Throw a party on a budget

By Mir
June 9, 2008

The very pretty Laura writes:

Dear Mir,

If you have the time and space to tackle this topic, I’d be forever in your debt (at a 0% APR, hopefully…) because my husband and I are hoping to baptize our two kids sometime this summer. What I’ve learned from hosting their birthday parties (they are 4 & 2) is that, even with a short guest list and an eye on the bottom line, the cost of having even a simple, casual gathering always ends up blowing past the original budget.

I know you’ll have some sage advice, and I’m sure your readers will also chime in with a gaggle of great ideas.

Thanks, in advance, for your help…

This is my kind of question, because I’m all about entertaining on a budget. Let’s get to it.

Time of day changes the cost. Snacks are cheaper than meals, and earlier-in-the-day meals are cheaper than later ones. For something like a baptism, I’m going to guess you probably can’t get away with just snacks, but the good news is that you can totally pull off a brunch theme. Brunch food = cheap.

Anything made predominantly with eggs is going to be relatively cheap, because eggs don’t cost nearly as much as meat or even fresh veggies (as a rule). Think egg casseroles, quiches, even “fancy” french toast (which can be assembled in a pan the day before and thrown in the oven the next morning) are all cheap choices.

Making it yourself is cheaper than premade. This one probably seems obvious, but keep it in mind when you’re tempted to buy the $30 veggie platter. If you’re willing to put in a bit of time, I promise you that peeling all of those carrots and washing all of those celery sticks is still better than overpaying for them in a plastic tray. The exception to this rule is that if you belong to a warehouse club (or have a local grocery store with good deals on party platters), it may be cheaper to buy a sandwich tray than to make your own. You just need to be a smart consumer and check out the various options.

Casual is cheaper than fancy. Again, self-explanatory, right? But sometimes we forget. There’s no need to feed your guests beef wellington unless you have some deep-seated need to do so. If you’re talking about celebrating an important event in your family’s life, people are not there for the best meal they’ve ever had. They’re there to celebrate with you and enjoy your company. So take the pressure off of yourself and go for easy crowd-pleasing favorites rather than something “special.” Your family is what’s special.

Have kid food, because it reduces the amount of adult food you need. If there will be plenty of children, make kiddie food for them. It’s cheaper, and will vastly cut down on the number of plates you see sitting around, loaded with food and untouched because little Jimmy really doesn’t like Orzo, as it turns out. Cut cheese sandwiches and PB&Js into quarters and arrange them on platters dotted with carrot and celery sticks. I promise they’ll get eaten.

Think about your ingredients. There’s nearly always a cheaper way to do something that tastes just as, or nearly as, good as the original. If you have a favorite recipe that calls for pine nuts and making enough for a crowd means you need $30 of pine nuts to make it, start thinking about alternatives. Maybe you can just omit them. Maybe you can use sunflower seeds (much cheaper). Maybe you just need to pick a different recipe to stay within budget. Just be flexible as you consider the menu.

Comparison shop for paper products. Make your life easy and serve on disposable tableware, please. And make your budget more comfortable by shopping around before you buy it. The grocery store is rarely the right place to buy those things if you’re looking for a deal (special sales excepted, of course). Again, if you belong to a warehouse club and really need 2000 plates, they might be the best deal. But your local Dollar Store or favorite Big Box store may have some deals, too. (Target in particular has a penchant for clearancing out “old” designs of paper plates, for example.)

Don’t blow it all on soda. I am finding more and more than the biggest debate we have ’round here before a barbecue is whether or not to spring for name-brand soda. The answer usually ends up being… maybe. If we’ve planned far enough ahead, we can stock up on our favorites on sale. If not, well, sorry folks—it’s store-brand. Also keep in mind that soda cans mean you don’t have to buy cups, but 2-liter bottles are cheaper than cans. Figure out the cost vs. aggravation factors to decide which is the right choice.

Also? Pitchers of ice water with wedges of lemon floating on top = simple, classy, and cheap.

Ask for help! I guarantee folks will ask “what can I bring?” and “do you need any help?” Say yes! Let people bring contributions, and/or enlist friends to help you bake (depending on how big the crowd is, you can save big bucks by preparing food at home rather than buying everything premade).

Write it all down. Writing down your budget is good; writing down everything you need and how much everything costs is even better. The blowing-past-budget phenomenon happens when you haven’t accounted for everything ahead of time, and suddenly you realize you have no forks, or just a dozen cookies for four dozen guests. Write down everything. It’ll help you stay within your budget.

Readers: What have I forgotten?


  1. Great advice! I always go for the brunch option when I can for these kinds of important get-togethers. You want to celebrate these milestones and make it nice! I’ve got a make-ahead breakfast casserole recipe I use, make up some cinnamon-butterscotch “monkey bread”, let people bring fruit if they ask, serve juice and water. All of it can be sitting in the fridge while we are at the church, and I can just pull it out when we get home. It looks fancy, tastes great and does not cost lots of money.

    My other tip is to make up a list for each party. Work on it as you go, and then make notes after the party is over. These lists make a great reference for the next time –for example, I can refer back and see that I didn’t need as much of the breakfast casserole as I thought I did. Making less will save money and leaves no waste.

  2. Location! When each of my children were christened, I was able to use a church hall for … nothing? Maybe I gave a donation, I can’t remember but I do remember it was cheap to free. I had to bring along all of the party supplies (paper plates, cups, napkins) but tables, chairs, heat – already there. With my first two, there was even a kitchen for last minute prep work.

    I second the idea of letting people who offer help. We catered the first christening – big bucks and eh food. The other two, because we were strapped for cash, we asked for help. If each of two grandmothers makes a couple of pasta dishes, a few aunts make cookies, a few sisters make salads, you really have very little left to do and no one gets a huge assignment or a huge expense.

    Thats my 2 cents.

  3. One of my favorite cheap but super-fesetive decorating tricks is balloons. At either Party City or Costco, I can usually get a box with a disposible helium tank and 50 balloons and string for about $30 or $35. Let me tell you, 50 helium balloons looks like one *heck* of a party. And then (assuming there are kids attending) you just give ’em away to the little kidlets as they leave.

    Brunch is a great idea. If you want to serve alcohol, you can buy pretty cheap champagne/sparkling wine and mix it with OJ for mimosas which make cheap, fancy drinks. I am partial to a Spanish Cava that runs about $5 per bottle. Mixed with OJ you can get about 10 mimosas from a bottle of cava — pretty cheap for alcoholic beverages and everyone loves mimosas.

    Also, I have invested in plain white table cloths from places like Ross and Marshalls. I don’t really worry much about the size, if I see a cheap one I just buy it. I can then cover all necessary surfaces and it creates a unified, fancy look. I even do it at kids birthday parties at the park. When we’re done, everything gets washed in hot water, bleached if necessary, and we’re ready for the next go-round. So now I never spend money on cheap plastic tablecloths and yet our gatherings always have a stylish flair to them!

    Costco is a great place for disposable tableware. I bought a big box of “silver” colored plastic forks/knives/spoons at Costco last year that I am still working my way through — I think it was something like $40 for 400 pieces. It is amazing how the “silver” plastic classes things up, yet is still easy and cheap.

    Good luck with the baptisms!

  4. Good advice. I’d go even farther and scrap soda altogether — limiting the type of drinks on offer always cuts down on costs. At our daughter’s recent baptism, we offered sparkling water and iced mint tea (very inexpensive to make!) If we serve alcohol (and it’s not a cocktail party), instead of having an open bar I serve just champagne, which is always festive, and IMO always appropriate. A lot of liquor stores will take returns of unopened bottles.

  5. I second Carla on Costco – they have loads of nice picnic things for dead cheap, also some branches carry bio-degradable stuff.

    Look into options other than sandwiches. Tortilla wraps are delicious, keep well, easy to make and pretty inexpensive (plus they look great sliced on an angle and grouped on a platter).

    If you’re going to serve alcohol and have time to plan ahead keep an eye on your local grocery store. I can usually find wines for 1/2 off with a store card and they often discount entire vineyard lines so you can get whites and reds for all tastes.

    Mimosas are a good idea, but so is sangria since it can be made with relatively inexpensive wine.

    I like Kate’s idea of eliminating soda – lemonade is inexpensive (you can make your own even and manage the sugar content which is sometimes a nice idea if you have lots of children involved!).

  6. Oooh, I love the homemade lemonade idea!!!! And the sangria idea!!!!! My next party we are soooo having both of those …

  7. I just wanted to chime in here on greener options. Balloons and paper plates are expensive and wasteful. There are biodegradable and reusable items out there. I just did a school event and got cornstarch sporks and plates delivered next day for 25% discount because we were a school. The place we used was

    If it is worth it to you to find greener options, consider cutting down on the expensive paper products. We used recycled paper to cover the tables and put out crayons for the kids.

  8. Kraft paper on the table is a great way to- you can fancy it up by stitching yarn through the edges or drawing a design in addition to the crayon idea for kids. I also keep my eyes out year round when shopping Target and such for plates, etc. on sale and put them in my party closet so when I need them I already have them. I purchase only white serving dishes (since they go with everything and can be found on sale all the time) to mix in any theme. Use small potted plants for table decorations. Mediterranean food is a great option- cheap, easy to make, and everyone loves it.

  9. Costco Costco Costco… seriously Costco. You can get fruit bowls and veggie trays and sandwiches and shrimp like you wouldn’t believe and the world’s best rotisserie chicken and oh my god the custom cakes and other dessert choices… all for a fraction of what you’d spend. Mir’s soda dilemma? $.27 a can for Diet Coke at Costco. House brand is so cheap it’s practically free.

    You have two little kids. Yes, perhaps you can go to eight stores and accumulate some additional savings, but the cost in terms of your time and energy is just not worth it.

  10. Lots of great ideas here. I’ll toss mine in regarding beverages — if you need a “soft” beverage, punch is often a good way to go. There are loads of punch recipes and most can be adjusted to taste for sweetness. Set a few pieces of fruit in a ring mold, fill with water and freeze and voila! you have a fancy ice float for your punch bowl (which you borrow from a relative or friend if you don’t have one).

    Kids usually drink the punch and it’s a change from soda for adults. There are also “hard” punch recipes with wine or liquor that are very tasty. It can really help stretch a dollar on beverages. Although I don’t think it can beat Liz’s $.27/can for Diet Coke…

    Hope it all works out well for you!!

  11. Mir, you live in the south now, so you don’t need to serve cokes at all — pitchers of sweet and unsweet tea, plus water and coffee, and you have your beverages covered. Maybe lemonade for the kiddies. But nothing carbonated.

    Inexpensive table decorations: annuals, purchased by the flat, divided and put into terracotta pots or, even better, cute chinese food containers. I decorated 24 tables for under $50 that way.

    If you don’t want to have disposables, but want to stay in budget, check with rental places. Sometimes you can catch a deal.

  12. I learned the hard way to serve Coke in 2 liter bottles. After a party I realized there were nearly full cans of tonic everywhere! People would put it down, and then forget where they left it and get new ones.

    Also, my oldest son’s birthday is in July so we always have a luau themed pool party. I bought some plastic tiki cups and luau party decorations cheap at Oriental Trading co and reuse them each year!

    I would also say to look for warming trays at yard sales. We’ve made pasta, tossed it with butter and put it in the warming tray. Then in the crock pot put some meatballs and sauce. Put out some italian bread and salad and you can feed a crowd cheap!

  13. To minimize the waste as indicated by Beth (“People would put it down, and then forget where they left it and get new ones.”)
    I’ve seen folks leave masking tape and markers by the cup station (disposable or non). People write their names on the tape and label their tin / cup. Less confusion. Less waste.

  14. I would merely like to thank everyone for all the tips. I’ve blown my budget five years in a row now for my son’s parties at home. I get tripped up not on the food and drinks, but the “details.” I like to make the invites, the thank yous, signage, favors (I know! I refuse to buy cheap plastic favors so I splurge on one “nice” thing) and everything nice out of paper and scrapbooking embellishments. Oy. I get a lot of compliments about the details but my checking account can’t take it anymore!

  15. For my son’s baptism, we used a church meeting room. I served sandwich rings from Sam’s, chips, fruit, cheese and crackers and cake.

    For my daughter’s baptism, we had a dinner at a local barbecue restaurant. It was pricier than my son’s but less hassle for us.

    To save money, we use Sam’s. I buy plates and utensils in bulk. For the invites and thank you cards, I do a photo card through Sam’s, Walgreens or Target.

    Cupcakes are the new “it” dessert and you can buy 30 for $11 at Sam’s.

    Here is my friend’s chicken salad sandwich recipe than wins rave reviews at any party:

    1 container of premade chicken salad from local grocery store (we use Sam’s)
    1 bag of craisins or 1 cup of sliced red grapes
    1 small bag of walnuts or pecans
    1 can of drained pineapple tidbits
    small cocktail croissants

    Mix chicken salad with other ingredients and spoon into croissants.

  16. Yummy punch recipe we just used at a baby shower:

    1 bag of frozen strawberries
    Vanilla ice cream
    1 2 liter bottle of ginger ale

  17. If it’s an evening bash and your’ serving alcohol, mixers are better in 1- or 2-liter bottles. If you have cans, they’ll be left all over, half full.
    For a theme party? Oriental Trading company, definitely.

  18. I always serve lemonade and iced tea at our get togethers. I have two glass pitchers that I bought for a dollar each. People seem impressed that I go to so much trouble. Kicker is, it hardly costs me anything.

    One thing I do before a party is survey my pantry and freezer. I try to come up with something to serve with what I have on hand. Most recipe sites will have an ingredient search. Plug in what you have, then choose appetizer, main meal, snack and see what comes up!

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