Parties are a bit like penalty shots: throw a good one and you're a hero; a bad one and you're the butt of ten different jokes.


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We only live once, so why not make the most of it? The ‘Better Me‘ series hopes to give some ideas on how to add fun and meaning to our lives.

Parties are a bit like penalty shots: throw a good one and you’re a hero; a bad one and you’re the butt of ten different jokes. But if you think back on a few of the parties you’ve been to, you may find that the level of success is not necessarily proportional to the expense borne by the host. More often than not, what makes a good party is the people and the way in which they interact. So if you are planning on throwing a good party, the most important things to consider are (a) who to invite and (b) how to help them have fun without declaring bankruptcy.

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The Budget

You have no hope of staying within a budget if you do not know what that budget is. Before you get started, make an honest calculation of exactly how much you can set aside for your party. Make sure you are aware exactly where that money is going to come from (your salary, your savings or your overdraft for example). Before you start buying anything for the party, itemise all your expenses and make sure that their sum does not exceed your budget. If it does, go back to the drawing board and look for areas in which you can make further savings.

The People

The number of people you can invite to your party will depend on your budget and the type of party you want to have. Your guests don’t need to be celebrities, they just need to be people with similar interests who would get on well with each other. Rather than throwing one big party with no real character, people with different groups of friends may wish to consider having two or three smaller parties, each with a smaller budget. For example, an elegant dinner party for work colleagues is best kept separate from a crazy booze-up with old school friends.

The Mood

Once you have decided on the guests, you must set the tone for your party. Have a think about all the great parties you’ve been to; what was it about them that you enjoyed the most? Were they casual or formal? Did they include a sit-down dinner or just a buffet and nibbles? What was the music like? Make a list of all the ideas you would like to use for your own party. Once the list is complete, pick out the most congruent elements and put them together to set the mood for your party. Make sure that the tone of your party is suitable to your guests’ age, their interests and their relationship. Are they friends, families with children or business acquaintances?

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The theme

Once the tone has been set, you can go a step further and find a theme that fits the mood. Your theme is more likely to be a success if it relates to your guests’ interests, or things that you and your guests have in common. For example, did most of your guests go to the same school or university? Do they all enjoy a specific type of music or dancing, a particular hobby or topic of conversation? If you would prefer your theme to be more abstract, you could simply choose a colour scheme, pattern or concept (for example silver, snow flakes and winter). If your friends enjoy dressing up, you could provide them with the option of doing so. Do tread carefully, however: imposing fancy dress on people who hate dressing up can be a recipe for disaster.

Make it yourself

Once you have picked a theme, consider making a few of the decorations at home, using ribbons, buttons, posters, stencils and, depending on the theme, any household materials from old fabric to cotton wool. Once you have settled on a theme, use the internet to gather tips on how to bring it to life. Search your local market, charity shops and arts and crafts shops for useful material. This could include napkins, candles, flowers and any other objects in-keeping with your theme. You could make your own flower arrangements using flowers in season from your local market. You could complement the arrangements using objects relevant to your theme or even colourful seeds, fruit and vegetables.


If made well, hand-made invitations can be both pretty and original. Send your customized invitation in the post or hand deliver it if you would rather save on costs. Alternatively, why not design an email invitation? There are plenty of beautiful free images on the web which you can use to match your theme and wording.


The right lighting can do wonders to set the mood for your party. Do make use of dimmers if you have them. Otherwise, you could cleverly place some lamps around the house to create the right effect, as well as candles (but beware of the fire hazard). Depending on your theme, you could also consider using light bulbs in different colours or fairy lights.

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Get help

Save time and money by asking some of your friends to help you. Ask them over for coffee, cake and some good old DIY. If any of them sing, DJ or play any musical instruments, you could ask them to contribute to the entertainment (provided they can tailor their skills to suit the party mood).

Instead of gifts, ask your guests to bring food or drinks. Make sure you know what each person is bringing to avoid duplication.

Leak your idea

Get people excited about your party in the weeks preceding the big date. Drop a hint about the theme and mood of your party in the invitation. Follow this up with further hints and teasers in the days leading up to the party, perhaps in the form of email reminders.

Where to splurge

If your party is for adults then the answer is clear: alcohol. The least successful parties are usually the ones where the alcohol supply is inadequate. So stock up on all the staples, like vodka, rum, gin and whisky, as well as all the popular mixers like juice (orange, cranberry, grapefruit), lime cordial, soft drinks, tonic and soda. Make sure you have enough ice and straws as well.

In addition to spirits, you will need a good quantity of red and white wine. Get a few bottles of good quality wine for the start of the party. You can follow these up with wine of declining quality as, the drunker people get, the less fussy they tend to be when it comes to alcohol. If you are out to impress, however, do keep the quality to a reasonable standard. Save on costs by asking some of your guests to bring wine instead of gifts.

Cocktails can also be a nice touch, but they tend to be costly and difficult to make. A cheaper but effective alternative is to make a big bowl of mulled wine or punch, depending on the season.

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Where to save

When it comes to food, focus on offering a sufficient quantity and range for what, to you, is a reasonable price. You can do this by making most of the food yourself. If you are not opting for a sit-down dinner, go for plenty of nibbles and dips which you can scatter around the house, two or three easy-to-make main dishes and a few condiments. To save time and cost, focus on food you can make in bulk. If you expect people to be coming and going at different times, consider options that taste good cold as well as hot. Complete the menu with a few homemade cakes, some of which could be provided by your friends!

Make sure you know about your guests’ dietary preferences in advance. This will enable you to tailor the menu to the guests’ needs while avoiding waste. For example, if most of your guests are vegetarian, you can keep the range and quantity of meat options to a minimum.

Elegant presentation can make a big difference to how inviting your food will look. You can get some ideas from the internet and the multitude of cookery programmes on TV.

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Cutlery and crockery

Limit the use of disposable cutlery and crockery to the greatest extent possible. That way, you can be kind to the environment while saving on cost at the same time. If you do not have enough cutlery yourself, borrow some from your friends or neighbours.

Invite the neighbours

This not only gives you access to their cutlery and crockery, but it also enables you to use their kitchen for cooking or baking, if necessary, and their fridge for storage. Not only that, but if you are planning to sing and dance into the early hours of the morning, the last thing you want is your neighbours rounding up the police to spoil your fun.

Emergency plan

Party games and drinking games are a great emergency option: people love to hate them but they have fun playing them. Try not to resort to them until the late hours when things start to dwindle. No matter how drunk your guests are, stick to games appropriate to the occasion.

Be responsible

Don’t let a good party end badly. If any of your guests are not fit to drive, make sure you put them in a sober friend’s car (if available) or a taxi. At worst, let them sleep on your sofa and get them to help with the cleaning in the morning.

Have fun!

Don’t let any of the little things get to you. It’s your party: relax and join in the fun!