7 Ways to Save Money on Parties Without Going Potluck

by Thursday Bram · 5 comments

I like having friends over on a regular basis. I even like having potlucks on occasion, but I get frustrated that the only suggestion for how to have an inexpensive or frugal or financially smart party is to have a potluck. If I want to invite a bunch of friends over and treat them, I don’t necessarily want to obligate them to contribute to the cost of the event, even so far as bringing one dish.

There are alternatives out there to the standard potluck. Not every option will work for every event, but it’s worth exploring the alternatives to make sure that you get the party you want at a price you’re willing to pay — and not wind up with three green bean casseroles.

  1. Throw a seasonal party: Doing something in touch with the seasons — like planning a menu around what foods are in season — can make a party’s budget more manageable. That doesn’t necessarily mean making sure that you serve turkey in Thanksgiving, though. There are certain seasonal dishes or events that drive up the costs. For those, setting yourself just a little off from what’s considered traditional is important in order to keep to a budget. Serving a turkey the week after Thanksgiving is one option, as is cooking stir fry for the Fourth of July.
  2. Use your time, rather than your cash: A few years back, I convinced my mom to skip the caterer for my sister’s bat mitzvah. We planned a luncheon that could be cooked entirely ahead of time so that we wouldn’t miss the party and spent a full day in the kitchen getting cooking everything from scratch. The costs were surprisingly low since we were able to skip everything that was a box mix or otherwise partially prepared and my sister actually got all of her favorite dishes.
  3. Consider your resources carefully: I have a friend who has a smoker and loves to barbecue. Any time I want to buy him the meat, he’ll happily take care of the main dish for my party, at a cost far below what I could come up with otherwise. I’m not asking him to bring a brisket potluck or anything like that — I’m covering the cost and simply making use of the fact that my friend really likes to use his smoker. Friends with hobbies that fit in with what you want to do for your party may be able to help you out at a price lower than you’ll find in the local stores and from local service providers.
  4. Find a sponsor: This isn’t always a practical option, but why not consider if you can tie your party to something or someone bigger? I happen to work with a lot of my friends through my business, so I’ve been able to throw parties that were actually paid for by my business (and partially tax deductible) without breaking any rules. It helps that I enjoy my business to the point that I’ll talk about it to anyone. Depending on just what your party is celebrating, you may have some options in that direction.
  5. Have a communal set of party gear: There are certain things you need for different types of get-togethers, requiring an investment that winds up getting replicated. How many of your friends have chairs? Serving bowls? All the other reusable goods a party requires? My group of friends has some shared party ware — down to a system for dispensing beer from kegs. We’ve been able to keep down costs because we’ve all contributed to that earlier investment.
  6. Team up to throw parties: Rather than try to get everyone invited involved in setting up the party, why not just have one or two co-hosts? It’s a simple enough matter to split costs and with a co-host, your budget for the party can be bigger.
  7. Consider an event without food: One of the biggest expenses for many parties is the food — and, as a culture, most events do have a lot of food involved. But there are ways to host an event without putting on a spread, from focusing on an activity to taking a shared trip. My family is notable for the fact that almost everything we do together involves a giant meal, but some members have started organizing family events around hikes or other non-food related activities.

This list is by no means exhaustive — you’re sure to have a few tricks up your sleeve of your own. Please add your suggestions in the comments.

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{ read the comments below or add one }

  • I don’t think potlucking is so bad. Either that or go to a restaurant that has good prices and decent portions. You may get gratuity but maybe find a place where you can get a Restaurant.com coupon for $2.

  • Jason mark says:

    We host about 15 diner parties for 30-45 people per year with an average cost of $80 per party. It does add up over a year but we can easily spend $80 on a diner out and I find it stressful to plan a potluck. I find people tend to reciprocate in different ways. So while people don’t contribute financially to these parties often at least one person will offer to babysit
    for us some time in the next week ($35 value for three hours) or someone will bring over some hand me down cloths for our kids ($50-$100 value). But most importantly it’s fun. Tacos, homemade pizza, sushi. All easy to make and inexpensive.

  • Going along with your seasonal themed suggestion. Pick a fruit or vegetable and must be incorporated into every dish. Iron Chef Style!

  • guest in ca says:

    I’ve found, too, that these days people don’t eat as much food at parties as they used to. So don’t go overboard planning on amounts to have available.

    I shop at dollar stores for paper or plastic flatware, plates/cups, napkins, additional serving dishes, plastic table cloths, etc. Just as good for one-time use as higher-priced versions. Or you can get glass/chinaware there in bulk for a dollar or less a piece, if you’d rather reuse & wash.

  • No Debt MBA says:

    My friends and I have become really good at seeking out cheap sources for party ingredients where we live and tailoring parties around what’s cheap. One friend lives near an amazing butcher who offers him great discounts when buying in bulk so he does barbeques. Another friend is friends with a liquor distributor so he does cocktail parties. Another is an amazing baker. It works really well, especially if you combine it all by having a potluck – that’s a rocking party.

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