Five easy ways to keep Thanksgiving frugal

BlogHer Original Post

Thanksgiving will be here before we know it, and dare I say that only in America could a day meant to celebrate bounty and thankfulness much more commonly devolve into stress and overspending. True, it may be the norm, but it doesn't have to be -- why not try a few simple modifications this year to stay on budget? You'll be glad you did, and chances are you'll enjoy the holiday a lot more, too.

I pinky swear that at least one of the following five tips will be applicable to your Thanksgiving experience. Probably. And for me, it's really not even about spending less, it's about freaking out less. For me, spending less = stressing less, and I'm pretty sure Martha Stewart would say that's a Good Thing.

1) Base the menu on what everyone will actually eat, not on what you think you should cook. When I was growing up, we always had turkey at Thanksgiving, only I'm not convinced either of my parents really knew how to properly cook a bird, back then. Every year we had a giant, dry turkey that no one really ate, and then there were tons of leftovers that ended up being thrown out. It wasn't until I was a teen that it occurred to all of us that we could... you know... skip the turkey. We switched to ham and everyone was happier.

If your family loves turkey, great; you still don't need to buy a giant bird unless you're truly feeding a houseful, or have a freezer for leftover storage. If everyone hates cranberry sauce, don't bother with it. If you always make green bean casserole because you feel like there should be a green vegetable, but no one eats it, skip it (or make a much smaller dish).

Furthermore, have plans for everything. Personally, I love having leftovers; it's frugality in itself, really, so long as you plan properly. Either know that the leftovers will be consumed as is and that you haven't made entirely too much, or have other dishes planned that can utilize those leftover mashed potatoes, for example, so that you know they'll be used up.

2) Have guests. This may seem counterintuitive; doesn't feeding more people cost more money? Yes and no. While it does require more of everything, it also brings extra hands (and extra dishes) along! Don't be Superwoman when it comes to hosting. Issue invitations, and when asked, "What can I bring?" resist the urge to say, "Nothing, I'll take care of it." That's not to say you can order up specifics ("We'd love a three-bean casserole, let me get you the recipe"), but you can certainly ask for either an appetizer, side dish, or dessert. And because your guests aren't shelling out for an entire meal, chances are they'll spend more on the items they bring with them than you might've felt comfortable spending if you'd taken care of it yourself along with everything else.

Plus, guests often bring wine. Or maybe I just like to invite people who bring wine.

3) Spread out your shopping and cooking. Now, even as frugal as I am, I tend to be more willing to spend money on food than on other things, particularly if we're talking about spending a little more to get something organic or local. This is where I confess that I special-order our turkey (yes, once I ate turkey that was properly cooked I did learn to love it) from a local grocer. But there are plenty of foods we enjoy on the big day that can be bought ahead of time on sale, and others that can even be completely or partially cooked ahead of time (saving both time and money).

Example: As soon as October hits, I start checking the prices on potatoes and sweet potatoes every time I hit the grocery store. While these are not terribly expensive items, anyway, they keep a long time and I can stock up when they're on sale. I've also been known to stock up on berries in the summer and freeze them, all the better to whip out a pie for those who aren't going for a slice of pumpkin. I also make my own bread/rolls, and often I make dough ahead and freeze it.

4) Make your home a haven, not a showroom. I often hear from others that part of their reluctance to have guests for the holidays is fear that they can't make things sufficiently "fancy" on a budget. Personally, I'll take warm and cozy over fancy any day of the week, but the two needn't be mutually exclusive. There are plenty of DIY ways to decorate that don't cost much, and some simply ways to set a beautiful table even if you're having such a big crowd that you've opted for disposable plates.

If you have small children, they will be only too happy to make you a variety of decorations. If you have slightly larger children, they'll probably be happy to help you create items with a bit less "awwww" factor, but still decorative and useful.

I have a sturdy white tablecloth I use in the dining room for every occasion. Depending on the event, I can fancy it up with a runner, a centerpiece, candles, or some combination thereof. It's simple and easy and I've never heard a guest complain that it wasn't fancy enough.

5) Plan ahead and then enjoy the day. Holidays are supposed to be fun. There's nothing fun about cooking for a large group of people if you're harried, aggravated, or otherwise frazzled. While I'd advocate lots of early planning -- including only inviting people you genuinely enjoy, and figuring out how to minimize cooking stress (such as by cooking items ahead and/or utilizing a crock pot or two) -- simply for mental health reasons, there's very solid budgetary reasons for it as well. If you're not organized and relaxed, chances are you're going to burn something, forget something, or otherwise screw up perfectly good food. The result isn't just more stress, but wasted money.

Need more ideas, or some specifics? Here are some lovely lady bloggers to get you started:

Tyra at billeater.com and Leah at Suddenly Frugal both have tips for grocery savings for your feast.

The Freebie Blogger has the scoop on how to score a free download of Martha Stewart's Thanksgiving Cookbook.

Hillbilly Housewife is offering up sensible tips for saving both time and money this Thanksgiving.

Chele at Moms Love Shopping has some table decoration ideas.

And finally, if you're planning to travel rather than host, this holiday season, Frugal in Fort Worth shares the cheapest days to fly.

Do you have any great frugal Thanksgiving tips to share? I'm always looking for more ways to save -- please let me know!

BlogHer Contributing Editor Mir also blogs about issues parental and otherwise at Woulda Coulda Shoulda, and about the joys of mindful retail therapy at Want Not.

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