Surviving the Holiday Season: Entertaining (and Being Entertained) on a Budget

by Nora Dunn on 3 December 2008 15 comments
Photo: Nora Dunn

With the holiday season upon us, invitations to dinner parties – and expectations of reciprocating invitations – are on the increase. You bring a nice bottle of wine or bouquet of flowers (or even a Christmas present for closer acquaintances) to every home you visit. And you whip up a marvelous meal for those who visit you. Before you know it – without even starting your Christmas shopping, you have blown your holiday budget.

So how do you navigate this season of dinner parties and other seasonal cultural expectations without going broke at the end of the day? The answer to this question is as much a mystery to me as it is to anybody else. But here are a few ideas:

 

Gifts for your Host

Common etiquette prescribes that we bring along a gift when invited over for dinner (or lunch, or tea, or whatever). But what to bring?

 

Scrap the Flowers

Cut flowers are pretty and all, but they don’t last, they shed petals and pollen everywhere, and are bloody expensive to buy. Your host will appreciate them for about the first two days and then it will just be more of a nuisance than anything else. Save your budget – and think of something else to bring along as a gift.

If you insist on bringing something living, a potted plant can sometimes be a better bet, less expensive, and will last longer. This is ideal if you know your host enjoys cultivating plants, and may even wish to transplant it to their garden.

 

Know Your Wine

If you don’t know your wine, and/or your host does, your attempt to be budget friendly by buying the cheap stuff will be foiled and tacky. But how much do you spend on a bottle? This largely depends on the circles of friends you keep. I believe that a $15 bottle would be more than acceptable for most people. It still ain’t cheap, but it’s a quick fix for a last minute invitation.

And what about the wine bags, which add an extra few bucks to the price tag? Unless you have a stack saved from bottles previously given to you, do your wallet – and the environment  – a favor and find alternate forms of wrapping up your bottle if you must wrap it at all.

 

Sugary Sweets

Wildly popular during holiday time are home-baked goods and other candies. These are often a good bet, most people love them (even if they’re on a diet – it is the holiday season after all), and it shows that personal touch which goes a long way beyond even pricier store-bought gifts. The down side? You have to bake. Hopefully you’re good at it.

 

Scrumptious Savory

For a twist on bringing bad-for-you cookies and cakes, you could bake a loaf of bread instead (made fancy with nice herbs or other flavors), or even concoct a cream cheese dip from scratch. Try this one: whip up some plain cream cheese with a little lime juice, add green onions or chives, then spread it in a (recycled) plastic container (the kind you get from the deli). Top it with sweet chili sauce, and you have a dip that will make you a hit at parties for a fraction of what you would pay to buy the manufactured stuff.

 

Other Consumables

Don’t know what to get the host with the most? Join the club. Stop guessing and simply get (or even better – make yourself) something consumable. Do you have an herb and flower garden that is on its last legs? Make a dried loose leaf tea mix and give it to them in a nice bottle with a tea strainer (both purchased at a dollar store or equivalent). Can’t cook to save your life? Then make up a gift basket if you must. Fill it with inexpensive but nice staples and wrap it up nicely. The basket and bows can be purchased at the dollar store, and the contents don’t have to be extravagant. A total purchase price can even be under $10 if you’re smart about it and your host will appreciate this creative grab bag of goodies. They may even be able to turn around and serve those crackers you gave them at their next dinner party.

 

 

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Entertaining

This is where being budget minded can get a little more tricky. You want to put on a good show – crackers and cheese (and wine) to start, then a two or three course meal (with more wine), and all of a sudden you spent the entire day in the kitchen, spent a small fortune on ingredients, and have one hell of a mess to clean up. Sounds like enough to turn your stomach from entertaining any day. A few tips to reduce your cost and burden:

 

Simple Snacks

Buying just two or three nice cheeses and crackers could cost you $20 if you aren’t careful, and you haven’t even touched upon the drinks or the actual meal to be served. Instead, placing out a bowl of nuts (bought in the bulk section – they’re cheaper) can whet the appetite just as well. Serve the kind of nuts that need shelling (like pistachios or even walnuts for a treat), and your guests will be nicely occupied and won’t fill up on the pre-dinner stuff.

 

Easy Apps

Unless you keep company with high-brow folks (in which case you will always have a problem satisfying both your budget and your friends) your guests won’t be horribly offended if you skip the appetizer course altogether. Go straight to dinner if you can. Otherwise, choose ingredients you can whip together easily and inexpensively.

 

Done Like Dinner

Pasta is always a great bet for a budget-friendly main course: it fills your guests up, is inexpensive, and can be presented in a very luxurious manner.

 

Delicious Desserts

Unlike appetizers, rarely can you skip serving dessert without at least a few raised eyebrows. Baking something yourself is usually the least expensive and shows the most care and personal flair.

 

Drinks

Serving drinks all night is where you can end up spending the most money. Stocking up with wine, beer, and other beverages in an attempt to anticipate what your guests might like will fill your fridge, but empty your wallet. Get a bottle of wine to serve with dinner, and stick to non-alcoholic drinks for the rest of the occasion. Before dinner, you can prepare a non-alcoholic cocktail of various fruit juices and soda water for fizz. Serve it up in a big punch bowl with lots of ice and nobody will notice the lack of alcohol and will come back for seconds and thirds. Tea or coffee after dinner is the perfect way to compliment dessert, cap off the night, and stop the drinking in its tracks. This is also good protocol for guests who have to drive home…

 

 

This is a simple collection of ideas on how to keep your holiday entertaining budget to a minimum. But we want to hear from you! What are your tips, techniques, and recipes for getting through the holiday entertaining season financially unscathed?

 

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Guest's picture
Carrie

This year I wouldn't mind because I'm pregnant, but any other year, if I walk into a holiday party and don't get to have one little cocktail before dinner, I'm not gonna be feeling very merry. And I hardly think I'm an outlier there.

Guest's picture
Barbara

I'm with you on the idea of serving a bowl of nuts before dinner versus appetizers, but if I can suggest a quick way of spicing the nuts up?

1 10oz can mixed nuts
2 tbls honey
1 tbls cumin
1 tbls cinnamon
1 tbls ground red pepper

Preheat the oven to about 350º, mix all the ingredients together, spread on a baking sheet sprayed with cooking spray, and bake/roast for about 10-15 minutes, shaking gently halfway through.

Also, as far as not serving wine, my suggestion would be to buy the magnum bottles that have far more than 4 glasses of wine in them. Yes they're a little more expensive than normal sized bottles, but if you pour only about 3 oz per glass you can stretch them much further.

Guest's picture

Another way to save money at an informal gathering is to have a potluck. Then you're on the hook for drinks and decorations, but you don't have to feed the whole world. Or how about a cookie walk party, where everybody brings one kind of cookie and goes home with a yummy assortment?

My experience with the booze is that we always end up with more wine at a party than we started with. So don't buy wine. If you throw it, they will bring it.

Guest's picture
na0

i love cooking and baking and wanted to make something for my boyfriend's mom for around xmas time.... but she is not big on sweets.

i NEVER thought to bake bread! duh! thanks for the enlightenment!

Myscha Theriault's picture

And I love the unshelled nuts idea.

Guest's picture
Kate

Another idea for wine is boxed wine...it has come a long way and there are excellent wines available for 15-20 a box (which is about four bottles.) If you fear that your friends will turn up their noses, decant it into a pitcher before you serve. (It improves the flavor, anyway.)

Guest's picture

Does anybody have ideas for easy finger foods to take to a party? (Something savory?)

Becoming The Marshmallow

Guest's picture
Sarah

I disagree with not bringing flowers for your host/ess. I think it depends entirely on your knowledge of the person. Some people don't appreciate the time and care flowers need to stay fresh for awhile. But others may have free time or enjoy them immensely.

Flowers can even be a frugal option if you have your own garden, or can make an attractive bouquet from the wild plants in your area. This is especially true at the end of the year, when holiday greenery consists of ferns, pine cones, and red berries! You could even make an inexpensive door wreath for host/esses who enjoy greens, but have allergies. It all depends on what you know your host/ess will enjoy. It never hurts to ask.

(I love getting flowers- can you tell?)

Andrea Karim's picture

It really depends on where you live. Right now, there aren't any flowers blooming in Seattle (except for this one freak jasmine plant outside a neighbors house). While I love cut flowers, sometimes during the winter, it just makes sense to give more local gifts. You know? Like, if you live in Florida or California, maybe you can give flowers from your garden. But supermarket flowers are more expensive, and less ecologically viable, during the winter.

Something that I love to give are paperwhite (or other) bulbs in a glass vase filled with pretty stones or fish tank rocks. Paperwhites are lovely force-grown in dreary days of January and February. I don't buy the pre-set packs of them (pricey!); I buy the bulbs in bulk at Home Depot or another seed supplier and place them in inexpensive square, shallow vases with decorative stones and a ribbon. The host can then grow them if he/she feels like it, or pass them along to someone else who may like them more.

Andrea Karim's picture

Agree with Carrie on the booze. And baking bread is a really, really sweet idea. If only I was good at it. :)

Guest's picture
kooler

An old reliable is the little smokie sausages (beef or pork) wrapped in crescent dough browned in an oven... Easy to make, carry and reheat in a microwave at your destination... Great finger food for most any occasion... These go fast at a super bowl gathering... cheers

Guest's picture
Linda

One cup of mayo with about a tablespoon of Tumeric mixed in makes a tasty dip for potato chips or vegetables. It's a lovely color, too.

Guest's picture
Guest

Probably one of the cheapest is homemade hummus, which can be served with pita bread that is toasted and cut into wedges.
Just drain a can of chickpeas and put in a food processor or blender with chopped garlic, juice from 1/2 a lemon, salt & pepper, and a T of cumin. Add 1/4 cup of tahini, or, for a less expensive option, a T of toasted sesame oil. Process, adding olive oil in a stream through the top of the blender until it's of dipping consistency. Or serve it with tortilla chips.

Making your own tapenade with kalamata olives is a snap in a food processor, and so much cheaper than purchasing it. Whiz together a small jar of drained, pitted olives, a bit of anchovy paste (or, cheaper version: a tsp of fish sauce!), a clove of garlic, chopped, and again, drizzle in some olive oil. Spice it up with a dash of crushed red peppers. So yummy on homemade crostini: thinly sliced baguette toasted in the oven.

Another inexpensive spread for crostini is sundried tomatoes. Rehydrate in some boiling water for 15 minutes. Put in food processor with dried basil, parsley, salt and pepper. Drizzle in olive oil as you process the mixture.

These spreads make great hostess gifts, too.

Guest's picture
Deb

Get good at making a great breakfast strata or coffee cake. Make it your signature gift. The people hosting the party will be very thankful in the morning and they don't feel presured to serve it that night.

Guest's picture
Linda

Everyone is more or less in the same boat these days - so why splash out to impress?

If everyone stopped piling their supermarket trolleys so high and made more from scratch then they could half the cost of entertaining.