Class Without Tons of Cash: Frugal Cocktail Party Ideas

by Ashley Watson on 22 July 2011 4 comments
Photo: Stuart Conner

There's nothing I love more in the summer than hosting a backyard soiree and playing bartender for friends. But if you're like me and want to impress with fancy cocktails and appetizers, it can be quite costly by the time you add up the price of the booze and other ingredients.

However, there are a few tricks to saving money and throwing a summer bash with style. Here are ten ways to maintain your hostess cred without hurting your budget. (See also: Fabulous Party Ideas for the Frugal Minded)

Buy the Cheap Stuff

If you are making mixed drinks, especially the fruity ones, then you don't need top shelf liquor. You won't be able to taste the difference once you add all the other ingredients. For drinks that call for juice, frozen juices are more cost effective than bottled juice, particularly if you are making a large batch. You don't need name-brand sodas either (except maybe as a treat for the designated drivers). There are several liquors on the market that are cheap but don't taste like rubbing alcohol. Some of my favorites are Sobieski Vodka, Beefeater Gin (you can find cheaper ones, but with gin you don't want to go too cheap), and Ron Castillo White Rum.

Consider Using Mixers

Sometimes it is just easier and cheaper to use a mix. I like to make margaritas with my own secret recipe, but if I'm making a lot of them for guests, I'll break down and just buy the mix. Or, if you aren't the type of person who regularly stocks hot sauce or Worcestershire, buying a bloody Mary mix would be a better option for you. Before you buy, try to find recipes for drinks that call for ingredients you already have.

Ask Guests to Contribute

There's nothing wrong with asking guests to bring a bottle of their favorite liquor or other drinks or snacks, particularly if you are hosting a large party. Plus it gives them more options in case you don't have the fixings for their favorite cocktail. You can also ask people to bring something inexpensive, such as ice or soda, which doesn't put them out but still helps you save on the overall cost. Bug spray is another inexpensive item that may seem like an odd request, but think about it — who puts on bug spray before a party? All your guests will appreciate this minor detail once the mosquitoes start biting.

Make Sangria

The best part about this is that you do not need a recipe to make really good sangria. And you can also use dirt cheap wine. If you are making other drinks that call for fresh fruit, making sangria is a great way to use the leftover fruit and offer something to guests who don't like mixed drinks. Spiked fruit punch is another cheap and easy way to make a large batch of drinks that go down easy. Here's a simple fruit punch recipe to get you started, but like sangria, there are dozens of ways to customize punch using your favorite ingredients.

Minimize the Number of Ingredients

I often do this when I'm planning a dinner party. For instance, if I'm making a homemade pasta sauce, I will choose an appetizer that uses the same ingredients, such as a bruschetta with garlic and basil. Think about some of the drinks you know you'll want to make before purchasing your ingredients, or what items a bar would typically stock, such as tonic water, seltzer, triple sec, fruit juices, sugar or simple syrup, olives, and other garnishes. Things like bitters, mint, and tomato juice are specific to certain types of cocktails, so make sure you have enough guests who prefer these drinks before buying, and don't forget to consider a mix. You can even stretch your drink ingredients to help with the snacks (see Make Your Own Snacks below for more suggestions).

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Make Your Own Decorations

Part of what I love about having parties at home is creating the ambiance, and in the summer, you have a lot more options with outside decorations. I try to use what I have around the house for outdoor lighting, which also makes it a little more funky than having uniform lighting. Try draping all the holiday lights you can find around porches or fencing. I open my shed door and drape the lights from the roof of the shed to the back porch, and I use all shapes, sizes, and colors I have (even pumpkin lights). I also place a random assortment of candles in metal buckets, empty ceramic planters, and whatever else I can find that's safe, and place them all around the yard and porch area. This is a good opportunity to use scented candles that have been given to me as gifts, since they are too strong for my taste to use indoors. You can always go to a thrift store and find an assortment of junk to create unique decor. Citronella candles or tiki torches are a great way to light up the yard and keep bugs away, and you can find cheap ones at drugstores or on sale near the end of the summer.

Put Out a Tip Jar

While you may feel uncomfortable asking guests for money, you don't have to make a suggested donation or require that your guests chip in. This can be easier than asking guests to bring drinks or snacks, because you don't have to worry if there will be enough for everyone, and your guests don't have to worry about making a trip to the store beforehand or deciding what to bring. Most people would rather throw five or ten bucks into the hat than buy an expensive bottle of liquor, and if you are frugal with your purchases, you might come out ahead.

Make Jell-O Shots

These gooey, potent treats aren't just for college kids anymore. You can get really creative with these. Try mixing flavors and creating your own, or use a casserole dish to gel them and cut them into customized shapes (novelty cookie cutters are perfect for this). The best part is that Jell-O is super cheap and easy.

Make Your Own Snacks

Remember when you made your own popcorn at that Oscar party, like Meg suggested? Well, here's your opportunity to wow your guests again with your ability to make delicious and healthy popcorn without sticking a bag in the microwave. There's no need to buy chips and other processed food for any party. You can even get a little fancy with classics, such as homemade french fries. Cut them like steak fries and add an aioli (basically mayonnaise mixed with your favorite herb or hot sauce), and you have a tapas-worthy appetizer. Or create an olive hummus with that can of chick peas in the pantry you never thought you'd use, and the olives you bought for martinis (you can also put them out on their own as a finger food).

If you have a vegetable garden, use whatever is ready to harvest. Bake some kale chips (I suggest substituting salt with a small amount of tamari if you have it), or put out fresh mozzarella with tomatoes and basil from the garden. You can always make something basic and a little unexpected, like ants on a log with that celery you are using for bloody Marys. There are lots of possibilities, and you might create something wonderful that you never thought of simply by combining what you have in your pantry and fridge.

Ask Guests to Dress Formally

This one may not directly save you money, but it does give you and your guests an opportunity to pull out swanky dresses that don't get a lot of wear. Plus, if you will excuse the pop psychology, I've found that when people dress as if they have more money, they tend to think they have more money. So they might even pitch in a little more to the tip jar. In any case, it's always fun to see people you see every day all swanked out.

No matter how you choose to customize your cocktail party, you don't have to spend a lot of money to have plenty of options and provide a nice evening with friends. Just remember to party responsibly, fiscally and otherwise.

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Meg Favreau's picture

I love mixing individual cocktails, but for parties, I go sangria all the way. It's so easy to just put everything in a pitcher and keep it in the fridge.

I heard about a neat cocktail party idea from one of my friends once. It was halfway between a cocktail party and bar hopping -- if you know several people who live within safe walking distance of one another, plan a drink (in this case, with a theme) at each house. The costs are shared, as is the cleanup, and everybody gets to enjoy a fun night out.

Does anybody else have frugal cocktail party tips?

Guest's picture

Great tips! When I read the title, I immediately thought of Sangria. It's a great treat especially on hot summer nights. I like making a white wine based Sangria and a red wine based one. And I love the tip jar idea! Hey, if you're playing host AND bartender then you should get tipped!

Guest's picture
not your Guest

A tip jar? For a party you're hosting. Um, no. Beyond tacky.