By Elle Smith
Just because you are event planning on a beer budget – even a Keystone Light budget – doesn’t mean you can’t pull off a champagne level soiree. If I can do it, you can do it. Much to my own dismay, I have never had a big budget to work with for any event. From planning events professionally for a non-profit, to planning personal events on a non-profit employee’s paycheck, glorious event budgets just haven’t been in the cards for me. That’s no excuse to let low budget look low budget. With thoughtful planning you can make your simple shindig quite a success. Determine what your total budget is. Be honest and then create an event budget breakdown. Use a spreadsheet or checklist. I created one just for you here, but if that doesn’t quite meet your needs, find one that does. Of course I could have been simpler and just encourage you to shop at thrift stores, yards sales, dollar stores, and clearance racks. I think you should do ALL of those things. But beyond the obvious, here are my top seven ways to get the most out of your event budget.
1) Consciously Select your Date/Time
This tip may not always come into play, but if you are renting a venue, hiring a band/dj or otherwise booking something or someone, please be aware that rates may vary based on the day. Weekdays, even Fridays, tend to be less expensive than weekends. Use that to your advantage. Similarly, select your event’s time of day carefully. Food rates vary by the time of day, even when the amount of food remains the same. Dinner is most expensive (although you could benefit from Happy Hour drink and app prices during that same time). Lunch will be mid-range and breakfast/brunch will be the least expensive meal. If you aren’t worried about impressing your guests with a great meal, consider doing a 2PM snack celebration (great for kid’s birthdays… assuming they are beyond the nap stage) or an 8PM evening reception for adult gatherings. Do not set up a 5:30PM gathering and then think you are all set with some chips and dips. If your event is anywhere in a mealtime range, they will expect a meal. Don’t leave the guests with grumbly-tummies. If you can’t afford to feed them all, don’t party at a meal time.
2) Consider free or cheap venues.
Whether or not you are trying to plan a grand gathering, don’t overlook venues that are completely free or close to it. Your home or yard is definitely on that list. But so are your friends’ and family members’ homes and yards. And so are parks, churches (not just for weddings as many churches have recreation and/or banquet areas), schools/colleges, restaurants/bars, libraries, arboretums and gardens. Many of these places will have rules about food or drinks. Public businesses are not free per se, however, many will let you use certain spaces free of charge if you and your guests are eating and drinking from their menu.
3) Overlap Categories
This is one of my favorite ways to cut corners. Use one expense category to cover the cost of another. For example, if you are suffering from severe sticker shock after pricing out lovely floral centerpieces, but you also have your heart set on beautiful cupcakes for your guests, consider making the cupcakes your centerpieces. If you want them raise and pretty, I promise you can make up pedestals for less than $2 each (plate or platter + candle stick). Guests won’t have to wait in line, and you will save on all the centerpiece costs and might save even more by eliminating an extra dessert table, table cloth and decorations for that table.
4) Beg, Borrow & Steal
Okay, so I am exaggerating a little here, but really, get your friends, family and neighbors to help you out a little. If they can’t, maybe your boss can. That may sound a little funny but I have borrowed table cloths, an easel, coolers, tables and chairs all from current/past employers. More than likely, if they aren’t using it, you ask, and it doesn’t violate the employee handbook, they won’t mind. I also have the sort of relationships with my closest friends that I can call and ask them to bring ice, soda and beer and they will. Of course I know I will be bringing an extra veggie tray to their kid’s birthday, but it still helps me spread out my costs and time and that is good.
5) Do with Whatcha Got & DIY
Use items you already own to decorate. I touched on this in my last article, but I still mean it. Use your own lamps, tables, chairs, frames, serving ware and more. The room will look more polished and you won’t be wasting your limited dollars on plastic serving trays, or be limiting yourself to florescent lighting. For custom signage, find free prinatables or make your own – even if it’s just in Word. There are plenty of great, free downloadable fonts, including dingbat-types, that can help you make simple, custom signs. Pop them into frames right off of you own walls or shelves and you have special sign to put by the food, drinks, games or whatever. For birthdays, showers, or weddings, create photo garlands out of old yarn, string, or ribbon, photos, and a $1.00 pack of wooden clothespins. Chalkboards are another great already-owned item that can be used for custom greetings, quotes, or images.
Put your money where it matters. Decide what is most important all the way down to least important. It may be of utmost importance than every one of your 37 cousins and all their babies are able to join you for a Christmas Eve dinner. So important that you don’t care if that means you are serving spam to feast on. Break your budget down based on your specific priorities. I have added this in as part of the budget planner I created. Tweak it to work for you. Cross off the items you don’t want or need before you start prioritizing the things you will spend on.
7) Make your skimping appear intentional
Spend less while looking better. Rather than pick a theme at random or just because you love it, think about my other money-saving recommendations and then pick a theme. Last Christmas I did an Ugly Sweater Party. I created invitations indicating that tacky was the word of the night, so we did white elephant exchange, potluck, and every other retro-tackyish thing I could think of. It was no accident that these were all penny-pinching moves. If you have an aunt who doesn’t mind sharing her pool and patio for a birthday, use it for a pool party. Play that up. Bring your extra beach/patio chairs. Serve fun (but cheap) picnic foods. If these aren’t working for you select other themes that are less expensive. That includes everything from country charm (upcycled jars and burlap scraps), or rustic urban (salvaged bricks, metal and wood). For funkier fiestas, give an ‘80s or ‘90s bash a go.
Another great trick of the trade is to make something “signature.” Signature sounds special and custom (it is!), but it also is typically cheaper. Think of it this way: Say you have decided you’d like to have 40 drinks available for your group of 8-10 women. You could hit up Costco and get a good deal on 10 bottles of wine. Even at only $6-7/bottle you would spend $60-70. Or you could find/create a “signature cocktail” premade in a glass dispenser or pitcher and serve all of your guests and then some for under $40, and your beverage will seem more special. More and more brides and grooms are opting out of traditional wedding cakes and instead serving their own favorite deserts. It is far more intimate and I promise your grandmas and aunties (and the bakery for that matter) can make a LOT of apple pies for the price of a moderate wedding cake.
8. Ask around.
Everyone knows someone or knows someone who knows someone who is just starting something. Whether that something is deejaying, baking, a band, photography, etc- there are people who are just begging to offer their services, limited as they may be at little or no cost. **Warning** please, please, please do you research. Do not hire a free band just because they are a free band. I promise you- an ipod is much better to use than a bad band.
Cheers & happy event planning!