As graduation season approaches, many proud families will plan parties to celebrate their high school or college senior’s accomplishments. Larry Fredlund, a Minnesota dad whose blended family includes seven kids, is a graduation party veteran, having celebrated four already. This June, he and his wife will celebrate their daughter’s high school graduation with a budget-friendly bash in their eldest son’s yard and garage.
Here’s a look at money-saving strategies from Fredlund and several party-planning pros.
Use digital invitations. Most of the graduate’s friends and classmates are likely on Facebook, so sending a party invitation on Facebook or websites like Evite or PaperlessPost makes sense. Fredlund’s daughter set up a Facebook invitation for her friends, and the family will send printed invitations to the handful of older relatives who aren’t as computer-savvy.
For older guests who don't have email or don't check their email accounts, Dana Holmes, editor-in-chief of Gifts.com, suggests buying a pack of printed invitations, which saves money on postage and printing compared to a full suite of customized invitations for everyone.
Host at home if you can. Renting out a restaurant or banquet hall will often incur costs not just for the space but also for using the required caterer. A graduation party at home allows you to keep costs lower by serving whatever food you want or allowing guests to bring dishes for a potluck. "Everything can be done buffet-style so that you can prepare some food in advance yourself as well as order in catered hot dishes from a local restaurant or deli," says Denise Buzy-Pucheu, owner of the Newtown, Conn.-based event-planning company The Persnickety Bride.
Fredlund and his family chose to host at his eldest son’s yard because it would cost less than fixing up their own yard for the occasion. Plus, it’s in a more convenient location for friends and family. Instead of renting an outdoor tent, they’ll use the garage for shade and the $300 saved from the tent will go toward renting portable toilets, since the son prefers not to have guests roaming around the house.
If hosting at home isn’t possible, some low-cost venues like local Veterans of Foreign Wars halls, parks and church recreation halls allow you to bring in your own food.
Stock up when food goes on sale. Fredlund’s wife has been stocking up on soda and pork roasts when they’re on sale. "Paying for these food items over time makes it less of a one-time hit," he explains. The grandmothers will help out by cooking the pot roasts in their own kitchens, and Fredlund will borrow several coolers for drinks from friends and family members. Pizza is a popular low-cost party option, and some hosts also make the event potluck or BYOB to defray some of their food and drink costs.
Team up with others. One way to cut costs and spread out the workload is to hold a joint graduation party with other families in the neighborhood or one of the graduate's close friends. Holmes suggests meeting in advance to divvy up tasks. "Maybe one parent really loves flowers or decorating, while another wants to collect all the old pictures and make a slideshow," she says. In addition to saving money, hosting a joint graduation party also gives friends a last chance to bond if they’re attending separate colleges or moving to different cities, Holmes says.
Also ask friends and family members to pitch in, including the guest of honor. Fredlund’s daughter is doing much of the party preparations herself, and in past years, Fredlund’s and his wife’s exes have helped out by buying food or even hosting an open house in the graduate's honor. "Everybody's pretty cordial when we're celebrating," he explains.
[See: 12 Ways to Save Money on Food.]
Create do-it-yourself decorations. Homemade decorations can help lend a festive spirit to the occasion without breaking the bank. Susan Marie Reyes, a party planner and founder of ModernLola.com, suggests rolling up white paper napkins and tying them with a black grosgrain ribbon to look like diplomas. She says this easy project is "cute, inexpensive and look[s] impactful."
Another budget-friendly décor idea is to create a visual timeline of the graduate’s life. "Find photos of your child from each year of their life leading up to this moment," Holmes says. "Use clothespins or mini binder clips, and string them together on a string where it will make for easy viewing for guests." She suggests adding the year to each photo using fun-shaped Post-it notes to avoid damaging the photos. Or if you're computer-savvy, create a slideshow or video commemorating the graduate's achievements.
Chalkboards are also popular on Pinterest and make a great theme because they play off the classic schoolyard motif. Inexpensive chalkboard paint or premade chalkboards are available at most craft supply stores. Buzy-Pucheu says she’s planning a chalkboard-themed graduation party with imprinted Mason jars that "can be used at the table for drinks and also double as a take-home favor."
Graduation parties should be more about celebrating than spending a lot of money. A DIY spirit can go a long way toward creating a festive atmosphere – and that approach could serve the new graduate well in the real world, too.
[Read: 7 Money Tips for New Graduates.]