Holiday parties on a shoe-string budget

'Tis the season to be frugal - but you can still host a festive dinner party with all the holiday cheer, trimmings and hospitality of an extravagant shindig.

My husband has a cousin who used to charge an admission fee to his friends for his annual home holiday party to cover the food, drink and entertainment costs. We were aghast when we heard about his party-on-the-cheap strategy.

Here are my most successful party belt-tightening ideas (and I don't ask for donations at the door):

  1. Use cyber or electronic invitations - "Evites" - that you can customize instead of pricey store-bought or printed invitations. These save on the postage as well.
  2. Have the party at home or at your communal party room if you have such privileges through your homeowner's association. The party room not only saves you electricity, but also cleanup.
  3. I had a practical aunt who used to dispense money-saving tips all the time. When I needed a new outfit she told me to visit my closet and shop at home. Same thing with food - scour your freezer, pantry, breadbox and fridge. You'll be surprised at the edible treasures that are buried there. The other day I scoped out some cans of wild-caught salmon and crabmeat. I made mini crab cakes and salmon patties with wasabi dressing. They make great appetizers or hors d'oeuvres.
  4. Do a potluck and ask your guests to bring their specialties. Divide the foods into categories including appetizers, sides, main dishes and desserts, and have the non-cooks bring wine or paper products.
  5. Already prepared frou-frou holiday platters, roasted meats, relishes, sides and bakery desserts are cost inefficient. Make your own and save a bundle from homemade eggnog, dips, pates and veggie trays to seafood cocktails, sushi, mini pizzas, grilled skewers, trifle and biscotti.
  6. Buffet is more economical than sit down, and you can have more variety, which means smaller portions.
  7. Serve drinks in pitchers. Spring water can be cheap and festive in a crystal pitcher with floating fruit. Cranberry and other juices can also be served in pitchers with tons of ice. There is less wastage all around.
  8. Don't get seduced by the sexy (pricey and usually unhealthy) holiday luxury items. You can live without the gingerbread castles, plum pudding pyramids, fruitcake condos and marzipan mansions.
  9. Make your own decor and table centerpieces. Once again, shop at home in your china cabinet and garden. Bundles of dried flowers and frawns tied with gold and burgundy ribbons or raffia intermingled with glass or ceramic holiday knick-knacks are fun, festive and economical.
  10. Do vegetarian to appeal to everyone except the die-hard carnivores. This cuts out the luxe items from the menu like caviar, tenderloin and seafood.
  11. If you're going to include seafood or "landfood" in your buffet, make it yourself. Instead of roasting a whole turkey, cook the breast and make nice, uniform slices - no legs, no wings, no bones, no skin, no waste. Serve with a variety of rolls, mustards and cranberry sauce so folks can make their own turkey sandwiches. And do a pasta bar with a smorgasbord of sauces like lamb ragu and fish stew.
  12. Buy seasonally and stock up on sale items that aren't perishable. Supermarkets usually have sales right before a holiday or between holidays, so mark your calendars and shop away.
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