The holiday season brings parties and extravagant meals with family and friends. It can also make your checking account weep.
Since they only happen once a year, it’s tempting to throw good judgment to the wind and splurge on a lavish spread. After all, the people at your table are special.
But there are ways to cut back and save money through this “spendy” time of year without sacrificing the things you want. You need a game plan, and you need it sooner than a day in advance.
Shop Early — Very Early
Shopping early seems like unnecessary advice, but packed parking lots and long checkout lines the day before a holiday show that not everyone follows it.
Shopping early gives you the advantage of finding the best food at the best price, and this doesn’t just mean shopping a week or two early.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Food Safety division, explains that you can safely store a frozen turkey for up to one year.
If beef, lamb, or pork will be on the menu, they’re freezer safe for 6 to 12 months. Canned goods often have an even longer shelf life.
Prices might be higher near the holidays, and selection gets thinner the longer you wait to buy.
But there is surely a time in the 6 to 12 months before a holiday when you’ll find a better selection and a better price.
Shopping early isn’t just about being sure you’ve got everything you need; it’s also about getting the most for your money on food items that store well.
Don’t Overdo It
Leftovers are sometimes great, but there is such a thing as too much.
If there are enough leftovers after a meal to feed for your family for the rest of the week, U.S. News and World Report recommends cutting back a bit on the holiday spread.
Special dishes often cost more to prepare than your usual weekday meals, so leftovers aren’t the most penny-wise argument to support serving an enormous amount of food.
If you’re worried about satisfying a crowd, Canadian Living magazine offers some advice. Plan to serve the meal earlier in the day, and offer appetizers such as baked brie with breads and crackers.
Professional caterers, Susan Mendelson and Teri Cordileone tell the magazine that guests tend to eat less when a meal is served in the afternoon as opposed to evening.
And baked brie with pecans and cranberries is a less-expensive choice than a cheese tray.
Host a Potluck
If you’re serving a lot of guests, a potluck meal can save money, time, and energy. You provide the main course, and each guest can bring a side dish or dessert.
Potlucks have a better chance of success when you coordinate with guests in advance. That way, you’re less likely to see 3 green bean casseroles and 4 pumpkin pies instead of the meal you had envisioned.
If you opt for the potluck route, there’s less time in the kitchen.
It also frees up some of your budget for special things such as Pellegrino with a splash of cranberry juice instead of soda, a nicer centerpiece, and even an expensive dessert that you’d otherwise skip.
Don’t Rely on Convenience
Pre-packaged foods usually cost more per serving, and aren’t as fresh as what you’d prepare from scratch.
This is the most time-consuming way to host a holiday meal, but omitting pre-made dishes from the menu puts you in control of everything from taste to price.
A typical box of instant stuffing might take less time to prepare, but you can bake cornbread to make breadcrumbs, and add seasonings, vegetables and broth for a fresher dish that serves more people.
If you always make a quick trip to the liquor store for a few bottles of wine, you might be paying more for that convenience, too.
Consider ordering a case instead of only buying as you need it. This way, you’ll have plenty to last through the holidays, and you’ll often pay less than you would for smaller quantities.
Check with the liquor store for by-the-case specials to save even more money.
The holidays are rarely cheap, any way you go about it. But you can save money without sacrificing the important things.
Clip coupons and watch for sales to save in the most obvious ways. But if you want to offer the best without feeling the pinch, plan your approach well in advance and stick to it.
Mary Hiers is a personal finance writer who helps people earn more and spend less.