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Keeping Thanksgiving frugal and fun

Potluck dinner, minimal decor, early shopping can all help.

By Teresa Mears Nov 9, 2009 3:17PM

Thanksgiving is just a few weeks away. If you haven’t done so already, it’s time to start shopping and planning to make your holiday frugal as well as fun.


The Sunday newspaper fliers are filled with coupons for such items as chicken broth, butter and other ingredients for Thanksgiving cooking. Many grocery stores also are putting these items on sale, so keep an eye on store deals and look for good sale/coupon combos to really save.


Wal-Mart has a Thanksgiving meal deal it says will feed eight for $20. That includes turkeys for 40 cents a pound. Some stores have deals if you buy a certain amount of groceries.

If you’re expecting 37 people for Thanksgiving dinner, as my family is, you certainly can’t cook everything for all of them. Our top frugal suggestion for any size gathering, large or small, is to make it potluck. Assign friends who don’t cook to bring the wine, soda or paper cups.


Here are some other tips for a frugal and less stressful Thanksgiving:

  • Don’t buy more than you’ll use, advises Ray at Financial Highway in his post on Frugal Thanksgiving Dinner Tips. He includes a link to a turkey calculator to figure out how big a bird to buy. 
  • Cook from scratch. Last year, my family realized at the last minute that no one had brought gravy. I had no idea one could even buy gravy (I don’t eat it), but I was sure it was easy to make. Sure enough, a quick search online for a recipe, a little flour and water, and we had gravy. Lots of Thanksgiving dishes, including the turkey, really are easy to make from scratch. Pam Dinsmore at the Sacramento Bee’s Shop Cheap blog is posting Thanksgiving recipes weekly. So far, she has posted appetizers.
  • Think outside the turkey roaster. If you don’t like turkey or don’t have a large enough family to eat one, don’t make a turkey that you’ll end up throwing away. Try turkey breast (I liked this Rachel Ray recipe) or chicken or something totally different, like lasagna or pizza. When we were children, we often had frozen pizza for Thanksgiving dinner because we didn’t like turkey and my mother didn’t like to cook. Personally, I’d still pick frozen pizza over turkey, but I have been outvoted by more traditional members of my extended family. 
  • Keep it simple. You don’t need both turkey and ham, advises Kathy Stevenson at Wicked Local Avon in her Frugal Thanksgiving Feasts post. And, she says, skip those complicated side dishes that require a dozen ingredients. 
  • If your employer offers extra pay for working Thanksgiving Day, consider taking the money and having your family feast another day. One of my favorite Thanksgiving traditions used to be working for double time and a half. One journalist relative always cooks her traditional Thanksgiving dinner on the Saturday after, because she so often had to work on the holiday itself. 
  • Make your décor minimal and inexpensive. My aunt is a whiz at going out into the yard and coming back with the makings of a centerpiece: autumn leaves, pine cones, branches. Catherine at Frugal Freebies has links to some Thanksgiving artwork you can print out at home. Kate Forgach, at’s Go Frugal Blog, has some good ideas in her Tips for a Cheap and Easy Thanksgiving Dinner. She suggests skipping the décor entirely or asking the children to make placemats ahead of time.
Martha Stewart may have an unhealthy fixation on homemade centerpieces, place cards, napkins and such, but that doesn't mean you need to waste time and money on these extras. Your family and friends are sharing a Thanksgiving meal because it's a lovely tradition, not because they want to see your handiwork. Besides, once you get the turkey, various fixings and place settings on the table, there's rarely room left for such fripperies.
  • Decide ahead of time whether to use real plates and glasses or paper. For a small dinner party, I always use real plates, but for family dinners for 37, my family always uses paper. Any time a family member sees paper products on sale, they stock up. BlondeWrites at Frugal Simplicity makes a compelling case for paper:
You may think using paper goods is a waste of money, but think about it a minute. If a huge crowd is at your home and you don’t have enough dishes for everyone, that means you’ll either have to borrow, rent, or buy them. A stack of good quality disposable plates are cheap compared to the prospect of buying enough dishes for the whole crew!

What are your plans to keep Thanksgiving fun, frugal and as stress-free as possible?


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