The blog Financial Highway has offered a list of suggestions for making that summertime staple -- cookouts -- more wallet-friendly. Since more Americans are likely to be turning to backyard barbecues this summer instead of indulging in pricier entertainment, we think this is a great idea.
A couple of their tips are super-easy to implement: Ask your guests to bring over their choice of grill-ready meat or beverage of choice. This is a solid idea, although we'd like to add that it benefits from a touch of coordination so you don't wind up with nothing but hot dogs and orange soda.
If you invite guests via email or a service like Evite, encourage them to tell everybody what they plan to bring to avoid overlap. Also, if anyone asks what they should bring, the answer should always be, "A cooler full of ice, please." There's pretty much no such thing as too much ice at an outdoor get-together.
They advise to skip buying paper plates (which always get soggy anyway, in our opinion) and invest in a cheap plastic set you can reuse season after season. If you're holding the event in a park or public place instead of at home, they suggest bringing dessert -- specifically, ice cream -- for any kids present to resist the inevitable siren song of the ice-cream truck jingle.
Financial Highway also suggests buying your grill and stocking up on charcoal during the off-season. We'll give that a thumbs-up and add that it can hold true for meat, as well. If you have a vacuum sealer or a deft hand with plastic wrap, stock up on ground meat or steak (which is relatively cheap this summer) when it's on sale and stash it in your freezer til 'cue time rolls around (let it thaw in the fridge for a day beforehand).
Another suggestion is to purchase bone-in cuts of meat. While few pleasures can match that of a roast with a crispy, char-grilled exterior, we'd like to add a couple of thoughts: First, while bone-in cuts of meat are often cheaper than their boneless counterparts, keep in mind that's because you're also paying for bone. The dog is sure to be thrilled, but you're basically spending money on something you can't eat. Also, the size of many bone-in cuts may entail pre-cooking them in the oven first, so consult a good cookbook or recipe site (I'm a huge fan of Epicurious.com) if you want to make sure your selection will keep you out of the kitchen on a hot day.
A few other suggestions for making your barbecues low-cost as well as low-key:
Hit the dollar store: Did you know that you can score barbecue tools and many other accoutrements of the backyard lifestyle at your local dollar store? Walletpop's dollar-store expert found a plethora of tools for much less than you would pay at even a discount store. The dollar store is also a great place to get plastic cutlery, melamine plates and bowls, which are much cheaper over the long run than their disposable counterparts. While you're there, don't forget wasp traps and citronella candles; you don't want your guests to remember your bash by the stings or bites they get while they're there.
Kebab it: You wouldn't dream of serving your guests a few tiny cubes of meat on a bare plate, but once you add some skewers and an array of cut-up vegetables, you've got festive kebabs that really stretch your protein budget. Invest in metal skewers if you don't want the hassle of having to soak the bamboo ones for half an hour before you start and thread anything from chunks of zucchini, eggplant or sweet onion to whole cherry tomatoes or mushrooms in between your meat of choice.
Go meatless: While obviously not a solution if you're grilling for a yard full of die-hard carnivores, a cheaper and often healthier option can be to go veggie. Don't buy the pre-prepared veggie burgers, though, since they can be as expensive as the real deal. Slice and marinate firm tofu or meaty portabella mushroom caps.
Marinate, marinate, marinate: Cheap cuts of meat like flank steak or London broil can be a steal for feeding a big crowd, but they're notoriously tough, especially when cooked by the high heat of a grill. Experiment with bottled marinades or recipes until you find one you like. Your meat will be more tender as well as more flavorful.
Keep a lid on it: Yes, we know you want to keep checking on your flame-broiled masterpieces, but if you resist the urge, you'll save money. By keeping the hot air in the grill, your food will cook faster, meaning less gas or charcoal will be consumed. Set a timer so you'll know when to flip or take items off the heat, taking into account the fact that trapping the heat inside the grill will mean food cooks faster.
Turn off the tank: If you have a gas grill, even a tiny leak in the hose between the tank and the grill could mean digging into your wallet the next time you want to flip some burgers. Make sure the tank -- not just the grill -- gets turned off at the end of your barbecue.
Get your grill on for less this summer