How to Plan a Party on a Budget

Do you ever look at party ideas online and your heart sinks a bit when you see that some fancy event company planned it, so it probably cost at least a thousand dollars to pull it off?

That has happened to me too many times, but I’ve learned how to plan a party on a budget. And no, “budget” doesn’t have to mean a crummy party with stale shortbread cookies as the only refreshment.

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Here are my top tips for planning a party on a budget:

1. Set a budget before doing anything else

Determine a party budget before you even start planning. Knowing your limit will help to keep you in line and avoid spending more than you should.

When you come up with the budget, keep these categories in mind:

  • Food/drinks
  • Decorations
  • Entertainment
  • Presents
  • Favors

Try to be realistic with your budget…you won’t be able to throw an elaborate Unicorn Rainbow party with a professional, custom-made cake on a budget of $50, but also don’t give in to the pressure that you have to get yourself into debt to throw an impressive party. Be realistic with what you can afford and stick to it.

2. Don’t use a venue

If you’re trying to figure out how to plan a party on a budget, chances are you’re not even considering a venue, but if you are, rethink it (unless you’re getting married; that’s different than a one-year-old’s birthday party).

Think of a family member or friend who has a house or yard that would be perfect for your party. I have siblings or in-laws who are always perfectly willing to share their home or yard for events, and I hope you have someone in your life like that too! Just make sure to help clean up as if the celebration were at your own house. I think I’d be pretty mad if someone threw a party at my place but didn’t help clean up.

3. Pick an inexpensive menu

The price of food is something you may not consider when planning what food you’ll serve at your party, but it really matters! I figured this out when my hubby and I were planning our wedding. He wanted to do fondue, which sounded cool, but I quickly learned that all that cheese, chocolate, and cream would make us pound right through our wedding budget.

Choosing cheaper party food doesn’t mean you have to feed your guests saltine crackers and water in little plastic cups, but maybe rethink your expensive menu. For example, fresh berries are an excellent choice for you and your family, but if you’re on a budget, you may not want to feed chocolate-dipped raspberries to your child’s 25 party guests who would probably eat them by the handful (while leaving at least a few smashed in the carpet).

Here are some of my favorite inexpensive party foods:

Dips – try Cowboy Caviar! If you’re really tight, consider a dip that uses chips instead of crackers for a smaller grocery bill.

Taco or Tostada Bar – I did a tostada bar for a family party, and I was surprised by how much everybody loved it.

Pasta – I thought it was a little cheesy to provide spaghetti for my son’s first birthday party, but it was fun, and the kids who were there had a blast making a massive mess of themselves.

Dessert Bar – You can make some pretty tasty treats for cheap. My go-to desserts that people (mostly my husband) ask me to make regularly are these salty browned butter chocolate chip cookiesbanana cream pie in a bowl, this peach cobbler recipe, these Rice Krispy treats, and this super simple pumpkin squares recipe.

4. Use what you have at home

What do you have in your cupboards that doesn’t taste like cardboard? Can you make a delicious refreshment out of it?

Shortly after my son was born, we had him blessed in our church. It’s common to have family over for a luncheon afterward, and my husband and I have A LOT of family members.

I love to host groups like this, but we were also really tight on money. I considered what I had – lots of beans and cheese! I decided to do a tostada bar, and it helped keep my costs low. It also helped that people asked me what they could bring, so I had others bring tomatoes, lettuce, and sour cream.

What do you have that would be good food for your party? Do you have box upon box of pasta like I do? Try a pasta bar for your fest. Do you have lots of dessert ingredients that could contribute to some delicious treats? Your guests definitely won’t shy away from a dessert table.

5. Make your own cake

I say this, though I love picking up cake or cupcakes for my birthday (otherwise I’d be making it myself). BUT making your own cake will save so much money! Try my go-to birthday cake. It’s a box cake with a few additions. I make this ALL the time, and it is honestly one of the best cakes I’ve had. 

I make it as a 9×13, cupcakes, and a layered cake. It’s to-die-for no matter how you have it. I usually serve it with Chocolate Buttercream Frosting or this Vanilla Buttercream Frosting. Both are frostings I have used repeatedly for years because they’re so good!

I plan to create a post all about this cake soon, but in the meantime, here’s the super simple recipe:

Killer Chocolate Cake

1 box Devil’s Food Cake 

Make according to the recipe on the back of the box. 


1 box instant chocolate fudge pudding (dry) 

1/3 cup sour cream

1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips

Bake according to directions on the box (it usually takes a little bit longer. Check a few spots with a toothpick and take it out when the toothpick comes out dry (unless it hit a chocolate chip).

6. Let people help

People almost always ask me what they can bring to a party I’m throwing. I hope that happens for you too, and if it does, DON’T be too prideful or shy to give them something to bring. If you’re on a tight budget, any little bit can help. Throwing a party can get expensive! LET PEOPLE HELP. (Yes, I’m yelling…but kindly. I just really feel passionate about this). Usually if people ask, they probably WANT to help.

If friends or family ask you how they can help and you really could use it, have them bring chips, drinks, or something else that isn’t too costly.

7. Shop sales

Plan your menu around food that’s on sale at the moment, or fresh produce that’s in season (and usually priced a little lower). You can also check out the dollar store or the Dollar Spot at Target for inexpensive, but cute party supplies.

If you have an idea of your party theme long before it happens, that may give you time to hunt for bargains. For example, I knew I wanted my daughter’s third birthday to have a star theme. Her birthday is in October, but I bought cute star napkins, straws, and a banner from the Target Dollar Spot around Independence Day. My husband thought I was silly, but I got that stuff much cheaper than I would have if I’d waited.

8. Plan your party outside of meal times

If you’d rather not feed your crowd an entire meal, try to choose a time that’s not close to a mealtime (i.e., 12:00 or 6:00). I’m really into food, so I often gauge whether I need to eat before a party or event based on the starting time. You could also let guests know what to expect so they don’t come famished and eat your entire table of treats.

9. Limit your guest list

You might feel guilty for not inviting all your friends, cousins, second cousins, and co-workers to your kid’s second birthday party but don’t. If you’re tight with money, do your best to keep the guest list in control.

I’ve done this for the past few years and even when people I care about find out that I had an event they weren’t invited to (like my kid’s birthday party or another type of celebration), they don’t end up cutting me off.

I would never want to hurt anybody’s feelings, but I also have to consider my budget and sanity. So do you! If you feel you need to, explain, “We only had immediate family,” or “We decided to do a little friend party this year.” Hopefully, people will just understand.

10. Plan free activities

There are so many free activities that you can plan to entertain guests. Check out Pinterest for free game ideas. Nobody will judge you for playing DIY Minute to Win It games rather than renting a bouncy house.

You can also just turn on some fun music and have an impromptu dance party. Or let the kids go crazy with the toys in the basement while the adults catch up (because that’s what we like to do anyway, right?). There’s probably no need to invite a magician to your two-year-old’s birthday party. Even if that’s what they REALLY want, remember you’re the boss and they’re not aware of your money situation. I’m sure you’ve got a brother or a pal who has mastered cheesy card tricks that would blow some toddlers’ minds. 😉

11. Remember that you don’t have to throw a perfect party

I mentioned that we served spaghetti for my son’s first birthday party. We also bought a cute plastic tablecloth with matching napkins, and I made cupcakes. I’m pretty sure someone else brought the paper plates and plastic silverware. And that was it.

I’m a lover of parties, but I always try to do what works for me at the moment based on my current life situation. Sometimes that’s a more elaborate party, but sometimes is something super simple. And I think that as long as you’re happy and inviting to your guests, everyone else will have a good time, too.

Planning a fun party on a budget is possible! Remember, it’s not worth being stressed over money or even getting into debt to throw the perfect party.