Bar and Bat Mitzvah on a Budget

(Download this story in Microsoft Word format here.) 

 A bar or bat mitzvah is a beautiful and powerful time in a family’s life. A child has reached adulthood, and it’s one of the few occasions when family and friends come from across the country (or world) to celebrate together.

This time can also bump up against the stress of party planning.

If you have always envisioned a beautiful bar or bat mitzvah for your son or daughter, but have been dealt a blow by the current economy, there are still ways to achieve your vision.

There are many components that make up a bar/bat mitzvah party, but only a few that are really crucial: décor, music, venue, and food. I’ll go through each to discuss some great money-saving techniques. The main thing to remember is that if you are planning a bar/bat mitzvah on a budget, be prepared to be significantly involved.

Décor

Click photo to download. Caption: The right lighting and one or two "wow pieces" can transform a room relatively inexpensively. Credit: Tiffany White.

You first need to find a specific piece to work around, something thematic. If your child has a particular passion (music, sports, etc.), that may inform your theme. I personally subscribe to the mantra that “bigger is better.” A few larger pieces that have great height, color, and dimension fill space better than lots of little things. So I usually tell people who are on a limited budget to do a couple of “wow items” and not get caught up in minutiae that will not pack a punch.

Many clients tell me that their child is a typical 13-year-old with many interests, but no particular passion. In that case, color is a great tool.  You can get a lot of play by taking a room and using color strategically. Lighting works well to change the ambiance of a room in an inexpensive way. A white wall instantly become hot pink, a stark room becomes a winter wonderland in ice blue.

There are also some clever ways to decorate a room by “doing it yourself,” thereby saving money on a decorator. If I’m looking for a little pop, I’ll cover a table with shiny black linen and throw silver Hershey kisses down the center of it. Simple, and it looks great.

A lot of people are interested in giving back, and you might organize your centerpieces around the theme of tzedakah. For example, throw a burlap fabric, or otherwise very textural linen on the tables. Go apple picking with your family, and fill your bushels to the brim with different kinds of shiny apples. This makes a beautiful centerpiece, and you can attach a note to the effect of, “In honor of my bat mitzvah I will be donating these apples to the local food pantry.”

I also once had a mother and daughter bake cakes together. Each table was then topped by a cake as the centerpiece. It was adorable, and a great way for the family to infuse the event with its personal touch.

The bottom line: People tend to make the mistake of spending a lot of money on smaller items, then see their bill and are forced to backpedal. First identify a theme, and then think of the one or two items that will be your “wow factor.” You can then use the smaller items to illustrate that and drive the theme home.

Music

A really talented DJ is of paramount importance. A DJ who keeps the kids engaged and dancing all night long is going to give them a really fun evening. You don’t need much else if the DJ is talented and experienced. He will do games and contests, or teach the kids a dance. So if you don’t have the extra money to add kids’ activities, make sure you choose a wonderful DJ.

Local talent is always less expensive than bringing in people from other locations, so look for DJs or bands in your area. If you are really on a bare bones budget, have a friend put together a great playlist on a solid iPod system, or do it yourself, but you’ll have to arrange for a player and speakers.

Venue/Food

Each venue comes with its own quirks and deals. When looking for a venue make sure to find out if it has a food and beverage minimum, and what that buys you. Sometimes it’s not a great package, and it would be wiser to bring in a caterer.

Many temples have function spaces and charge very little. On the other hand, don’t rule out hotels. If it’s off-season and a hotel has an empty ballroom, you may be able to negotiate a low-cost package.

When it comes to food, you should be realistic about the format for a party. Think luncheons, food stations, or buffet—not a four-course meal. There are many interesting ways to present food. You can get a lot of mileage out of fun street food—pizzas, a noodle bar, burgers. The kids will love it, and it will cost you less.

Finding a venue that is closer to home—school gym, town hall, or college—as well as a local vendor, will always save you some money.

Click photo to download. Caption: Event planner Janie Haas. Courtesy: Janie Haas.

Quick Tips

After 35 years in the party-planning business, there are a few tricks you learn:

Get a planner: Although it may seem counter-intuitive, a planner can actually help you save money. A good and experienced planner will help you stay on budget, or let you know that what you want is not realistic for your budget. A planner can help you establish priorities, within your number, and comes with a working knowledge of what that number will buy you. A planner will also have a Rolodex of different vendors at different prices and know whom to call.

Remember the hidden costs: A lot of people forget about extra costs. There is a 7 percent tax on food in Massachusetts, 18-20 percent gratuity, and everyone—from the DJs to the chef—might expect a tip. Factor this in when planning.

Use the Internet: The web is a great resource, especially for favors. Edible favors are the least expensive, and you can create custom labels or wrappers to make it fun and personal. There are also a multitude of promotional items, like t-shirts or drawstring bags that you can find online now. Depending on the time of year, there are frequent promotional sales, and things will likely be cheaper when bought in bulk.

The importance of “branding”

If you are really looking to have a lower-budget party, make it less formal, and make it all about the kids.

You can do a simple and lovely lunch, and a kids’ party at night. They don’t really need much to have a great time. Still invite your friends and family, but the message should be: this is for the kids. With that comes a very different expectation.

At the end of the day, your family and friends are there to celebrate and share in your joy. You have to be true to who you are, and to your child. You have to know your child well.

An expensive party is also not necessary to wow the guests. I recently saw a candle lighting that blew me away. There was no cake, but each guest received a light-up wand. Guests were called up in groups, and instead of being asked to light a candle, lit their wands. At the end, there were 210 twinkling lights; there wasn’t a person in the room who didn’t have a lighted wand. It was beautiful and inclusive.

Bar and bat mitzvahs can often be so generic that the “wow factor” becomes what you do to make the event meaningful. Identify the little thing that people take away that is unique to your event. That, you can do on any budget.

Janie Haas, the founder and president of Janie Haas Events, has been in the event planning business for over 35 years. She specializes in events that do not follow a cookie cutter formula, and has worked with a variety of clients, including the high profile. 

Posted on November 29, 2011 and filed under Bar Mitzvah, Jewish Life, Special Sections.