How to Plan a Sweet 16 party

Birthday cake with sparklers and the number 16.

Betsie Van der Meer / Getty Images

For parents and their child honoree, planning a sweet 16 party can range from exciting to overwhelming. For some, turning 16 is as hallowed as a wedding day, while others consider it just as any other birthday. The best assistance you can have to make this a budget-friendly event is to enlist your child to help plan and develop the event.

By age 16, renting a bouncy house may be over, but your child can learn how to work with you on a budget, party planning, and learn all the ins and outs of planning a big event. Involving the guest of honor guarantees that they know what to expect. Whether throwing a big bash or hosting a smaller affair, you and your future host should develop the itinerary, embrace the process, and reap the benefits of thinking out all the details for the party.

Party Attire

For some, a Sweet 16 party is an opportunity to experiment with prom wear, while others may find it a festive occasion to dress in different trends or clothing pegged to a party theme. Whatever the attire is, be sure to list the dress code in the invitation.

Plan Your Budget

Tell your teen how much you're willing to spend, and work together on how to divvy up where it goes. Like any party, the sweet 16 can bruise the bank account if there aren't boundaries.

Kids are influenced by what their friends are doing at this age, which can be costly if the parties are held at wedding venues or a destination birthday. Include your child in the party's budget discussions. It will help them understand that specific ideas are feasible while others do not factor into the budget. Use this as an opportunity to show that originality, research, and some creativity can be the foundation of a memorable event.

  • Head count: The first step in keeping a budget is determining how many people you plan to have at the party. A party for 20 looks a lot different than a party for 120. Try to get a rough headcount to identify the per-person cost of the party.
  • Price out ideas: As you plan with your child, browse ideas online and research the costs from local vendors. If you're planning to get a catering facility or reserve a party place, find out the rental fees and see if it includes music, food, decor, or other extras. If you plan on having a DJ, photographer, videographer, or entertainment, list out all those costs. Factor in the price for birthday attire, hair and makeup, birthday cake, invitations, and a party planner if you are crunched for time.
  • Ways to save: While a lit-up dance floor and catered banquet tables are excellent, do things yourself or tap your friends and family as resources to help you keep costs down. For instance, reimagine your home and backyard as a possible location, design your decorations, have a photo booth run by friends or family members, and make some or all of the food menu items while supplementing with a few "wow" pastries by the pros.

Guest List

The size of your guest list works in tandem with your budget. In most cases, the more people your child invites, the more the party will cost. Some families save up to host a big bash, inviting 100 or more friends. Consider your child's desires. They might be happiest getting together with a close group of friends for a concert or a day at the spa instead of a giant catered event.

Date and Location

Choosing a date and party venue can be a challenge depending on where their birthday lands on the calendar. If it happens to fall around Christmas or during the June wedding season, you might be limited in some options. If planning a big to-do, get started at least six months in advance (even sooner, if possible).

Book the location well ahead of time, so you're not competing with office holiday parties or graduation events if your child's birthday falls around these popular party times. Consider sending out "save-the-date" notices if you're worried about guests being unavailable for your child's special day.

Think outside of the box for possible party venues depending on where you live. If you're stuck or everything is booked, consider your own home or ask around for ideas from family, friends, and co-workers. Some unique venues to consider include: 

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


The guest of honor may think they are too old for a party theme, but it can be fun and made more mature. You may think your child has graduated from backyard carnivals, circus animals, and clowns with balloon animals, but ask them. Maybe a party like that is all they have ever wanted! You can make it more mature by giving it a Mardi Gras twist or 1920s carnival feel.

From Halloween to Hawaii, there's a good chance they've seen mom and dad get decked out for a themed party. This party is their precursor to grown-up entertainment. Some fun ideas for teen party themes can include:

  • City lights (Night in Paris or New York City)
  • Hollywood or rock star
  • Luau
  • Masquerade
  • Pretty in Pink
  • Zombie

Personal Touch

The theme can also be a chance to highlight a teen’s interests and personalize it with a favorite color, song, movie, or sport. If they ride horses, see if they want to go with an equestrian theme. If they love to read, base it on their favorite novel.


Before you start booking vendors and venues, you must know your budget number and head count. You should already have a good idea if you can afford a particular vendor or not. Have fun and make it part of the experience if you're going the do-it-yourself route.

If your budget allows you to plan an elaborate catered event, attend a local bridal fair if your area has one. Those events are a good opportunity for you to meet and compare prices among caterers, DJs, party planners, and other service providers.

If budget constraints nix a high-end catering facility, a dedicated party planner, DJs, and photographer, don't think of these as limitations; instead, they are opportunities for getting resourceful. Talent surrounds you.

Look to friends or family who can spend a few hours taking photos or recording some video moments. Ask your child to spend some time piecing together their favorite music playlist for their special day instead of hiring a DJ. If you know people who cook, bake, or have a club membership or community space where they live, ask for some help. A friend could prepare food ahead of time and offer storage space in their fridge or freezer. And, for some extra bonding time with your honoree, take a class together on learning how to bake and decorate a fancy cake.

Vendor Pros and Cons

  • Professionals shoulder a lot of party stress

  • Party has an expert feel

  • Little to no cleanup

  • Expensive

  • Limited creativity

  • Child doesn't learn budgeting and party planning

Invite Your Guests

Once the guest list is created, send invitations at least six weeks before the event. This timeline will give friends (and their parents) time to lock the party in their calendars. Make sure you set the RSVP date with enough time to inform the venue or caterer if you have one—they need a final head count at least one to two weeks before the date of the event. While sending an invite two weeks before the event is acceptable, your guest list will not be as ironclad and could prove problematic with the planning process.

Create an invitation with a design application like Canva or Evite. They also have themes, which can help you develop a theme idea or incorporate your predetermined theme. You can send invitations with Evite, Smilebox, Punchbowl, or Minted—all are handy for organizing the party list and RSVPs as they come in. You can also consider using Facebook's event function or sending the invites via text messaging.

A Sweet 16 party is an opportunity to introduce your child to proper party etiquette. Some like to follow the tradition of hand-delivering the invitations, which they could do on their own or enlist the help of friends.


Choose foods that are easy to eat standing up. Guests likely will be milling about rather than sitting down for a formal meal. Also, find out before the party if any guests have any dietary restrictions, which you could address on the invitation.

One popular idea for Sweet 16 parties is to have a grand dessert buffet, complete with themed tablescapes and various sweet treats. The cake can serve as the centerpiece for the dessert table. It can be a straightforward sheet cake, or you can make the cake multi-tiered and brightly colored to distinguish it from looking too much like a wedding cake. Cupcakes are another popular choice and are often decorated beautifully; they easily match up to a theme.


Write a rough timeline for the party, so everyone knows the general plan. For your planning itinerary, separate the schedule into parts:

  • Setup: The setup time includes when you arrive to start setup; list who is involved
  • Arrivals: Include the time you arrive for setup; also include arrival times for vendors, the guest of honor, VIPs, and guests
  • Party Time: The party time should list out the times music begins, when food is served, time for special dances, cake cutting time, and planned speeches
  • Party End: List out when the party ends, what you need to do, and when you are expected to exit the space.