5 Potluck Parties That Help You Share the Wealth

I love throwing parties. I love dressing up. I love cooking for an audience. I love spending time with old friends and meeting new ones. I love it. And to be perfectly honest, parties are really my only motivation for cleaning my house. So, to keep my tidy boyfriend happy and our home from looking like the residence of teenage squatters, I try and have at least one house party a month.

Unfortunately for me, Halloween marks the beginning of Poverty Season, that glorious time of the year when both my car and home insurance premiums are due, which is bookended by my two heinous property tax payments, and includes four major holidays. That said, having no money has never kept me from having a good time. Over the years I've developed several potluck-style parties that are not only easy to tweak for just about any location or age group, but are beneficial to me, my friends and my community. Here are the five parties I'll be hosting between now and the New Year:

The Clothing Swap Party

This is the classic frugal party. The basic premise: Trade the clothes you are sick of wearing with your girlfriends. I try and make this party as much about girlie empowerment as it is about avoiding the mall. I only have three rules:

  1. No bartering or selling. It doesn't matter how much you paid for something. At the clothing swap it comes free, with no strings attached.
  2. Be generous. Allow the extra big or extra tall or extra little ladies who have trouble finding clothes that fit on a regular basis to have first dibs on accessories like hand bags and scarves. If there are duplicate items don't hog them both.
  3. Don't bring stinky clothes. Sadly, this isn't common sense for everyone.

I like to throw this party in early November so people have an opportunity to find party clothes and gifts for free in advance of the holidays. This is also a terrific Mommy and Me event. Last year I collected over $1000 in baby clothes and supplies from one swap I attended with a lot of new mothers. I was able to outfit several friends' nurseries with crib linens, toys and clothes that they could have otherwise never afforded. One of my friends who lives in Upstate New York organized a hugely successful version of this party at her kids' grade school where everyone brought in their old winter coats they'd outgrown and "shopped" for new coats for the school year. I recently heard about a school district-wide prom dress swap that was organized by some clever moms in Minnesota.

I serve fruit and cheese at this party, along with tea and coffee. Typically, my friends will show up bearing wine, fancy crackers, or a dessert without me having to ask them to. (They're good that way.)

This party is always a cinch to clean up. In exchange for the tax write off donation receipt, one of my guests will usually volunteer to run the leftover clothes over to the battered women's shelter.

Game Day

Once a month, my boyfriend and I live without electricity for one day and invite the neighbors over for a low-fi evening of board games and homemade dessert. Enjoy the board game renaissance with games like Agricola, Carcassonne, and Hey! That's My Fish that can be played in about an hour, have the depth of Chess or Mah Jong and can be easily taught to kids and adults alike. As an added bonus, playing board games by candlelight makes Touch of Evil extra scary and Power Grid extra ironic.

This October we're pulling out all our spooky games like Ghost Stories and Fury of Dracula and serving fun-sized candy bars and Mexican hot chocolate for dinner in honor of Halloween.

Thanksgiving Redux

Who doesn't overcook for this holiday? During the week following Turkey Day invite everyone over for a pot luck dinner of shared Thanksgiving leftovers. Last year the average cost of a basic Thanksgiving dinner for 10 people was $44.61. This did not include extra food or booze. By hosting Thanksgiving Dinner Part 2: Electric Boogaloo, you not only amortize the cost of the turkey and all the trimmings, but you also avoid eating the same leftovers for the next month, and you get help washing the dishes.

As part of this year's Turkey Day festivities I am going to raffle off local honey and homemade preserves as a fundraiser for a Heifer International project that will train farmers in Tanzania to farm fish and keep bees. It only takes $30 to buy a hive and train a beekeeper!

The Card Making Party

I love this party for many reasons. First and foremost because all the supplies for it fit into one flat rate mailing box that fits under my bed. It's like the one pot meal of craft parties. The second reason I love this party is because it costs next to nothing. In preparation for this party, I collect cool and free ephemera throughout the year. Doilies, maps, foreign language newspapers, leftover wallpaper, fortune cookie fortunes, old stamps, bar coasters, etc... all go into the one box for easy storage. Party guests bring a pair of scissors and personal items like photos or locks of hair. I supply the Freecycled glue, glitter and other doodads to add to the totally recycled paper supply. No crafting experience (or talent) is necessary to create personal collage-style holiday card masterpieces that would make Nick Bantock proud.

My favorite aspect of this party is how stuff can be taken from the waste stream and transformed into objects of beauty. This is a great way to reuse the envelopes that are enclosed with credit card offers, tiny bits of wrapping paper, and even food packaging. Many people are no longer sending holiday cards, due to financial and environmental costs, so handmade cards made from recycled materials provides a pretty and practical solution to both concerns.

This party works for anyone old enough to use scissors without supervision. I roll out butcher paper on the living room floor for the workspace, which makes cleaning up a snap — just roll up the paper with the left over glitter and toss that into the recycling bin at the end of the party, or use it to start fires in the fireplace. Usable supplies go back into the storage box for next year.

I like to combine this party with a cookie exchange where guests bring a batch of cookies to share. In addition to handmade cards, guests can also decorate boxes and paper bags they can package the cookies they get at the party as gifts. Here are a couple more links for crafty inspiration:

And let's not forget, that overachievers can get a head start on their Valentines.

The Book Exchange Party

Instead of throwing a New Years Eve party, which for most people is synonymous with expensive booze and snacks, I have a much thriftier New Years Day brunch instead. My boyfriend fires up "Excalibur," his deep dish Belgian waffle iron, and makes his famously light and delicious zeppelin waffles. I make a gigantic cauldron of my mother's infamous spiced tea. We invite our favorite bookworms to clear their shelves of books (that they've loved but are now just taking up space) and bring them to our home. Everyone discards the books they don't want onto the communal pile and picks up new, free reading material. I donate leftover books, usually over a hundred, to the public library book drive.

As part of their Earth Day event this year, a friend's Girl Scout troop organized a city-wide book swap for kids. This is obviously an easily hacked idea for any age group!

This is a guest post by Max Wong, who blogs at My Roman Apartment. Read more by Max:

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Guest's picture

I think I'll be taking this concept and running with it. Can you share the tea recipie?

Guest's picture

As a geeky science professor with little to no fashion sense and questionable social skills, I'm 100% sure that I won't try any of your party ideas. they just aren't my style. But Max, girl you sure can write. I'll be sure to read everything you post. Wish I had those skills. Best of luck to you.

Guest's picture

These are the best party ideas! Thanks for the reminder that a gathering of friends does not have to just be a dinner party.

Guest's picture

In college, we used to host wine and cheese parties, sort of a "BYOB and cheese" soiree. Those that were feeling really broke could bring accoutrements like a baguette or crackers. And living in CA, decent wine didn't cost a fortune (not so the cheese, unfortunately).

We have friends who host a Thanksgiving potluck, where everyone takes their leftovers and shares. It always tastes better the day after you cooked it...

I'm all for having parties as a reason to clean up the house. We would live like a family of squirrels if it wasn't for throwing parties pretty regularly.

Guest's picture

"In exchange for the tax write off donation receipt, one of my guests will usually volunteer to run the leftover clothes over to the battered women's shelter."

Can we say tax fraud?

Guest's picture

I love these ideas and can see many ways that they could be adapted to parties for kids or my moms group. I'm all psyched to try to host a toy/children's book swap now. It's such a great idea to donate to charity as well. I shared your article with my readers at:


Thanks a bunch!

Guest's picture

Have you been over to Boardgamegeek.com for boardgame ideas? Its a great resource for people who play carcassonne and other non traditional boardgames! Thank you for posting this! Its full of great ideas!

Guest's picture

"parties are really my only motivation for cleaning my house"

love that! many can relate!