How to Plan a Sweet 16 party

Birthday cake with sparklers and the number 16.

Betsie Van der Meer / Getty Images

For some, 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. The best assistance is actually budget-friendly, enlist your child to help create the event. The days of renting bouncy houses are over, and including your children, it will guarantee a party that meets their expectations while also teaching them how to work with a budget and entertain. Whether you’re throwing a big bash or hosting a smaller affair, you and your future host will want to try these tips for a smooth planning process and successful 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 the theme. Whatever the attire may be, be sure to list the dress code in the invitation.

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.

This is the age where kids are influenced by what their friends are doing, which can be a costly process if the parties are held at wedding venues a destination birthday. Use this as an opportunity to show that originality, research, and some creativity can be the foundation of a memorable event. Including your child in the party's budget discussions will help them understand why you can say yes to some requests and have to say no to others.

  • Prep work: Try to get a rough headcount so you can identify the per-person cost of the party.
  • Research: Read stories on party ideas and sift through hashtags that inspire tips for your event.
  • DIY: While a lit-up dance floor and catered banquet tables are amazing, consider your own resources and family talent to help keep costs down. For instance, reimagine your home and backyard as a possible location, design your own decorations, have a photo booth, and take on some of the menu items while supplementing a few "wow" pastries to the pros.

Guest List

The size of your guest list will likely be affected by 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, though. He or 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 their 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 if your child's birthday falls on party-competitive times of the year. Consider sending out "save-the-date" notices 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 own home 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
  • Backyard

Theme

Your child may think he or she is too old for a party theme, but it can be fun and more grown-up than backyard carnivals with and circus animals enjoyed in the past. In fact, from Halloween to Hawaii, there's a good chance they've seen mom and dad get decked out for a party and this is their precursor to grownup entertainment. 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 he or she rides horses, you can go with an equestrian theme. If they love to read, base the theme on a favorite novel. You can even go with a favorite color, song, movie, or sport to personalize the party.

Vendors

Now that you've established our budget, see if some of your expenses can be allocated to a vendor. 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. Your Sweet 16 may want to download his or 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!

Vendor Pros
  • They plan the event for a low stress affair.


  • The party will have an expert feel.


  • No cleanup.

Vendor Cons
  • Expensive.


  • Limited creativity.


  • Does not offer your child useful party planning experience.

Invite Your Guests

Once the guest list is created, send out invitations at least six weeks before the event. This will give friends time to lock in the party in their calendars and assure a yes RSVP. While it is acceptable to send an invite two weeks before the event, your list will not be as ironclad, which could prove problematic with the planning.

Create an invitation with such programs as Canva and design to your theme if applicable. You can send invitations via evite or smilebox, which is especially handy for organizing the list.

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.

Menu

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 they have any dietary restrictions, which could be addressed on the invitation.

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.

Itinerary

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?