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9 Tips for Planning a Family Reunion on a Budget

Decades ago, most if not all family reunions were held at home. Everyone brought a dish and stories to share, and they passed a hat to cover the minimal expenses for paper plates and napkins.

While plenty of families still enjoy gathering at someone’s home for a reunion, families are increasingly opting for more lavish get-togethers. Some are multi-day camping trips in RVs and tents; others are held on cruise ships or at resorts. There are detailed budgets to set up, raffles to organize, and t-shirts and coffee mugs bearing the family crest to sell. No matter how simple or lavish your reunion, planning one takes a lot of work, and it can get very expensive if you’re not careful.

Before you go overboard and end up planning an event no one can afford to attend, here are some ways to plan a fun, affordable reunion.

Planning a Budget-Friendly Family Reunion

When it comes to your reunion, do you want everyone to gather at Mom and Dad’s house and bring a dish to share? Should you try to plan a “vacation” family reunion at a resort? Will the reunion be for an afternoon or a three-day event?

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by details when planning a family reunion. So, let’s take it step by step.

1. Start Early

Calendar Plan Early Organized Post Its

Planning a family reunion takes work, and it’s definitely not something you can do at the last minute. Ideally, you should start planning a year in advance; this will give you plenty of time to choose a date and location that will work for everyone’s schedules and budgets. Planning early will also give you the opportunity to negotiate the best rates for hotels, vendors, and activities.

You also need to get an early headcount for how many people might attend. Having a rough estimate before you do any planning will save time when you’re looking at venues. For example, if your reunion has 300 (or more) possible attendees, you won’t waste time researching state park pavilions that will only accommodate 100 people.

Don’t forget that, depending on the time of year, you might have some competition for venue space. For example, most weddings take place during summer or fall. Graduation parties are held in early summer and holiday parties in December. Planning early ensures that you’re able to book the venue you want when you want it.

2. Create a Family Reunion Facebook Page

Facebook Chats Network Updates Alerts

Planning a family reunion means communicating with dozens or even hundreds of people. It can quickly turn into an organizational nightmare as you all discuss potential dates, locations, and activities through email or phone calls. It can also get expensive if you decide to mail out official invitations along with RSVP cards.

Save time and money by putting all your communications in one place with a family reunion Facebook page. You can make this page private so that only group members can see posts, and it’s a great way to share details about the upcoming reunion and get everyone’s input on what they’d like to do. Check out AARP for a helpful article on how to create a family Facebook group.

If you’re in charge of planning, remember to think like a marketer. Your goal is to get as many people to attend as possible so that the overall cost per person goes down. Do your best to plan fun activities and create a buzz so more people want to come.

3. Talk Openly About the Budget

Budget Mug Notepad Wooden Table

Even the simplest family reunion can cost several hundred dollars, and most end up costing several thousand or more. You might be in charge of planning, but that doesn’t mean you’re willing — or able  to foot the bill. So, who’s going to pay for it?

You can’t talk about costs unless you first have an idea of the type of reunion you want to organize. Do you want a DIY reunion in a state park where everyone brings a dish to share, or a more lavish reunion on a cruise ship or at a dude ranch or all-inclusive resort? Will your reunion have 20 attendees or 200?

Work out the basic details first, and then you can start to create a loose budget for the event. Consider all the expenses you’re likely to incur and then add a 5% to 10% cushion to account for unexpected costs.

4. Make a Plan for Fundraising

Fundraising Heart Red Thumb Tack

Your next step is to figure out how to fund your reunion, and there are several avenues to consider.

You can ask each family or attendee to donate a flat amount to cover reunion costs. This money should go into a bank account you open with another family member, ideally not someone in your immediate family. Keep deposits and expenses as transparent as possible, perhaps with a monthly budget recap that you send to everyone electronically.

You can also raise money at the reunion itself. Ask attendees to bring homemade goods such as desserts, breads, and jams to sell to other family members, with all proceeds going to cover reunion costs. You could also raffle off donated items, such as:

  • Homemade quilts
  • Restored and framed antique family photos
  • A homemade cookbook full of old family recipes
  • A family tree
  • A family scrapbook
  • Original artwork or other handmade work
  • Antique furniture

A raffle has the potential to raise a lot of money, plus all items will stay within the family. A family heirloom raffle can be a great option for family members who are downsizing to transition to assisted living.

Some families raise money during their reunions by providing free food but running a cash bar and selling water and soda. To do this, you’ll need to apply for a one-day liquor license in the town or city where you’ll be holding the event. Do your research first; some cities only grant a one-day license for specific groups, such as religious organizations, nonprofits, or veteran, political, educational, or athletic groups. Apply early as applications can take at least two weeks to process.

5. Ask for a Deposit

Deposit Keyboard Blue

Once you have a rough budget sketched out, it’s essential that you ask every family to submit a non-refundable deposit by a specific deadline. When determining the amount, take into consideration each family’s financial situation and consider allowing monthly payments if necessary.

Asking for a non-refundable deposit from family members is important for several reasons. First, it gives you some funds to make purchases and provide deposits to vendors and venues. It also helps you determine who’s actually going to come; once a family has made a financial commitment to attending the reunion, they’re far less likely to back out at the last minute.

To keep track of payments, use a service such as MyEvent. MyEvent allows your family to register for the reunion, pay their deposits or attendance fees, and even make additional donations. The site also allows you to send out polls and surveys, make a family tree, and easily create buzz around the event using social media.

6. Consider Offseason Dates

Beach Sand Travel Sale

Sure, it would be fun to have a family reunion at a ski resort in January or a beautiful Great Lakes beach in mid-June. But you’ll pay top dollar if you stay during a location’s peak season.

Many venues drop their prices by 50% or more during their offseason, so consider staying at that ski resort in June or at that northern beach house in December. You’ll save money and still have plenty to do. For example, most ski resorts have miles of hiking and biking trails, as well as pools and planned events. Walks on a winter beach are beautiful and refreshing, and most northern beaches are vacant during the winter months, so you’ll have the shore to yourselves.

7. Ask for Group Rates on Hotel Rooms

Hotel Keys Bell Gold Silver

Most likely, your family is scattered across the country, which means you’ll need hotel rooms, and lots of them. One of the best ways to save money on hotel rooms when planning a family reunion is to ask for a group rate, which can save you up to 50% or more off the price of the rooms. However, getting a great discount for out-of-town family members takes some negotiating.

First, do your homework. Research local hotel rates and make a list of what each hotel charges for a typical room, as well as what amenities you get with your stay. Next, make sure you know how many rooms you’ll need, as well as firm dates for check-in and checkout.

When you call, ask to talk to the manager; a typical reservations representative likely won’t have the authority to negotiate group rates. Let the manager know the number of rooms you need and when you need them.

Some managers might ask what your budget is. They often use this number as a starting point for negotiations. Whenever possible, keep this to yourself; you might get a lower price if the manager doesn’t know your price range. A polite way to withhold this information is to say, “We’re still talking with different family members to find a price point everyone can afford.” Make sure to let them know you’re shopping around; you might get a lower rate if they know you’re calling other hotels.

Write down each manager’s name as well as their offer, and let them know the date you’ll make your final decision. On this date, call each manager back, thank them for their time, and let them know your decision. It’s common courtesy. There’s also a small chance they’ll make you a lower offer to attract your business if you tell them you’ve decided to book elsewhere.

8. Consider a Cruise Vacation

Cruise Vacation Sea Sunrise

Surprisingly, an all-inclusive cruise ship can be a perfect venue for family reunions for a number of reasons.

Cruise ships can accommodate people on a wide variety of budgets. For example, family members on a tighter budget can often get rooms for $89 per night, while those with more disposable income can opt for more-luxurious rooms.

Cruises also take away most of the stress of planning. Food and activities are taken care of by the staff. You can all eat breakfast or dinner together in one of the many restaurants or dining rooms, then plan a variety of fun activities to do during the day. You can visit the spa with your aunt, watch your kids and their cousins play together at the water park, or take in a show with your grandfather. You don’t have to worry about catering your reunion — or doing most of the cooking yourself  or planning a “family field day” full of different activities. All you have to do is show up.

Another benefit of hosting your family reunion on a cruise ship is that everyone gets a real vacation while reconnecting with people they likely haven’t seen in years or even decades.

Although all-inclusive cruise vacations are convenient and fun, they can also get expensive. Even if you score a great deal on your room, it’s important to keep in mind that it’s only the beginning of the expenses you and your family members will incur.

For example, taxes and port fees can add $100 to $200 to the price of your ticket. You’ll have to pay for a plane ticket to and from the port city, as well as a taxi or car service from the airport to port itself. If you drive yourself to the port, you’ll typically pay $15 to $20 per day for parking.

If your cruise package is not all-inclusive, you’ll have to pay for food and drinks, which can quickly add up. For example, a typical alcoholic drink costs $7 to $10 or more on a cruise ship, with a 15% to 18% gratuity added on top of that. Many cruise lines also add a daily gratuity to your final bill, which is now up to $23 per person per day for most major cruise lines, according to USA Today.

As you can see, the price of your room is just the tip of the iceberg — and always keep in mind that the room price is per person. It’s essential that you research how much a cruise might truly cost each person per day so your family members can decide if they can afford it.

9. Consider a State Park

Moose State Park Mountains River

If hosting your family reunion on a cruise ship is out of reach for you and your family, another option is to host a reunion at a local or state park. You can rent a pavilion, which often comes with a charcoal grill, for $50 to $100 a day.

Some larger parks have modern or rustic cabins for rent. Typically, a “modern” cabin has water and electricity, while a “rustic” cabin does not. Renting a cabin for out-of-town family members can be less expensive than renting a hotel room, and the cabin can provide a quiet space for children or seniors to rest during the day.

Some parks also have large cabins or lodges for rent. These can be several hundred dollars per night, but if three or four families stay in one building and split the cost, it can be very affordable.

Before you reserve a cabin or pavilion, make sure to ask where the nearest public restrooms are, as well as the location of other amenities, such as a beach, playground, pool, or fishing dock. If anyone in your family uses a wheelchair or walker, ask about potential barriers that might make their attendance more difficult. Many parks now have specific “barrier-free” cabins, pavilions, and playgrounds.

Avoid hosting your family reunion on a major holiday, such as the 4th of July or Labor Day; state parks charge their highest fees on these dates. You’ll also want to book cabins and pavilions as early as possible, as many state parks book up months — or even a year  in advance.

While state parks can be a great choice, consider these other locations for an affordable reunion:

  • A zoo
  • A theme park
  • A campground or RV park
  • A church or religious conference or retreat center
  • A fairground
  • The YMCA
  • A local lake or beach

Additional Ways to Trim Costs

There are plenty of other ways to keep your family reunion affordable, including the following.

  • Save on Photos. Instead of hiring a photographer, ask a family member to fill this role. Consider waiving their attendance fee, or even giving them a digital camera, if they agree to photograph the event and organize the photos afterward.
  • Save on Music. If your reunion will be at a large banquet hall, ask a musically inclined family member to play DJ. Again, as an incentive, offer to waive their family’s fees for the event.
  • Save on Accommodations. Consider renting several vacation houses at a fun destination, such as the beach or in the mountains, and having each family divide the cost equally. You’ll all be able to cook at home, which can cut 30% or more off your reunion costs, and you’ll have plenty of dinner tables to gather around and talk.
  • Save on Food. Food is a huge expense at reunions. Keep it simple by setting up a bar and letting everyone fix their own meals. For example, you can set up a hot dog bar with every creative topping you can imagine. A nacho bar, a hamburger bar, a taco bar, and an ice cream bar are also sure to be hits.

Final Word

Your family reunion can be incredible without you having to spend a fortune hiring a band, making souvenirs, or getting everyone together at a resort in the U.S. Virgin Islands. (Although that does sound nice, doesn’t it?)

The most important thing is that your reunion gives everyone a chance to reconnect and experience the powerful pull of family. These are your people. They’re the ones who have your back and will stick up for you when no one else will. Spending time together telling stories, sharing pictures, laughing at each other’s idiosyncrasies, and having fun will create bonds and cement friendships no matter how much money you decide to spend.

Have you ever planned a family reunion or attended one? What tips would you share to save money?

Heather Levin
Heather Levin is a writer with over 15 years experience covering personal finance, natural health, parenting, and green living. She lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina with her husband and two young sons, where they're often wandering on frequent picnics to find feathers and wildflowers.

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