Graduations are a major event in your life and in your child’s life. It seems only fitting to throw a party, one that everyone will remember fondly for years to come, possibly for life. It takes great planning to lay the groundwork for a bash like that, so here’s a step-by-step guide for planning the perfect graduation party.
Is It Appropriate to Have a Party?
Before you get too deep into planning, it’s a good idea to take a moment and ask if now is a good occasion to have a graduation party.
High school graduations, college graduations, and professional certifications are the most common occasions to celebrate. These are major occasions that also mark big changes in a person’s life. It’s a way to formally close one chapter in life and open another one.
While it’s possible to throw a graduation party for kindergarten or elementary school completion, it might not be well received. If you want to throw a party for these occasions, survey some other parents from your child’s class first. If others feel as you do, perhaps planning a joint party would make sense.
Talk to Your Grad
Zoey Manguso, mother of five, recently threw a graduation party for her youngest. She explained how they planned the party: “Our number one goal was to listen to what [our son] wanted. He didn’t want a big party so we kept it small even though several of his classmates had big parties.”
Before you start party planning, take time to talk to your grad to understand what graduation party ideas they have. Some might want a big party that includes all their friends. Some might want to gather the family to celebrate the occasion. Others might want a small selection of close friends and family.
A couple of caveats. First, you need to know your grad. Some might say they don’t want a party, but they will actually be happy with a small party. Second, you can’t always expect them to give detailed feedback about all party details. Try to quickly figure out what aspects of the party matter most to them (guests, venue, activities, theme, etc.), then handle the rest of the details yourself.
Along these lines, if you’re a grad, and your family is planning a graduation party you won’t enjoy, try to let them know as soon as possible.
Set Your Budget
Once you have a basic sense of the type of party you’re throwing, you can start budgeting for it. Don’t budget more than you can afford for the party, but understand the limitations your budget may set for you. You can throw a good party at home or another free venue for $20-$25 per guest if you prepare the food.
If you want to rent a venue, expect to pay at least $5 per person per hour. You may be able to do better, but with your deposit, fees, and more, it can be hard to find a quality venue for less than that.
Catering can vary widely depending on what you’re looking for. If a service drops off food and you serve it, it can cost as little as $15 per person. If you want buffet service or food truck catering, you can expect to pay $25 or more per person, and traditional catering typically costs $50 or more per person. The actual costs will vary depending on your choice of caterer and menu items, but these are good placeholder values to help with your initial planning.
Greg Jenkins, a party planner with 35 years of experience, recommends that you do some preliminary research about possible costs at this stage, then reserve a 15% contingency fund in case things turn out to be more expensive than they looked at first.
Build the Guest List
Next, it’s important to build the right guest list. Your budget will determine how many people you can invite depending on the style of party you’re throwing.
This is a place where you want to ask your grad who they want at their party–and who they don’t. This is their party, and you should do them the favor of not inviting people they don’t get along with, even if they’re close family. If this might raise some hackles in your family, you can plead budget limitations and say you had to prioritize the grad’s guests. Then make it up to the offended members of your family by inviting them over for a different event where your grad doesn’t have to make much of an appearance.
One good suggestion for your guest list is to build it in waves. Once you get responses from your first wave, you can decide whether you have room to invite people from the second wave.
Another good rule for building the guest list: make sure every person you invite knows and can talk to at least one person besides yourself and the grad. Neither of you will be able to dedicate time to entertaining any given person.
Note that your guest list doesn’t have to include everyone who received a graduation announcement.
Choose a Location
Choose a location that will accommodate both the number of guests and the style of party you want.
To save money, you might want to have the party at your house or that of a family member. However, you need to be honest with yourself about how many people the location can really house. Think about where people will congregate, where you will serve food, and whether your bathrooms can handle the demand. Another way to handle a party at your home is to make it an open house: people can come and go all day, so your space might never get overloaded.
If you are considering using the house of a friend or family member, make an explicit request early on. Don’t take it for granted that you’ll be able to use the space.
When considering venue rental, don’t forget to ask about restrictions on decorations and party features like confetti. Also, ask about conduct guidelines and expectations for load-in and cleanup. Some venues have in-house professionals like caterers and DJs. If they don’t have in-house professionals, they might still have professionals they regularly recommend. Make sure to ask. Sometimes working with a recommended DJ or caterer could earn you a discount. Even if it doesn’t give you a discount, working with someone who knows the space can help everything run smoothly.
No matter the venue, always make sure you have a contingency plan in place for bad weather.
Decide on a Date
Choosing a date for a graduation party can be tricky. If you are renting a venue, you may have limited choices. Even if you are holding the party at home or somewhere else with no date restrictions, you will have to work around other graduation parties, senior activities for high school graduation parties, and summer travel plans.
Have your grad float a few possible dates with their friends and most desired guests. If you find out a friend is considering one of the same dates as you, reach out to them. It’s better to coordinate plans–either have one reschedule or hold a joint party–than having competing parties.
Finalize a Party Theme
Once you’ve got a venue, a guest list, and a date, it’s almost time to send out invitations. But there’s one more thing you need to decide before you do: the theme and style of the party.
For a really great party, it’s best to set the mood with the invitations. It helps everyone to get in the party spirit if you convey your theme through the invitations. The invitations should feature the colors of the party, whether a classic black-and-gold theme, the school colors, or something more appropriate to the party or the grad.
Finalizing the theme will also help you decide if there’s any special information you need to convey in the invitation (more on this in a moment).
Try to send out graduation party invitations so that people receive them at least a month before the event. That will give your guests plenty of time to put it on their calendars and RSVP.
The design of the invitations should give a sense of the style of the party, but don’t leave any important information implicit. If you have a dress code for the party, include it in the invitation. If you know what food you’re providing, let guests know, and give them an opportunity to let you know of any dietary restrictions. Also, let them know if you’ll be serving alcohol and under what conditions: beer and wine, themed cocktails, or cash bar, for example.
Also, make it clear whether graduation gifts are encouraged, allowed, or discouraged. Grads getting ready to head off to college or starting their independent life might appreciate gifts of cash above all, and you can even say this–hopefully politely and/or humorously–on the invitation.
Although it is OK to encourage people declining the invitation to still send a gift, you should also make it clear that gifts are purely optional.
When planning decorations, you should strive for four goals:
- Make the grad happy
- Create an appropriate, festive atmosphere
- Avoid violating the rules of the venue
- Stay within your budget
When it comes to getting the decorations, keep your grad engaged as much as they want. Maybe they’ll be happy to do all the decorating decisions with you, but perhaps they’re happier to let you run wild with the decorations as long as you follow the basic principles they laid out. A guest book is a popular request so your grad will have a meaningful keepsake from this day.
Experienced party planner Jenkins recommends simple decorations. He notes that paper lanterns and fabric in school colors can make a big impact, and you can keep decorations even more economical by repurposing appropriate items around the house as DIY decorations. If you purchased a graduation cap and gown, for example, you can incorporate them. Meanwhile, Mark Lynch, cofounder of event planning software company Sonas, adds, “Incorporate something meaningful into the decorations.”
Custom cardboard cutouts let you incorporate something meaningful into the party decorations while adding to the festive atmosphere. You can make a 3-D interactive montage of some of your grad’s best moments. It’s a fun conversation starter that can give everyone at the party a point of entry. You can set up a “photo with the grad” station that lets people take their picture with the cutout so the guest of honor can enjoy the party and not be pulled out every few minutes to take another picture.
When you’re planning decorations, make sure you’re following the rules of the venue. One common rule is that you can’t attach anything to the walls. This can make it challenging to decorate, but not impossible. Focus on centerpieces, flowers in vases, and freestanding displays like cardboard cutouts. Balloons are a good way to add a lot of color, and you can pack them on the tables or the dance floor if you can’t attach them to the walls.
Finally, don’t get carried away with your spending on decorations. Individually small purchases like party favors, napkins, and streamers can add up to a big expense if you’re not keeping track of them. You can stick to your budget by starting with the most important and meaningful decorations, then filling in the rest of your budget with some of the more general accents.
Plan Your Menu
Ron Stewart, a chef for more than 20 years, recommends keeping the fare light at a graduation party with finger foods such as appetizers, sandwiches, salads, chips & dip, pizza pockets, cupcakes, and the like. Taco bars and sandwich stations are popular choices for graduation parties. This also makes it easy to accommodate all the dietary restrictions of your guests. Consider making a separate station for vegetarians and vegans to avoid cross-contamination.
If you chose a venue with in-house catering, you might have limited options for your menu. However, it is still important to make sure everyone will have something they can eat. If one or more of your guests have dietary restrictions that the venue can’t accommodate, you may need to supply food or drink separately.
Soft drinks are always appropriate. For a high school graduation party, it might make sense to not serve alcohol so you can avoid the impression that you’re providing alcohol to teens. People are divided about mocktails. To some, they seem a fun alternative for teens, but others see them as glorifying alcohol drinking in a way that encourages teens to drink. Another way to restrict alcohol use is by having a cash bar or choosing a venue where a separate bar is accessible nearby.
For college graduates, alcohol is more appropriate, but make sure you talk to your grad. More young people are skipping alcohol these days, and if your grad doesn’t drink, they might not think serving alcohol is appropriate. Also, be aware if you have recovering alcoholics on your guest list. Some might not feel comfortable attending a party where there will be alcohol. Others are fine with being around alcohol, and might even appreciate having mocktail options so they can fit in with the fun while not drinking.
Entertainment at a graduation party can take many forms. At a minimum, it’s nice to have a good soundtrack that helps people feel the party atmosphere, can cover awkward silences between family members that don’t get together too often, and make for a memorable event. Give your grad a chance to help select a playlist for the event, but feel free to veto a few songs that might not be appropriate for the crowd. Also, toss in a few songs that will make the old folks at the party feel welcome and festive.
The level of games and events you want to include depends on what your grad wants and what you think your guests will enjoy. There are always a few people who find the outlet of playing games makes parties more enjoyable. At an outside venue, you can easily set up games like cornhole or bocce for people to enjoy. If it’s important to your grad, you can find a venue that includes a dartboard or pool tables, but otherwise, these are hard to incorporate. Instead, consider alternatives like a photo booth, trivia games, guess who, or superlatives. Cardboard cutouts make a great way to play this fun party game because it gives people a good place to put their post-its with superlatives written on them, especially if you have a party featuring more than one grad.
A DJ can bring entertainment to another level. They make it easy to craft the party playlist on the fly by taking requests as well as playing from a set list. Plus, they can take the role of emcee and help engage the crowd for dancing or participating in special events.
Of course, it’s important that you don’t lose sight of what matters most at a graduation party: spending time with family and friends to celebrate a very special occasion. Do what you can to set up a party that everyone will enjoy, including you. Consider appointing a party plenipotentiary: someone who can handle most routine problems and questions on the day of the party. Introduce them to the caterers and venue staff, and make it clear what decisions they can handle. Then do the same with party guests as they arrive. Once you hand over responsibility, you’ll be free to settle in and enjoy this special occasion you’ve planned for your grad, even if they’d rather spend the time with their friends.