Fabulous Party Ideas For The Frugal-Minded

Photo: Wyscan

Need ideas for having a fabulous party with minimal money, time, and catering abilities? If you've got gracious friends, just a bit of cash, and time to clean your home, you'll likely enjoy these 15 ideas for having a party to remember.   

1) Throw a topping-optional party.

One of my all-time favorite parties was a nacho party: there was much excitement waiting to try the latest variety the hostess took out of the oven. Guests enjoyed nachos topped with varying types of cheese, beans, and veggies.

Make it specialty pizza night, starting with frozen pizzas and adding toppings to taste. Linsey has great ideas for making gourmet pizzas at discount prices.

Myscha, meanwhile, recommends throwing a baked potato bash (#6).

Although I prefer that guests not have to supply the food (more on that topic later), a host may welcome each guest’s favorite topping. A gardener may bring jalapenos, sweet peppers, or tomatoes; a gourmet grocery shopper, specialty cheese; an intense cook, spicy chili – if you and your guests are in the right mood, these toppings could go anywhere (nachos, pizza, and baked potatoes). 

2) Surprise guests with a soup and sandwich party, perfect for cold days and nights.

I treated guests to dinner like this a few years ago as I wanted something suitable for families with young children. Grilled cheese, pimento cheese, and PB&Js were easily and quickly made to order. Chicken-and-noodle was the soup du jour.

For a more grown-up event, whip up this onion soup recipe (you’ll need 4 medium onions-chopped, canola oil, 2 cans beef consommé, toast cut into 1-2’ pieces, and mozzarella cheese; sauté onions until soft, mix onions with consommé and 2 cans of water, and simmer for an hour or so; serve topped with toast and cheese).

If you want to jazz things up a bit, try Myscha’s soup toppers.

3) Bake lasagna or spaghetti pie if you’d like a sit-down dinner.

If you’re not in the mood for cooking, try one of Stouffer’s lasagnas (meat and cheese; vegetarian; or five cheese, which is meatless and from my experience, satisfies meat-eaters and vegetarians). If you want to save money, bake a spaghetti pie (you’ll need 8 oz. spaghetti, 16 oz. spaghetti sauce, 6 oz. of mozzarella cheese and cheddar cheese, and parmesan cheese; layer ½ sauce, uncooked noodles, and cheeses two times; bake covered at 350 for an hour; then uncover and bake for 15 minutes). Serve with bread and a snazzy salad.

4) Begin the day with a breakfast or brunch party.

Serve bagels (Panera Bread’s Cinnamon Crunch and Blueberry with Raspberry and Hazelnut spreads are some of my favorites) or egg & sausage casserole with orange juice and coffee.

5) Host an afternoon tea.

You may need to spring for a tea kettle or you can use the microwave to boil water (beverage setting). Select specialty tea at your favorite grocer.  Have sweetener (honey or sugar), milk, and lemon on hand.

Serve with a few treats such as your favorite jam served over slightly softened cream cheese with specialty crackers or goodies from your favorite bakery.

6) Delve into a dessert party or ice cream sundae party.

Bake your favorite desserts, which usually can be made days to weeks (if you freeze desserts) ahead of time so that getting ready for the party is a snap. Try my friend's chocolate pie (#13), Linsey’s dump cake, sweets suggested by her commenters, or this incredible chocolate cheesecake pie (the most difficult part of this recipe is keeping your family from eating the 1/3 cup of chocolate chips meant for the topping).

If it’s warm outside, you can serve ice cream with a variety of toppings in the backyard or front porch. Bonus: you won’t have to clean up much inside.

7) Don’t overdo the alcohol and sodas.

A chef friend has taught me to limit choices and I think this concept is applicable to food and beverages. Buying every combination of soft drinks (regular, sugar-free/caffeine-free, caffeine-free only, etc.) can put a huge dent in your budget so you may opt to serve lemonade or hot Russian tea, depending on the season. Add a pitcher of water and you’ll easily accommodate many guests’ beverage of preference. Have your favorite wines, red and white, on hand; mix up Myscha’s recommendation for an inexpensive Sangria.

8) Remember that timing is everything.

Consider the schedules and eating habits of your guest list. Make sure you plan around meals if you don’t intend on offering a full-fledged meal (or make it clear that dinner will be served if you do). And remember that weekday habits will differ from weekend ones; families with small children have schedules that vary from those of young singles.

9) Limit party time.

Parties don’t have to last hours. You can schedule a quickie before or after a big event as Myscha suggests in Christmas Parties for Folks on the Fly (such as dessert after a holiday show or hot chocolate after an evening of sledding or Christmas caroling).

10) Plan your guest list carefully to avoid overextending your annual party budget.

You can go two ways with careful planning: a) invite everyone you’d like to have at your house one or two times each year for a drop-in event (meaning guests can visit for a short while and not stay for hours while consuming large amounts of food) or b) host small gatherings that require minimal preparation and cash outlay. 

11) Invite people who understand what RSVP means and are willing to let you know their intentions. 

One of the biggest expenses associated with a party is the extra food and drink for the guests who might show up. Knowing how many people will be attending (and not having to guess at many more showing up the day of the event or calling at the last minute) helps you to buy and prepare the right amounts.

Lack of replies to RSVPs may be one of the biggest reasons that hosts/hostesses have resorted to asking guests to cater their events. They provide party-ready space (e.g., a clean house); no headcount is needed if guests each bring appetizer, dessert, and/or drink.

12) Welcome guest specialties. 

Many people have a special dessert they love to show off. And there may be some who have an outstanding appetizer.

However, you don’t have to and in my extremely humble opinion shouldn’t require a dish as the price of admission. Your invitation may read something like, “bring a dessert or appetizer to share if you’d like.”

Better, wait until guests ask if they can bring something and offer ideas that will liven the party without being essential to its success (suggest cranberry salad rather than turkey for a Christmas dinner). Be careful that guests who don’t bring an item aren’t made to feel awkward as it is proper to accept an invitation without offering to bring something.

Best, tell your guests to bring themselves and their sparkling personalities only.

13) Limit the amount of food and drink on the table.

Set a festive table and make sure you have plenty to offer guests, but you don’t have to place everything you have on the table from the start. Guests are less likely to overload their plates and you’ll save some for replenishing or have snacks after the party is over.

14) Think community if you are in need of space to accommodate large amounts of people (not suitable for your home).

Consider facilities at a city park (where I rented indoor space with great view of a city park that included tables, chairs, a fireplace, a big-screen television, food preparation space with refrigerator), community center, YMCA (picnic shelters with nearby playgrounds), or place of worship (generally available for free or discounted rates for members). Prices are usually much less expensive than meeting room space at a hotel, restaurant, or convention center.

15) Embrace minimalist design for your party décor.

Choose freshly cut holly or flowers as your centerpiece. If you feel a need to spruce things up more (I usually don’t), use doilies from the dollar store set on solid-colored napkins. 

I hope you and your guests enjoy these simple party ideas. If you're too busy for these now, relax and throw a party after the holidays.

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Myscha Theriault's picture

I love how you broke things down by strategy category. This makes it a GREAT resource for any  type of party. Great job.

Guest's picture

I especially like the idea of a choose-your-toppings kind of party - whether it is with pizza, nachoes, or a make-your-own sundae kind of thing. Perfect when you have guests with a wide range of tastes/diets too, as dishes can be adapted to individual preferences.

Guest's picture

That one always does throw people for a loop, doesn't it? :-) Great ideas, btw -- I'll be putting some of them to use in the next few weeks.

Will Chen's picture

Of course, this has made me very very hungry.  =(

Fatburger, here I come!

Guest's picture

My husband and I love to have friends over, but we're on a tight budget. Our solution is a bi-weekly "Waffle Night"--we make homemade waffles, ask friends to bring toppings or juice, and thus can serve about 16 people for about $7!

Guest's picture

Back in the early 90s I was living in Asia, and another ex-pat friend of mine wanted to throw a party but didn't have the budget. I offhandedly suggested a make-your-own tuna sandwich luncheon--and she did it! Big bowls of tuna salad, with a dozen or more tiny bowls containing different cheeses, onions, olives, green peppers, lettuce, tomato, pickles... then there were different breads and rolls! A big bowl of chips and some sodas rounded out the meal. What a great time, and an inexpensive party to throw.

Guest's picture

How to plan a Super-Easy, Super-Cheap, Super-Bowl Party!