How To Host A Holiday Meal on A Budget 

Close up of stuffed roasted turkey during family's dinner at dining table.
skynesher / Getty Images

With the holidays soon upon us, Americans are getting ready to spend, spend, spend.  Gallup found that consumers plan to dish out an average of $837 on gifts this season — up from the $805 they spent in 2020. With so much money going toward presents for loved ones, one wonders how anyone can afford another common holiday tradition: hosting a dinner party.  

GOBankingRates consulted a number of experts to learn the best tips for cutting costs on holiday dinner hosting expenses to round up these 10 great tips. 

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Create A VIP Guest List

“It can be really tempting to invite every one of your friends and family members to a holiday dinner this year, especially after the holidays were so subdued in 2020,” said Julie Ramhold, consumer analyst at DealNews. “But rather than trying to gather every person you’ve ever met together, create a guest list of those that you really want to celebrate with — cutting down from 50 people you haven’t seen in over a year to 20 close family and friends can seriously help you to cut costs on the meal.”

Make Your Money Work for You

See: Wrapping Paper, Greeting Cards and More Holiday Items to Only Buy at Dollar Stores

Streamline The Menu

“If you’re handling the whole dinner yourself, and not going the potluck route, it’s definitely worth your time to streamline things into a reasonable menu,” Ramhold said. “Choose one main, a few sides, and one dessert, and if you’re feeling really ambitious, you can add one or two appetizers to your menu, or a festive drink for everyone to enjoy. Just remember that the holiday season is stressful, so while a full menu may look appealing and easy to accomplish now, remember that you may be busier when it’s time to begin cooking, so be reasonable in your plans.”

Find: Rude Money Questions You Shouldn’t Ask at the Holidays

Set A Budget Before Grocery Shopping

“Your budget will depend on how much you’re willing to spend per person — about $5-$15 per person is fair,” said Guadalupe Sanchez, founder at Budgeting in Blue. “Once you have a number, work backward. List the ingredients you’ll need and the estimated price next to each item. You may have to switch recipes if one is making you go over budget but with so many inexpensive meal ideas, you’ll have plenty of options! Know your total before you go grocery shopping.”

Make Your Money Work for You

Learn More: 15 Times You Should Splurge, Settle or Skip When Shopping

Keep The Décor Simple

“A table linen set (table runner, napkins and candles) are all that are necessary to create an ambience for your guests,” said Stephanie Commisso, a wedding floral designer and creator of Bluum Maison. “Don’t go overboard with décor, keep it simple and your wallet will thank you.

Find Out: Shopping Mistakes You’re Making and How To Stop

Shop Your Cupboards And Closet

In addition to shopping your pantry, you should also shop your closet and cupboards for things you may use but forgot you had. 

Take a look at your shopping list and look around for what you have that you can use or repurpose,” said Jamie Novak, organizing expert and author of Keep This Toss That. “Among other things, you might find:

  • Paper goods
  • Food in the pantry you can use up by coming up with a recipe for those ingredients
  • Serving platters you can repurpose
  • An outfit in your closet with tags on you can wear.”

Opt For White Paper Goods

“White plates, cups, and napkins are typically less expensive than their fancier themed counterparts, but they do the same thing,” Novak said. “You can always dress up a place setting with a napkin ring on a white napkin.”

When Your Guests Ask If They Can Bring Anything, Say Yes

So often we receive offers for help that we just don’t take advantage of. 

“It’s so easy to say ‘Oh, just bring yourself’ when a friend asks what they can bring to your party, but you’re going to save a lot of money if you have suggestions ready,” said Lisa Thompson, savings expert at Coupons.com. “You could also throw a good old-fashioned potluck but give it a theme: charcuterie (everyone brings something to add to a board), baked potato bar (you provide the potatoes, they bring the toppings), a chili cook-off or ‘souptacular’ (soup contest). When you theme it up, it makes a potluck even more fun.”

Buy Wine By The Case, And Be Limited In Your Booze Selections

“If you’re not careful, wine, beer, and cocktails can be the priciest part of entertaining,” Thompson said. “If you want to serve wine, buy a case–you’ll often save per bottle, and what you don’t pour at your party can be used as holiday gifts (or go to your wine rack, of course).

“If you want to serve a cocktail, choose one signature drink or type of spirit so you don’t end up with six different types of booze sitting in six half-empty bottles,” Thompson continued. “You don’t have to set up a whole bar to try to please everyone–that’s an expensive, messy, and complicated way to go. The key to saving on beverages is to keep it simple so you end up using everything you purchase.”

Start Making Ice Now

“If you can skip buying bagged ice, you’ll save,” Novak said. 

Save Receipts For Potential Price Matching

“Save your receipts in a single envelope,” Novak said. “Many stores will price match the identical item within 30 days of purchase if you see it cheaper somewhere else or it goes on sale where you bought it. But you must produce a receipt.”

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About the Author

Nicole Spector is a writer, editor, and author based in Los Angeles by way of Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in Vogue, the Atlantic, Vice, and The New Yorker. She's a frequent contributor to NBC News and Publishers Weekly. Her 2013 debut novel, "Fifty Shades of Dorian Gray" received laudatory blurbs from the likes of Fred Armisen and Ken Kalfus, and was published in the US, UK, France, and Russia — though nobody knows whatever happened with the Russian edition! She has an affinity for Twitter.

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