Save Money on Thanksgiving Dinner

by Emily Guy Birken on November 13, 2012

In some ways, it can feel a little sacrilegious to talk about paring down Thanksgiving. After all, it’s a holiday all about celebrating the abundance in our lives. But the truth of the matter is that planning an enormous meal for a horde of guests is an expensive prospect, particularly if you follow the dining-room-table-is-groaning-under-the-weight-of-food model of traditional Thanksgiving dinner. Here are five ways you can lower your Thanksgiving costs without sacrificing anything you are truly thankful for:

Decide What Sides are Most Important

One Thanksgiving many years ago, my aunt decided to just skip the cranberry sauce. She told us that she’d been eating it at Thanksgiving for decades and throwing away a sinful amount of leftover cranberry sauce each year before she realized that she truly hated the stuff. So no more cranberry sauce on her Thanksgiving table, since apparently no one really liked it.

We all have a vision of what Thanksgiving dinner is supposed to look like, but that doesn’t necessarily correspond with what you really want to eat. In addition to the turkey, plan on no more than three Thanksgiving side dishes. You only really need your favorites, anyway. Chances are, there’s something you usually put on your table that you end up throwing out later.

Let Your Guests Bring Something

Most Thanksgiving guests are thrilled to avoid the bulk of the cooking and are willing to whip up their famous pumpkin pie or bring the wine to the group celebration. If you spread out your dish requests among all of your guests, the cost of the meal becomes much more manageable.

Cherry Pick the Grocery Stores

Even if you never pay any attention to grocery circulars the rest of the year, Thanksgiving is the perfect time to do so. Each store offers loss leaders of the typical Thanksgiving fare. If you are willing to do a little driving, you can pick up most of your ingredients at the best price available.

Don’t Decorate with Store-Bought Trinkets

In my lifetime, Thanksgiving has gone from a holiday about food and family to one that you must have cutesy décor for. Even if you’re hosting the in-laws for the first time, there is no need to buy turkey-themed hand towels and napkins. Have the kids pick out some beautiful fall foliage for a centerpiece, and they can make their own hand-traced turkey place mats. Setting a beautiful table does not have to cost money.

Plan out Leftovers in Advance

Turkey fatigue can set in pretty quickly after the holiday, and it can be tempting to just throw the rest of the bird away. But even frozen supermarket turkeys (which are the cheapest Thanksgiving turkey option) cost at least a dollar per pound. Are you willing to throw all those dollars away? Instead, peruse cookbooks and cooking websites for turkey recipes you can make the week after all your guests have gone home, and make your meal plan for the last week in November at the same time you’re planning your Thanksgiving. Using up every scrap of leftovers is not only frugal, it’s also better for the environment.

The Bottom Line

Hosting Thanksgiving doesn’t have to kill your budget. Planning ahead, asking for help, and knowing what’s most important are all ways to make sure your holiday is fun, meaningful, and memorable—without giving you a spending hangover.

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Emily Guy Birken

Emily Guy Birken is a freelance writer and stay-at-home mom who is passionate about personal finance. She lives in Lafayette, Indiana with her mechanical engineer husband and her toddler son. She blogs about parenting at The SAHMnambulist and about the funny side of money at Live Like a Mensch.
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  • Something I would add is to make less food of each thing. We always have a ton of everything left over. Make sure there is enough for everyone to have a little bit but don’t cook so much that everyone could have 2 or 3 servings and still have food left over.

  • John S @ Frugal Rules

    Nice post. We have a group of friends we do Thanksgiving with every year. They do the main course and everyone else brings the sides & desserts and it works out great for everyone.

  • Jason @ WorkSaveLive

    Thankfully for our budget we haven’t had to host a Thanksgiving dinner. I am going to a good friend’s on Thanksgiving eve that has hosted a party for the last 15 years for about 20-30 guests and they spend a crazy amount on the food! We all offer to bring something but they refuse. Saying that…they love to do it and they look forward to it each year. If we ran it, we’d certainly be skimping wherever we could. 🙂

  • greg

    We aren’t hosting this year so we only have to bring a few side dishes. That will deinitely save us money! At the same time, it’s a pitch in so really everybody else saves money as well.

  • My Mom loves hosting Thanksgiving so I think I’m off the hook for a while. I could see that changing a few years down the road, though. She does have people bring some things to ease the burden, but my parents still take on most of the expense (both in money and labor!).

  • Kim

    We tend to travel for Thanksgiving so we don’t have to cook. When we have been home for a holiday, we only cook what we like, not what we’ve always had at every family gathering. You can also make a good turkey noodle soup and freeze if you have too much turkey.

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