Whether you’re still lounging around the pool sipping piña coladas or beginning to corral the kids for the start of the school year, one thing is certain: no one wants to spend the last days of summer toiling over an elaborate event. Why knock yourself out or break the bank by hiring caterers or party designers, when you can prolong summer’s carefree attitude with a few ingenious planning tips?

Concerned that a laidback approach will leave your party looking blah? Well, don’t be. As you can see from these photos of my July fourth picnic, casual can still be impressive to guests.

A Do-It-Yourself Tablescape
A Do-It-Yourself Tablescape | Photo by Steve Adams

When time and money are scarce (and when aren’t they these days?), be sure to test-run my favorite techniques for keeping parties simple but eye-catching:

1 | Don’t be shy; enlist help.

And not just on the day of the event! Consider co-hosting a party with a good friend or throwing a potluck like this one (top photo) where every guest shares in the prep. A potluck will of course keep your time and costs to a minimum, but it will also achieve the far loftier purpose of bringing together family and friends through this shared task. The more, the merrier, as they say!

2 | Make the most of what you have (or can find dirt-cheap).

Resist the impulse to order an expensive floral centerpiece or to run out and buy the latest accoutrement to deck your table. Take a look at the items already jamming your cupboards and cabinets, and challenge yourself to incorporate them into your party décor. Arranging ordinary items in unexpected ways is a sure way to make guests’ eyes light up.

At this party, I created excitement on the tabletop by placing flowers from my garden in a quirky assortment of enamel coffee pots and cooking pans. The table runner, while it might look pricey, was cut from a roll of old dish toweling that I bought for pennies at my local flea market. And the collection of Bakelite-handled forks and knives? My everyday dinnerware tucked into an antique crock.

Fan-tastic Invitations
Fan-tastic Invitations | Photo by Steve Adams

3 | Incorporate personalized and homemade touches whenever you can.

The more you put yourself and your guests into the party details, the more meaningful and memorable an event becomes. Here, I incorporated photos of my friends’ children into the invitations – fans crafted from little more than scrapbooking paper and popsicle sticks (above). The festive Fourth of July banner (directly below) was a simple cut-and-paste job using recycled flash cards, ribbons, and other remnants of past projects that I had the prescience to stash in my basement for later. Even the leftover ribbon snippings from the banner were put to good use. Check out my patriotic napkin ties (bottom photo)! Yes, details like these can take time. But remember Tip #1 and never hesitate to ask your guests to chip in!

A Banner Banner
A Banner Banner | Photo by Steve Adams
All Wrapped Up
All Wrapped Up | Photo by Steve Adams

For the full story, as it appeared in St. Louis AT HOME magazine, click here.