Need to throw a graduation party but short on funds? There are so many great party ideas out there, but so many of them simply cost too much. You want to make the party memorable and your grad feel special but you also have a small budget. You CAN have the party you want! Here are 12 ways to get the look you want, make your guests feel welcome, and celebrate the grad in your life!
When I graduated from high school, my parents had a small graduation party for me. I don’t remember much about it, except that I planned it. There were lawn chairs and some tables, and my dad cooking burgers and hot dogs. We had music playing. That’s about it! Yeah…my parents weren’t really ones for throwing a party.
Fast forward and now I’m throwing graduation parties for my own kids. This year will be our fifth, and final, graduation party. My baby is a senior! Seriously, when did that happen? Anyone who knows me, knows I love to throw a party. From the beginning stages of list-making, to setting out the centerpieces, I’m in my glory. But whether you’re like me and can’t wait to get started, or feel more like a fish out of water, I’m here to help you create the party you want without dipping into your child’s college funds.
Steps to Creating an Awesome Graduation Party
Start With a List
This may sound simple, but keeping track of all you want to do, things you’ll need to buy, and a timeline of when to do everything, is key. This will not only keep you on track, but will help you to remember everything. Forgetting to do something is the first pitfall and will send you out to the store last minute to buy what you could’ve made. This alone will cut into your budget. Keeping a list will also help keep the stress level down!
So start by writing down your ideas…everything you can think of, from food to decorations, invitations to cake. Once you’ve got down some ideas, start a new list and organize by category. Add to your list as you think of things, or make some tweaks here and there.
Create a guest list. You’ll need to have an idea of how many will be coming so you can prepare the right amount of food, get enough tables and chairs, and make enough invitations.
Choosing Your Theme
Usually the easiest and cheapest theme is to go with your child’s school colors. I love how a party looks when all the colors match, and there are so many ways to incorporate the colors into the party. Having the colors all coordinate will make the place look amazing, and will be the cheapest way to get a lot for a little.
Choosing A Location
Having the party at home is the cheapest way to go since it’s free, but for some that doesn’t work. So where else is free? Do you have a close friend or relative that would let you use their backyard? Or what about your church? Another option is a park with a pavilion; these are relatively inexpensive. Many times fire stations will have a hall that can be rented.
With any outside event, weather plays a factor. If the area doesn’t already have a covered pavilion, I strongly suggest getting a tent, whether it’s a large one you rent or several smaller ones you borrow; the weather can wreak havoc on any party. If you don’t have the budget for this, make sure the place you choose has an indoor area you can use for Plan B.
Creating the Invitations
It’s pretty simple these days to create invitations using a template and ordering from a company online. The prices of these can be a bit high, though, and you can get similar results at a fraction of the cost by printing your invitations as if they were picture prints.
Using a graphics program, like Photoshop or Canva.com (which is free), put together whatever pictures you want to use, whether it’s one or a collage. Once that’s done, simply overlay the text onto the picture. Not artistic? Enlist the help of a friend or family member, or even one of your son or daughter’s friends. By the way, graduation invitations don’t have to just have the basic information. I created ones last year thanking all those who helped raise my twins and cheer them on!
Once it’s all designed, head to whatever sight has the best sale or coupon code. I typically use Walgreens so I can order online then pick up in store, but there are lots of options; I also like Shutterfly. Sometimes these places will have half-price prints, or 10 cents per print when you order 50 or more, or something like 75 prints for $10. This is significantly lower than the cost for invitations.
Hand out as many invitations by hand as you can. This will cut down on postage.
It’s tempting to have the party catered, it’s just so much easier. But that can cost a lot. As long as you plan ahead, making the food yourself is so much cheaper! Start by thinking about what your son or daughter likes to eat. I always ask mine what they would like. If you hear words like ‘steak’ or ‘shrimp,’ run!! Not really, just save those for a special graduation family dinner.
Keep meats simple and not a solo star of the meal. You want your guests to have a variety and not load up on meat. Great options are pulled pork sliders, hot dogs (cheaper than burgers), or tacos. One of my sons chose chili dogs…we made a fun hot dog station with all the toppings…awesome!
For your side dishes, again go with less expensive foods, and ones that go a long way. Caesar salad, pasta salad, baked beans, and a baked potato bar can all go far on a short budget. Every graduation party I’ve thrown has also had a nacho bar. This is always a huge hit!
Stay away from high cost foods, like a meat and cheese tray and fruit salad. And plan out your foods so that many, if not most, can be made ahead and frozen.
Graduation cakes are pretty much a given at any party. But instead of getting a huge cake to feed 150 people, opt for a small cake that really is more for the centerpiece than for eating. Let your child choose a special cake they love and order from the bakery. You can have their picture on it, or go with something fun like polka dots and stripes in the school colors. We never actually cut into the cake during the party, but rather save it for the end of the day for all those who hung around to help clean up. It’s a nice way to end the day.
Cake pops are a great alternative to eating the graduation cake, and they are pretty inexpensive to make. Cake mix and prepared frosting will cost about $3.00, and will make about 48 pops (if you keep them small, which I recommend). Now, if you’ve never made them, they are time consuming. Make them weeks ahead of time, get some help, and put them in the freezer. Watch a few videos to get the idea. Bakerella.com has a great tutorial!
Put out other grab and go desserts. Make brownies (super cheap!) and decorate with school color m&m’s (just take the ones you need from the regular bags, rather than order special colors), have a cookie bar, Rice Krispie treats, frosted sugar cookies, even chocolate dipped pretzels. We’ve even done chocolate covered marshmallows on a stick, dipped in school-colored sprinkles…yum! Have everything on your dessert table decorated in school colors. You can even dip the ends of the cake pop sticks in paint (use the little bottles of acrylic paint from the art section) ahead of time.
Stick to white platters and plates to serve everything on. This will be cheaper if you buy them, and can be re-used for other occasions. It’s also easier to borrow from your friends and family; most people have at least one or two white dishes.
Ever walk into a party store and think, “Wow! This would be awesome!” or “Oh my gosh! These are so cute!”? Well, of course, that’s what the party store wants you to do! They have everything, and it all goes together. But there are so many ways to keep the decorating costs down while still having an amazing looking party. Basically, start by NOT buying a bunch of ‘stuff’ at these stores. Pick just a couple things that are super cheap, like metallic swirls that hang down, or a big congrats sign. Those both will go a long way. Pick up plastic colored table cloths too. And then…walk out of the store! (Yes, pay first please haha!)
Time to get creative! Beyond those few things you picked up, it’s time to use what you have or can borrow. Pallets and old louver shutters or doors are great to hang pictures and awards on. Just get some ribbon to tie across and hang with clothes pins. Wooden ladders work well for this too! Old chalkboards and old windows are great for writing messages on and you can lean them up against tables or in a corner or where you’re guests will walk in.
Use whatever school items your student has to decorate with too. School t-shirts can be hung, awards and trophies and letters placed on a table, art work or drama programs pinned onto a bulletin board…whatever your child was into at school, that’s what you want to use.
String some Christmas lights around the top of the tent, or in trees, to give your party a festive feel. And if you like balloons and streamers, go for it! These are so cheap and can be placed anywhere.
Grab some card stock and your laptop! Signs and banners are so cute and trendy! Print out a congrats banner, signs for food items, and ‘Class of ___’ signs. You can print on white and then layer on school colors. This will add such a personalized feel to your party and the cost is just pennies.
Adding something to each table helps pull together the look and feel of the party. Why not let your centerpieces do double duty? Using small clear mason jars, fill them with candy…Skittles, Starbursts, anything except chocolate…then stick small wooden dowels (heavy wooden skewers work well too) in each one with signs or photos of your grad. Tie ribbon around each jar with “Congrats” or “Class of ___” signs. If you have long tables, be sure to put more than one on each table.
No mason jars? Gather up every clear jar or container you have, borrow if you need to, and do the same thing! Having all different containers with a variety of candy on the table looks adorable. You can even take this one step further and fill with candy in the school colors. Ever see those fun candy tables for a wedding? Go to the bulk section of your grocery store and buy just the colors you need. I did this for both of my daughters’ weddings and it was so much cheaper than ordering specialty candy online.
It’s nice to have some yard games set up for your guests. If you don’t have any, lots of people do and you should be able to borrow. My favorites are Kan Jam, volleyball, and Ladder Ball. Guests will stay longer and simply have more fun if there are a few things to do, especially the younger crowd.
Create a slide show! This is by far my favorite part of every graduation party I’ve hosted! Pretty much every party I go to has a memory table, a photo album, or a board display of pictures. These are great! But having a slide show will add something special, and your guests will enjoy watching. This does require a lot of time, but the cost is zero, and the benefits are amazing! I scan or move photos onto a memory card, then create a slideshow on my laptop. Bring a large TV and sturdy table to center stage of your party, and have your slideshow play through your TV. The more pictures you use, the better. Be sure to use pictures that will also include some of your guests…everyone loves to see these!
Have music playing in the background. I use Spotify to create a playlist. Keep the music family-friendly, and choose songs that are reflective or relevant to graduation, growing up, and so on. If you get stuck looking for songs, search for graduation songs, and a whole assortment will pop up. When you have this music playing and your slideshow running, this creates a wonderful and sentimental aspect to your party.
When your guests walk into your party, they will instantly get a sense of the atmosphere. They’ll walk around a bit, check out your child’s table and photos, chat with friends, and find a spot to sit and relax. Once at the table, though, the little details will help make this party special and memorable.
We talked about centerpieces with candies and photos and ribbons, but you can go the extra mile. At each table you can include a few fun facts about your grad. Create a stand up sign (just a small stand-up, folded piece of card stock) with a list of just a few things, like maybe a funny story or some interests your child had. Add a photo of the your child from that particular year, and suddenly your table has become much more personable. Plus it gives your guest something to read and talk about.
Instead of a guest book or frame on one table for everyone to sign, leave pens and paper at each table. Think outside the box and have your guests write something specific to your graduate. You could prompt them to jot down a memory, a wish, or a prediction. Be sure to include a line for their name. After the party, these can be collected and added to a scrapbook, along with pictures, and given to your son or daughter.
Along those same lines, let me remind you to take pictures during the party! I’ve been to so many where no pictures were taken. This day is a big deal, and it would be nice to create a little keepsake for later on. If you have a child who isn’t crazy about having their picture taken, just let them know ahead of time. Tell them you will be taking a few pictures, but promise to be quick about it. Don’t make a production about lining people up, just grab your child and have them sit or stand by some guests wherever they are, take a quick picture and move on.
Prepare Your Child
“What? Why would I have to prepare my child? It’s just a party.” Yep, it’s just a party. But your son or daughter is the guest of honor. Just let them know what is expected of him or her. They will greet guests as they arrive, so be watching who is coming and going. Spend a few minutes with each guest. Of course your child is going to want to hang out with their friends, and that’s okay; they just need to be sure to talk to everyone. You can help by letting them know if you see someone who your child hasn’t talked to yet. Also remind your child to be polite.
I know some of this seems basic, even obvious, but this may be the first time your son or daughter has really been center stage, other than a birthday party. And birthday parties are set up for kids. Just giving them a heads up and a little info on how to behave will save you stress and misunderstandings during the party.
Enjoy the Party
Throwing a party, especially a big one, can get overwhelming and stressful. Being prepared makes all the difference in the world! I know you will have plenty to do, and oversee, during the party. Be sure to sit and enjoy your company. Have some fun, laugh and reminisce, and truly take in the moments watching your child interact with friends and family.
You’ve done a good job raising this child, momma. Don’t ever forget that! Drink it all in. This is their moment. Enjoy! (And don’t forget to eat a little something here and there!)