smart spending

Throw a great holiday party on a budget

Highlights
  • Don't use recipes that call for red peppers or cherry tomatoes in November and December.
  • Spend a little time comparing prices at your local grocery stores.
  • Cut your costs drastically by limiting the amount and kind of alcohol you serve.

When it comes to saving money on the holidays, most budget-conscious folks spend a lot of their energy thinking about ways to economize on gifts. However, if you also host a holiday party, you also can cut costs by applying smart shopping strategies to your decor, food and beverage purchases.

Simplify your invitations

It's easy to get seduced by beautiful, but often costly, party invitations. But if you're throwing a budget soiree, aim to keep costs down from the start.

Depending on how formal your party is, and how well you know your guests, you might consider e-mailing invitations right from your computer. If you need to manage invitations and RSVPs for a large crowd, you could also use a free online service such as evite.com, says Lara Starr, the San Francisco-based co-author of "The Party Girl Cookbook."

Keep in mind, however, that some of your guests might not be big fans of e-mail invitations. Starr isn't either. "I think traditional mailed invitations show a little more respect for your guests and aren't as easily ignored," she says.

A budget-by-mail alternative: Creative postcard invitations printed on a home computer. "Postcards can save you money because you don't need to buy envelopes and the postage is less than it would be for a letter," Starr says. The U.S. Postal Service requires that postcards be printed on cardstock (heavier paper). They should be at least 3½ inches high x 5 inches long and .007 inches thick; and no bigger than 4¼ inches high x 6 inches long and .016 inches thick.

Decorate simply but elegantly

A smart way to keep a party on budget is to pick a theme. Yes, holiday parties actually can have additional themes -- ranging from a simple color scheme of silver and blue to something more elaborate like "Holidays with Elvis" (complete with a red tinsel tree, '50s music and peanut butter and banana sandwiches). According to Starr, themes help you avoid buying extraneous decorations and can help focus your food offerings -- all Mexican dishes, Polynesian-inspired appetizers, etc.

Another tip: Don't try to cover your entire home or party room with decorations.

Starr suggests focusing on your entry area, food table and perhaps powder room. An inexpensive door wreath or twigs wrapped in a festive bow, pillar candles of various sizes on a foyer tables, a clear bowl filled with extra holiday ornaments on your buffet table and a holiday-scented candle in your powder room make guests feel welcome but not overwhelmed, she says.

Ribbons purchased at a discount fabric store can also be used to trim a holiday tree or festoon a stairway banister.

On the day of the party, dress up a holiday buffet table with this catering trick: Use paint cans, phone books or empty, overturned planting pots to create risers for food trays. "Simply cover them with your tablecloth, a pretty sheet or even a clean painter's dropcloth and your table will look like it was set by a professional," says Starr.

Comparison shop for food: You wouldn't dream of buying that book or CD for your brother-in-law without checking prices at a couple of stores, right? Take the same approach when buying your party food. A week or two before your event, spend a little time comparing prices at your local grocery stores, specialty shops and warehouse clubs. A difference of a dollar a pound on deli meat or cheese could make quite a difference when you're buying for a crowd, says Sharon Maasdam, a home economist.

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Stay in season: Don't use recipes that call for red peppers or cherry tomatoes in November and December, even if you think they might look festive, says Maasdam. "In addition to being much more expensive at this time of year, since they're seasonal items, they're being flown in from far away so the quality is not going to be as good," she says. On the flip side, it's wise to include ingredients in your party food that are typically on sale around the holidays, from spices and special seasonings to yams and baking potatoes.

Watch out for the free turkeys: Nancy Twigg of Knoxville, Tenn., author of "Celebrate Simply," loves to take advantage of holiday "loss leaders." These are the items grocers sell at sharp reductions or even give away to lure more shoppers into their stores. Her caveat: "Remember that stores are not giving away things like free turkeys just to be nice. They might require that you buy a certain amount of groceries (like $100 or more) or buy a ham at full price before they give you the turkey for free," she says. "Just be sure you're not buying things you wouldn't normally buy in order to get that free bird!"

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