How to Plan an Event on a Budget (Without Hating Life)

April 2, 2011

You are planning a party for birthday/anniversary/shower/reunion and you want it to be gorgeous/magazine grade/spectacular and you're broke. What's a girl to do? Well, I just planned a reunion dinner for 43 people from across the country on a tight budget- here's what I learned.
You are planning a party for birthday/anniversary/shower/reunion and you want it to be gorgeous/magazine grade/spectacular and you’re broke. What’s a girl to do? Well, I just planned a reunion dinner for 43 people from across the country on a tight budget- here’s what I learned.


If you’re reading this- I am currently in the middle of the state of California, in between opening ceremonies of a conference, participating in a blood drive and setting up a gorgeous reunion banquet for 43 fabulous people in my aunt’s backyard in between sessions of said conference where I also have things to coordinate.


I’ll probably agonizing between the black satin sheath dress with the ruffly front and the equally gorgeous black and purple hounds tooth Anna Sui cocktail dress, trying not to get a run in the only pair of black stockings I have left…but I digress...if you’re reading this, I’ll be in the eye of the storm- the party I have been involved in planning for over 6 months.  It took a lot of effort and collaboration- I didn’t do it alone, but let me spare you the frustrations and focus on the positives so you can avoid the pitfalls:



Let me rephrase that, nobody likes a dead hostess- one who electrocuted herself  because she was icing a cake, blow drying her hair and attempting to spot clean her ensemble simultaneously in a rush to get the party started.    You do not need to do EVERYTHING. If you are even a shade of Type A like me- not being in control of everything is difficult.  Saying “if it’s not perfect, it’s not my problem,” is almost unutterable- but make it your mantra.    What matters is the people at your party, not if the napkins are the *right* shade of chartreuse.    Nothing is a bigger buzz kill than a hostess that doesn’t even like her own party because she spent all her happy reserves on curling ribbons til 3 a.m.    Focus on cultivating a great atmosphere and happy people…not on details that no body cares about but you.



The new “hot thing,” in parties is involving your guests. Sure, I know you’d love bragging rights for how “great things look,” but trust me- the best way to get conversations going is sharing the wealth in terms of party involvement.   I hate awkward ice breakers- have your guests get involved before the party started.  You can accomplish this by asking them to bring their “best dish,” or your awesome baker-friend can show off her fondant skills in making some sexy cupcakes  or you can always have them do an activity before the party started.    For this reunion dinner I planned- I asked all the guests to upload pictures of our time together to Flickr and to brainstorm memories and words of encouragement for a note activity we’re doing that night.

Additionally, many people are involved to make this happen- one of the guests is making the  cake, another made the centerpieces and brought home-made chocolates,  one coordinated matching jackets.  These are all instant conversation starters- but most of all, it engages your guests.  They have more of an investment in making it a success since they were a big part of it.  My guests all know each other, but after 5 years apart- I can’t expect everyone to just pick up where they left off.  Note:  This is also a great way to save money!


Delegation is key one.  Taking care of yourself and making sure you’re happy is another.  If you’re doing the work, you get to make the big decisions.  As well-intentioned as your party-goers are, sometimes they have some (ahem, unhelpful) advice or ideas- like suggesting something great without offering to help out what-so-ever or complaining about cost but not offering alternatives.  You cannot please everyone.  Do the best you can with what you have and have a great time.

Too many times I have planned a party on a budget- only to have it turn out great, but I was frazzled and exhausted.  Schedule time in to make sure you look and feel your best.  This year, I was so busy planning this reunion dinner I forgot to order shoes.  Yep, I get to wear a gross old pair from eons ago, but if I had advice for you, make sure YOU are taken care of.



Last year at a party I planned, I ended up throwing my dress on as guests walked through the door (“Wow, you guys are 25 minutes early!”) and my hair never got done…but the key things (I had to have pink roses and cupcakes) were DONE. Sure they didn’t look like ladybugs (who has time to ice on dots??!) but I was thrilled.  My goal for that day was to have: enough food, lots of pink everywhere, and plenty of booze for the good people at my party. Check, check and check.  I wanted to make sure everyone signed my scrapbook and to take lots of pictures…and I sort of accomplished those objectives.

You truly have to prioritize, especially if you don’t have much delegation-power.  Brainstorm the look and feel of your party, and truly, the purpose of your party- and you’ll find you can more powerfully craft your party that way.



Either you order flowers, or you go to a store and buy in bulk to arrange yourself. Time or money.  You bake a cake or you buy one.  Time or money.  Know you will NOT have time to do everything yourself.  If cooking all day for a party totally kills it for you- please, pick up some food or have it catered.  If hand-crafting 25 orchid boutonnieres the night before your event so they’ll be both affordable and fresh is do-able for you so you can save money better allocated to food and drink- go for it.  Just know, to accomplish everything you want, you will either have to either forget about it entirely or hire it out- you cannot do it all yourself.  My partner in crime for this reunion dinner, Heather is pretty flippin’ amazing.  We wanted to save money by going to Cost-co and picking up food to prep ourselves, my amazing aunt and cousin offered to help as well, but in the end, Heather and I realized, it just wasn’t worth it.   Getting the food catered wasn’t cost-effective, but it saved our sanity- totally worth it.



I have never done anything on my own talents alone.  If you’re smart, you obviously planned this event by incorporating the help of others (See points #1 and #2 if you missed this).  The biggest part of being a gracious hostess is hello- the graciousness. You and your attitude will be a memorable part of your event, make sure you make people know you appreciate them and how helpful it was to you.

If you’re anything like me, chances are, you not only enlisted help, but you enlisted it to excrutiating detail.  (“Look Suzy, I know you prefer to use a generic shade of pink for the fondant, but if the peonies on the cake don’t sear my retinas with fuschia glory, well it just won’t be RIGHT.”)

Notes of appreciation or small gifts will ensure someone will not hate you for slaving away on sewing last minute projects for their “type A must have matching table runners” friend.  The best thanks though?  Public embarrassment!  I don’t know if it’s adult to feel special when someone brags about your Sangria for five minutes in front of a small group, but I totally do.



To retouch on my previous points- in the end, it won’t matter if the glitter is evenly dispersed on the tables or if you have the right red-to-white-wine ratio established for your next shindig.   If you or your party-goers are miserable, that is the ONLY MEASURE you need to worry about. People will remember the chemistry of your party and how it made them feel, not if your linens were spotless.  Linens and decorations are really more about you than them anyway- so don’t make it about you.


Well all- I’ll have to keep you posted on what cocktail dress I ended up choosing.  I know it’s going to be a great party- and I look forward to coming back to resume focus on FrugalBeautiful.  Your ideas, suggestions and input are totally appreciated so I can offer content for YOU.

Remember, don’t get caught up in “the day of the party”  you know it will be perfect.  Instead- get caught up in making every day a party…the big ones will just fall into place.  Love to you all! Muah!




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