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How to Host an Elegant Thanksgiving Dinner Without Busting the Budget

Give off Martha Stewart vibes on a shoestring budget.

Beautiful Thanksgiving table spread and feast.
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Martha Stewart and Rachael Ray have set the stage for the perfect Thanksgiving dinner, from the elegantly set table, to the beautifully roasted turkey with heaps of side dishes, to perfect mood lighting.

The spread may look unattainable on TV, but with a few savvy tips, you too can throw a similar soiree for a fraction of the cost.

Trim Thanksgiving food costs.

The American Farm Bureau Federation reported that in 2022, the average cost of Thanksgiving dinner for 10 people was $64.05. (This seemed low to us, too, especially with about half of the budget designated for the turkey.) No matter how much you’re spending, however, we’ve got some tips to trim food costs:

  • Turkey is the centerpiece of your spread, and it can be one of the most affordable items come Thanksgiving if you watch the ads. In 2018, Target was among the nationwide retailers offering a frozen bird at 59 cents per pound; your local grocer may have sold a turkey at even less per pound. Retailers are willing to take a loss on the turkey in the hope you’ll come in and buy the rest of the fixings for your dinner. If you have the freezer space, buy a second one, either for another holiday or just because you may want a turkey dinner in February. You probably won’t find a cheaper turkey than in November.
  • Watch the store circulars and be willing to shop around, as the store with the 59-cent-per-pound turkey may not be your best option for the trimmings. Make a list of everything you’ll need, record the prices you see in each circular, make a list for each store, and then pick up your must-have items. Your savings could be considerable. Again, don’t be afraid to stock up while you’re shopping. There’s nothing that says you can’t serve stuffing and cranberry sauce at other times of the year.
  • Limit your side dishes. While you might like to go all out and serve both mashed potatoes and yams, both green beans and corn, or both croissants and Kaiser rolls, you don’t need to. Your feast will be just fine, and your guests plenty satisfied, if you provide just one option.
  • You’ll have a lot on your hands just stuffing the bird and getting it in the oven. Don’t be shy about asking a guest or two to bring dessert.

Set a strategic and creative picture-perfect Thanksgiving spread.

Want an “A” for hosting? Here are some tips for a picture-perfect table:

  • Strive to be perfectly imperfect. If you only have place settings for two, don’t rush out to buy a set for 12. Hit the thrift shop, garage sales and estate sales to buy mix-and-match tableware. You can choose a color theme for your plates, or an era, or just grab what you like. It’s a great conversation piece, and an eclectic table collection is a style of its own. Tie it all together by putting the plates on top of inexpensive gold or silver plastic chargers.
  • Use fresh flowers as an inexpensive centerpiece. Why buy a centerpiece that could be costly but also needs to be stored? Your garden might have what you need, and your grocery store will most likely have a special on cut fall flowers or a potted plant. No fresh flowers? A simple wooden board filled with seasonal gourds will add a festive touch to a table without breaking the budget. Add some pillar candles from a dollar store to complete the look.
  • Create an edible decoration. A cornucopia made from crescent rolls, for example, is an opportunity to create an adorable piece of table décor, but also feed your guests. Pinterest has similar ideas.

Other cost-saving tips.

Preparation is the key to throwing a successful and budget-friendly Thanksgiving dinner. As you make your plans and write your lists, consider adding these tips to save even more money.

  • Shop at home before hitting the stores. You might have an extra box of stuffing or a can or two of cranberry sauce that got shoved to the back of the pantry. Why buy what you already have in stock?
  • Stick to your budget and summon your willpower when shopping. Stores will strategically place cute Thanksgiving-themed decorations or irresistible sweets throughout the aisles—especially at the checkout line.
  • Prepare just the right amount of food. That 22-pound bird is enticing, but do you really need it? Use a cooking calculator, like the one offered by Butterball, to help you determine just how big your turkey should be.
  • Once you know you are hosting Thanksgiving dinner, pick up items here and there. The non-perishable necessities could be on sale weeks before Thanksgiving. Buy them when you see a great price.
  • Limit your drink offerings—both alcoholic and non-alcoholic. The beer, wine, liquor and soda don’t need to be free-flowing throughout the day. Consider creating one special holiday concoction like a Spiked Apple Cider Cocktail (with a “mocktail” version for the kids). Highlighting a special cocktail can become a holiday tradition that all family members look forward to. To lessen the stress, consider creating a self-serve drink station to encourage guests to help themselves.
  • Remember Thanksgivings past. Did you wind up throwing away most of the green bean casserole you made because one one of your guests ate it? Sure, it’s a side dish on many Thanksgiving tables, but it doesn’t have to be on yours if it’s doing nothing more than adding color.
  • Finally, if it’s stressing you out, let it go. The best part about being the host is that no one has to know what you’d planned to serve. So if you’re finding that one dish is stressing you out and will cost more than it’s worth at your table, just let it go. Leave it out, and no one will know the difference.

Thanksgiving is a day filled with family, friends and festivities. With a little bit of planning and budgeting, you can spend less on the meal and more time with your loved ones.

Looking for a savings option that lets you lock in a high APY? Check out our top-of-market term savings accounts (similar to CDs).

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CUNA 2023 diamond award trophy icon

CUNA 2023 Diamond Award Winner

Financial Education

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