8 holiday party ideas for hosts on a budget

Show guests a good time without going broke.

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Key takeaways

  • Great holiday parties don't require big budgets.
  • Rethinking what you serve and when you host, and ditching disposable decorations for reusable ones, could help you wow your guests for less.

Holiday hosts are going into the red—and not because it's the season's color. In 2021, millennials earmarked almost $1,000 for throwing holiday parties, and more than half said they would take on debt to do it, according to a November 2021 survey by LendingTree.1 But you don't need to bust your budget for merrymaking. Here are 8 holiday party ideas to keep costs low without killing the vibe.

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1. Pick an "off" day or time

"If you invite somebody to a party on Saturday in the middle of December at 6:00 p.m., they might have high expectations," says Marley Majcher, CEO of The Party Goddess!, a Los Angeles–based event-planning company. And you might feel pressured to buy expensive dinner entrees and top-shelf liquor. Consider another time—maybe a weeknight, with just drinks and apps, or a weekend brunch with lighter fare.

2. Make it a potluck

Hosting a food-focused holiday such as Thanksgiving can get pricey with turkey, sides, pies, and cocktails. Annette Economides, co-author of Cut Your Grocery Bill in Half with America's Cheapest Family and co-publisher of MoneySmartFamily.com, suggests crowdsourcing dinner. You handle the turkey—they often get discounted just before Thanksgiving. Then ask guests to each bring a specific type of dish, so you don't end up with 3 bowls of mashed potatoes.

A swap, such as a cookie party, can also take the food pressure off you. Everyone brings a batch (or 2) of holiday treats, then leaves with a variety of goodies to take home. You're only on the hook for your batch, plus drinks and décor. You could do a swap with almost any other easily portioned food, such as creative takes on Hanukkah latkes or Thanksgiving stuffing. Just remind guests to BYOC: Bring your own containers.

3. Aim for low-cost, filling foods

Shrimp cocktail and puff pastries might seem like great holiday party ideas, but these light-fiber foods are pricey and don't fill people up. Majcher focuses on eats that taste good and are inexpensive, such as chili, but still have heft. "People are usually drinking more during the holidays. Having something solid in their stomach will help."

Try a themed buffet, such as a pasta bar. Make a few boxes of different shapes, say spaghetti, penne, and a gluten-free option, and heat up a couple of different sauces. Present them in big, elegant bowls alongside spices you may already have, such as basil and Italian seasoning.

4. Shop smart at the supermarket

There are lots of ways to save on groceries that are worth trying when you're stocking up on party foods. Some small suggestions that could make a big impact:

  • Consider going generic. Store-brand items can cost up to 40% less than name brands.2
  • Avoid precut and preportioned food, such as crudité platters. "The veggies are already washed, cut, and perfect with a little pot of ranch dressing. While these conveniences save time, it's much more expensive," says Majcher.
  • Compare prices on fresh and frozen foods, especially vegetables and desserts. For instance, a frozen pie could cost less than half as much as one fresh from the bakery.

5. Dress to impress

There's a reason ugly sweater parties aren't a passing fad—they're fun. Yes, you'll still need to serve a few small dishes, but when everyone's busy commenting on other guests' outfits, no one’s thinking about sushi platters or champagne. Sick of sweaters? Choosing any funny dress code ("1980s office party") can up the fun for free.

6. Skip the disposable décor

Celebration-specific tablecloths, serving platters, and dinnerware may be festive, but buying new paper or plastic supplies for every party will empty your wallet. If you plan ahead, you can borrow reusable themed serving platters, dishes, tablecloths, and decorations from friends and family who don't need them when you do, or buy those items at estate and garage sales and thrift stores for about what you'd spend on disposables. You'll be doing your part to reduce the amount of trash going into landfills, and you'll amp up your party's look too, says Economides. Another option: "Go to your local dollar store where you'll find new, reusable party decorating and serving items," she adds.

7. Go natural

Some of the prettiest holiday party decorating ideas are free from Mother Nature. Leaves, acorns, small pumpkins painted white, and evergreen boughs make strong focal points, Economides says. "All you need to do is spray paint or glitter up pinecones and add them to a vase, and you've got a centerpiece. If you have kids, it's a wonderful activity to do with them," she adds.

For finishing touches, make your own snowflakes by folding and cutting paper and set out any candles you may have (far enough away from the hanging paper, of course). Majcher fills her vases with inexpensive round ornaments—red and green for Christmas, and blue and silver for Hanukkah. "Between the candles and the sparkly balls, everyone is always oohing and ahhing, and it costs less than $10," Majcher says.

8. Do DIY entertainment

Every year Economides creates questions and has Thanksgiving and Christmas trivia matches, pitting family members against each other. DIY extends to finding free holiday playlists online, borrowing board games from your local library, and covering tables with paper and giving everyone crayons and markers to doodle with. Another low-cost (and actually productive) activity: a gift-wrapping party, where everyone brings their own presents, wrapping paper, bags, and bows, and chats over drinks and apps while getting the job done. "Social media has so many ideas for holiday games and fun," Economides adds. "And most won’t cost you a cent."

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