Throwing Awesome Parties on a Budget


When you start living on a budget, you might think parties will be the first thing to go. But consider an important philosophical question — what good is life without parties and revelry? You work hard, and it's not so you can live in a tiny apartment and eat rocks. It's worth splurging on the little things every now and again. Even when you do decide to indulge a bit, you can do so on a budget. Put simply — you don't need a ton of money to throw a killer party everyone will remember. (See also: Class Without Tons of Cash: Frugal Cocktail Party Ideas)

What Makes for a Great Party?

A great party is made up of four key elements, whether we're talking about your 6-year-old son's birthday party or a cultured soiree for the grownups. These elements are:

  • Good People
  • Good Food
  • Good Drinks
  • Fun Stuff to Do

The first and fourth can be free. If you're partying on a budget, you're probably going to be able to do a better job on the middle two than you might think.

Good People

Good people is something that I can't really help you with. You either know them or you don't. Fortunately, getting them to your party is easier (and more affordable) than ever. Putting the word out on social networks, then gently reminding people to show up is a sure-fire method of packing your party with interesting people. One of the biggest gambles people take when attending a party is knowing if anyone good will be there. A Facebook page for your party will let people know precisely who to expect. Make sure to get people to RSVP!

Good Food

If you want a party with truly good food, you need to start cooking. While you can purchase bulk foods at discount prices, you've moved past the point in your life where a bag of Cheetos in a bowl counts for party snacks. Instead, focus on doing either one large thing very well or several little things that all stand out. It's easier than you think to prepare snacks, and while I'm not going to advise anyone to serve nothing but Ritz Crackers, you ate a ton of Ritz Crackers with cheese on top when you were a kid for a reason — they're delicious.

Don't write off the idea of having a potluck, either. These aren't just an excuse for you to save money on cooking supplies. Particularly in foodie circles, you'll find that a potluck is a bit like a rap battle. Everyone is going to be bringing their "A" game. This allows you to have top-quality food at your party with little cost to you, while also making an affordable party even more of an event.

Good Drinks

Let's assume that by "good drinks" we mean "good drinks for adults," by which we mean "booze." Building a home bar on a budget is a whole article on its own. However, there are some guiding principles to filling your bar with good drink that are especially applicable when hosting a party:

  • Nearly every cocktail can be made if you have a bottle each of scotch, bourbon, gin, rum, and vodka. Barring either expensive taste or prolific drinking ability, a good bar set up is going to put you back about $50.
  • Take care of wine and beer by encouraging guests to BYOB on that front. Stress that you will take care of the hard stuff, and no one will have a problem.
  • As if this needed saying — better doesn't always mean more expensive, and a lot of this has to do with taste. The present author can't stomach Bushmill's, but loves drinking Grant's neat. Conversely, he understands the appeal of Grey Goose, but not Bombay Sapphire. Your mileage may vary, but the ultimate determiner is always taste.
  • If your friends are the "Kool-Aid + Booze = FUN!" types, a large bottle of just about anything will do. A bottom-shelf handle of Bourbon and another of vodka will probably keep this crowd happy. We know that college is over, but whatever. Some people aren't super choosy, and that's OK. 

Put simply — set a budget, stick to it, and buy the most diverse liquor cabinet you can afford.

Fun Stuff to Do

This literally does not require a dime of expenditure on your party. "Fun stuff to do" might mean nothing more than enjoying a meal and good company. It might mean something as elaborate as projecting a film onto the wall of your apartment. Many times the good people part takes care of this. Still, even the most well-intentioned parties have a habit of dying grizzly deaths. When this happens, rely on the following:

  • Mental games seem to be coming back in style. Having a copy of a question book like If... or a game might elicit groans from cynics at first. See how many cynics are left in 15 minutes.
  • Forget what your mother told you — people love talking about politics, sex, and religion.
  • While it won't work with CDs, going through a pile of old, musty records is quite an experience, especially at the end of the night when a party is dying down.
  • Even just natural social graces can count as fun stuff to do. If you are a particularly adept matchmaker, you will also be good at introducing people in such a way that no one will notice or care that witty banter is "all" your party had to offer.

Getting the Most Out of Your Low-Budget Party

A lot of throwing the perfect low-budget party is appreciating the simpler things in life and paying attention to the small details that matter. Think back on the best parties you've ever been to. What is it that made them great? Chances are, it had little-to-nothing to do with how much money was spent. The secret to revelry on a budget is recognizing that it is far more subtle things that make for a good time.

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Guest's picture

We throw a lot of parties at our house - so we quickly turned it into a rotating potluck. The parties usually end with extra alcohol in our fridge, so it's a decent deal.

The potluck definitely cuts down on costs - and I still get to cook whatever we want. The standing around a grill chat is one of my favorites, especially when everyone is trying to learn my techniques.

Guest's picture

Just sharing our fun and frugal party. We have been throwing a Caroling Party for almost twenty years now. I have it down to a science by now LOL.

We invite a TON of people - many don't come - it's a very busy time of year and we always wind up with a full house, but it's one of those parties that you can invite near strangers [like the family of my child's classmate] and close friends and no one feels badly if they have to refuse due to family/work obligations.

I don't really serve a meal, just dessert. However in deference to the fact that I *know* some folks are running behind in life I usually get a spiral ham at Costco, a bag of rolls and have that for those not quite ready for cookies and cocoa! You could easily do this even cheaper with a crockpot of chili.

I serve cookies, cocoa, cold drinks and wine. Many folks bring wine so I don't usually put too much out to start. I have baked the cookies myself many times [cookie dough freezes beautifully! make a roll like pillsbury to slice and bake, or scoop into balls and freeze on a cookie sheet, then bag when hard - bake either from FROZEN for fresh cookies when you're ready] I have also purchased the cookies during busier years - it just depends [obviously this is going to be a buying year - I haven't even started LOL]

People also bring cookies and treats.

By limiting the kids to the crockpot full of cocoa or water it avoids a zillion juice boxes and the cost and mess.

We make our own songbooks - once you've got them printed and copied you can reuse them every year till they fall apart!

I know it's an odd tradition - but those who attend really look forward to this fun, casual evening. It's also a GREAT party for those with many distinct groups of friends [we have friends and family, professional friends, schoolyard friends etc ranging in age from 25-75 and in background from 'never finished high school' to highly educated professionals, artists and actors to lawyers and accountants] because the activity lets everyone have fun and laugh together which breaks the ice beautifully. After you've publicly embarassed yourself with a group of people you're all friends :)

Guest's picture

We were thinking of having a caroling party this year as well!!. Last year we had a bring yer own song or poem (the Irish love singing) and it was great. We were going to call ours 'Carols and Craic'

Guest's picture

Delegating tasks to get done can help cut the costs and it will be less stressful. You'll end up enjoying everyone's company instead of being cooped up in the kitchen. Having a signature cocktail will also cut down on the cost of booze.