Budget-Savvy Holiday Gatherings

You don’t need unlimited cash to be a good host! Try one of these budget-friendly entertaining ideas for your next gathering

With the holiday season upon us, we’ll be seeing lots of red and green — but hopefully not in our budgets! Just in case travel and gifts were enough of a burden on our budgets, October to January is arguably the busiest social season of the year. Regardless of what holidays you’re celebrating, entertaining costs can certainly add up. Luckily, we’ve got some ideas to be a great host without breaking the bank.

Switch up the meals

It’s no secret that dinner is the most expensive meal. Not only does it have more courses (like appetizers, soup, salad and dessert), expensive ingredients like meat and seafood often take centre stage — not to mention the alcohol. When the night is over, you’re left with the clean up before heading to bed. Some of your guests may be wary about venturing home in the dark during dicey weather.

Why not offer your guests breakfast, brunch or lunch instead? Let less-expensive (and healthful!) options like fruits and vegetables, homemade baked goods and eggs grace the table instead of rich fare. Many brunch dishes use meat as an accent rather than in large amounts — like chopped ham in a quiche or omelet. For beverages, try gourmet coffee, herbal teas blended with juice or hot chocolate with a hint of cinnamon.

Host a theme party

Of course, you don’t have to serve a meal at all. Cocktail parties are a staple of any social season, but the drink bill can really add up. Try making food the focus instead by choosing a theme. For instance, make it a tapas party, or focus on appetizers and canapés. Offer a dessert buffet with a small selection of wine to complement the choices, or focus on a particular ingredient — like chocolate.

You don’t have to wait until evening for a get-together. Host an afternoon high tea, complete with little sandwiches and mini desserts, for instance.

Go potluck

The recession brought this party idea back into the forefront, especially as many people are feeling a financial pinch. Combine your efforts with friends and neighbours for a less formal gathering with plenty of variety. (You can also dodge the pressure to bring hostess gifts because everyone is already contributing.) Get our your slow cooker for a hearty stew, or bring your favourite casserole.

Here’s another opportunity to use a theme. Try an international food night or choose a particular cuisine or tradition to take the spotlight.

Go progressive

For neighbours and friends who live close by, keep the evening moving with a Progressive Dinner Party. No, politics aren’t involved — rather, everyone has a chance to host without having to go to the expense and work of a complete dinner. Most parties involve three to four courses, and each course is served at a different participants’ home. (For instance, the first stop is appetizers, then it’s off to the next home for soup or salad, etc.)

It may take a little more coordination, but the on-the-move nature of the evening allows for some activity and time to digest. If weather permits, try to walk to each destination for a little exercise and to avoid the need for a designated driver.

Host a tasting party

Sampling parties continue to grow in popularity, and there’s a wealth of tasty foods and beverages on the market this time of year. If wine tasting isn’t your thing, try beer, coffee, tea, chocolate, cheese or another favourite food instead. You can even take it to the next level with food and beverage pairings.

To help keep costs down for the hosts, get everyone involved in selecting samples. Depending on the number of guests, have each couple or person bring a favourite choice and one they have never tried before. Have some score cards handy so everyone can rate the samples. (See Host a beer tasting party for ideas.)


They’re an event in themselves as well as a way to prepare gifts and dessert trays! If you’ve never been to a cookie swap, the principle is simple: it’s all about getting variety without all the work and the need to buy lots of ingredients. Each guest bakes a big batch of their favourite cookie recipe and packages them up by the dozen. At the get-together, everyone trades a dozen cookies with everyone else. In other words, if the party involves eight people, each person gets to take home eight different cookie recipes. Use these cookies on a dessert platter for your other events, or plate them up as hostess gifts.

It’s the perfect excuse to gather with friends and chat over coffee and tea. Have everyone bring a little extra for snacking and the food is all taken care of.

Bring the spa home

We all know who does the lion’s share of the holiday prep work in many households. Why not indulge in some pampering for a girls’ get together?

Skip the pricey spa trips and whip up some spa treatments at home using inexpensive ingredients from your pantry like oatmeal, honey and sugar. Enjoy a glass of wine, a slice of a rich dessert and some good conversation while enjoying a facial or foot soak. (For ideas and recipes, see The do-it-yourself spa.)

Make it a games night

Laughter is good for you, and a much-needed stress-buster this time of year. Haul out the board games or a few decks of cards and let everyone unwind. It’s also a chance for people to get to know each other without the pressures of making small talk.

The prep work doesn’t have to be expensive or time consuming. Think veggies and dip, fruit platters, nachos, a couple of choice desserts or some savoury appetizers. Soda pop and blended drinks help keep the alcohol quotient low too. (See Games galore.)

Next: Other money savings tips

Other money saving tips:

Keep it simple. Upscale is nice, but fancy decorations, gourmet foods and all those extravagant touches will quickly add up. (In this economic and environmentally-friendly climate, they may even be offensive.) Stick to the basics and let a few key items take the spotlight and focus your energy and cash there.

Go casual. Forget formal dress — and the costs of buying an outfit you won’t wear a lot. Keep the dress code on the casual side to save you and your guests money. To keep the mood festive, ask guests to dress in theme colours — like fall colours for Thanksgiving or red and green for Christmas.

Another option: invite your guests to don an outfit they never thought they’re wear again — like a special occasion outfit from a wedding, for example.

Do it yourself. You pay a premium for pre-made foods, so the more preparation you do yourself the more money you’ll save. If you’re short on time, spend money on the things that are most time consuming, and handle the simple things yourself.

Experiment with recipes. Instead of cooking multiple dishes, try a “one dish wonder” like a casserole or stew. Another option: Use legumes like lentils and beans — dried or canned, they’re a fraction of the cost of meat or seafood and they make some tasty dips, salads and main courses. (Need some ideas? Check out the Recipes section here on 50Plus.com.)

Buy bulk. Dinner party cooking and baking often involves ingredients we don’t often use, like candies, sprinkles and spices. Shop in the bulk food section to get the right amount so you’re not paying for packaging or waste.

BYOB (Bring your own booze). Etiquette experts might be appalled, so it’s best to tread with caution here. BYOB is more common for potlucks and casual gatherings than for formal dinner parties, but it’s one way to avoid a heavy liquor bill (and discourage heavy drinking too).

Regardless of how you celebrate, a few changes to tradition can help you save some money — and make some new memories.

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