For many families, Thanksgiving brings both a lot of joy and a lot of stress. You can unload plenty of the latter, however, if you know how to save money on Thanksgiving Day. From prepared Thanksgiving dinners to potluck-style chip-ins, there are plenty of ways to eliminate financial stress and plan your ultimate Thanksgiving.
Get an Accurate Thanksgiving Guest Count
A good way to avoid overspending on Thanksgiving is to avoid overcooking. "It's very easy to cook way more food than you need," said Jim Wang, founder of WalletHacks.com.
To ensure that you buy and cook no more Thanksgiving food than necessary, make sure you get an accurate guest count, he said. Make slightly less turkey than you think you will need to feed the number of guests who will attend. Then, ensure that your guests will have enough to eat by making slightly larger amounts of Thanksgiving side dishes.
"No one is upset getting full on stuffing, mashed potatoes or mac and cheese," he said. If you have a lot of guests, Wang recommends buying extra turkey legs rather than a larger turkey.
Stick to Traditional Thanksgiving Fare
If you prefer traditional Thanksgiving fare, you're in luck. Grocery stores will be pricing ingredients for customary entrees and side dishes at rock-bottom prices to get shoppers in the door, said Stephanie Nelson of CouponMom.com. Sweet potatoes, white potatoes, frozen turkeys, cranberry sauce, green beans and the pantry ingredients that go with them will likely all be on sale.
After Halloween, the front page of grocery ads will be featuring common Thanksgiving dinner items with the best prices, Nelson said. Plus, you can find coupons for many common ingredients at sites such as CouponMom.com to stack with sales.
Or Buck Tradition
You shouldn't feel pressured to make traditional dishes — especially if they aren't favorites with your family, said Mike Catania, owner of PromotionCode.org.
"It's a huge waste of money, time and food," he said. "If your family loves tacos, then you'll get a lot more mileage for your budget with Thanksgiving taco leftovers than you will with anything that gets dumped into the trash on Friday."
Thanksgiving is about spending time with loved ones. For best results, make what those you love enjoy the most.
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Plan a Menu With Dishes People Enjoy
If you want to serve a lower-priced meal without ditching tradition entirely, don't feel compelled to make all of the usual Thanksgiving dishes.
"Sometimes that rigidity can sabotage your budget in unexpected ways," said Kendal Perez, a savings expert with Coupon Sherpa. "Traditional dishes like stuffing, candied yams and cranberry sauce might seem like 'musts' for your holiday menu, but if they're not favored by family and guests, they're a waste of your money."
So you don't have to toss your hard-earned dollars down the drain, craft a menu based on what your family actually enjoys. Consider which dishes at past meals have been popular and make only those. Leave dishes that have hardly been touched in years past off the menu entirely. It's likely that no one will even notice they're missing.
Prepare Dishes With Overlapping Ingredients
Another way to save when planning your Thanksgiving meal menu is to opt for dishes that use overlapping ingredients, according to money-saving expert Andrea Woroch. For example, if a side dish calls for fresh rosemary, look for other dishes you can prepare using that herb.
"Ultimately, you want to use the ingredients you buy and avoid throwing away leftovers," Woroch said. "This will reduce your overall grocery bill."
A good way to do this is to search online for Thanksgiving recipes by ingredient, she said. You'll also save money by limiting the ingredients you have to purchase.
Shop Your Pantry
Base your Thanksgiving menu on what you already have in the pantry, refrigerator or freezer. For example, if you have a big bag of russet potatoes, you could serve mashed potatoes at dinner rather than buying sweet potatoes. In fact, you can use potatoes for many mouth-watering recipes.
If you already have items that can be used as part of a meal, you'll cut your grocery bill when you do your Thanksgiving shopping because you'll need to buy less.
Search for Recipes Based on Cost
If you're looking for new recipes for Thanksgiving this year but don't want to blow your budget, you can tailor your online search to find more affordable dishes.
Catania recommends using the search term "cost per serving." This will limit the results to sites that proactively calculate the costs, so you don't get surprised at the store, he said.
Ask Guests to Bring Side Dishes
Wang said that his family hosts Thanksgiving dinner each year and invites several people. Rather than foot the cost for the entire meal, though, he asks guests to chip in and lets them pick what they want to prepare from a menu of items.
"We always make the turkey, but guests will bring anything from beverages to sides," he said. "It cuts down on our cooking time, stove and oven use, and it gives everyone the feeling they've contributed to the meal."
Provide the Gathering Spot, Not the Food
If you're really looking to cut costs but don't want to disrupt the family tradition of hosting Thanksgiving, offer to let friends and family gather at your place — but ask them to bring all of the food this year.
"No one has to know that you can't afford to host — only that you're no longer interested in doing so," said Donna Freedman, author of "Your Playbook For Tough Times." Simply let people know that you don't have the time or energy to prepare the meal this year.
Freedman said you could say something like, "I'm happy to provide a gathering place, but I'm no longer interested in doing the cooking or even the organizing. Talk among yourselves, and let me know whether to expect you on Thanksgiving."
Get a Discounted Turkey
"The star of Thanksgiving dinner can also be the cheapest part of your meal if you plan it right," Perez said.
Supermarkets offer turkeys at a reduced price per pound or for a flat discount of up to 50 percent with a minimum purchase, she said. Don't limit your search for a turkey deal to the store where you regularly shop, though. Compare turkey deals from several grocers in your area to determine which one offers the best discount.
Get a Free Turkey
Many grocers offer free turkeys when you spend certain dollar amounts — typically $100 to $150 — in their stores, Perez said.
"If you're hosting a big crowd, this isn't difficult to do," she said.
Also, some grocers offer free turkeys when you buy a ham — which you could stash in the freezer until Christmas. Keep an eye out for flyers in the mail from supermarkets advertising these promotions or ask store managers if they'll be running any free turkey deals.
Pay Less for a Frozen Turkey
Another way to save money on your Thanksgiving turkey is to buy a frozen bird rather than a fresh one. You'll spend 30 percent to 50 percent less, Nelson said, adding that the turkey will taste just as good.
Just be sure to transfer your frozen turkey to the refrigerator before Thanksgiving. It takes 24 hours for every 4 to 5 pounds to thaw in the refrigerator, according to FoodSafety.gov. So, a 20-pound turkey needs to be moved from the freezer to refrigerator five to six days before Thanksgiving.
Act Quickly to Get a Good Price on a Fresh Turkey
Although a fresh turkey can be more expensive than a frozen one, there are ways to keep the cost down if you insist on fresh.
"I come from a family of farmers, so a fresh turkey has always been a staple of our Thanksgivings," Catania said. If you're further removed from the farm and still want a fresh turkey, you need to get on a list with a local farmer or market as soon as possible.
The cost per pound goes up dramatically the closer you get to Thanksgiving. So, if you want to pay the lowest price — about $2 per pound — order now, Catania said.
What would Thanksgiving be without the turkey? It would be cheaper.
The turkey is the big-ticket item of the meal — the average price of a 16-pound turkey was $22.74 last Thanksgiving, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation. Eliminating it from your menu could cut costs in half.
You could make a hearty vegetable dish — such as a stuffed acorn squash — the centerpiece of the meal instead. Vegetarian guests are sure to appreciate it, and others might accept it as a new tradition. And remember, vegetarian and vegan-friendly dishes don't necessarily equate to expensive. Many veggie-only options are both affordable and tasty.
Don’t Go Overboard With Side Dishes
"Thanksgiving dinners tend to be known for excess," said April Masini, a relationship expert and author. This year, consider serving fewer side dishes to cut costs and help guests avoid having to loosen their belts after eating. One of the secrets of hosting is knowing how much is just enough.
For example, you don't need sweet potatoes and white potatoes. You don't need rolls and stuffing. And you don't need more than one type of dessert, Masini said. "Rethink your menu, and you'll spend less and feel lighter," she said.
Use Lower-Priced Seasonal Produce
When considering which vegetables to serve, opt for ones that are in season to save money, said Karen Hoxmeier, founder of MyBargainBuddy.com. For example, you probably won't find markdowns on asparagus — which isn't in season in the fall — but Hoxmeier said you're likely to find good prices on broccoli and Brussels sprouts.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has a seasonal produce guide to help you pinpoint which vegetables will likely be least expensive, Hoxmeier said. Then, check your supermarket's weekly store ads to ensure you purchase those vegetables when they're on sale.
Shop at the Lowest-Priced Supermarket
You probably tend to shop at one grocery store, but it can pay to compare prices at competitors to get the best deals on items for your Thanksgiving meal. For example, Perez said that a Bloomberg Intelligence study found that 20 common items in a Thanksgiving meal cost 22 percent more at Whole Foods than at Trader Joe's.
"It's likely no surprise that Whole Foods is pricier, but a price discrepancy might also exist between competing grocers in your area," she said. "For example, Safeway is almost always pricier than my local King Soopers."
You can use the free Favado app to compare prices at grocery stores in your area.
Compare Supermarket Sales
You can also use the Flipp app to compare weekly supermarket sales flyers, and find out which store has the best deals on the ingredients you need, Perez said. You might find that you can save the most money by buying certain items on sale at one store and others on sale at another.
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Use Grocery Coupons
If you don't typically take advantage of coupons, now is a good time to start if you want to cut the cost of your Thanksgiving meal. You can search for manufacturer coupons in the Sunday newspaper or print them from sites such as Coupons.com and CouponSherpa.com.
If you are a member of your grocery store's loyalty program, you might be able to load coupons directly to your loyalty card. For example, Kroger Plus members can sign into their accounts on Kroger.com to find and collect the coupons they want. The discount will be automatically applied when they swipe their Plus cards at checkout.
Buy Ingredients Early
Don't wait until the last minute to do your Thanksgiving meal shopping because you'll miss out on sales.
"When you wait, you are forced to pay whatever amounts are being asked that week, which always adds up to more in the end — as high as twice as much," said Josh Elledge, founder of Savings Angel. Instead, buy ingredients when you see them on sale.
"If you see a 10-pound bag of potatoes for $1, onions for 69 cents for 3 pounds or carrots for under $1 a bag, grab them," Elledge said. "When stored properly, ingredients keep well, and you'll save significantly over buying everything just before you need it."
Use Apps for Extra Savings
Downloading your supermarket's app might help you score savings in addition to what you'll get with coupons and sales. For example, Walmart shoppers should download the retailer's Savings Catcher tool, which offers store credit in the form of a gift card when something you purchased is offered at a better price by competitors, Perez said. You can use these gift cards to help cover the cost of your Thanksgiving dinner.
Target shoppers should download the Cartwheel app for access to special deals that can be combined with store sales, manufacturer coupons and the 5 percent discount you get by using a Target REDcard, she said.
Rely on Some Ready-Made Items
You can save time and money by buying some ready-made items at the supermarket, Nelson said. "In fact, side dish shortcut items are usually the featured sale items at the grocery store," she said.
For example, buying a can of cranberry sauce will cost less than making it fresh from berries. You can make a pumpkin pie for $3 in just a few minutes with canned pumpkin and a ready-made crust or a refrigerated pie crust on sale, Nelson said. And you can use frozen dinner rolls rather than baking your own and pick up stuffing mixes on sale.
Buy Generic Food Items
Buying generic food items instead of name-brand products can save Thanksgiving shoppers up to 50 percent, Perez said.
"While not all generic and store-brand products are created equal, you can typically count on single or basic-ingredient products tasting just the same in generic form," she said. "Things like spices, pumpkin puree, sweetened condensed milk, canned beans and canned or frozen vegetables — all these products contain very basic ingredients."
So, check your list of menu items and ingredients to identify which products you can buy generic to save money.
Save by Keeping It Simple
"At the holidays, we tend to think that everything needs to be fancy, which translates into pricey," Elledge said. But you can make amazing meals with humble ingredients.
For example, you can elevate inexpensive mashed potatoes by adding fresh chopped garlic and diced onion to salted water, along with the peeled and cubed potatoes, he said. Once the potatoes are soft, drain and smash away with a softened $1 block of cream cheese, pepper and about 1/4 cup of milk. Be sure to smash the cooked onion and garlic cloves into the potatoes for an extra boost of flavor, Elledge said.
"You can make a huge pan of delicious potatoes for less than $4," he said.
Save on Spices
"Herbs and spices go a long way in determining the flavor of your Thanksgiving dinner, but the spice aisle is full of poor financial choices," Catania said.
Instead of buying bottled spices, he recommends heading to the aisle with the Hispanic food to find spices in bags that cost as much as 75 percent less. If your supermarket doesn't have an extensive Hispanic section, check the bulk spice bins. You'll save 50 percent on the jarred spices, Catania said.
Use Budget-Friendly Recipe Substitutions
You can easily lower the cost of your Thanksgiving meal by substituting pricey recipe ingredients with lower-cost ones. For example, rather than buying a whole bottle of maple syrup for your sweet potatoes, just mix some brown sugar and water until you have a similar consistency, Catania said. And honey can be used instead of molasses for a savings of about 20 percent.
"When every dollar counts, substituting chives with more budget-friendly scallions will ensure mashed potatoes that are just as tasty but for a little bit less," Catania said.
Get Affordable Appetizers at a Warehouse Club
If you belong to a warehouse club such as Costco or Sam's Club, take advantage of your membership to get budget-friendly frozen finger foods.
"This is a good option for someone who doesn't have time to prepare everything from scratch," Woroch said. "Plus, any frozen foods that aren't heated up can be saved and used for another holiday party, even as a potluck dish. You're looking at saving up to 30 percent compared to traditional grocery stores."
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Opt for DIY Desserts Over Store-Bought
Pre-made pies, cakes and other sweets have markups of up to 100 percent at grocery stores, Perez said. So, you can save a lot if you make desserts for your Thanksgiving meal.
"Even buying boxed cake mix or pie crust mix is more cost-effective than buying from the bakery," she said.
There is one exception, though. Perez said that the 12-inch, $5.99 pumpkin pie from Costco is a deal — and delicious.
Serve a Cheaper Dessert for Kids
You might be able to cut costs by offering one dessert that adults prefer and a cheaper, kid-friendly option, Perez said.
"For example, bake one pumpkin pie instead of two and have kids make pumpkin-shaped Rice Krispies treats for their holiday dessert," she said.
Bake a Dessert With Leftover Halloween Candy
If you didn't hand out all of the candy you bought for trick-or-treaters, or your kids still have a stash, you might be able to turn those Halloween leftovers into a delicious dessert, Woroch said. You also can get candy on clearance after Oct. 31.
You can find recipes that use leftover Halloween candy at TasteofHome.com, including candy bar cheesecake brownies and candy bar croissants.
Get Cash Back on Alcohol Purchases
To save money on your beer and wine purchases, use rebate apps such as Ibotta and Checkout51, said Mary Hoover, founder of MissiontoSave.com.
"These apps offer you a rebate on specific brands that can also be used in conjunction with traditional mail-in rebates for even more savings," she said. "On average, these rebates offer $3 to $4 in savings, which is great on alcohol since it is not an item that can go on sale."
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Save With Store-Brand Alcohol
If you have a Costco membership, you can keep down the cost of alcohol for your Thanksgiving meal by buying the warehouse club's store-brand spirits.
"For those serving alcohol, buy generic liquor like Kirkland vodka from Costco," Woroch said. "It's less expensive and high quality."
And you might not have to be a Costco member to take advantage of its budget-friendly Kirkland brand. Because of liquor laws in states such as Arizona, California, New York and Texas, among others, Costco can't require a membership to purchase alcohol, according to DealNews.com.
Buy Boxed Wine
A box of wine is equivalent to four bottles of wine but can cost half as much, Perez said. For example, if you bought four bottles of wine at $12 per bottle, you'd pay $48 versus an average of $20 for a box of wine, she said.
But if you don't want your guests to know that you bought boxed wine, serve it in decanters.
"You'll save money, and they'll never know the difference, especially as the overall opinion regarding the taste and quality of boxed wine has improved dramatically over the past few years," Perez said.
Make Mulled Wine From Cheap Wine
Another way to pull off serving inexpensive wine to your guests is to make mulled wine. Catania recommends buying the cheapest dry red wine you can find — such as a Cabernet — and heating it with mulling spices.
Look for recipes that use spices you already have to lower costs further, he said.
Don’t Offer a Full Bar
Instead of hosting a full bar for your Thanksgiving meal, Woroch recommends serving just wine and beer or a signature cocktail to keep down costs.
"Opt for something seasonal, like pumpkin and apple cider fizz or pumpkin pie martinis," she said. "This will cost you less in the long run because you won't have to stock several full bottles of different liquors along with coordinating mixers."
Skip Alcohol Altogether
You can save big by eliminating alcoholic beverages from your Thanksgiving meal, Masini said.
"Boozy Thanksgiving dinners aren't just about the cost — family fights tend to break out after the third or fourth drinks at many holiday festivities," she said. "So, limiting your beverages to water, apple cider and coffee puts the focus on the food and not the fights."
Compare Pre-Made Dinner Prices
You might be considering pre-made dishes if you don't have the time or inclination to cook but want to have a gathering at your home.
"The key to saving money on pre-made Thanksgiving dinners is to compare prices between grocers and other providers," Perez said. "Whole Foods is a popular choice for pre-made dinners, but Sprouts and Trader Joe's also offer pre-made options, which are less costly."
For example, in previous years, a pre-made Thanksgiving meal for eight from Sprouts cost $69.99, compared to Whole Foods' Thanksgiving dinner for $129.99, Perez said. Currently, Omaha Steaks is offering a customizable Thanksgiving dinner for four to 10 people with prices ranging from $49.99 to $149.99.
Mix DIY With Pre-Made
"Consider preparing a few easy dishes yourself to cut costs on a pre-made spread," Perez said.
For example, you can buy the turkey pre-made and prepare easy side dishes, such as stuffing from a box, and make simple desserts. Grocers and specialty food stores offer pre-made turkeys with detailed instructions on how best to serve them, Perez said. For example, Omaha Steaks is currently offering a 10-pound whole basted turkey for $79.99.
You might find that you can get a better deal buying some or all of your Thanksgiving meal items from a restaurant rather than picking up pre-made items from the grocery or specialty food store.
"Select restaurants offer Thanksgiving dinner to go, so be sure to include them in your research for the best deal," Perez said.
Compare Restaurant Prices
If you plan to dine out on Thanksgiving at one of the best restaurants, Nelson recommends checking the Thanksgiving menu and buffet options and prices in your area before making a reservation. You can do this by calling restaurants or visiting their websites.
"Checking menus and prices ahead of time can save a lot of money for a family dinner, especially since it's common for restaurants to charge higher prices on high-demand holidays," Nelson said.
Use a Discounted Restaurant Gift Card
After comparing restaurant prices, head online to find a discounted gift card for the restaurant where you plan to dine. You can find gift cards for less than face value for a variety of restaurants at sites such as Cardpool and Gift Card Zen. Or, you can compare discounted restaurant gift card offers from several card resellers at Gift Card Granny.
Send Free Email Invites
If you're hosting a large gathering, you might find it easier to keep track of who is coming by emailing invitations and asking guests to reply. You can do this for no extra cost by using an online service such as Paperless Post, said Nikki Sunshine, content manager for DealsPlus.com.
Be sure to use the filter that lets you search for free invites. Evite.com is another source of free email invitations.
"Create your festive e-invites, send them out and wait for the RSVPs to roll in," she said. Just make sure to give your guests enough time to respond.
Get Decor Deals at the Dollar Store
You can make a budget-friendly centerpiece for less than $10 with items from a dollar store, where everything costs just $1, Hoover said. She suggests filling glass vases with colorful dried beans.
"The beans can be removed after Thanksgiving, and the centerpieces filled back up with something appropriate for the next holiday," she said.
Repurpose Halloween Decor
You can keep down the cost of Thanksgiving decor by repurposing some of your Halloween decorations, Catania said. For example, if you painted gourds for Halloween, simply wash away the scary faces and display them on your holiday table.
Or, you can find Halloween items on clearance after Oct. 31, he said. Of course, you'll want to opt for discounted pieces that convey fall rather than "fright night."
Get a Free Centerpiece From Your Yard
You can avoid spending any money on Thanksgiving decorations by taking advantage of what's growing outside.
"Make your own beautiful centerpiece by collecting fall greenery from your own yard and bushes," Nelson said. "You'll be surprised at how nice a centerpiece can look when you arrange [greenery] in a vase."
Make the Meal the Centerpiece
You could also save money by skipping table decorations all together.
"When you have a full house and table, you don't need decorations taking up a lot of space," said Heather McCurdy, creator of Real: The Kitchen and Beyond. "Use a simple, autumn-colored tablecloth and arrange your turkey and side dishes to be the table display."
Use Dinnerware You Already Have
There's no need to spend money on disposable dinnerware if you already have enough dishes, utensils and napkins for your guests. In fact, Thanksgiving can be a good time to pull out the nice dinnerware you received as wedding gifts but keep stashed away because you don't want it to be damaged — or don't feel like washing it by hand.
"Sure, you need to do dishes, but real china, napkins and silver are a nice and budget-friendly touch," McCurdy said.
Stick to White Paper Products
If you don't have enough plates and napkins for all of your guests and need to buy disposable dinnerware, you'll save money by sticking to white paper plates and napkins. White paper goods cost as much as 50 percent less than colored or Thanksgiving-themed products, said professional organizer Jamie Novak of Novak Organizing.
"Simply put out those white plates, napkins, cups and even tablecloths," she said. "Then make the theme chic by adding a pop of color. You can purchase one package of special colored paper goods and mix them in."
Freeze the Leftovers
If you end up with leftovers from your feast, don't shove all of them into the refrigerator. Woroch recommends freezing some leftovers so they don't go bad if you and your family get sick of eating the same dish for days after Thanksgiving.
"This way, you have a few easy-to-heat dishes for those nights when you simply don't have time to cook because you're prepping for the next big celebration," she said.
Say No to a Big Gathering This Year
"Dropping a couple hundred bucks on groceries if you really can't afford it is a loving but ultimately misguided gesture — especially if job loss, illness or whatever's bugging your finances has already left you stressed and exhausted," Freedman said. So, if necessary, opt out of a big gathering this year. "Instead, spend the day giving thanks for the ability to make the tough call and enjoy the peace and quiet."
You could even create a new tradition, such as taking a long family walk or binge-watching videos from the library.
"Do whatever you want to do, without anyone criticizing your 20-something's latest tattoo or second-guessing the new stuffing recipe," Freedman said. "Everyone will be fine. Who knows? Maybe next year the rest of the gang will organize themselves and get that potluck working."
Andrew Lisa contributed to the reporting for this article.