AN MTV PARTY ON A PUBLIC-ACCESS BUDGET
Recently I was watching one of those “Sweet Sixteen Mega-Extravanganza” shows on TV. I guess I must have been shaking my head and rolling my eyes a lot because my husband walked in and said, “You know, if you don’t stop watching these shows, your face is going to freeze like that.” “But you wouldn’t BELIEVE what they paid for the DJ!” I shouted in exasperation, “And the FLOWERS! That money could have paid for the kid’s first year of college! And what on earth on they supposed to do when she gets MARRIED? How could they possibly top a stretch Hummer with a chocolate waterfall built into the backseat?!”
Don’t get me wrong, I love parties and throw them often. Like many other large Mexican-American families, my relatives never wasted an opportunity to get their fiesta on. During my childhood it was rare for an entire month to go by without us all getting together to celebrate something, and yet I don’t remember anybody ever having to mortgage their home to pay for it. Today I use many of the money (and time) saving tricks I picked up from my family over the years and am always helping my friends throw parties for their kids and friends. I’ve learned the motto of “The Hostess with the Mostess” (it’s just like the Boy Scouts): Be Prepared. With just a little planning, you can save yourself loads of cash and stress. Here are some my best entertaining secrets—feel free to steal some or all!
NEVER Shop For a Party Less Than a Week Before.
I’m talking about the non-food items, of course: decorations, music, entertainment (bouncy castle, games, exotic dancer, etc). This is the entertaining equivalent to the old adage, “Never go grocery shopping when you’re hungry.” The closer to your party you buy these items, the more you will pay for them. Always be on the lookout for a great deal on party favors and decorations—I shop for them all year round and snap them up when they are at their rock-bottom prices. I have a whole little “party arsenal” full of plates, napkins, streamers and more stashed away in one of my closets, ready to raid for any occasion. And that’s why you’ll want to…
Get to Know Your Party City.
Ah, Party City—I could spend all day there! There’s gold to be mined in your local Party City, let me tell you. It is definitely in your interest to familiarize yourself with the layout of your store. For example, sometimes a decoration in the kids’ section will cost more than an almost identical item in the bridal section. And don’t forget the CLEARANCE section!! I always hit the clearance section after a major holiday (4th of July, Halloween, New Years’ Eve) has passed, when they are practically GIVING those things away! I also keep a sharp eye out for clearance items that can be used for occasions other than the ones they were originally sold for. Many Easter plates and decorations are perfect for a bridal or baby shower, and I bet those New Year’s noisemakers will be a huge hit at your next children’s party (just don’t forget the aspirin for Mom)!
Do You REALLY Need a DJ?
Okay yes, there are some occasions when you really do need a DJ. If you have a reception or party where there will be many organized activities or announcements throughout the event, then a DJ can really be worth the investment. But most of the time? The music is something you can easily take care of for free or cheap. Have a music lover in your home? Delegate the job of putting together the playlist to this person. Tell them what you’re going for, how long you need the music to run and let them load it onto your mp3 player or burn it onto CDs. For more casual gatherings, I usually rely on Pandora (free Internet radio). I simply put in an artist whose music creates the kind of atmosphere I desire and just let it play. Cocktails? Pink Martini. Dancing? Pete Rodriguez. Fourth of July? Nobody beats John Philip Sousa! This “DJ” principle also applies to: limos, extra-fancy food and fresh flowers.
Get Creative With Games.
Okay, I admit it, I do enjoy going to kid parties that have a bouncy castle. It is awesome to be able to just throw your kid in there so you can have 5 minutes to yourself to have an adult conversation and maybe even a beer. But I simply cannot afford one. So when I throw a kid party, I have to get a little creative. One year I made an “outdoor arcade” for my daughter’s birthday party using the empty 2-liter bottles from the soda I’d used for the punch and the cake (that’s right, I put soda in my cake and here’s the recipe). I removed the labels and here’s what I came up with:
- Soda Bottle Bowling: Designate your “bowling lane” then fill 9 empty bottles with about 2 cups of liquid each (to help them stay upright on grass). Arrange in triangle formation and have kids take turns knocking them over with a small ball or round wad of newspaper wrapped in decorative tape (told you I was cheap!)
- Soda Bottle Shooting Gallery: Fill three empty bottles half-full with liquid (maybe water colored to match your decorations?). Set them side by side, remove the caps and place a ping pong ball (or similar) on the spout of each. Have children take turns shooting the balls off of the bottles from a distance with water pistols.
- Soda Bottle Horseshoes: Fill one bottle completely full of liquid and have children take turns throwing “horseshoes”—which you make by cutting out and painting oversize horseshoe shapes (big enough to fit around the soda bottle) from those cardboard boxes you haven’t recycled yet.
The Buddy System.
Learn it, live it, love it. Remember, we are trying to plan as far ahead as we can for our party! This not only gives you time to get your party supplies at bargain prices, it also gives you time to delegate. Delegation is another secret of successful hostesses. Have a sister-in-law who’s a graphic designer (like me) or a teen who’s a whiz with Photoshop? Ask them to help with the invitations and Thank You cards. Chances are your family and friends are considerate enough to ask if they can bring anything—LET THEM. Have a list of things you need, that others can bring (like ice, napkins, trash bags) at the ready for when they ask! Another way to use the buddy system: have a “twofer” party. My daughter and my cousin’s daughter were born three weeks apart. When the girls turned one, it seemed silly for my cousin and I to each plan (and pay for) a huge first birthday party that 1. We’d be inviting EXACTLY the same people to and 2. Our kids would never remember anyway. So we pooled our resources and threw one heck of a shindig for those girls. I think our relatives were grateful to be able to celebrate both birthdays at once, too!
Nobody Cares About the Food.
Hear me out! I know, we all love food (especially Mexican food, if I do say so myself), and we all want to serve something extra fancy to impress the ones we love on that special day. But the truth is, people don’t really care! As long as the food is tasty, it doesn’t have to be fancy or terribly expensive. Keep it simple, yummy and easy to eat. And try to select a menu that lets you do most of the work a day or two ahead of time, so you don’t miss your party because you’re chained to your oven, stirring the risotto. Just ask yourself, do you really want your friends to come to your party for the food? Really?
It’s Your Party, Enjoy It!
Yes, I’m guilty of it too. Sometimes I spend so much time trying to get all the details just right that when the day finally rolls around I’m Hostess-zilla. Take it from me—it’s not worth it! Just know that things will go wrong, but as long as you relax and roll with the punches, your party is bound to be a smash success with your guest of honor, YOU!
I hope these tips help make entertaining a little easier for you this summer—or anytime! Please share your greatest party successes (and failures!) with us—we’d love to hear them!
Wishing you love with extra cheese—