7 Tips for Holiday Party Planning on the Cheap

7 Tips for Holiday Party Planning on the Cheap

Experts share their essential tips for holiday entertaining on a budget.

By: Heather Chaet

Although you’re still munching on that covert stash of Halloween candy, we’ve officially entered the most wonderful time of the year: the holiday season. As the calendar begins to fill up with office soirees and neighborhood gatherings, you may be thinking about throwing your own celebration for friends and family. Decking the halls for your loved ones is often a highlight of the season, but hosting some festive fun can really take a toll on your budget. Before you plan your holiday party, take a look these fabulous yet frugal tips from entertaining gurus to keep the jolly merriment high and your costs low.

1. Planning is your BFF. The no. 1 tip to hosting a festive party that doesn’t go over budget? Plan ahead. Thinking about whom to invite, and jotting down what you’re serving and all that is needed (without overbuying) takes time, which is hard to come by in the hectic holiday season. As you create your list of food and beverage offerings, make a special trip to the grocery store to survey prices. Allowing yourself the time to prepare well in advance of your party will help you keep costs within budget.

2. Timing is everything. “I think timing is a huge element in entertaining on a budget,” says Victoria Canada, the event stylist and creative mastermind behind Victoria Canada Weddings and Events. Instead of planning your party to begin around dinnertime, have your fun kick off at another time of the day. “I throw an annual cookie swap every year during the holidays,” says Canada. “I have it start at 3 p.m. This way no one is expecting lunch or dinner.” Inviting guests to join you for a weekend brunch is another way to time-shift your holiday gathering to save money. A spread of muffins, bagels, and perhaps an egg casserole is much easier on the wallet than serving dinner to a large crowd.

3. Arrange something fun to do. “Parties are about people enjoying each other's company and getting to know one another,” says Ellen Swandiak, aka Hip Hostess NYC and the founder of hipentertaining.com. “Have your guests participate by bringing something to the party to create camaraderie. For instance, have everyone bring a photo of themselves at the age of 14, pin them all up on the wall, and have everyone guess who is who.” Organizing an activity, such as a holiday trivia tournament, keeps folks focused on fun, not food, which translates to buying (and spending) less.

4. Throw a theme party. Instead of preparing a huge buffet of various foods, hone in on one simple food theme you can provide at a low cost. For example, folks know to arrive just with their sweet tooth (and semi-full bellies) for a dessert party. Aside from a table of budget-friendly treats, beverages like hot cocoa and eggnog are all you need to make it a festive night. Another theme option perfect for the chilly holiday season: a soup party. “Soups are a great way to stretch a budget. Put out small cups or shooters of split pea soup, mushroom lentil, gazpacho, or carrot butternut squash,” suggests Swandiak.

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5. Combine forces. Spread the joy and share the party expense by holding a progressive dinner. Invite a group of four to five couples to participate, and have each couple prepare a course for the evening in their home. Start at one house with appetizers, and then travel to the next home for soup and salad, and to the next for the main entrée. Wrap up the festivities with dessert at the last house. It’s an ideal way for everyone to feel as if they’ve hosted a holiday party without a hefty outlay of money.


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6. Know the answer to “What can I bring?” People never want to arrive at a party empty-handed. Be prepared for guests to ask, and have in mind what you need them to bring so you aren’t left having to scramble (and spend more) at the last minute. “Keep [your answer] simple,” suggests Sara Ledterman, editor in chief of Adorno magazine, an online luxury style magazine. She advises hosts to avoid the potluck pitfall. “Don't ask your guests to bring [homemade] food. It's stressful for guests, and the food ends up being a horrible mish-mosh.” Instead, they can bring their favorite drink, some cheese and crackers or nuts for nibbles, or even candles to help set the festive scene. A nifty idea is to tap into the spirit of the gift-giving season by having everyone bring a canned good to donate to a food pantry or a book to pass along to a family shelter.

7. Little details make a big difference. "Parties are about hospitality, not showing off,” notes Swandiak. “I grew up in an immigrant family and learned from an early age that the smallest gestures are immensely important, such as offering guests something to munch on when they arrive.” She often reminds people that food doesn't have to be fancy or expensive. “You can just put out a big bowl of fresh-popped popcorn! It just needs to show that you care," says Swandiak. Ledterman agrees. “It's not always about being showy, it's about getting together. It's about the mood. If you can't afford to decorate, light a bunch of candles and make a great playlist. If you are having a good time, so will your guests.”

How to you keep costs down when entertaining during the holidays?

Heather Chaet documents her mini parenting successes, epic mommy fails, and everything in between for a plethora (love that word!) of publications and websites such as CafeMom, New York Family, and AdWeek. While her online persona is found at heatherchaet.com, Heather lives in New York City with her film director husband and one insanely curious, cat-obsessed daughter.

Image ©iStock.com/Devonyu

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