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Graduation season is a time of celebrating accomplishments and extending best wishes for life's next chapter, but it can also be a time of stress when juggling party planning and gift decisions.

In the National Retail Federation's annual graduation gift survey from last year, feedback from more than 8,400 consumers found people expected to spend an average of $116.19 for graduation gifts, with 52% planning to give cash instead of shopping for an item. And for those hosting instead of attending grad festivities, organizing a celebration could involve a lot of money and time.

Even if your own family doesn't have any graduates this year, it's likely you will have at least one graduation party to attend this season for a family member, friend or neighbor. Depending on your family's circumstances, you could have three or four different parties on the same day to juggle.

If you need help figuring out how to survive this busy time of year, here's some expert advice to follow:

For those attending:

Gifts required?

Graduation parties might be largely informal, but there is still some etiquette to keep in mind, said Lizzie Post, co-president of the Vermont-based Emily Post Institute. Post is a great-great-granddaughter of Emily Post, who published the book "Etiquette" in 1922.

Despite any social pressure you might feel about buying a gift, Post said it's not obligatory.

"You don't actually have to get a graduate a gift," Post said. "The obligation shouldn't feel as heavy as a wedding. There is no registry for a graduation party."

The same goes for joint graduation parties where siblings or friends might celebrate together. Post said you don't have to buy a gift for every honoree, especially if you only know certain graduates well.

Money matters

Post said it's become a trend for graduation party hosts to push "money apps" like Venmo for gifts, but she maintains: "It's really rude." So don't feel you must participate in that. Cash itself remains a perfectly acceptable gift, even if it has disappeared from many corners of society.

"It's not uncommon to see actual paper money as a gift these days," Post said.

After the event, Post said you should expect a handwritten thank-you note from the graduate if you gave a gift (not just a text or email). Call it an old-school gesture of gratitude.

Potential products

If cash or a check doesn't feel right for you, but you still want to give the grad in your life some token, a good ol' Google search can show you dozens of vetted options via lists from various publications. Forbes Vetted, a website connected to the business magazine focused on product recommendations, published its "55 Best Graduation Gifts In 2024″ in March.

Forbes Vetted identified options for high school and college grads ranging from a stainless steel bookmark for $7 to a Chanel bag for $1,700. Many ideas were less than $100 and wide-ranging from cookies to footwear to a tote bag to an air fryer.

Jenny Putnam, one of the owners of General Store of Minnetonka, said Enewton beaded bracelets are a popular item this year, particularly for mothers shopping for a gift for a daughter. Putnam also pointed to the book "Dear Graduate," originally published in 2022, which poses questions about life values as students prepare to take a step forward.

"It's new on our shelves," Putnam said, calling the book "something more universal" as a gift option.

Dress code

If invited to a fancy restaurant for the party, you should make an effort to dress appropriately, Post said, so your clothes fit the occasion. But in many cases — like the ever-popular driveway buffet or park picnic — going casual works just fine.

"If it's a backyard barbecue, it's probably anything goes," Post said.

For those hosting:

Planning ahead

Advance planning is essential if you're trying to hold an event-style graduation party, said event planner Kat Minks. Minks said the ideal time for mailing invitations is in March or April for parties held in June or July. So mark your calendars if you have a graduate in 2025. If you're just starting now, evites are a quicker route, or you could have a party later in the summer to avoid some of the rush.

Once party season arrives, rental companies will have already rented out all of their chairs and tents for specific dates, making it tough to find those items on a last-minute basis for prime dates like weekends, Minks said. So again, sooner rather than later.

For some, a do-it-yourself party is the best option. Minneapolis-based Litin's Party Value is one resource for finding DIY party supplies such as banners, balloons, decor, confetti, guest books, card boxes and more.

"Graduation is actually our busiest season," said Justin Alexander, general manager of Litin's Party Value.

Alexander said people tend to underestimate how many people will show up to the graduation party, so he recommends shopping early and planning ahead. The store's most popular items, he said, have the graduation year "2024" emblazoned on them, while the second-most popular items feature the various school colors.

Prices will vary depending how many supplies you buy, but Alexander said spending $2.50 to $3.50 per guest is a reasonable estimate.

An event planner could also take on some of the stress, for a fee. Minks said her services are more in demand these days because parents are busier and don't have time for extensive party planning.

"It gets so overwhelming for the parents now," said Minks, who owns Bloomington-based Adore Productions. "Their life is too busy to handle it."

Minks said many event planners will charge $3,500 to $4,000 for the typical graduation party, which draws about 150 to 200 people through a two-to-three-hour open house. She added high school graduation parties are dominant, though she sees a few college graduation events, too. But she has noticed graduation parties in general are trending a little more upscale than a garage party with hamburgers and hot dogs.

"Now you're more likely to do catering," Minks said.

Food for thought

Food trucks have emerged in recent years as an increasingly popular option for graduation parties.

"It's easy to do a food truck for a graduation party because everybody's not showing up at the same time," Minks said.

Woodbury-based grocer Kowalski's Markets offers food on wheels with its Joy of Good Food Truck used for community events, weddings and graduation parties.

"It's pretty popular," said Rachael Perron, culinary and branding director for Kowalski's Markets.

Kowalski's charges $750 to book the food truck and requires a food order of at least $750, which brings the overall minimum cost to $1,500. Kowalski's catering team operates the truck, which has a menu including tacos, hamburgers, hot dogs, pulled pork sandwiches and side dishes.

Ingredients all come from Kowalski's stores.

"It's a product that you can't get anywhere else," Perron said. "It's a great convenient option. They just show up and serve everything."

If a food truck seems like too much, Kowalski's stores offer a range of party trays for sandwiches, veggies, fruits and more. Popular restaurants also have catering packages. For example, Chipotle, likely to be a big hit among the graduating-age crowd, has premade burrito boxes and build-your-own setups for $8.75 a person.

Activities first

Some grads might not want just afternoon conversation and Bluetooth-speaker music, so explore a gathering at an entertainment venue. WhirlyBall Twin Cities, with locations in Bloomington and Maple Grove, will host events and parties, for example. WhirlyBall is a team sport combining elements of basketball, lacrosse and hockey where players ride in bumper cars and use scoops to toss a whiffle ball toward the goal.

WhirlyBall Twin Cities owner Nick Lambrecht said it has hosted senior class parties, post-prom parties and graduation parties in a space that can hold up to 500 people. WhirlyBall also offers laser tag, bowling, escape rooms and food with private and banquet rooms for smaller groups.

"It's not the most typical," he said, "but it can be a lot of fun."

Lambrecht said booking WhirlyBall could cost "in the thousands" to more than $10,000 for a large group.

Reserving a picnic shelter at a local park and supplying your own lawn games or heading to a lake beach for water sports are some other lower-cost options.

Don't forget

Whether you're going to a graduation celebration or putting it on, the one aspect to keep in mind is the graduates themselves. Make sure whatever gift you give, food you serve or party you plan suits the grad's personality. If the student is going to acting school, rent a screen to show recordings of his school performances. If your grad loves popcorn, serve all of her favorite kinds at the party. If this graduate is going on to study at the University of Minnesota, find stationery/card/gift wrap with maroon and gold colors (or maybe even a gopher) for your present.

Make the event special and unique so it will remain a cherished memory for years to come.