Several months ago, Pam Howard of Excelsior was considering hiring an event planner for her daughter's high school graduation. For about $500, she could have handed over the hassle of selecting and sending the invitations, buying the food, renting the tent.

"But I really enjoy entertaining and I knew I could do it on my own for a lot less," Howard said. As with any parent who is planning a party amid economic uncertainty, she decided to simplify.

Most Midwestern families spend about $1,200 on a graduation party, including $700 on food, said Ginger Venable, who co-wrote "Graduation Parties! Everything You Need to Know from Start to Finish."

So far, Venable, who lives in Eden Prairie, has heard from only a couple of readers on her website that indicate they're cutting back. A few of them say they're on a tight budget, but it's still a once-in-a-lifetime event. "They don't want to skimp too much on the big day, but they're trying to be sensible."

Putting a lid on the extravagance means the carnival rides, live bands, valet parking and catered meals won't make the cut this year, but parents can still make it special without spending a lot of money. Howard plans to spend about $500. In the Midwest, grad party budgets range from $500 to $6,000, according to

One idea for keeping costs down is a group party -- something that pleases both parents and grads. Jan Michaletz of Edina says that after hosting three grad parties, and on the eve of her fourth, she has learned how to save.

This year she's having a group party for the entire trombone section of the Edina High School concert band (10 kids, nine families, one with twins). "The kids have a great deal of crossover in their guest lists, so we decided to feed those people once instead of nine times," Michaletz said.

For the invitation, a photo was taken of the group to use as a cheap postcard at Invites were handed out in the hallways or mailed; although, like many parents, Michaletz said there is no controlling the numbers invited on Facebook.

As a veteran, Michaletz said too many first-timers make the mistake of ordering too much food. For the low-key party she'll hold later for relatives, she even skips the cake.

Parents and experts suggest the following tips for saving money.

• Do one unique thing instead of three or four. Examples: rent a cotton candy machine, a keg filled with root beer, a Moonbounce inflatable or a fortune teller.

• Make the food interactive to get people mingling. Make pizza crusts in advance, provide several toppings, let people make their own and then grill. Fajitas and tacos also work well.

• Choose a late-morning or midafternoon start time to minimize food costs. Then serve light brunch items in the morning or snacks from 2 to 5 p.m. Regardless of time, ask relatives to help by bringing a tray of bars.

• Choose the date carefully. The Saturday following graduation is such a popular party time that guests may stay only a short while before heading to the next party. Buy refreshments accordingly.

• Ask friends to help out. Howard said that she asked the parents of juniors to help out and promised to return the favor next year when they graduate.

• Buy flowers from Sam's Club or Costco. Some flowers can be preordered if you're requesting specific colors. Two dozen roses cost less than $15. For even less, cut flowers or greens from your garden or ask if a neighbor would contribute some cuttings.

• Try the category killers for low prices. Sam's or Costco for plastic and paper products, deli trays and cakes, Best Maid Cookie outlet (612-722-5035) for cases of 240 cookies for $30 to $43 per case, and Party City for helium-filled balloons for 89 cents (latex) to $2.99 each. Latex balloons last about 10 hours; mylar about 48 hours. Graduation themes often sell out. Order ahead.

John Ewoldt • 612-673-7633 or His articles are online at