For many Americans, Thanksgiving means football, endless leaf piles (to be jumped in, of course), and the beginning of the holiday season. But if you’re trying to spend a little less this season, it’s never too early to start thinking about how to have Thanksgiving on a budget.
Being together with friends and family is a big part of the fall holidays, particularly spending time eating a huge meal– the feast. Usually, it’s a spread of huge proportions: roast turkey, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, and many dishes unique to family traditions.
But for the person paying the grocery bill, the cost can really begin to add up. If you’re looking for ways to celebrate Thanksgiving on a budget, you’ve come to the right place. Just because you’re compromising on costs, there’s no reason you can’t have a fantastic meal.
How Much Should I Spend for Thanksgiving on a Budget?
Well, that’s entirely up to you, your budget, and how many people you feed. In 2021, the average cost for a 10-person Thanksgiving dinner in the U.S. was $53.31. That breaks down to $5.33 a person. That’s not a terrible price, but that’s just for the basics: turkey, a few side dishes, pie, milk, and coffee.
But many Thanksgiving cooks go beyond the basics. Some of the most popular sides include mashed potatoes, gravy, cranberry sauce, stuffing, green bean casserole, sweet potato casserole, corn, and the list goes on. Not to mention, you may have beverages and indulgent desserts involved. The costs can really begin to add up!
Adding in all those “little” extras, in 2021, consumers planned to spend $448 for Thanksgiving. Unless they were feeding hundreds of people, that’s quite a bit more than $5 a person. That statistic shows why a budget is essential to keep expenses within a comfortable range. Before the holiday arrives, determine what you’re comfortable spending and track costs to stay within your budget.
Tips for How to Host Thanksgiving on a Budget
There are many ways to save money when it comes to hosting Thanksgiving meals without compromising style, flavor, or fun. Let’s look at some other budget-friendly ideas so you can host Thanksgiving on a budget.
1. Start Shopping Early.
As soon as you can, look for upcoming sales on items you might need for the big meal. Things like canned pumpkin, evaporated or condensed milk, brown sugar, and other shelf-stable items will last for months. Stock up when there’s a two-for-one sale or other great bargains. Keep your shopping list up-to-date to take advantage of any sales. Lots of online communities and groups can help you source coupons and spot the best deals.
2. Pay Attention to Ads and Promotions.
Leading up to Thanksgiving, grocery stores usually offer astounding deals to lure customers. The trick is to buy only what’s on sale–and only what you need. Don’t stock up on everything else when you’re buying sales items. And shop around, too. Make a list and a shopping plan–then follow through. If you struggle with impulse purchases, consider ordering your supplies online or using a grocery delivery service. Many have promotions that allow free delivery on your first order.
3. Check Your Pantry.
You shouldn’t buy anything you already have (if it’s still good). Carelessness and convenience can lead to a big waste of food and money. Don’t pick up an extra box of brown sugar “just to be safe” while you’re at the grocery store. Make a list of what you have and a list of what you need before you go shopping.
4. Borrow Before You Buy.
Will you need extra pots, pans, a roasting rack, or a large bowl? Check with your friends, neighbors, or family members to see if they’ll need theirs this year–or if they have any extras lying around. For whatever you borrow, return it clean right after the holiday. If the recipe requires 1 tsp of Worcestershire sauce, just ask to borrow a little bit from a good friend or neighbor. Trust me; you won’t likely use that ingredient again for a while.
5. Don’t Splurge on Decor.
Seasonal decorations are easy to find at stores like Dollar Tree. While they’ll definitely fit the budget, they won’t necessarily last you for more than a year. Instead, one of your greatest assets on a budget is natural materials. Acorns, colorful leaves, wildflowers, and branches can all be crafted into DIY centerpieces for little to no cost. Re-use those colorful gourds you bought for Halloween! Raid the craft closet for some Mod Podge or glitter to spruce things up! My family loves to use spray-painted branches with leaf “ornaments” as a big statement centerpiece.
6. Keep It Simple.
Don’t get too caught up in the perfectly-curated Instagram tablescapes that are sponsored by huge name-brand companies or the picture-perfect meals you see on television. A simple meal, well prepared, is enough for anyone. Emphasize friends over flash and flavor over fanfare.
7. Avoid Extravagant Recipes and Pricey Ingredients.
Tasty Thanksgiving dishes don’t have to break the bank. If a fancy dish catches your eye, it’s okay to spend a little extra to make it happen. But maybe, in turn, you can use store-brand items and substitute less expensive ingredients. Stuffing made with day-old bread tastes just as good as stuffing made with expensive croutons. Instead of using packages of gravy, make your own from the turkey drippings!
Use real, seasonal, inexpensive ingredients when you can, but sometimes frozen can make more sense if you cut back on prep work. Frozen or canned ingredients can also be a good choice if you’re unsure how much you’ll need. Then, if you have too much, you can save those frozen or canned items for another meal later.
8. Don’t Go Turkey-Crazy.
As a good rule of thumb, allocate about a pound of turkey (uncooked) per person. Even if you run out of meat, you’ll have plenty of other good stuff to eat. And they’ll be more room for dessert, right?
Frozen birds are just as good as fresh ones and are usually cheaper. Look for those pre-Thanksgiving sales. And don’t be afraid to purchase one of the store-brand or lesser-known brands if it’s significantly cheaper. As long as it’s well-cooked and smothered in gravy, no one will be able to tell the difference.
9. Make It a Potluck!
If you’re having a get-together with lots of friends or family, a pot-luck-style Thanksgiving is the way to go. Make a list of needed dishes, and post it online or in a text thread. Have guests volunteer or sign up to bring items on the list or even one of their own go-to family recipes! Since Thanksgiving is about family, friends, community, and gratitude, it’s the perfect opportunity to make the meal a group effort. That way, everyone works less, spends less, cleans less, and gets to focus on what’s really important.
10. Stock Up When You Can.
Post-holiday sales are one of the best places to get deals for next year’s gathering. Buy any essential items that won’t spoil before next year–paper plates, napkins, plastic ware, decorations, candles, etc. Then, next year, enjoy the savings. You’ll have one less thing you have to budget for.
Low-cost Recipes for Hosting Thanksgiving on a Budget
Sweet cornbread: If you like your cornbread a little sweeter, add 1/2 can of creamed corn and 1/2 cup of sugar to the recipe on the back of the Jiffy corn muffin box. It takes the cornbread to a whole new level, and no one will know you used an inexpensive box mix.
Sweet Potato Casserole: Sweet potatoes are one of the tastiest, cheapest, and most filling ingredients you can use when it comes to Thanksgiving dishes. If a big bag of marshmallows or pecans isn’t in the budget, just sprinkle the top with some brown sugar and give it a little broil at the end. For the filling, use 3 lbs of sweet potatoes, 1/2 cup of unsalted butter, 3/4 cup of brown sugar, 1/2 cup of milk, 2 eggs, 1 tsp vanilla, and 1 tsp salt.
Cranberry Orange Sauce: With only four ingredients, you can’t beat this homemade cranberry sauce that everyone will rave over. All you need is two 8-ounce packages of cranberries (fresh or frozen), 1 orange (zest cut into strips and juiced), 1/2 cup sugar, and 1 cinnamon stick. Put all the ingredients into a saucepan and simmer for 15-20 minutes. Once it thickens, let it cool. Remove the cinnamon stick and serve at room temperature or cool. Or, if you’re like my family, the canned sauce reigns supreme–and has a stable shelf life.
Apple Pie: Focusing on seasonal recipes like apple pie helps make Thanksgiving work on a budget. If you don’t already have the ingredients to make a pie crust, then buying a pre-made crust is actually a better value. For the apple pie filling, you need 2 Tbsp lemon juice, 3 lbs of peeled and sliced baking apples, 2/3 cup of sugar, 1/4 cup of unsalted butter, 1/4 tsp ground cinnamon, a pinch of ground nutmeg, and 1 egg (lightly beaten). Check out this recipe for directions and tips for making your pie.
Low-cost Decor Ideas for Thanksgiving on a Budget
Skip the unnecessary decor purchases this year and opt for more natural decor that’s better for the environment and your budget.
- Magnolia Leaves
- Tall, dried grass
- Simple candle votives
- Homemade banners from card stock, twine, or any craft materials you have around the house
Make Your Thanksgiving on a Budget One to Remember
Just because the budget is a little tighter, it doesn’t mean you can’t have a wonderful, unforgettable holiday. Whether you find a great deal on a turkey or re-imagine your decor, it’s great to save money creatively. Remember, while it may seem like a holiday that’s all about food, it’s really about being thankful for what you have. Don’t get caught up in the hype and consumerism–just enjoy making the memories.