Thanksgiving Budgeting Tips

Published November 13, 2023

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For many of us, Thanksgiving is just around the corner. Before we know it, it will be time to pop the turkey in the oven and break out the Sauvignon Blanc. Unfortunately, with inflation and food costs on the rise, the (already expensive) meal is looking more costly than ever. In fact, according to a 2022 Farm Bureau survey, Americans can expect to pay about $6.50 per person for their holiday spread.

Fortunately, with a little forethought and careful shopping—not to mention the tips below—you can feast like a king and still stay within your budget.

Shop early. You can soften the blow of Thanksgiving food costs by spreading them out over time. Basically, if it doesn’t need to be refrigerated (and you have the space), get it now. Organize your freezer and pantry now so you know what you have and can easily find it when the bustle of holiday cooking comes around. Bonus: with this tactic, you’ll also avoid any last-minute scrambles to find frequently sold-out favorites like canned pumpkin, turkey stock, and marshmallows.

Shop the sales. Instead of just rolling through the store with your list (and you should make a list), take a minute to seek out some deals. If you see a sale, don’t wait to take advantage of it. Holiday essentials (like canned pumpkin, stuffing mix, and pie crust) are likely to sell out quickly and retailers may not be willing to offer rainchecks on their best deals. It’s also wise to compare the costs of buying in bulk for items you’ll use a lot of (like canned or frozen vegetables). Clip coupons and—if you see a great deal at another store—ask your favorite store if they will price match.

Make it from scratch. The beauty of the traditional Thanksgiving meal is that many of the classic offerings can be made from frugal ingredients like dried bread, flour, broth, and seasonal vegetables. It may be tempting to choose pre-chopped vegetables, Costco casseroles, or pre-made pies, but homemade dishes often cost a lot less to create. To reduce stress on Thanksgiving Day, spread out the cooking over the course of the week (you can make pies up to two days in advance) or ask your guests to contribute some dishes.  

Swap for cheaper options. Affordable doesn’t have to mean less delicious. Opt for store brands instead of name brands—they tend to be about 20% less and the quality is often comparable. Google “Thanksgiving meal on a budget” to discover lots of cost-effective, delicious recipes. You can also save a lot by making simple swaps on regular offerings. Assemble a vegetable tray instead of warm appetizers. Buy your wine from a discount shop (like Grocery Outlet); or build a cheese plate with simple favorites like cheddar and Swiss instead of pricey Robiolas or Roqueforts.

Consider bucking tradition. One of the biggest expenses of the traditional Thanksgiving meal is the turkey—which can cost $1.75 to $3.40 per pound depending on where you live. Case in point, the average cost of a frozen turkey in Oregon in 2022 was $2.32 per pound. Opt instead for a roast chicken (or a couple) or go completely non-traditional with an all-seafood menu, an all-vegetarian menu, or even a Thanksgiving brunch.

Plan for leftovers. It’s no secret that leftovers are often the best part of the holiday meal. So, why not take advantage of that by intentionally making a little extra. Purchase a slightly larger turkey. Add a few potatoes to the pot. Make a slightly larger batch of stuffing. In the weeks that follow, you can continue to enjoy the fruits of your labor and save some cash by skipping takeout and trips to the grocery store. If you’re not a fan of eating the same meal over and over again, repurpose it. Turn your turkey into turkey tetrazzini or a spicy turkey pozole. Use your leftover mashed potatoes to make gnocchi, pierogis, or even a Shepard’s pie.

Spread out the costs. Whether you are sharing the day with friends or family, going potluck-style can significantly diminish your costs and stress levels. Start a Facebook invite or group chat where you can discuss dishes (so you don’t end up with four pans of sweet potatoes) and keep a spreadsheet of what dishes are needed so even last-minute contributors can pick up the slack.

Make it BYOB. Even if you are cooking the whole meal, you can save a lot of cash by telling guests to bring the beverage of their choice. Consider providing a non-alcoholic cider or punch as well as one or two bottles of wine and allow guests to fill in the rest. On the big day, clear some space in the fridge or set out a cooler or tub of ice so your guests can chill their beverages as needed. 

DIY your decorations. If you are guilty of falling down a Pinterest hole looking at expensive holiday table décor and decorations, you are not alone. But instead of dropping a bunch of dollars on an Instagram-worthy table display, shop thrift stores and dollar stores for simple items (like baskets and vases) that can be filled with items found in nature. Branches of bright fall leaves or garlands of green look beautiful in a large vase. Baskets or bowls can be filled with pinecones, greenery, gourds, or fall fruit.

So, before you max out those credit cards on turkey and pie, remember that you don’t have to go broke to have a memorable holiday meal. In fact, with a few savvy strategies, a frugal Thanksgiving dinner can be just as joyful and abundant as an expensive meal. Keep it simple and remember that it is just as important to build cherished memories as it is to cherish the flavors of the feast.

 

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