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As the sun sets on yet another school year, this year’s set of seniors prepare for a big milestone: high school graduation. But while these students may have just finished up the last exams and essays of their high school careers, the adults in their lives are preparing for their own, sometimes equally as stressful, milestone: the high school graduation party.
While you may have heard of folks going all out with extravagant (read: expensive) bashes with catered food, paid entertainment and fully stocked bars, rest assured that a low-key (read: low-cost) get-together will be just as memorable, while not hitting your budget too hard. Remember, it’s about your grad getting to bask in their accomplishment with the people they love, not about how much you spend on streamers.
Here’s some ideas for how to throw a grad party for the ages without breaking the bank, including ideas for some fun, budget-friendly themes that your grad will love.
No matter what kind of grad party you’re throwing, there are a few things you’re going to want to consider early on in your planning process.
Figuring out who is invited to your grad party is an obvious first step because it will help you figure out what type of party you’re going to throw. Is it going to be a small, family affair? A shorter-lived, evening party with a little more structure, like having planned activities and a set meal time, might be a better fit for a small guest list where everybody knows each other really well. Did your grad send out a Facebook invite to their entire graduating class? An all-day, open house-style shindig is probably a better bet, as people will be steaming in and out and grazing at their leisure.
It’s acceptable to invite most of your guests via social media. However, you can have a few invitations printed to send in the mail. CVS offers some nice-looking options for as little as 99 cents each (with a minimum order of 20 cards). For an even cheaper option, Microsoft Office has all kinds of free Word templates available online that allow you to create an invitation on your computer.
The number of people you invite will obviously be a big determining factor in how much money you end up spending; a larger guest list will mean, at the very least, more money spent on food and drinks. It could also mean the difference between having the party in your backyard and having to rent out a space.
Having your grad party at your home, or the home of a nearby relative, is a great way to keep costs low. If you have a large guest list and need a big area, it might be a good idea to look into renting out a spot at the local park for the day, which can be cheaper than a private venue. Beware, though: Not only will you want to check the weather, but you’ll also want to look at your city’s rules for having events in public spaces. Depending on where you live, you might have to pay for a permit.
If you’re having the party at home, consider where the main hangout spot will be. If it’s in the backyard, do you have adequate shade if it gets too hot? Will you rent a tent for people to hang under? Do you have enough tables and seating, or will you need to rent that, too? If it rains or is unseasonably cold, do you have enough room inside to accommodate everyone?
Renting an indoor space helps avoid some of the what-ifs on the day of the party, but by being prepared and having a contingency plan, you can plan for the what-ifs yourself while potentially saving hundreds of dollars.
Talk to your grad to find out when everyone else is throwing their parties. At the very least, you’ll want to make sure that your date doesn’t conflict with that of any of their closest friends.
If you’re having an open house, you’ll want to have a larger party window, like from noon to 5:00 p.m. This could also end up working to your advantage if you have a huge guest list, as you won’t have every single invitee in your living room at the same time.
The Eats (and Drinks)
Food is where your grad party can start to get pricey, so you’ll want to either budget a little bit more money for this category or prepare to be flexible and maybe even cook the food yourself.
The food you serve doesn’t necessarily have to be something fancy. If you’re having the party in your backyard, you can serve the simple and cheap staples of barbecue cuisine: hotdogs and hamburgers.
If you won’t have the time to tend to the grill during the event, grocery stores often have party trays that do the work for you. However, you can save a little money by making this food yourself, with minimum prep time required. If you want to serve sandwiches, set out buns and put together a tray with a variety of deli meats and cheeses.
Same goes for fruit or veggie trays. Buy the produce yourself and on the day of the party, cut it up into bite-size pieces and place it on a platter. Cheaper and fresher.
For dessert, don’t feel the need to get a fancy bakery cake if you’re having a big party; a sheet cake from your local grocery store will feed a lot of people at a low cost, and can be just as tasty. If you’re a big-box store member, their bakery section has reasonably priced sheet cakes. If your grad isn’t a big cake person, you might be able to save a little bit of money by opting for a cookie tray instead.
For beverages, buy two-liters of soda rather than cans, and put a marker by the cups so people can write their names on their cups and not lose track of their drinks. To save yourself the cost of water bottles (and the hassle of having to recycle a bunch of half-empty bottles scattered around your property), put out several pitchers of ice water. And make sure to have plenty of ice.
Now for the big question: Will you serve alcohol?
You don’t have to. Alcohol is expensive, and it might not be a good idea if you’re going to have a lot of underage guests. You can always have some beer and a few bottles of wine if you’re so inclined, but don’t feel like you’re a bad host for not having a fully stocked open bar at a high school grad party.
If you do serve alcohol, first make sure your grad understands what the expectations are. What are you going to do if they or one of their friends is helping themselves behind your back? You may think it’s not a big deal, but you could potentially face serious legal consequences by allowing minors to drink on your property.
To save money on booze, check out your local wholesale club. Sam’s Club allows nonmembers to purchase alcohol at the same low price as members at all locations. Depending on the state you live in, other similar chains might do the same.
Not sure how much food and drink you’ll need? Here’s a helpful guide.
For cheap and easy decorations, discount stores are your friend. Depending on your theme, you might need to hit up a party supplies store for specific items, but you’ll probably be able to do most of your decoration shopping here, at an extremely low cost.
Colorful crepe paper streamers are a great way to liven up an area and are easy to put up and take down. Dollar Tree also sells a variety of fun centerpieces, including this graduation themed one.
In addition to decorations, you’re going to want to have something that all the party-goers can sign and write well-wishes on. For a cheap and DIY option, try this: Buy a big, inexpensive picture frame and have everyone sign the glass in colorful permanent marker or paint pen. Snap a group picture of your grad with all their guests. Have the picture printed in the size of the frame and your grad will have a memorable gift to take with them on their next step in life.
For music, hook up your phone to a Bluetooth speaker (if you don’t already have one, Amazon has some cheap options) and have some party tunes playing in the background. Apps like Spotify and Pandora have a ton of playlists for every mood and type of party. You could also personalize it and create your own playlist, utilizing some of your grad’s favorite songs.
Activities can be theme-specific or just a couple of general fun things for your guests to enjoy. If it’s an open house, having a couple of games will help entertain your guests. Have a game table with a few board games set out for people to use, or drag your cornhole set out of storage.
To throw a truly kick-butt party, you’ve got to have a fun theme. Here are five ideas to get you started.
Ode to Your Alma Mater
Having your theme centered around your grad’s high school is a clever way to throw a budget-friendly grad party because the decorating for it is so simple. Just use their high school’s colors for inspiration.
- Buy napkins in their school’s colors, shuffle them together and then fan them out in front of your food trays. It looks nice, and it’s cheap and low effort. Win-win.
- Dollar Tree allows you to search party supplies by color, so you can cheaply stock up on plates, plastic utensils, cups, table covers and crepe paper for decorating.
- Put out bowls of appropriately colored candy for a snack that doubles as decoration.
The Adventure Begins
This theme is based around the grad’s future plans, so the decorations are going to vary depending on your grad. If you’re crafty, you can do hyper-specific decorations without having to pay a lot.
- Are they heading to college? Utilize their university’s colors in your decorating.
- Are they taking a gap year to travel? Display pictures of the places they’ll be visiting. If you want to have a little fun with it, take a picture of them and tape a cutout of their body onto the pictures.
- Decorate based on their planned career. If they’re on the pre-law path, take construction paper and trace gavel shapes, then cut them out and tape them on the walls. Or tape construction paper fins and tails to balloons and hang them with blue streamers for your aspiring marine biologist. If they’ve already got a job lined up, use that for inspiration. If they’re going to be repairing bikes in a bike shop, make bicycle-shaped construction paper cutouts.
- If they’ve already been working and are transitioning from a part-time to a full-time position, use this as the theme. For example, if they work at the library, decorate with the grad’s favorite books.
- Bake cupcakes and decorate them according to the theme.
A History Of
This will be one of the easier and cheaper themes to decorate for because you’ve likely been gathering materials for it their entire life. I’m talking, of course, about family photos. Make the party a shrine to your grad.
- Create a visual timeline of their life by hanging up pictures in chronological order, from the days of smearing birthday cake all over their high chairs to their last first day of school. WholesalePartySupplies.com even has a garland specifically for this purpose; just pop in their yearbook photo from each grade.
- Create a collage of all their earliest artwork – finger painting, stick family portraits and the like.
- Since they are the theme, consider putting together a platter of your grad’s favorite foods. If there’s a specific snack they’ve enjoyed over the years, include it as a special plate on the food table. Snacks such as ants on a log (celery, peanut butter and raisins) and animal crackers are cheap to prepare and will likely bring back some memories.
- For a fun activity, have a trivia game based around the grad. You can find pre-made card sets available online. “Who Knows the Graduate Best” is good for this, but you can easily make your own instead.
All Those Extracurriculars
For the grads whose high school experience was defined by their after-school activities, pay homage to the groups they’ll be saying goodbye to.
- Use any keepsakes they have. This could mean hanging up all their play posters, putting out the binder where you keep all their clippings from the school newspaper, or even setting up a small table with their letter jacket laid out on display and a couple of action shots from their time on the tennis team.
- Make the party activities specific to their extracurriculars. If they and their friends were in choir, set up a karaoke machine. If your grad’s fellow teammates will all be at the party, put out a game that’s specific to their sport, like a mini basketball hoop that can be hung on the door.
- Have an academic superstar? Use any trophies or certificates they may have won as wall decorations, or make a collage of all their elementary school report cards. If they are a math whiz, set out a chalkboard with some unsolved equations, and challenge your guests to solve it. If you’d rather have a keepsake, have everyone sign the chalkboard and seal the writing by spraying aerosol hairspray on it.
You’re a Shining Star
This one is good for grads who have made significant achievements, such as being on the honor roll, being awarded an academic scholarship, earning a sports award or have become active participants in their community.
- Display any awards or certificates they’ve received throughout the years. Maybe create a space on the wall for all their academic milestones, from their first A+ report card to the letter of acceptance into their dream school. Put up news clippings from the local paper that include pictures of their volunteer work.
- Use all manner of shiny, sparkly and star themed decorations. Sprinkle star-shaped confetti along your tablecloths or use spray adhesive and dip filled balloons in gold glitter.
- There’s plenty of songs out there about shining stars, counting stars, starships and the like, so this party is perfect for a theme-specific playlist.
Have advice on throwing a stellar graduation party on a budget? Let us know in the comments!
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