Parents' Guide to Throwing a Sweet 16

Birthday cake with sparklers and the number 16.

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For some girls, turning 16 is anticipated almost as much as a wedding day, while others find it just as special as any other birthday. For parents, planning a sweet 16 party can range from exciting to overwhelming. Whether you’re throwing a big bash or hosting a smaller affair, try these tips for a smooth planning process and successful party.


Tell your teen how much you’re willing to spend, and involve her in divvying up where it goes. Like any party, the sweet 16 can bruise the bank account if there aren’t boundaries. Including your daughter in the party's budget discussions will help her understand why you can say yes to some requests and have to say no to others.

Guest List

The size of your guest list will likely be affected by your budget. In most cases, the more people your daughter invites, the more the party will cost. Some families save up to host a big bash, inviting 100 or more boys and girls.

Consider your daughter’s desires, though. She might be happiest getting together with a close group of friends for a concert or a day at the spa.

Date and Location

Choosing a date and venue can be a challenge depending on where her birthday lands on the calendar. If it happens to fall around Christmas or during other busy times of the year, you'll need to plan accordingly.

Be sure to book the location well ahead of time so you’re not competing with office holiday parties or graduation events. Consider sending out "save-the-date" cards or e-mail messages if you’re worried about guests being overbooked.

Depending on where you live, there should be a variety of possible venues available. If you're stuck or everything is booked, consider your backyard or ask around for ideas from family, friends, and co-workers. Some venues to consider include: 

  • Barns
  • Community centers and halls
  • Dance clubs
  • Hotel ballrooms
  • Public parks
  • Restaurants
  • Sports facilities
  • Your backyard


Your daughter may think she's too old for a party theme, but it can be fun and more grown-up than the princess parties she's enjoyed in the past. These are some fun ideas for teen party themes if you want to go this route:

  • City lights (picture a Paris or New York City theme)
  • Hollywood or rock star
  • Luau
  • Masquerade
  • Mardi Gras
  • Pretty in Pink
  • Zombie

The theme can also be a chance to highlight a teen’s interests. For instance, if she rides horses, you can go with an equestrian theme. If she loves to read, base the theme on her favorite novel. You can even go with a favorite color, song, movie, or sport to personalize the party.


Since some sweet 16 parties are as elaborate as weddings, consider attending a bridal fair. This is a great opportunity to compare prices among caterers, disc jockeys, and other service providers.

You can save even more money by tapping into the talent that already surrounds you. A friend could help you prepare food ahead of time and offer storage space in her freezer. The birthday girl might want to download her music playlist instead of hiring a DJ. You can even take a class together and learn how to bake and decorate a fancy cake.

If you're going to DIY pieces of the party, have fun with it and make it part of the experience!

Invite Your Guests

Proper etiquette is to send out invitations three to five weeks in advance. This allows your guests plenty of time to save the date.

For sweet 16 parties, some like to follow the tradition of hand-delivering the invites. The birthday girl could do it herself or enlist the help of friends, such as a cheer squad that does a chant outside each guest’s house.


Choose foods that are easy to eat standing up. Guests likely will be milling about rather than sitting down for a formal meal.

One popular idea for sweet 16 parties is to have a grand dessert buffet, complete with themed tablescapes and a variety of sweet treats. The cake can serve as the centerpiece for the dessert table. You can make the cakes multi-tiered, but in bright colors rather than white to distinguish them from wedding cakes. Yet, a smaller cake can be just as sweet!

Cupcakes are another popular choice and are often decorated as elegantly as a wedding cake.


Write a rough timeline for the party so everyone knows the general plan. Consider things like:

  • When will the music begin?
  • When will the food be served?
  • What time do you cut the cake?
  • Perhaps most importantly, what time will the party end?

Discuss Expectations

You probably still see your daughter as a little girl, but sweet 16 parties are traditionally "coming-of-age" parties. Hitting this milestone can make her feel pretty grown up all of a sudden.

Unfortunately, some teenagers interpret that as a license to experiment with alcohol or other controlled substances. Make it clear to your daughter that illegal activity won’t be tolerated at—and will put an end to—her party. It's also a good time to bring up your overall expectations for being a responsible young adult, even beyond the party.