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Throw a great holiday party without tossing the budget

Posted November 9, 2006
Updated June 23, 2008

When it comes to saving money on the holidays, most budget-conscious folks spend a lot of their energy thinking about ways to economize on gifts. However, if you also host a holiday party, you also can cut costs by applying smart shopping strategies to your décor, food and beverage purchases.

Simplify your invitations
It's easy to get seduced by beautiful, but often costly, party invitations. But if you're throwing a budget soiree, aim to keep costs down from the start.

Depending on how formal your party is, and how well you know your guests, you might consider e-mailing invitations right from your computer. If you need to manage invitations and RSVPs for a large crowd, you could also use a free online service such as evite.com, says Lara Starr, the San Francisco-based co-author of "The Party Girl Cookbook."

Keep in mind, however, that some of your guests might not be big fans of e-mail invitations. Starr isn't either. "I think traditional mailed invitations show a little more respect for your guests and aren't as easily ignored," she says.

A budget-by-mail alternative: Creative postcard invitations printed on a home computer. "Postcards can save you money because you don't need to buy envelopes and the postage is less than it would be for a letter," Starr says. The U.S. Postal Service requires that postcards be printed on cardstock (heavier paper). They should be at least 3½ inches high x 5 inches long and .007 inches thick; and no bigger than 41/4 inches high x 6 inches long and .016 inches thick. For 2005, postcard postage is 23 cents.

Decorate simply but elegantly
A smart way to keep a party on budget is to pick a theme. Yes, holiday parties actually can have additional themes -- ranging from a simple color scheme of silver and blue to something more elaborate like "Holidays with Elvis" (complete with a red tinsel tree, '50s music and peanut butter and banana sandwiches). According to Starr, themes help you avoid buying extraneous decorations and can help focus your food offerings -- all Mexican dishes, Polynesian-inspired appetizers, etc.

Another tip: Don't try to cover your entire home or party room with decorations. Starr suggests focusing on your entry area, food table and perhaps powder room. An inexpensive door wreath or twigs wrapped in a festive bow, pillar candles of various sizes on a foyer tables, a clear bowl filled with extra holiday ornaments on your buffet table and a holiday-scented candle in your powder room make guests feel welcome but not overwhelmed, she says. Ribbons purchased at a discount fabric store can also be used to trim a holiday tree or festoon a stairway banister.

On the day of the party, dress up a holiday buffet table with this catering trick: Use paint cans, phone books or empty, overturned planting pots to create risers for food trays. "Simply cover them with your tablecloth, a pretty sheet or even a clean painter's dropcloth and your table will look like it was set by a professional," says Starr.

Comparison shop for food -- You wouldn't dream of buying that book or CD for your brother-in-law without checking prices at a couple of stores, right? Take the same approach when buying your party food. A week or two before your event, spend a little time comparing prices at your local grocery stores, specialty shops and warehouse clubs. A difference of a dollar a pound on deli meat or cheese could make quite a difference when you're buying for a crowd, says Sharon Maasdam, an Oregon-based home economist.

Stay in season -- Don't use recipes that call for red peppers or cherry tomatoes in November and December, even if you think they might look festive, says Maasdam. "In addition to being much more expensive at this time of year, since they're seasonal items, they're being flown in from far away so the quality is not going to be as good," she says. On the flip side, it's wise to include ingredients in your party food that are typically on sale around the holidays, from spices and special seasonings to yams and baking potatoes.

Watch out for the free turkeys -- Nancy Twigg of Knoxville, Tenn., author of "Celebrate Simply," loves to take advantage of holiday "loss leaders." These are the items grocers sell at sharp reductions or even give away to lure more shoppers into their stores. Her caveat: "Remember that stores are not giving away things like free turkeys just to be nice. They might require that you buy a certain amount of groceries (like $100 or more) or buy a ham at full price before they give you the turkey for free," she says. "Just be sure you're not buying things you wouldn't normally buy in order to get that free bird!"

Serve expensive hors d'oeuvres "butler style" -- Even if you're laying out the rest of your party food as a self-serve buffet, your pricey crab puffs or handcrafted mini-quiches will go farther if you serve them on hand-held trays. Twigg suggests enlisting family members or friends to mingle among your guests and offer the special appetizers "butler style." Guests are more likely to eat just a few of these delicacies -- rather than mound them on their plates -- if you offer them elegantly.

Organize buffet food by cost -- Maasdam likes this money-saving catering trick: Put less-expensive, filling foods such as rolls and veggies at the head of the buffet table, where guests will start filling their plates. Put the pricier shrimp and fancy chicken skewers toward the end of the line. Partygoers will naturally fill up on the less expensive items before hitting the costlier goodies.

Plan quantities carefully -- Twigg has vivid memories of her frugal wedding reception. "One guest was tipping the punch bowl sideways, trying to coax out the last drop into his cup. I wish we had ordered a lot more punch -- we actually ran out -- and fewer meat and cheese trays." Keep your budget intact by avoiding under- and over-buying food. A few Web sites that can help you plan just the right amount of food and beverages for a group include: About.com, Greatpartyrecipes.com and The Dollar Stretcher.

Maasdam also follows these general rules of thumb:

  • Meat: Plan 3 ounces of meat per person for deli meat trays. Turkey and beef are usually more popular than ham, so don't let ham make up more than a third of your tray.
  • Cheese: If you serve cheese as part of a cold-cuts tray, plan 1 ounce of cheese per person. Maasdam has noticed that white cheeses, such as Swiss, are usually more popular than yellow ones, such as cheddar, so she always offers a little more white cheese.
  • Breads and rolls: Maasdam suggests one to two rolls or three slices of cocktail-size bread per person.

Keep beverages simple -- Even at an elegant party, you can cut your costs drastically by limiting the amount and kind of alcohol you serve. Rather than hosting an extensive bar, try serving one kind of white wine and one kind of red wine. Add a few thermal containers of coffee, a bowl of punch or cider, and ice water with lemon slices in a lovely carafe and you've got something to quench every guest's thirst.

Don't poo-poo the potluck -- Why do it all when friends and family are usually happy to help? "I don't know about you, but after accepting a party invitation the first thing someone says to me, usually is 'What can I bring?'" says Twigg. Take guests up on their offer to bring something, whether it's a plate of their favorite holiday cookies or a homemade side salad, especially if your holiday party is buffet-style, she adds. "Just make sure that guests aren't bringing something that is crucial to the meal. If they don't show up, you'll be stuck." And remember that potlucks don't just save you money -- they add to the fun. They give your guests a chance to join your holiday celebration in their own personal way.

Teri Cettina is a freelance writer based in Oregon.

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