The holidays can be an expensive time. Between the gifts, the flights home, the meals for family gatherings, and so much more, sticking to a budget can be a hopeless pursuit. And add hosting into the mix? That can throw an even bigger wrench into staying on track. Though it’s nice to be able to have some festivities of your own, the decor, alcohol, and food required amounts to lots of money, and fast. But don’t give up hope just yet. There are secrets to throwing a holiday party on a budget. No, it’ll probably never be a totally free endeavor unless you let your guests go hungry. (And please don’t.) But according to party-planning pros, it is possible to have a great soirée and actually spend very little.
Honestly, it’s not that difficult, either. While you may not be able to host a beautifully curated, ultra-luxe sit-down dinner for 30, there are still many other types of shindigs you can throw without spending a ton. And yes, that does include food, drinks, decor, and all the typical party essentials. The key, really, is to getting creative and using a few tried-and-true tricks of the trade.
From affordable food alternatives to easy cocktail hacks, here’s what the pros recommend to keep your holiday gatherings fun, festive, and fabulous without breaking the bank. Happy hosting!
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If you’ve ever had last-minute guests, you know the urge to splurge on random items when you’re stressed is very real. That’s exactly why, according to The Spruce’s associate editorial director Caroline Utz, it’s so important to start by planning ahead. “The more time you have to plan, the less likely you’ll spend money on things you don’t actually need,” she says. “If you’re in a rush, it’s easier to spend money for the sake of convenience.”
And one of the most important parts of planning? The guest list. Send out your invites well in advance, and choose a service that’s free and keeps track of attendees so that you don’t overbuy for anything. REAL SIMPLE food director Jenna Helwig says she likes Paperless Post for invitations, though there are lots of other no-cost options these days as well.
Take Size Into Account
If you’re really sticking to a limited budget for your holiday party, let’s get the obvious out of the way — the less people you invite, the better. “Keeping things small always helps because there’s your cost right there,” says Sofia Crokos, founder of Sofia Crokos Events & Lifestyle. “Having six people versus 15 people means three fewer bottles of wine, so being conscious of guest numbers is super important.”
That said, if your heart is set on a large gathering, it can be done — you’ll likely just have to make some changes to what you serve. Going with more luxe refreshments? Yes, it’s necessary to curate the guest list, notes Helwig. But if you opt for a cheaper selection of food and host more people, the price will likely be similar in the end. “Drinks and small bites for 20 or a full dinner party for eight could both cost about the same,” she explains.
Edit The Drink List
Many of the experts TZR spoke to for this story recommended one strategy in particular for lowering beverage costs: “Keep the drinks list streamlined and serve just beer and wine,” says Helwig. She notes that there are “plenty of good wines for under $15 a bottle, and most liquor stores will give you a discount if you buy six or 12 bottles.” And if you want to serve bubbly all evening? “Look for cava, a generally high-quality and well-priced sparkling wine from Spain,” says Helwig.
That said, cocktails aren’t off the table. As Elizabeth Blau, CEO and co-founder of Blau + Associates, says, “Unless you are drinking rare scotch or top-shelf brands of tequila, there are always large format bottles of wines and spirits that can be purchased on a budget.” Her recommendation? To pre-batch your cocktails. That way, you can use those lower-priced options and no one will know the difference. “The juices and mixers will cover the flavors,” she explains.
Find Affordable Food Alternatives
There are many approaches you can take to save in the food department at a holiday party — just keep in mind that, even if you’re on a budget, you still shouldn’t skimp. “Food is never the part we cut back on because I never want our guests to feel underfed,” says Crokos. When honoring a budget, she says she prefers more of a heavy passed hors d'oeuvres offering. Blau agrees. “Cheese platters, charcuterie boards, and heavy hors d’oeuvres are a great way to save money, great creative, and serve some delicious signature items,” she shares. Being the holidays, you’ll also want to have something sweet. And don’t worry — there are ways to save here, too. “Instead of serving a plethora of elaborate desserts, I recommend baking holiday cookies and boxing to take home,” says Crokos.
And yes, you can make a sit-down dinner work. Helwig recommends looking to lower-cost proteins, like roast chicken instead of beef tenderloin. For an appetizer, “pick up delicious (and trendy!) tinned fish like smoked trout or sardines” and make a dip with that. “And don't overlook pasta for a main course,” she continues. “It's budget friendly and no one will be mad when you bring a golden, cheesy baked pasta to the table. Serve it with a big salad and dinner is done.”
Opt For Greenery
Over-the-top floral arrangements are, of course, beautiful on tables. But sadly, it’s a decor choice that can quickly add up. As a cost-friendly alternative, Crokos suggests using other seasonal foliage or branches instead. In particular, she loves branches with berries, as well as bundles of greenery. “Eucalyptus is excellent during that time of year,” she says. Though if you’re really set on flowers, you do have options. “Grocery store florals also do the trick,” notes Utz. “For longer-lasting flowers, choose varieties like zinnias, calla lilies, chrysanthemums, or carnations,” she suggests.
Raid Thrift & Discount Stores
Those flawless, heavily ornamented dinner tables you often see in professional photos? Yeah, that’s probably not going to be the case here. And as Utz points out, there’s no need to emulate this look by investing in matching glassware and serveware. “The last thing you want to do is worry about an expensive item breaking during your party.” Instead, she says, “Head to thrift stores or vintage shops and mix and match glasses, dishware, and serving ware in similar color schemes with any hand-me-downs you already own. The result will be a laid back, eclectic table that feels welcoming and inviting, not stuffy.”
Don’t ignore discount retailers, either. Blau says to look out for holiday decor at places such as Marshalls and HomeGoods to add in some festive vibes for less. It’s true that some of these options might not always offer the most elevated finds; however, they’re great for basics like lights, ornaments, and vases to adorn your walls and tables for that extra touch.
Go Heavy On Lighting
There are certainly items you can skip when it comes to holiday party decor — cheesy holiday-inspired outdoor decor being one, says Crokos. But if you do have the budget to buy anything, make it lighting. “I want to push tons of candles (as long as they’re not red or green), which can be reused throughout the year for lighting, so they’re super cost-effective,” says Crokos. And don’t forget the string lights: Taskrabbit Tasker Vanessa G. recommends hanging them around your space to create a magical environment. (She also shares that there are always good deals on these to be found around the holidays, so do some digging to find the best prices.)