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High School Graduation Party Planning Ideas

When I started gathering graduation party planning ideas for my oldest, my college roommate came to mind. When she graduated high school, she lived in a small farming town and had a mid-summer party planned.

The night before, a huge storm knocked out power for the whole town. That meant that everyone – and I mean everyone, hundreds and hundreds of people – showed up for her party because there was nothing else to do. Luckily, they had a whole pig roasting and pulled it off with finesse.

I’m glad nothing like that happened for our mid-summer high-school graduation party. We did not have a whole pig to roast. I admit I was both nervous and excited to plan the biggest party I’ve ever thrown. I’m a perfectionist, so of course there were plenty of potential problems about which to be nervous.

Katie, Kris and Paul at his graduation

I also am someone who loves a challenge, and it was a little exciting to think about pulling off a backyard graduation party and doing it well. Now that it’s over, I can tell you that it’s really not incredibly difficult. The hardest part is simply finding the time to plan well and get everything done. As with many adult milestones, we may learn most of all how much gratitude we ought to have for our parents.

I have four kids, and so when I was planning the first graduation party, I was always thinking about the future and leaving really good notes for myself to do this again and again. The next time it will be even easier! And I want to give that gift to you to learn from my experience.

In this first post of the party planning series, I’ll walk you through all the considerations you need to take for a successful graduation party planning, right down to your timeline and to-do list.

How to Plan a Graduation Party

I recommend that you sit down to plan as many months in advance as possible. If life is getting the better of you, you can still pull it together in about two months.

Your first step should be to brain-dump a list of everything that needs to be done and what decisions need to be made. Here’s a fairly comprehensive start:

  • Location – where will you host the party?
  • Date and time – when do you want to host the party and what time of day? Consider during a meal or between meals.
  • Invitations – how far in advance do you need to get those done? Begin to research where to get the best deal.
  • Number of people – of course before you order invitations, you need to estimate the number of people. I found that the difference between 100 and 200 invites was nominal; we figured it was better to have more than enough so that my son could hand them out liberally at school.
  • Food and drink – what will you serve? Catered or DIY? Which meal will you choose: breakfast, lunch, dinner, or snacks only?
  • Desserts – will you order a cake, contract with someone locally to make a fun dessert, or make everything homemade?
  • Decorations – sketch out some ideas of how you want to decorate. Plenty of thoughts below.
  • Activities – graduation parties don’t really need anything to do, because people are happy to come look at pictures, eat, and enjoy other people’s company. If you do want to have activities, you might as well write them down.

Choosing a Time for Your Party

Choosing the timespan of your party can feel a little tricky.

Some people want to get it over with and plan for a quick, two-hour party. Some folks are planning a specific meal like brunch, which means you need to start early and be finished by lunchtime. There’s a lot to think about when choosing your time.

Here’s how it went in my head. I was so worried that we might run out of food because I had never done this before, that I intentionally planned the party from 2 to 5 p.m. I wanted it between meals so that people wouldn’t be stuck if I ran out of food. That ended up being a groundless worry because we had way too much food.

As an extrovert, I also felt that the three-hour party was way too short. Next time I’ve already decided we’ll start at 2 p.m. and go all the way to 7 p.m. I love serving people food and don’t mind at all if folks rely on us for dinner.

I felt like the party was over far too quickly because it was such a joy! I want people to stay for dinner and then stay afterward to hang out.

graduates throwing hats

How to Predict How Many People Will Come to The Party

I have to admit, this was really tricky for me. I tried to keep a count of all the people we invited–which meant that if we sent an invite to a family of six, I wrote down six, or to a couple, I wrote down two.

Then I started calculating those who I knew wouldn’t be able to come, those who I knew would, and all the question marks. I tried to keep track of how many invites I gave to my son and how many disappeared so I would have some sense of the single invites to friends that he handed out. It was a lot of impossible math and predicting; and in the end, when you try something like that you’re always wrong.

As I shared about this graduation party with my community, one reader sent in an incredibly helpful tip that I will definitely use next time.

She has a friend who is a caterer and has been doing big parties for 80-plus years. If you’re having a buffet, keep it simple and plan on 1.75 guests per invitation address. Don’t worry who has kids or any other criteria, just calculate.

For example, sending 80 invites times 1.75 equals 140 people that you plan for. The only caveat would be if you have a lot of family and friends who are traveling from afar and you know many won’t make it, you might use 1.5 as the multiplier.

If you hear that you ended up planning the party at the same time as quite a number of other kids who run in the same circles as yours, you might cut down a little bit.

In my book, I tried to plan food that I knew I could eat or freeze as leftovers, so I would rather have too much than too little.

Best Places to Have a Graduation Party

Depending on where you live, you may have a variety of options to host your high-school graduation party. You might consider:

  • Renting a hall
  • Hosting in an outdoor park with a pavilion
  • Renting a back room of a restaurant or catering location
  • And of course your own home, garage, or backyard

Some people go into the party planning process with very strong feelings about where they want to host.

I had a lot of friends who were 100% committed to hosting the party outside their own home. They had sound reasons, particularly considerations like keeping the mess outside of your own space, not having to clean up your house or yard, having everything you need as part of the rental (i.e., tables, chairs, etc.), and for many bad weather was a major factor in that decision. “I don’t want everyone and their muddy shoes in my house in case it rains!” many said.

If you do want to host your graduation party away from home, you’ll want to start early. In our area, various locations tend to book up quickly with reservations – even up to a year in advance.

If you’re getting started late, your decision may be made for you based on availability. Personally, I was 95% certain going in that I wanted to host at home. Because I also wanted to make my own food and not pay for catering, that clinched the deal.

The more I thought about having to transport everything and not be able to just zip into the house to get something I had forgotten, the more I was certain I wanted to have the graduation party in our garage and backyard.

I love the convenience of being able to set up a lot over the days before the party, and as I said, be able to simply run into the house to get something. Plus when the party is over, you’re already home, and you can just enjoy time with those who are staying late.

Some feel exactly the opposite, but you will know yourself.

backyard graduation party

Once the location is chosen, the other major decision is the time of year. High school graduation parties generally take place between May and July, with most being in late May and early June. As you choose your weekend and day, here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • Do I want to get this over with during the busy time of year or continue planning into the summer?
  • What kind of weather do I want to risk dealing with and when does that happen in my location?
  • Am I willing to try to coordinate around my child’s other friends? In May and early June, there will be a lot of overlap, and it’s worth a few texts, emails, or phone calls to avoid conflicting with your child’s closest friend group.
  • Do I want to host a double graduation party with another family? And if so, what do they think about timing?
  • What sports and school activities is my child involved in, and when do those wrap up and cease causing conflicts with weekends?

Most parties end up on a Saturday or Sunday, although every so often someone will have a weekday evening graduation party. Of course, consider your own preparation when you choose Saturday or Sunday. Much of your prep will happen the day before, so if you work full-time, you’ll need to take Friday off for a Saturday party. And of course, consider church times for Sundays.

My high-school graduate was incredibly busy during May, as was I at work with the #LifeSkillsNow summer camp. So as we looked at our calendar, it made the most sense to put the graduation party in late July.

This is very uncommon; I knew that we would not likely conflict with other graduation parties. We were also risking that people in our community would be traveling for the summer and unable to come. Those two factors evened out in a way because one could increase the number of people attending and the other decrease it. It turns out that there is one very large unexpected benefit to having a party late in the summer

Graduation Party Decoration Ideas

Decorating is definitely not my superpower, whether that comes to my home decor or a party. I can plan and cook food all day long, but my creative brain sort of runs out when it comes to decorations.

The late summer party was perfect for that because as we attended my son’s friends’ parties in May and June, some other parents asked if we wanted their decorations. Sometimes they have the graduation year on them or people are just going to throw them away anyway. I was so happy to get hand-me-downs from three or four parties and ended up spending $0 on decorations, yet we had a really cute atmosphere going on.

No matter when your party is, if you know anyone else who throws theirs before, don’t hesitate to ask for their decorations. Again, most people are just going to throw them away, so they’re more than happy to pass them on. What great stewardship!

When it comes to decorations, as I mentioned, I kept it pretty simple – or at least I had planned to until we got all those hand-me-downs! If you are a person who loves to decorate, by all means, go all out.

In general, I would recommend keeping in mind needs versus wants. It seems that everything has gotten bigger and more complicated as each year goes by. Do you need a selfie photo station with backdrops and funny hats and glasses? Possibly not if you’re trying to simplify.

graduation party photo boards

I would recommend the following as the bare minimum for decorations, and you can always move up from there:

  • Photo boards: This is pretty much a requirement. People want to see your graduate grow over time.
  • Centerpieces: Feel free to keep them simple.
  • At least some tablecloths.
  • Balloons on the mailbox or a sign to let people know that they’re in the right place.

Beyond that, you can always add more decorations to make sure that it feels like a very special, once-in-a-lifetime party. We also added:

  • Streamers hanging from the tables and wrapped around things that are up high
  • Black fabric that we borrowed to cover some of the less attractive areas of our garage
  • A couple of televisions with digital photo slideshows and a video montage of my son’s band and theater productions over the years.

A Note on Photo Boards and Displays

I learned the hard way that it takes many, many hours just sort through 18 years of digital photography. I could not have been more grateful that we did not have smartphones for about half of my son’s life, because the number of photos drastically reduced once I hit about eight years old.

I highly recommend putting a reminder right now in your calendar for January of the year all of your children graduate. That or earlier is when you want to start sorting through pictures and throwing your favorites into one folder so that you can then do another sort and get them down to a reasonable amount!

graduation party decorations

I ended up printing about 200 photos that we put on the boards and on centerpieces. I had another three or four hundred that I included in digital slideshows that we were able to play on a loop on some large-screen TVs.

At another friend’s child’s graduation party, I was enamored by a beautiful quilt she’d made out of all of his t-shirts and jerseys from special events over the years. As I was admiring it, she warned me that I couldn’t start then and get it done. It’s a project that takes months to complete.

I quickly assured her that I am not a seamstress and would never be attempting that, but it gave me a great idea. My son also had a bunch of t-shirts from band, theater, and other events. And I thought what a perfect time to display them!

We hung a simple clothesline across our garage and used cheap, dollar-store clothespins to literally hang the t-shirts up. It was a very special, personal, and super cute decoration that was so simple.

t-shirt banner at graduation party

A child’s graduation party is the time–and I mean THE time–to show off anything they’ve done throughout their life. If you are a saver and have kept mementos from elementary school and onward, now is the time to get them out.

Consider if you might have memory items such as:

  • trophies
  • medals
  • certificates
  • books made about your child on their birthday in elementary school
  • props from theater shows
  • those t-shirts I mentioned above
  • crafts your kids made when they were little
  • posters from shows they’ve been in
  • pillowcases signed by their second-grade class
  • and so on and so forth

I can’t even begin to predict what sort of memorabilia you have around your house, but believe me, now is the time to put it out!

If you’ve kept all your graduate’s 8×10 school photos, same deal – now is the time to use them!

We had some borrowed black fabric hanging over an ugly window anyway, so I used some ribbon I had lying around and clothespins, and voila! A 10-minute project that looks amazing:

graduation photo board

As I think ahead to my other children’s graduation parties, I think I might be hiding some of those items and just putting reminders in my calendar to help myself find them later. It’s literally the one chance anyone will care about them. So take lots of pictures, and then you can feel free to declutter.

The Simplest Graduation Party Centerpiece Ever

I felt so grateful to be able to observe other graduation parties in the two months before our late summer event. I was constantly taking mental notes and even had a document on my phone to brain-dump ideas. I absolutely stole the centerpiece idea from another friend. Here’s what we did.

graduation party centerpieces

All you need are some mason jars, rocks, wooden skewers, and photos of your graduate.

My house is absolutely full of jars, so that was free. We used our landscaping rocks from the yard, also free. Skewers cost next to nothing, and then we printed photos to go on both sides of the skewer and taped them together.

For an extra touch, you could add other tall, decorative items like flags or purchased graduate imagery, some of which I inherited from other graduation parties. Another idea is to add water to the jars and a few cut flowers.

We bought one bag of individually wrapped mints and scattered them along the rest of the black tablecloths for a finished look.

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Backyard Graduation Party Ideas

Since I planned a backyard graduation party, I’ll speak from my experience. Of course, if you are renting a space, you won’t need to worry about most of this.

First, you’ll definitely need to rent some tables. Check with other families, perhaps with graduates the year or two before, to see where in your area you can rent tables and perhaps tents. You’ll want to plan just in case for rain or extreme sun and heat.

Personally, we were able to get by just renting some tables and chairs. We purchased a pop-up tent for shade that we wanted to own anyway and borrowed two more from friends. Remember to estimate your number of guests and plan accordingly, although not everyone will be there at once and not everyone needs to sit down.

Study your yard for the flattest spaces to set up those tables. Also, keep in mind that you’ll need at least two, if not three, or four, or even five extra tables for food, beverages, desserts, and all those photo boards. We also set up all of our bag chairs and folding tables and chairs in the backyard for extra options.

Where to Serve the Food

Plan ahead for where you will serve your food.

Will this work in your garage? Do you want or need to have people coming through your kitchen to serve? Just imagine that day and all the foot traffic and your tolerance for people in your house.

I’ve been to lovely graduation parties that were a bit more intimate and served food inside, although most in our area will put up a few tables in the garage.

If you have any yard games, it’s of course super fun to put those out, so consider that in your food layout. Be sure to plan ahead about where they will go so that you can tell your helpers that morning where to set things up.

graduation party set up

Ways to Save Money on Your Graduation Party

A graduation party doesn’t have to be incredibly expensive. Of course, hosting in your own home has to save over renting a space. You can be wise about tables and chairs and tents and figure out what you can borrow from friends, family members, and neighbors before you even look into renting.

I did try to borrow tables, but that didn’t go well. So we rented tables and borrowed tents.

In general, budget-saving tip number one is to make sure you don’t over-purchase food that won’t keep. If you’re catering, the caterer will probably hit the number fairly close, but you still might have a lot leftover.

So try to order food that A) you know your family likes and B) can be frozen, in case you have way too much. When you’re making your own, the same rules apply. Think about both the preparation of the food and what time you’ll have as well as how you will deal with the leftovers and if you can eat or freeze a good amount.

I purchased far too much food but hardly threw anything away; so it was still a budget-saver because my own grocery budget was lighter the next month.

Of course, going DIY with anything and everything is always a money saver. Making your own food will be less expensive than paying someone else to make it. And the fewer decorations you purchase, the more money you can save.

For example, that clothesline with t-shirts was incredibly cute and cost $0!

As I mentioned above, planning a party in late summer had the surprising effect of getting hand-me-down decorations and spending almost nothing on that part of the party.

A lot of money can go metaphorically down the drain in beverages, so that’s one category where you can make some significant savings. Choose wisely on whether you serve alcohol. If you do, I recommend to have some good signage about adults and no teens. Alcohol is very expensive, so if you’re watching the budget, just don’t bother.

Single-serving drinks are also very expensive. We chose to cut costs and save the environment by using our five-gallon jug and filling it with tap water and ice. I did end up buying some juice to have on hand and mixing up some lemonade from Gordon Foods–but honestly, I wouldn’t bother with that again. It’s just not worth the hassle or the expense.

How Much Should You Spend on a High School Graduation Party?

As a good steward of both the environment and my family’s budget, my answer to the question of how much one should spend on a graduation party is simple: spend as little as possible!

I just mentioned a good stewardship decision to serve water with paper cups instead of single-serve plastic bottles. It also stewards the budget when you can save and eat all of your leftovers.

Because I have four kids, I was able to make some conscious decisions about purchasing items that I can reuse at least four times. I also hope that I get to host other parties and can use things like the chafing dishes that I bought over and over. That meant that this first graduation party ended up being more expensive than future parties will be. Of course shopping around to find the best deals on food, plates, and anything else you buy is always a good idea.

Here’s a general breakdown of my costs and where I was able to find the best deals.

  • Ice – maybe $25? My husband bought ice 🙂
  • Printing photos at Walgreens: $35 (lucky to get 50% off!)
  • Shutterfly book: $38.71
  • GFS: $62.44 + $153.64
  • Aldi: $18 + $70 + $280
  • Meijer: $17
  • Ground beef I bought here and there: $75
  • Costco: about $260
  • I’ll share what we bought at each store in a future food planning post.
  • Alcohol: about $300 but TONS left over
  • Tables/chairs: $325 (I priced 2 places that friends had used)
  • Plates/napkins: $54 (so many leftover though! Probably won’t need to buy for next party) Best prices were at Party City for colors and for nice, thick Chinet dinner plates, Costco. We inherited “grad” dessert plates by the 100s.
  • I paid Leah $50 for cookies and $80 ($10/hr) for cupcakes and the ingredients are only sort of accounted for here…
  • TOTAL CONSUMABLES or ONE-TIME USE items: $1688

Items I Bought to Reuse:

  • Lowe’s popup tent $120
  • Vinyl and cloth tablecloths: $70 from Party City
  • Chafing dish racks and fuel Party City: $45
  • Chafing dishes Amazon: $60
  • TOTAL REUSABLES FOR FUTURE PARTIES: $295

I could easily cut all the alcohol, the Shutterfly book, and simplify desserts if I was wanting to trim the budget even more.

My guess is that we only ate through about 25% of the food we bought, which totalled $935.64 by itself.

So if someone were to ask me, “How much does it cost to throw a graduation party for 200 people?” I’d say you could do it for as low as $1000 if you really went the budget route and didn’t overbuy food like I did. You could do it for less if you borrow tables and chairs!

graduation party food setup

Graduation Party Food Ideas

As you think about the food you’ll serve at your graduation party, the question is very different depending on whether you have it catered, buy pre-made foods such as Gordon Food Service, or make everything from scratch like I did.

If you have the party catered, you have fewer choices. My top recommendation there is to make sure you choose foods that your family likes and will eat if you have leftovers.

Make considerations like this: You can keep a bag of chips forever, but extra potato salad only lasts three to five days. You can freeze chicken and sauces and taco meat and beans, but sometimes pasta doesn’t freeze very well and certainly salad and raw veggies aren’t good candidates for lots of extras.

I’ll walk you through how I set up the taco bar in another post, but here are a few ideas for themed backyard graduation parties with homemade food:

I heard of a friend who did a brunch graduation party. She bought a couple of waffle makers and had friends make waffles and pancakes to order.

It can be fun planning your theme and choosing either to keep it super simple or go all out. As you plan, keep in mind your timing of course.

Will people be there for a meal or in between? If you really want to save on the budget, you could just serve cheese and crackers and meat and munchy stuff in between meals.

Remember as you plan that the more items you have, the less people will eat of each item. Also, the more items you have, the more in general people will eat. The buffet effect will be at play–that people do take a bit of everything. Their plate will be more full, but each item is touched less.

Fruit is well beloved by children everywhere but can easily be the most expensive line item or second most under the meat. If you’re watching your budget, your graduation party certainly doesn’t need fruit.

The dessert can range from the simple to the extravagant. Many people simply go to Costco or Sam’s Club and buy a great big cake. They can be fairly inexpensive. Ask friends in your area and shop around.

If you make your own, consider options like making large batches of cookies and freezing them ahead; many pans of brownies and freezing those; or if you have a daughter who loves to bake like mine, you might get 250 cupcakes, homemade and hand frosted.

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That’s why we took the best 10 rookie “Monday Missions” that used to post once a week and got them all spruced up to send to your inbox – once a week on Mondays, so you can learn to be a kitchen steward one baby step at a time, in a doable sequence.

Sign up to get weekly challenges and teaching on key topics like meal planning, homemade foods that save the budget (and don’t take too much time), what to cut out of your pantry, and more.

A Timeline for Your Graduation Party Planning To-Do List

Here are my recommendations for when to get everything done.

  1. Two to twelve months before the party, get your location locked in and reserved.
  2. Six months or more before the party, start sorting those photos. Figure out what to print and how to make your slideshow and figure out the tech.
  3. Three to four months before the party, choose your date and time (if hosting at your home)
  4. Two to four months before the party, rent tables, tents, etc.
  5. One to four months before the party, order items like tablecloths, paper plates, cups, and chafing dishes. You can get away with doing this as close as two weeks in advance, but you’ll feel better if it’s all at your home nice and early.
  6. Two months in advance, plan the decorations–or fly by the seat of your pants on that one and hope for hand-me-downs.
  7. Two months in advance, plan your food. I recommend estimating amounts using that 1.75 multiplayer for the number of guests and some of the tips I’ll share in my next post. Begin to figure out what store will have the best price for your items. You won’t be able to shop until much closer to the party, but if you plan well in advance, you might even be able to do things like cook 10 pounds of taco meat and freeze it up to a full month or two in advance. It’s all about smoothing out the week before the party so you have as little as possible to do then.
  8. Two to three months in advance, begin eating out of your freezer to create as much space as possible to freeze all your homemade food.
  9. One to two months in advance, ask a couple of friends to be your helpers on the day of the party.
  10. Two weeks in advance, make a grocery plan to buy some non-perishables that week and the perishables one to two days before the party.
  11. One to four weeks before the party, clean out your garage, prep your home if necessary, and get your landscaping in order.
  12. The week of the party, mow the lawn, set up tables and food stations, and prepare a lot of the food.
  13. One to four weeks before the party, print your photos and begin making photo boards.

As I said it’s not incredibly difficult to host a party for a few hundred people, but it definitely takes some time. The better you plan and organize in advance, the less stress you’ll feel when you are implementing those plans.

Do as much as possible as far in advance as possible; but also know that if you happen to be super busy and cram a lot into the few weeks before the party, you can totally pull that off. Speaking from experience!

This is your chance to celebrate your child for 18 years of work and send them off into the world for many decades more joy!

What did I miss? Share your graduation party planning ideas below!

Unless otherwise credited, photos are owned by the author or used with a license from Canva or Deposit Photos.

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