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How to plan a birthday party

Whether you're planning a small intimate gathering at home, or a grand blow-out at a fancy location, birthday parties require some thoughtful planning. You'll want to make the guest or guests of honor feel special through all the details, big and small.

If you're not an event planning pro, we've put together a helpful to-do list for you. You may find it easiest to break down your party-prep list into smaller steps.

9 steps to planning a meaningful birthday party

  1. Choose a date for the party

    Choosing a date for the celebration is the foundational step which helps you build out all the other details. You'll first want to make sure the person you're planning the party for is available on the date you have in mind. Also think through which day of the week makes the most sense for the invitees.

  2. Choose a start time for the party

    Party time! Choosing a time of day for the event depends on the kind of party you're thinking about and the age of the person you're celebrating. Kids parties are often planned for mid-day so that you don't interfere with naptimes or bedtimes. Adult parties may be a nighttime affair, though you may decide on a Sunday morning brunch, or an afternoon sporting event. Either way, nail down a start time early in the process to help guide your other decisions.

  3. Decide on a birthday party budget

    Deciding on a budget is another key step in planning a successful party. If you have an idea of how much you're able to spend in advance, you can allow that to drive a lot of your decisions and not feel stressed when the bills come. A big part of budget planning is knowing your priorities. For example, is it more important to spend the majority of your budget on themed decorations, live entertainment, or is food and drink your focus? What would the birthday girl or guy prefer? Are there ways to cut costs by borrowing décor from friends or previous parties? Once you nail down your priorities, you can set a reasonable budget.

  4. Create a guest list

    Curating a guest list accomplishes a few important things. The number of people on the list will help you determine the location of the party. If you have a small group, you could have the party at someone's home, at a restaurant, or even make it a destination party. If you have a large group, you'll want to consider event spaces, outdoor spaces or get creative and choose an unusual location. The guest list will also help you figure out how much food and drink you'll need. Be sure to find out which guests the birthday girl or guy will definitely want to be there.

  5. Decide the location

    Once the guest list is settled, it's time to nail down a location for the party. Decide if you want something casual or formal, intimate or spacious. What setting best reflects the birthday girl or guy? If necessary, consider parking or other accommodations. Most importantly, reserve the space on the date you want. This may require a deposit to reserve the space so plan to include that in your budget.

  6. Choose a theme

    A fun part of party planning is choosing a theme. Again, it's important to personalize this to what the birthday boy/girl loves. You'll probably also want to consider what season it is and which activities are available at the time. It's hard to have a pool party in the middle of winter – although it's possible with some creativity! Do you want an organized activity that goes with the theme or is it more about mingling? What décor is needed to bring your vision to life? With some strategic googling, you'll find plenty of inspiration for the theme you have in mind, including food, drinks, décor, activities and even clothing.

  7. Choose the food and cake

    Let's face it – guests love party food and a birthday cake. If you're working with a caterer, be sure to communicate the theme, location and number of guests so they can offer options that make sense. If you're going with informal snacks and finger foods, there are so many creative options to serve guests. Depending on the age of your guests, you may want to have a bartender on hand to prepare a signature drink in honor of the birthday girl or boy. Unless your guests will be seated at a restaurant or dining room table, choose finger foods that are easy to eat while mingling or standing.

  8. Decide on entertainment

    Entertainment is another element you can personalize based on the birthday person's favorite music or activity. You can hire a live band, a DJ, or even use a portable speaker system with a pre-made playlist. Entertainment doesn't just have to mean music though. The entertainment could be in the form of a guided outdoor adventure, a wine tour or so much more. If you're working with an entertainer or tour guide, be sure to book them far in advance. For an extra special touch, hire a photographer to capture all the fun details.

  9. Send out invitations for the birthday

    The last step is to send out the invitations! This can be done via email, snail mail or for a personal touch – hand delivered. Invitations should reflect the theme and include all important details. Ask for an RSVP and a deadline to respond so you can have an accurate headcount.

How to throw a birthday party at home

Depending on how elaborate you want the party to be, having it at home can be an affordable and personalized option for a birthday party. Enlist help from family and friends to prep. Keep things simple. Have rental furniture and catering delivered instead of picking everything up yourself. Go outside if possible to avoid a lot of foot traffic inside your house. Make sure you consider where guests will park when they arrive. You may also want to give your neighbors a friendly heads up that this event will be taking place and the time you expect it to end.

Ideas for a birthday party for adults

You may think themed parties are just for kids, but that's certainly not the case! If you're looking to plan birthday party specifically for adults, there are endless possibilities. Popular party themes include a casino night, speakeasy/prohibition, Game of Thrones (or other TV shows), choose a decade as the theme (such as the 80's), black tie, or even host guests at an exotic destination.

Popular birthday party themes to choose from

No matter the age of the guest of honor, it's fun to plan their party around a distinctive theme. Here are 20 theme ideas worth exploring.

  • Disney character/Superhero
  • Slumber party
  • Spa party
  • Dance party
  • Cooking/Wine
  • Movie theme
  • Sports
  • Fairytale
  • Karaoke
  • Color
  • Board game night
  • Camping
  • Cookout or BBQ
  • Roller skating or Ice skating
  • Candy or ice cream bar
  • Animal
  • Luau or Tiki Bar
  • Literary
  • Garden party
  • Craft party

It's all fun and games

Planning a birthday party is no easy task. It takes plenty of creativity and lots of planning. While it may all feel like fun and games at first, someone has to set a budget and manage the expenses. Setting a reasonable budget in advance of the party will likely limit your stress. Finally, keep in mind that while the details are important, the best part of any birthday party is the people you're with.