on the entire time, if you have CDs then use your favorites, if you don’t have CD then turn a good radio station on.

      Have things for your guests to do, a game would be fun (apples to apples is always a good one) Have a book open so that people can write things like how they met you and what it is about you that they like.

      With 100 dollars, I’d just keep to munchies. Get bags of chips and pretzels and keep the bowls filled. I’d stay away from soda and instead have something like 1/2 iced tea and 1/3 lemonade.

      If the party goes into the night, give everyone a package of sparklers to light.

      Turn on some christmas lights that you strung up in the trees.

      Lastly, if you have a project you can project a movie onto the side of a house and every one can watch it and eat pop corn (or you can use a tv or computer to show the movie)

      Lastly, make some bookmarks with pictures of things that are meaningful to you, laminate them and pass them out as party favors for people remember you with.

      There is a lot you can do with 100 dollars, you just have to use your imagination and create the things you need rather than buy them.

      Happy Birthday.


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  36. Are you kidding me?

    A party that cheap seems super tacky in my opinion.. I don’t need an extravaganza for my kids either but to take kids to a FREE movie then back to your place for cake and ice cream and left over valentines day “crafts”: is not a party, its a play date. Plain and simple as that. Also the gifts for $5 or less thing… all they are going to get is a bunch of crap that will be thrown away in 2 weeks or less for that kind of money.. and maybe a happy meal if they are lucky. I’m sorry but gifts are a HUGE part of the party to the kids.

  37. Amber

    My step daughter and son would be furious if they got the gifts your child got. Glad that it works for you. But not everyone could pull this off and have a happy birthday boy or girl.

  38. Shena

    I see the edge to both sides of a double edged sword here…Value and monetary spending are two different things. I think that an over zealous amount of spending is ridiculous, but not making a big deal out of the child’s birthday is a big problem. It seems that in this case, Wendy had the right idea…she did her research, took them to a movie, planned out an arts and crafts and had yummy cake and icecream with the child’s friends. There is not anything wrong with that at all.. My three year old son loved Chocolate milk, and one year I wrapped it up and put it under the Christmas tree and re-wrapped some younger toys from my eldest son. He was happy as a clam…I didn’t have to spend much. Last year I told my little ones that Santa would need to limit their toys so that he could give to others. The picked two toys and a candy of their choice, and they helped Santa by giving away some of their old toys. I jam packed their stockings with little tinker toys and candies; and they had a wonderful time.

  39. Reblogged this on somebombmom and commented:
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  40. I just came across this article the other day and I really enjoyed. As a bankruptcy attorney, I am often working with my clients to get them to be better about budgeting and this has some really good tips on how not to go insane with birthday party expenses.

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