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How to Throw an Epic 50th (or 60th or 70th) Birthday Party

Use this checklist to create an unforgettable celebration

spinner image birthday cake with candles and other decorations on a table
Lacheev/Getty Images


To celebrate his 60th birthday, Allen Klein, a San Francisco-based author, put together an Alice in Wonderland Mad Hatter-themed tea party.

“The table ran the length of the ballroom with white-fabric-covered chairs on each side and a great big stately chair at the end for me,” says Klein, now 83. “It was covered with bright flowers and big pink flamingos that were used in the story as croquet mallets by the Queen of Hearts.”

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Guests were also treated to a special appearance by costumed actors from a local stage production of the Lewis Carroll classic. 

A milestone birthday, whether you’re turning 50, 60 or 85, can be the perfect occasion to organize a special party. “The elements of a great party are a good host, good or interesting food, great music — whether a band, DJ or playlist — fun decorations, something interactive for guests to do and be a part of, and a good mix of people invited,” says Lynne Goldberg, an event planner with Boca Entertainment based in Boca Raton, Florida.

You can plan the party on your own, hand the reins to a professional event planner, or ask a friend or family member to take charge. Regardless of who is doing the planning, there are a number of things to consider to ensure that everyone has fun — without breaking the bank. Here’s how to throw a milestone bash to remember.

spinner image a group of seven people wearing alice in wonderland costumes
Allen Klein, center, threw himself an 'Alice In Wonderland'-themed party for his 60th birthday.
Courtesy Allen Klein

Set a budget

“The first step is to figure out what you can spend,” says Amanda Hudes, a creative event and wedding planner with Smiling Through Chaos based in Scotch Plains, New Jersey. Once you figure out how much you’re comfortable spending, a party planner can help you stick to that budget. Or, if you’re planning the party on your own, Hudes suggests that you start with the big-ticket items, like the venue and catering, and continue working down your list of priorities.

If you’re looking to stretch your budget, consider cutting back your guest list. This, says Hudes, allows you to spend more per guest on things like food. You might also consider different dining options.

“I realized that taking 65 people to dinner was not something I could afford,” Klein says. So he opted for high tea. “I saved money with not having alcohol.” And instead of serving an entire meal, his guests were presented with whimsical tiered platters of cucumber sandwiches and petit fours.

Choose a location

The next big decision is choosing where the party will take place.

At home: Hosting a party in your own home or backyard tends to be the most affordable option, but there are tradeoffs: You may end up running around making sure guests have something to drink or know where the bathroom is, or if you also assume the role of home chef, that might keep the guest of honor in the kitchen instead of chatting with friends. Hiring a caterer could cost more, but it will free you up to relax and mingle with guests. 

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Another option is to go potluck style and ask everyone to bring a dish to share. “If you wish to cook, choose to serve something that can be prepared easily prior to guests arriving,” Goldberg says.

Off-site: There are any number of spaces available for hosting a party — from an events room in a community center to a private room at a restaurant. Paying for a venue will certainly be more expensive than a house party, and it may also come with restrictions, like a requirement to use the venue’s caterer instead of bringing in your own food. A major benefit of an off-site party, however, is that you won’t have to worry about the setup or the cleanup. When planning her milestone birthday celebration, Sharvette Mitchell, a 50-year-old marketing consultant, chose a riverfront restaurant in her hometown of Richmond, Virginia. “The restaurant provided linens, candles and custom menus and did all of the party setup,” she says.

Outdoors: You might love the idea of an al fresco party, but you’ll need a plan B or the ability to cover the space with a tent in case of inclement weather. Klein’s Mad Hatter soiree was originally planned for the terrace of the Ritz Carlton Hotel. “It was a great idea, but the weather on the day of the party was predicted to be cold and blustery,” he says.  

So the location of the party was moved to a section of the hotel’s ballroom and the planner rented shrubbery to line the walls and create the illusion of being in an outdoor garden. “It is important to feel good about your backup plan because there is a good chance it will be used and you don’t want to feel disappointed or disorganized if the backup plan is used for the party,” says Goldberg.

Pick a theme

It’s not required, but attaching a theme to a party can bump things up a notch and make it even more memorable. The theme, says Hudes, is like the “story” or “feeling of your event.” It sets the tone for the entire party and should be shared with all the vendors so everyone understands what guests should feel the instant they arrive at your milestone birthday event. For his 75th, Klein opted for a disco-themed party. “In the ’70s, I used to disco a lot,” he says. His 70th was an “eat dessert first” party.

Mitchell decided on an elegant, intimate dinner party for her 50th. “I have thrown bigger parties before, like my 40th birthday, which included lots of guests, a live band, dancing, sweets table, hor d'oeuvres, carving stations, pasta stations, red carpet step and repeat and the whole nine yards,” she says. “Turning 50 feels classy, and that is the vibe I wanted.”

Make a guest list

Once you’ve got your budget, venue and theme, it’s time to decide who to invite. Your budget can help determine how many guests you can afford to host. For milestone birthdays, Mitchell suggests making sure you invite guests who represent each important phase of your life, and include a mix of family and friends.

You can send out printed invitations, as Klein did for his Mad Hatter party, or go digital, which was Mitchell’s preference. “I went with a digital invitation that was sent by text to all guests, as it was the most efficient way to collect and track RSVPs,” she says.

Add a special touch

To make her birthday party extra special, Mitchell ordered a custom cake from a local baker and festive decorations online. “I found custom gold glitter ‘50’ signs to go in the floral arrangements at each table,” she says. “I also ordered a custom ‘Happy 50th Birthday Sharvette’ cake topper.”

Mitchell wanted to document the event but didn’t want to be the person holding the camera, so she hired a photographer. “If you are watching your budget, the photographer only needs to be there an hour or so versus the whole event,” she notes. Mitchell also bought a special gown to wear, asked guests to dress in semi-formal attire and had her makeup done for the big day.

In place of gifts, Klein requested that guests bring “a poem, a joke, a song or a story to share.” This, he says, added creative, no-cost entertainment to the afternoon.

Planning for someone else

If you’re organizing a party for a friend or relative, make sure you’re guided by their taste and preferences. “Think about their favorite things,” says Goldberg. Hudes tells clients planning for other people to work in a special element about the guest of honor. “There doesn’t have to be a true theme, but something that will make the honoree feel valued and appreciated,” she explains. “For example, if the honoree loves golf, you don’t have to make the party a golf theme, but it would be cute to add cookies with a golf club design on them and give those out as favors.”

You can also incorporate photos from the birthday boy or girl’s life into the invitation or decorations. “It's amazing what you can discover about the person and how excited they will be, as they get to visit memory lane with all the guests,” says Goldberg.

Most importantly, enjoy the process. “Do not stress,” says Goldberg. “After all, you are planning a party, and everyone you are inviting is happy to be a part of your celebration. The real goal here is for you and your guests to have a good time!”

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