4 Holiday Entertaining & Party Ideas on a Tight Budget

In 2008, at the height of the recession, The New York Times ran a story about how to throw a “transcendent” holiday party on a stripped-down budget. Reporter Alex Williams contacted David Monn, an elite New York event planner who often puts together five- and six-figure bashes for the Hollywood A-list, and challenged him to plan a dinner party for eight in Williams’ West Village Apartment. His proposed budget for the entire event, including food, wine, and decor, was $30 a head.

But if a $240 budget is a still a stretch for your wallet, don’t worry. There are plenty of ways to have a great holiday party on a budget even Ebenezer Scrooge would approve. It all comes down to making smart choices about the four basic elements of a party: decorations, food, liquor, and entertainment.

Decorations are an important part of any Yuletide event. It’s the evergreens and twinkling lights that really turn a plain old dinner party into a holiday party.

Unfortunately, holiday decorations can get expensive – evergreen wreaths and garlands can range in price from $35 to $179 each. Throw in a few extra touches like a $50 pair of silver reindeer or a $30 set of glass bird ornaments, and you could easily burn through hundreds of dollars before you even get any food on the table.

So if you want to throw a big party on a small budget, the first thing to do is toss those pricey catalogs aside. Instead, turn to the Internet, which is teeming with ideas about how to create your own Christmas decorations on the cheap.

evergreen centerpiece decoration

Alex Williams, in the audio accompaniment to the Times article, explains that Monn told him the key to decorating on a budget is to edit: “Pick a really simple theme, and really stick close to that theme.” That way, you can focus your decorating dollars to get the biggest impact.

For Williams’ party, Monn chose a “winter wonderland” theme, which combined imagination with practicality. By choosing white for the main color in the decorating scheme, he was able to make decorations out of cheap, everyday items. For instance, he bought a roll of plain white fabric for a tablecloth, and a ream of copy paper to make snowflake decorations.

However, a snowy scene isn’t the only inexpensive theme for a holiday party. You can choose any theme that lets you work with cheap materials:

making paper snowflake crafts

Once you settle on a theme, you need to put together some decorations that fit in with it. You can find tons of articles online about ways to make DIY decorations for the holidays.

Some popular ideas include the following:

fancy tableware

There’s really no good way to serve an elegant meal on paper plates. Eating off real dishes with real cloth napkins – or better yet, fine china and linen – adds a touch of class, even if the menu itself is simple.

Unfortunately, not everyone has a good set of dishes, or at least not enough for a large gathering. However, if you don’t have nice dishes and table linens of your own, you probably know someone who could loan them to you. As long as you’re careful not to break any dishes, and scrupulous about replacing them if you do, there’s no reason to feel bashful about asking to borrow tableware from a friend or family member. If they’re just sitting in a closet anyway, your friend may be happy to see them put to good use.

cinnamon and gingerbread cookie

Festive decorations can turn your humble home into a feast for the eyes – but don’t forget about the ears and the nose too. Sounds and smells can be a key part of creating a holiday mood. In fact, they’re likely to be the first things your guests notice when they walk in the door, even before they have a chance to take in the scenery.

Fortunately, appealing to these senses doesn’t have to be pricey. You can engage your guests’ sense of smell with anything from a $10 scented candle to a $1 bunch of fresh-cut evergreen boughs. If you’re cooking as your guests arrive, you can beckon them across the doorstep with the aroma of baking cookies or spiced cider. Or, if the meal is already made, you can make a “stove simmer” – a pot of simmering water with some citrus slices, fresh herbs, or cinnamon sticks – to fill your home with holiday fragrance.

Appealing to the ears is just as easy. All you have to do is put on some seasonal background music. Depending on your tastes, this can be anything from Handel’s “Messiah” to “Elvis’ Christmas Album.” If you don’t have any holiday albums in your collection, you can borrow one from your local library.

young lady serves christmas dinner

No party is complete without some kind of food and drink. However, a meal doesn’t have to be fancy to be festive – in fact, it doesn’t even have to be a full meal.

Here are several strategies that can fill up your guests without emptying out your wallet:

holiday champagne

For many people, holiday spirits don’t just mean good cheer, they also mean beer, wine, and liquor. However, good liquor can be costly, and when you’re having a large gathering, the cost adds up quickly. If you follow the traditional rule of providing one bottle of wine for every three guests, then a gathering for 15 people would require five bottles – so even a modest $20 vintage would add up to $100.

To get around this problem, try these less expensive ideas:

At many parties, the main activity is conversation, which doesn’t cost a cent. However, if you find mingling and chatting with strangers to be dull – or if you’re afraid your guests might – you can liven things up by providing some form of entertainment.

people watching christmas films

For a great family-friendly party, invite friends over to watch a classic holiday film. If you don’t have any in your collection, you can rent one from Redbox, stream it on Netflix, or check it out of the library. Another option is to invite guests to bring their favorite holiday movies to the party and then vote on which one to watch.

Here are some good choices:

If you’re short on seating, pile some pillows on the floor, and have lots of blankets for snuggling. Accompany the film with big bowls of popcorn and a cozy drink, such as hot cocoa or eggnog.

having a fun game night

Games have long been a traditional part of holiday parties. In Charles Dickens’ classic story “A Christmas Carol,” Scrooge’s nephew and his friends spend their after-dinner hours playing party games, including forfeits, blind-man’s buff, and Yes and No, a Victorian version of Twenty Questions.

Here are some more modern equivalents that work well for a large group:

singing carols

When I was a kid, our neighbors held a Christmas-caroling party every year. We would meet at their house and then set out on a trip around the block to sing carols to all the neighbors who were home. After finishing the rounds, we’d head back to the house for mulled wine, hot cider, and cookies.

This party was always my favorite event of the holiday season, and to this day, I don’t know if I’ve ever been to any holiday party I enjoyed more. To reproduce it in your neighborhood, all you need is a group of friends, some traditional Christmas carols (on sheet music or memorized), and warm clothing. One good tip is to stop only at the houses where people have Christmas decorations up, so you don’t accidentally offend people who don’t celebrate the holiday.

decorating the christmas tree

A tree-trimming party, where people gather to decorate the Christmas tree, is a classic holiday event. One nice thing about this type of party is that you don’t have to do a lot of decorating ahead of time, since that’s the main activity. However, you should spend some time sorting out all your ornaments and getting them organized so people can easily find what they want.

Set up the tree in its base, putting it in the middle of the room so people can reach it from every side. If you’re planning to hang lights, you should probably do these ahead of time, since it’s a complicated job that gets more complicated with a lot of people involved. Then set out your boxes of ornaments in various spots around the room, so there’s always something within easy reach.

You can put on some holiday music in the background to add to the festivity, or even sing carols as you work. The best food choice for this type of party is finger food, since sitting down to eat takes guests away from the action. With drinks and munchies, your guests can stop for a quick bite in between ornaments.

Man volunteering for charity, photo by Joseph Sohm

If you really want to get into the holiday spirit, you can turn your party into a way to help others. Some charitable party ideas include the following:

There are lots of different ways to combine these four elements to put together a great holiday event on a budget. The best way to plan your party is to work backward. Start by figuring out what you want the main activity to be, and then choose decorations, food, and drink to go with it.

For instance, if you want conversation to be the main event, then a sit-down dinner is a great way to get people together within talking distance. On the other hand, if what you really want is music and dancing, then you’re better off with finger foods that won’t get in the way – as well as decorations that won’t get knocked over easily.

Here are several ideas to get you started:

a home decorated for the holidays

The right food, drinks, and decorations all help set the mood for a holiday party – but in the end, they’re not what matters. After all, what guests are going to remember after they go home isn’t the food they ate or the way the house looked. Instead, they’ll recall harmonizing with the old carols on the stereo, or laughing hysterically at someone trying to act out “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer” in Charades.

When you get right down to it, the real point of any holiday gathering is to have fun and spend time with the people you care about. Spending more money can make your party look more impressive, but it’s the people that really make it an event to remember. In fact, the parties thrown on a shoestring budget can be the most memorable ones, because they strip away all the window dressing and put the focus on friends, family, and fun.

What was the best holiday party you’ve ever been to?

Categories: Entertainment, Lifestyle

Amy Livingston is a freelance writer who can actually answer yes to the question, “And from that you make a living?” She has written about personal finance and shopping strategies for a variety of publications, including ConsumerSearch.com, ShopSmart.com, and the Dollar Stretcher newsletter. She also maintains a personal blog, Ecofrugal Living, on ways to save money and live green at the same time.

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4 Holiday Entertaining & Party Ideas on a Tight Budget

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