How to Throw a Sweet 16 Party on a Budget

There's no need to spend a fortune to give your birthday girl or boy a great Sweet 16 party.
There's no need to spend a fortune to give your birthday girl or boy a great Sweet 16 party.
Comstock/Thinkstock

So, your precious daughter (or son) is about to turn 16. Time for a party! You might be envisioning an inexpensive, relaxed shindig in your backyard for a few friends and close family. But if your teen is a fan of MTV's "My Super Sweet 16," he or she might have certain expectations for this affair -- expectations that might include custom-made gowns, rented-out nightclubs, exotic animals and carte blanche with your credit card. Oh, and 500 or so of his or her closest friends -- and bouncers at the door to keep out the riffraff.

But your name is not Daddy Warbucks, and your hopes for this party are just a little bit different. Instead of presenting your daughter with the tricked-out pink Escalade she thinks she so richly deserves, you'll probably be giving her the spare keys to the family minivan. And piped-in iPod tunes are good enough for you -- no need to hire a flavor-of-the-month pop star for musical entertainment. No, you are a sane and rational parent, and this 16th birthday party will be on a budget.

We applaud your good sense -- and wish you luck in dashing your child's champagne dreams. But since you have such a good head on your shoulders, we're thinking your son or daughter is probably pretty sensible, too. He or she will understand that you can't afford to ride a chauffeured stretch limo around town to personally deliver invitations to all 500 guests. E-mailing invitations to 20 guests will probably work just fine.

But just so there's no confusion or disappointment, you need to have an honest talk with your child at the very beginning of the planning process -- discuss exactly how much money you have to spend and how you expect to go about spending it. Be very specific about the kinds of things you will and will not pay for, and make sure your child is able to communicate his or her vision for the party.

No matter what your budget, you should be able to throw a great party without having to take out a second mortgage. And we're here to help. On the following pages are ideas on how to create a fun soirée, from the invitations and décor to the photography and finding the perfect dress.

Budgeting Tips for Your Sweet 16 Party

Simply decorated homemade cupcakes look just as festive as an expensive cake from a professional bakery.
Simply decorated homemade cupcakes look just as festive as an expensive cake from a professional bakery.
iStockphoto/Thinkstock

You might be completely overwhelmed at the thought of planning this party, but it's possible to throw a terrific 16th birthday party that doesn't involve extravagant expectations. Here are several tips for keeping your budget in check:

  • Prioritize. Ask your child what's most important -- a big guest list, the venue, food, music or maybe the décor -- and pick one area to splurge (just a little) on. If having lots of guests would mean serious skimping on other areas of the event, you could spring for dinner at a fancy restaurant for just a few friends. Remind your kid that a smaller guest list could mean a nicer party.
  • Use an online party budgeting tool to create a budget and track expenses.
  • Don't hire a professional photographer. Put single-use cameras (make sure they have a flash if the event's at night or indoors) throughout the party space for guests to be the picture-takers, or ask attendees to bring their own cameras and upload the pictures to a photo-sharing Web site. Then you can create an affordable photo album of the best images.
  • Professional entertainment can be prohibitively expensive, so forget about hiring a band or DJ. And even if you're very specific about the songs you want to hear, they can sometimes deviate from the plan. With iTunes and a laptop computer, iPod, iPad or iPhone, you can play the exact songs you want in the exact order you want, for very little money.
  • If you're on a budget, a surprise party probably isn't the way to go. It's better to spend your money on things you know your child wants than to reveal a surprise that might not be exactly what he or she envisioned.
  • In terms of food, a buffet is cheaper than a sit-down dinner, but you don't necessarily have to serve a meal. You could get away with just desserts and punch at a nighttime party. And borrow plates, cups, utensils and serving platters from friends instead of buying them. Also, forgo the elaborate cake from the expensive bakery and make your own cake or cupcakes.
  • Ask relatives for donations to the party fund instead of gifts. If you can think of any item that can be borrowed or bartered for, go for it. If you can enlist the services of friends and family, do it. Never decline the offer of help from anyone, no matter what form it takes.

Once you've finalized a budget, it's time to go about deciding what the theme of the party will be.

Sweet 16 Party Ideas for Families on a Budget

Even if you're working with a limited budget, there's no reason your kiddo's 16th birthday party can't have a fun theme. Working with a theme might sound like a hassle (and an invitation to overspend), but it can actually help save you money. It'll be a lot easier to shop and stay focused on your budget if you know exactly what you're looking for. You can pick a couple of must-have items for the "wow" factor, and then go simple and inexpensive for everything else. Two theme tips: costumed guests are the easiest way to stretch your decorating dollar, and never underestimate the power of a perfectly crafted music playlist!

Here are three theme ideas that would be easy to pull off on a budget:

  • Hawaiian Luau: No need to roast a pig or hire a fire-eater for a Sweet 16 luau. In fact, you don't even need a pool if you don't have access to one -- your backyard will do just fine. Dollar stores and party shops are usually overflowing with tropical decorations in the spring and summer, so that part is a cinch. Then pick up some grass skirts and tiki lights, tell guests to don their finest flip-flops and Hawaiian shirts, make a few pineapple pizzas and start serving up the piña coladas and daiquiris -- virgin, of course!
  • Totally '80s: It'd be fun to go totally over the top for a 1980s party, but you can also make do with just a few simple but effective items. Black lights are your friends, as is music featuring one-hit wonders and power ballads from hair bands and anything neon from the dollar store. Guests in '80s garb are a must, and here's where it pays off to be a hoarder -- if you've been hanging on to any ancient relics from the Me Decade (prom dress, maybe?) now's your chance to haul them out!
  • Hotel Spa Day: The birthday girl and a few friends get a day of pampering in a hotel suite. Your big expense here is the suite, but it's really a minimal cost compared to throwing a party. Start off in the afternoon and give each girl a robe when she arrives. Serve a few fancy snacks and play relaxing music. Call in favors and recruit friends and family members to give manicures, pedicures, facials and makeup applications. When everyone's all relaxed and prettied up, send them downstairs for a nice dinner in the hotel restaurant.

Once you have theme determined, the next step is to send invitations to the party.

Sweet 16 Party Supplies on a Budget

The kids on "My Super Sweet 16" have thought of umpteen ways to deliver their party invitations, each more dramatic (and expensive) than the next. Good old-fashioned snail-mail invitations are obviously a much more inexpensive option, but do you know what's even cheaper? E-mailed ones. More traditional parents might think it's too informal for such an occasion, but kids these days are constantly on their phones and computers and wouldn't think twice about it. And did we mention it's free? You can use sites such as Evite, Sendomatic and Socializr to create, send and track responses to your digital invitations.

Next up is décor. If you don't want to deal with an elaborate theme, we suggest working with a color scheme. It'll save you time and money to focus on looking for tableware, centerpieces and decorations in certain colors. But no matter what your color scheme, you can never go wrong with lots of white string lights (use what you already have from your holiday décor!) They're the simplest way to make even the plainest venue party-ready. Paper globe lights are another great option for an instantly festive look.

When you're shopping for party supplies, you'll probably find that the best deals are not at chain party supply stores. You might have to search around and mix and match from different places, but you'll end up with a much more creative, unique look than if you bought everything from the same aisle at one store. Try dollar stores, craft stores, large discount retailers and even grocery stores.

Next up are some tips on how to save on one item that could be a Sweet 16 budget-buster: the dress.

Finding Low-cost Sweet 16 Dresses

Consignment shops are a great place to find formalwear at a discount.
Consignment shops are a great place to find formalwear at a discount.
iStockphoto/Thinkstock

The birthday girl's dress is the centerpiece of many a Sweet 16 party -- and it's also what can blow your budget right out of the water. Of course, your daughter might not feel the need to make a grand entrance in a custom-made full-length ball gown (or make three costume changes). But if she does want a fancy frock, you don't have to spend an arm and a leg on it.

The first rule of getting good deal on a Sweet 16 dress is not to buy a "Sweet 16" dress. You don't need to go to a specialty store or search for something that's advertised especially for teens -- that'll most likely just add to the expense. And shorter cocktail dresses, obviously, are less expensive than long gowns, so throwing a more informal party will help your budget in this area.

Buying a used dress is a great way to snag designer dresses for a fraction of their retail price. Formal dresses are typically worn just a few times, so it'll probably be in near-perfect condition. There are plenty of Web sites that specialize in reselling prom and bridesmaids' dresses, and of course there's always an enormous dress selection on eBay and Craigslist. Check out your local consignment stores, too.

Accessories are the perfect chance for a splurge -- or a freebie. Your daughter might turn up her nose at a borrowed dress, but maybe a fabulous pair of loaner earrings or a borrowed necklace would be OK. If not, you can still save by buying a simple, well-priced dress and splurging on a statement necklace, earrings, bracelet or ring.

Once the dress and accessories have been finalized, there are still the finishing touches to worry about. Paying for a professional hairdo, manicure and makeup session could easily undo all your good work with the dress budget. But surely there's a friend, grandmother, aunt or neighbor who would love to give a birthday gift of their time for hairstyling, a mani/pedi or mini makeover.

In the end, though, don't worry too much if your daughter falls in love with an insanely expensive dress. You can always take it to a consignment store or sell it online after the party -- if she agrees to part with it.

On the next page you'll find more information on throwing birthday parties.

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Sources

  • Cozzone, Kelly. "Sweet 16 parties on a budget." Examiner. Sept. 28. 2011. (Nov. 4, 2011) http://www.examiner.com/family-parenting-in-national/sweet-16-parties-on-a-budget
  • Evite. "Party Budget Estimator." (Nov. 5, 2011) http://www.evite.com/app/party/calculator/view.do
  • Party Spot. "Sweet 16: Checklist of To-dos." (Nov. 4, 2011) http://www.partyspot.com/articles/article.aspx?articleid=A61103093850
  • US Weekly. "Diddy Buys Son $360,000 Maybach for 16th Birthday." Jan. 25, 2010. (Nov. 6, 2011) http://www.usmagazine.com/celebrity-news/news/diddy-buys-son-maybach-for-16th-birthday-2010251
  • Van Dyk, Deirdre. "$38,000 Kids' Birthday Parties?" Time. Jan. 22, 2007. (Nov. 6, 2011) http://www.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,1581036,00.html