Every time I plan a big holiday meal, I brace for the bill. Even after making these family-style feasts several times over, I’m still annoyed when I hear the total at the supermarket checkout. “How do turkey, green beans, and mashed potatoes cost that much?” I ask myself. Yet year after year, I overspend on Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners while continuing to scratch my head.
But not this year. No. This year I’m setting a reasonable budget and sticking to it (so I can have more money to buy presents!). Here’s how you can do it, too.
1. Take inventory of what you already have
One of the biggest mistakes is not itemizing all the dinner ingredients at once and checking your pantry and cabinets for what you already have. I’ve gone to the supermarket countless times and questioned whether I have enough butter or olive oil just to return home to realize I did, in fact, have plenty — after I bought more, of course.
Stocking up on these items unnecessarily is a massive budget suck, and you’re better off taking the time to figure out what you need to buy and what you don’t before hitting the store. (See also: 9 Pantry Tricks That Save You Big)
2. Map out your menu
Based on the ingredients you already have on hand, you can start planning your menu, then fill in the gaps with new items you buy. I go through my bookmarked recipes on my phone and visit my favorite food sites to choose my recipes, keeping in mind the money-plus-time investment. I don’t want to spend 12 hours slaving over the stove, so I make sure that all dishes can be prepped in less than 10 minutes, not including set-it-and-forget-it cook time. Just because the recipes are efficient, however, doesn’t mean they can’t be delicious. Maybe they’re not overly fancified, but I’ve come to learn that most people aren’t that impressed by my cooking and presentation skills when they’ve been growing hungrier since the moment they walked through the door.
3. Compare prices
Just because something is on sale doesn’t mean it’s not cheaper elsewhere. Don’t limit yourself to one supermarket. Pick up the circulars and flip through to price out what you need. Use a price comparison tool like PriceBlink or Camelizer to make sure you’re getting the best price before stepping into the store. If this means you have to visit two supermarkets to save, decide if it’s worth your while. Generally, if I’m saving more than $10 between stores, I’ll take the detour. (See also: 31 Foolproof Ways to Lower Your Grocery Bill)
4. Check your cash-back apps before heading to the store
Hopefully you’re clipping your coupons before you go to the supermarket — and being smart enough not to fall for the “buy more and save” deals because you’re not really saving if you’re buying more than you need — but I also want you to scroll through your cash-backs apps like Ibotta and Checkout 51 before you start shopping to see what deals are available. Many times I’ve gone grocery shopping and checked the app after the fact, only to realize that I could have bought a similar item at a discount. Open the app and browse what’s offered so you have the items fresh in your head as you work your way through the aisles. Afterward, submit your receipt and claim your cash. (See also: The 8 Shopping Apps That’ll Actually Save You Money)
5. Set your budget and stick to it
Once you’ve priced out all the items you need, create a shopping list and set your budget. Try not to exceed more than $10 of the total you’ve set, but your real goal is to come in under budget. This requires discipline, especially when factoring in impulse buys at the supermarket. To avoid this, it’s best to go food shopping right after eating since you won’t be hungry in the chip and cookie aisle — my biggest weakness. Another trick to maintain efficiency in the supermarket is to go on a busy day. I know, it sounds dreadful, but on those days, you’re likelier to want to get in and out instead of shopping more leisurely. The less time you have in front of all that food, the better. (See also: 7 Effortless Ways to Prevent Budget-Busting Impulse Buys)
6. Opt for generic
I’m usually against buying generic (yes, I know it’s the cheaper option, but I prefer name-brand food; it’s a quality issue for me), but when I’m planning a big meal, I relax my anti-generic policy to shave money off the bill. Butter, for instance, doesn’t have to be Land O’Lakes, and I’ll settle for store-brand spices, which are already pricey. Pastas, nuts, sugar, and flour are also good options to buy generic. These substitutes make zero difference in my recipes, but you do have to be savvy about what you’re swapping. Namely, not all cheese is created equal, and I would recommend sticking to what you know, lest you want an oily mess on your hands. Some corners should not be cut.
7. Load up on cheap carbs
Know how to feed a crowd and actually fill them up? Ask any working family in America and they’ll tell you the secret is carbs. Serving breads, potatoes, and pastas is a great way to extend your reach in the bang-for-your-buck department, which means you can skimp a bit on already love-it-or-hate-it vegetables like Brussels sprouts, spinach, and asparagus, which all come at a premium.
8. Buy in bulk when it makes sense
Buying in bulk doesn’t always save you money, especially if you don’t plan to use all of whatever it is you’re buying before it expires. However, if you’re getting a better deal in a large quantity versus buying several smaller versions, go for it. I don’t, however, suggest you buy a wholesale club membership solely for your large holiday meal. You most likely will not get back in savings the $60 you spent on the membership in that single shopping trip. If it makes sense for your family the rest of the year, consider it, but otherwise it’s not a good idea. (See also: Bulk Buying Basics: What to Buy, How to Store, and Money Saving Tips)
9. Turn your holiday feast into a potluck
If you really want to slash your own out-of-pocket costs for the holiday meal you host, leave the side dishes and desserts up to your guests. You make the main course — turkey, ham, or whatever you like to serve — plus a few pre-dinner treats, but request that your guests fill in the blanks. An easy way to keep track of who’s bringing what is to create a Google spreadsheet that you can share via email with all of your guests. It will save updates automatically for everyone to see. When sides and desserts are claimed, feel free to pawn off drinks and ice on whoever’s left empty-handed on the list. There’s nothing wrong with a party where everyone pitches in. (See also: Throw an Awesome Potluck Dinner With These 6 Easy Tricks)
10. Ask your guests about their food preferences
To avoid wasting food that people don’t like or can’t eat, get a sense of your guests’ palates before planning your menu. If only one person likes lima beans, it’s not the best side dish to serve if most of it will end up in the trash. Ask about any dietary restrictions and allergies while you’re at it, too. Nobody will expect you to cater the entire meal to the vegetarian or gluten-free guest at the table, but it’s appropriate to provide at least a few items that guest can and will enjoy.
11. Stretch the food dollars into leftovers
I’m not a super fan of leftovers (you’re probably getting a good idea of how picky I am when it comes to food), so I do make a concerted effort to plan my quantities carefully and focus on foods that I don’t mind having a second or third time. Since everyone is different, I won’t tell you how to eat your leftovers if you so choose, but I will suggest that you mind the parts of the meal that usually hit the trash first, like the ham bone and turkey carcass. These are great for making soups and stocks; it’s fairly easy to do with recipes you’ll find online. (See also: 17 Ways to Use Thanksgiving Leftovers)
12. Bring only your budgeted cash to the supermarket
The best way to force yourself to stay on budget when shopping for your holiday meal is to leave all debit and credit cards at home and only bring the cash that you’ve set aside for the ingredients. This will stop impulse buys in their tracks, and you’ll be forced to find the most inexpensive items and alternatives to ensure you have enough money to pay the bill. It will also help to use your calculator along the way. I saw my mom doing that on more than one trip to the supermarket when I was a kid and it stuck with me.
13. Establish a BYOB rule
I wouldn’t ask my guests to bring a potluck dish plus their own booze. If you’re taking on all the food, it’s perfectly acceptable to ask your guests to bring what they’d like to drink and share. On the other hand, if guests are bringing dishes to complete the meal, reward them with adult beverages. Don’t feel obligated to satisfy everyone’s tastes though. Serve white and red wines and a light beer. If they’re not happy with that selection, they can sip the soft drinks that you’ll also provide until they’re able to hit the neighborhood bar.