Thursday, June 2, 2011

Budget-Friendly Hospitality

These days, besides lack of time to do the prep work, another “obstacle” to entertaining is lack of funds. Food is expensive, and getting more so all the time. It can be hard enough to make ends meet just trying to keep our families fed, let alone host a dinner party. Still, this is a challenge that can be met.

First and foremost, you need to have a budget—not only for how much money you can spend on your dinner party, but certainly for all of your household expenses. Now “budget” may not be one of your favorite words. However, a budget is simply a plan for how you’re going to use your income. These days you have to have one. Your household budget tells you how much money is available for “optional expenses” like entertaining, after you’ve paid your non-negotiable expenses such as housing and utility costs. It’s essential that you know what amount is available for your party and how much the event is going to run, before you start sending out invitations.

Once you have a budgetary figure to work with, then you will be able to determine how many people you can reasonably afford to feed, along with what type of food, decorations and entertainment you can pay for. You can obviously get into big financial trouble if you plan a big bash before figuring out how much it’s going cost.

For the average dinner party, it’ll probably cost you between $5 and $10 per guest. If you are serving low-cost foods and not buying decorations, you can probably get by with $5 per person, or maybe even a little less. If you are paying for alcohol and buying a lot of expensive foods and decorations, you can easily spend $10 per person, and obviously a lot more than that if you hosting an extravagant event.

If your entertaining budget is limited, you may need to cut out some nonessentials for the evening, or scale-down your guest list. This will take some prioritizing on your part: would you rather serve prime rib and cut out the fresh flower centerpieces, or serve chicken and be able to splurge on the flowers? Would you rather serve hamburgers and be able to invite all of your neighbors, or serve steaks and just invite the three couples you’re closest to? These are all decisions you need to make. By all means, though, stick with your budget. Don’t overspend, and just hope you’ll find some extra cash in your household budget to cover yourself. That’s not likely to happen, especially in today’s economy.

Keep in mind that even if you have a tight entertaining budget, all is not lost. You don’t have to have a huge dollar figure to work with in order to have people over. I have managed to host get-togethers for several families on $50 or less. Now we weren’t serving filet mignon and caviar, and our guests were all bringing a contribution to the meal. Still, I’m quite sure everyone enjoyed themselves, even when we weren’t spending bookoo bucks.

There are many ways create a memorable evening for your guests and still keep expenses to a minimum. Consider the following cost-cutting tips:

1. Go informal. Casual get-togethers are often more fun than formal, sit-down affairs, and usually a lot cheaper to put on. Buffets, outdoor cook-outs, pool parties, brunches and picnics are all excellent ways to stretch your entertaining budget. So are potlucks. With a potluck, you might just provide the main entrée and eating utensils, and ask your guests to bring all the side dishes, beverages and desserts. Not only is this a low-cost entertaining option, most people actually enjoy sharing their favorite dishes with others. And like the host, they’re thrilled they don’t have to provide an entire meal—just one dish!

2. Plan your dinner around low-cost foods. Pastas, rice and beans, for instance, can all be very tasty, yet are also filling and relatively inexpensive. If you’re serving up a pasta dish like spaghetti or lasagna, you don’t have to buy much meat to prepare them (and can even leave out the meat altogether), which further cuts down costs. All you have to do is add a salad and garlic toast (also low cost to prepare!) and you have a fairly inexpensive—yet well-balanced—meal. Chicken is also an excellent choice for a low-cost entrée. It can be prepared in so many different ways: barbecued, stir-fried, curried, rotisseried, roasted, fried…it’s all delicious! If you prefer to serve red meat, go with a cheaper cut like brisket, chuck roast, and flank or skirt steak. Prepared correctly, these meats can actually end up tasting like more expensive cuts. You just need to know how to marinate and cook them! (If you don’t know how, get some tips from the butchers at your supermarket. Butchers often have some good ideas for how to prepare meats—and are generally more than happy to share their insights!)

3. Don’t rely on ready-made and processed foods for your dinner party menu. Make whatever you can “from scratch.” That is almost always a lot cheaper than buying pre-made and convenience foods. This means making your own salsa rather than buying the fresh, ready-made kind in pint-sized plastic containers, and buying blocks of cheese in bulk and grating your own rather than buying the bags of already-grated cheese. Similarly, buying pre-baked pie shells and ready-to-bake frozen yeast rolls may save you time, but they will cost you significantly more (and don’t usually taste as good as homemade either!). Being organized and doing as much food prep as you can ahead of time will help you avoid the temptation of buying expensive convenience foods because you’re feeling pressed for time.

4. Purchase food and paper goods at warehouse stores like Costco and Sam’s Club. The unit cost is usually a lot less when you’re buying in bulk, as opposed to buying smaller quantities. That’s not to say all food items is a good deal at warehouse stores. The frozen, ready-to-heat “prepared” meals for sale at warehouse stores can actually be quite expensive. However, staples like cheese, milk, eggs, meats, breads, flour, sugar, spices, frozen vegetables, and fresh fruits are usually a lot less expensive at these stores compared to what you would buy for the same or even smaller sized quantities at “regular” supermarkets. Decorated cakes, snack foods, chips and sodas are also usually lower in cost at warehouse stores. It really makes a lot of sense to buy in bulk if you’re having a large group over, like you would for a graduation or pool party. But even if you’re having smaller gatherings, buying in bulk can be a good deal because eventually you’ll be able to use whatever you buy. That “investment” of 360 plastic eating utensils will get you through quite a few backyard BBQs!

5. When there’s a sale at the supermarket on foods that can be frozen or stored in the pantry, stock up. In my area, butter is almost always on sale every November and December when people are often doing a lot of baking. That’s when I’ll buy 40 or 50 pounds of butter and freeze it for later use. If you find meats, canned vegetables, bottled beverages or other foods on sale which you are likely to use in the future for entertaining, buy them while the prices are low. You may not plan on using the foods right now, but chances are you’ll be glad to have them a couple months down the road when you do plan a party.

6. Search for coupons several months in advance of your event. Typically, the expiration dates for coupons are 2 to 3 months out, so it makes sense to clip coupons even when you won’t need to buy the items for several months. You may want to alert your friends to be on the lookout for coupons for particular products as well. Of course, make sure you only use coupons for items you really need. You won’t save money if a coupon “persuades” you to purchase something you weren’t originally planning on buying.

7. Let your guests contribute to the meal. Perhaps a couple generations ago it would have seemed improper to have guests to contribute to a dinner party. But in this day in age when food costs are skyrocketing, unless it’s a formal affair like a wedding reception, most guests expect to contribute. I don’t think I’ve ever invited anyone over without the invitee responding, “Please let me know what we can bring.” So if guests ask if they can bring something, let them! There are plenty of side dishes guests can provide, such as hors d’oeuvres trays, tossed green salads, wine and desserts. Their contributions can really help you stay in budget, and cuts down on your food prep too! Now I try to not be too “eager” about having guests contribute to a meal. Usually I’ll wait to have my guests ask me what they can bring, rather than bring it up myself. But usually my guests are quick to ask. The only exception is if it’s a potluck style of get-together, and then I’ll state upfront on the invitation to please check the food sign-up list for what to bring.

8. Don’t feel obligated to provide wine, beer or cocktails. Alcohol can really add to your dinner party costs. By not providing it, you can save a lot of money. Remember, your guests shouldn’t have to have alcohol at every meal. Still, if you think some wine would really make the meal more special, you can do what point #7 suggested and ask one or two of your guests each bring a bottle of wine.

9. An alternative to serving cocktails is to make up a big bowl of alcoholic punch, which is usually a lot less expensive than mixed drinks. Add a jug of cranberry or pomegranate juice to a bottle of bargain champagne for a bubbly punch. Mix vodka with cans of orange juice and lemonade made from frozen concentrate in the cans for a citrus punch. Or, stir together a couple bottles of cranberry juice, a liter of ginger ale and some rum for a carbonated berry concoction. Add a bag of crushed ice to your punch to fill up the punch bowl even more. There are countless other alcoholic punch recipes that you can find online, most of which only require bargain wines and liquors, and low-cost sodas and juices.

10. Shop around for party supplies and decorations. For inexpensive table centerpieces, buy a potted flowering plant and wrap it with tissue paper and tie it with a ribbon. Or, get creative and make a centerpiece using taper or floating candles, inexpensive plastic or silk flowers, ribbons, glass bowls or vases, and glass marbles. You can buy these supplies from dollar stores and craft stores like Hobby Lobby and Michaels. If you are planning a big party like a graduation celebration, luau or bridal shower, do some research what’s available from online party supply retailers, rather than just automatically go down to your local party superstore. These stores can be very expensive, even though they may call themselves “discount” stores. There are many online party supply retailers like Oriental Trading Company that often offer far better deals for similar merchandise, often with free shipping as long as you spend a certain amount. Usually you only have to spend around $50 to get free shipping, and that’s not hard to do when you’re hosting a large gathering.

11. Send your invitations electronically, rather than by “regular” mail. The costs associated with buying paper invitations and mailing them out can add up quickly. Now if you’re planning a more formal event like a wedding or graduation celebration, you will probably want to go the more traditional route. But most other kinds of get-togethers, electronic invitations work fine. You could send your invites in an email message or on social networking sites, or you might want to use an electronic invitation site like,,,, or It costs nothing to send an invitation on these sites, which can mean a huge savings going this route.

12. If you’re going to be entertaining a lot, invest in durable but inexpensive plates and drinkware, rather than buy disposable plates and cups over and over again. A couple years ago I found some plastic plates at Target, which resemble regular white paper plates, but they’re hard plastic. After a half-dozen parties, those plates have paid for themselves. They’re very durable, and are dishwasher safe. I can use them again and again, and no longer have the expense of having to buy paper plates (which really gets expensive, especially if you opt for the more durable disposable plates). I’ve done the same thing with plastic cups and wine glasses. I’ve invested in quite a few cases of inexpensive glass stemware and hard plastic beverage cups, so I don’t have to keep buying those disposable, plastic wine and beverage tumblers. That’s a big savings in a relatively short amount of time.

With a little creativity, research and planning, you may be surprised at how much you can actually save without compromising the quality or quantity of food you serve at your party. Not only that, you may find that you’ll be able to entertain more than you ever imagined before, and still stay within your household budget.

Happy party planning!

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