Hello dear reader,
Spoilers: $50 is plenty to throw a wonderful event! There’s no budget-shaming here at Where Is The Damn Corkscrew, in either direction. You can throw a party on a budget and still have delighted guests and sanity intact.
I have laid out a framework for planning a low-budget get-together below in the first half of this post. In the second half, I’ve broken down some sample $50 party budgets. These examples include specific suggestions for planning different types of events based on different priorities, all assuming a $50 budget.
Strategies for Maximizing the Awesome of a $50 Party
The Venue: It’s Where The Party’s At
The likelihood that you will have to use a free (or “included”) venue is almost 100%. Examples include a living room, office break room, restaurant bar area that you can just meander up to, park pavilion that doesn’t require paid reservations, school cafeteria and the like. With that in mind, all the scenarios below assume a venue cost of $0.
A $50 party will depend heavily on what is available in your venue. If you want music, is there a sound system built in, or do you already own speakers you can bring? (Laptop speakers are rarely loud enough, a normal-level conversation usually drowns them out.)
Do you have any options for controlling the lighting, perhaps with dimmers? If your venue is an office space or classroom with overhead fluorescent lighting, I’m sorry to say you are probably stuck with that. If you have options, adjusting the lighting can be one of the simplest ways to have a big impact. For low-budget, think dimmers and candles!
Please, please, please prioritize providing background music. The speakers don’t have to be DJ-level, just loud enough to still be audible when there is a conversation. One of the saddest sounds in the world is the slow “fizz” of a 2-liter soda bottle opening in the middle of a dead-silent party.
Glassware is ideal to class it up, and yes mismatched glassware is totally fine. Even freaking apple juice looks and tastes better in a wine glass or cocktail tumbler.
If you need disposables, include the cost of cups and napkins in the beverage cost below. For disposables and paper goods (and even party glassware), the dollar store is your friend. It’s not ideal for the regular supply chain, but we’re working with what we’ve got.
When in doubt, offer one interesting, signature beverage option as your centerpiece. You can even make it the title / theme of your party. Any excuse to celebrate, right?
- Booze-inclined: Sangria night, spiked hot cider night, brunch mimosas, BYOB beer / wine / whiskey tastings are all good options.
- Non-booze-inclined: Signature peppermint hot chocolate, homemade strawberry lemonade, tea party (or tea / coffee tasting for the less dainty among us), or even a freaking SodaStream party if your friends don’t have one and want to see how it works.
How many drinks do you need to buy? I have a whole separate post that lists out the best drink calculators on the web which will help you prevent over-buying.
Decor: Less Is More (#rhymetime)
If in doubt about how to decorate, feature one signature piece of decor, like super-stylish cocktail napkins, or a big garnish or topper on your signature centerpiece dish.
Use what you already have.
I can hear the gasps and the rattle of clutched pearls from around the internet already –
“But Madeline, I want to sell your readers NEW things for their party! Being cost-effective by raiding their closets doesn’t require them to buy anything!” Yes. Yes, I know. What can I say, I’m a rebel. I’m also here to provide an alternative to full-service event planners, not an online shop of lovely home decor items.
Seriously, use what you already have.
See what’s lurking in your box of seasonal items (yes even if you think it’s only Christmas stuff in there, you never know), the drawer where you keep tablecloths and napkin rings and such, the office supply closet, the flowers in your garden (or in the garden of a delightful nearby neighbor).
Spending $0 on decor is achievable even when you have a budget over $50. I threw a housewarming party this year that entirely used leftover decor items from my wedding. Creativity can save you mucho dinero, and you don’t even have to be crafty, just able to think outside the box.
If in doubt about color, pick just one anchor color. Seriously, just one. It doesn’t matter what it is, just that you like it. My two main sources of inspiration are either seasonal colors in nature or in my wardrobe. Go look in your closet and see what kinds of colors you tend to buy for yourself.
Budget-Friendly Decor Ideas
The dollar store and thrift store and DIY are your friends! If you’re not DIY-handy, I suggest sticking to basic decor like colored tablecloths or balloons (balloons can be classy when done well – more metallics, fewer goofy captions). For the DIY route, miracles can happen with dollar store wrapping paper and/or colored construction paper.
For some reason, my friends always are impressed when food and drink options are labeled. Folded index cards + your best penmanship/your favorite script font = epic win
Flowers are always a winner, and can be absolutely lovely as a single signature decor item!
Grocery store floral departments are highly under-used and very affordable! My favorites are Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, and Wegmans. For maximum budget-friendliness, get a bouquet without a vase and use your own container (e.g. pitcher, wine bottle, ice bucket, whatever) and you will save mucho dinero. Ain’t no shame in getting pre-made arrangements though! Those might be more cost-effective in the reusable silk floral variety from a craft store like Michael’s or, again, the dollar store.
Decor can also always be omitted – what matters for an awesome event are the people, not cutesy party favors or Instagrammable banners.
The #1 strategy to throw a classy party for $50 or less is to use what you already have.
Specific Party Scenarios: $50 Or Less
The Small Party with Alcoholic Drinks & Snacks
Guest List: 6 or Fewer (including host)
- Grown-up board game night
- Small Oscars party
- Celebrating a milestone with that nice bottle of wine you’ve been saving
- It’s Friday, Friday, gotta get down on Friday
- Alcoholic drinks are of course more expensive than non-alcoholic drinks. To maximize your beverage dollars, consider your guests’ preferences – will two $12 cases of bargain-basement beer work or two $12 bottles of decent wine work better? The bargain-basement beer option will allow you to invite more people.
- If you are offering liquor, I suggest one not-terrible bottle of basic unflavored liquor and then a variety of mixers. For example, one medium-quality vodka with mixers like cranberry juice, orange juice, etc.
- Know Thy Guest List –
With such a small guest list (say 6 or less), pondering whether everyone will get along is more crucial to ensuring everyone has a good time. Not that everyone has to know each other, of course, but if one-third of the guest list is a recently broken-up couple, the likelihood of a rollicking good time is slim.
The Small Get-Together with Non-Alcoholic Drinks & Snacks
Guest List: 10 or Fewer (including host)
- Movie night at home
- Picnic at a public park
- Small office baby shower
- Extracurricular club celebration
- Even for just snacks, I recommend offering a centerpiece or signature food item, such as a themed cake or a big watermelon or slow cooker meatballs.
- Decor can always be omitted for more food or drink.
- Ice can never be omitted! Thou shalt not forget the ice.
The Small Party with Drinks & Bring-your-own Snacks
Guest List: 10 or Fewer (including host)
- Potluck-style for snacks gives you way more options in terms of beverages and decor. I’m thinking mocktails in fancy pitchers with little umbrellas, colored disposable tablecloths, themed signage, and more!
- If you provide non-alcoholic drinks only, that will allow for a bigger guest list, maybe 20-25 people, though definitely check your venue limit and amount of seating.
- Omitting decor will allow for a bigger guest list, maybe 20-25 people, though definitely check your venue limit and amount of seating.
- If you provide non-alcoholic drinks only andomit decor, you can invite even more people – at this point, I would recommend double checking your venue limit and amount of seating.
The Small Party with Snacks & Bring-your-own Alcoholic Drinks
Guest List: 16 or Fewer (including host)
- Alcohol is expensive, so spreading out that cost among your guests gives you many more options. More budget for the host equals more flexibility for snacks or decor or the number of guests to invite!
- When you’re inviting people or following up to see who’s coming, a quick verbal confirmation as to what beverages your guests will bring is totally fine. I recommend opening the question with something logistical like “I want to make sure I want to have enough cups / I want to provide the right kind of mixers / figure out how many bottle openers to have on hand / figure out how many shot glasses I need, any thoughts on what you might bring?”
- Know Thy Guest List – Will people actually BYOB, and if so what types of drinks will they bring? Will there be any resentment or confusion if one person brings a case of bargain beer and someone else brings top-shelf scotch whiskey? Requests within reason are totally fine – think along the lines of, “If I order pizza, can you bring beer?” versus “If you can’t find a locally brewed IPA microbrew, FINE, I can get by with just Stella Artois, you uncultured swine.”
- In general, I suggest refraining from calling your guests “uncultured swine.”
The Restaurant Happy Hour
Guest List: 4 or Fewer
- After-work birthday drinks
- After-dinner dessert & drinks
- Restaurant-Specific Considerations:
- Your mileage may vary with guest list/budget limitations based on cost of living in your area.
- Pick a bar with a vibe you like. They’ve done the decorating for you!
- Ice should definitely be available at the bar. If not let me know and I will write a strongly worded letter on your behalf.
- Know the restaurant, and know your crowd. Some people love $1 beer nights, and I hear that is still a thing in some parts of the world (#inflation). Other people would love to celebrate in a new interesting place with trendy $12 drinks.
- A quick Google or Yelp or DuckDuckGo search will suffice to find out the rough price point of places you are considering. Assume 1-2 drinks per person and 1-2 appetizer plates for every 4 people. Your mileage may vary based on cost of living in your area.
- I suppose you could do a Bing search if you insist.
- Remember location, location, location – for something chill like happy hour people won’t come out if it’s a pain in the butt to get there.
- With such a small guest list (say 6 or less), pondering whether everyone will get along is more crucial to ensuring everyone has a good time.
- The great thing about happy hour at a bar – rather than sitting down for a meal – is that it’s much easier for a guest who wants to head out early to do so, after literally one drink, or to arrive late if they get held up. I’ve used the “I can only stay for one drink” line and have either quickened or stretched my drinking pace as appropriate, to hang out for as short as 10 minutes or as long as over an hour. That’s totally fine! If I stay for over an hour with only one drink I personally leave an extra fat cash tip for the bartender to show my appreciation for putting up with me, even if I’m not hosting. I do typically over-tip, though, so use your own judgment when tipping. (Hint: Tip more.)
- If you do the inviting and planning, you pick up the tab.
- If one of your guests insists on paying, a standard polite reaction is to refuse their offer twice, and then let it go. I suggest refusing only once if it’s an after-work setting and the person insisting on paying has professional seniority over you at your organization. Some companies even have a policy of the most senior staff member paying for official company meals, and that policy often informally carries over to casual social settings.
- The general guideline bears repeating: If you do the inviting and planning, you pick up the tab. If you don’t want to pick up the tab, make it clear you’re not hosting, just choosing a place to meet. For example, “how about we meet at MacLaren’s after work and buy Robin a birthday drink” instead of “hey, happy hour at MacLaren’s after work for Robin’s birthday, my treat” and then you don’t treat! Don’t be that friend, please.
The Last-Minute Hangout with Literally Just Ice Water
Guest List: However many people fit in your free venue
***Ice water is the most basic refreshment you can offer. Thou shalt not forget the ice!
Ways To Make Ice Water Extra Classy:
- Pitchers! You probably have one stuffed in the back of your cabinet under the roasting pan or other things you use only once a year. Bust it out. Or, again, dollar store. Seasonal pitchers are extra fun.
- Garnishes make everything look classier. Slice up some lemons or cucumbers.
- Put those garnishes in a nice bowl for bonus fancy points.
- For extra bonus fancy points, add tongs, toothpicks, or themed colored toothpicks next to those garnishes.
- If you just love being extra, make a tiny sign that says “ice water.” Hey, if you have more time on your hands than money, make it work for you!
I hope these rough budget outlines help get you brainstorming what kinds of parties you can throw for $50.
Also when I mentioned “Know Thy Guest List” and “Thou Shalt Not Forget the Ice” – those are two of the Three Keys to Sane Party Planning covered in my free email course.
What are your thoughts? How would you spend $50 for a party?
Until next time!