Austere times call for a lean but loving bash, letting the game and conversation carry the day, supported by traditional sports-watching grub. The warmth of your home filled with friends will be your most valuable player.
Our winning strategy focuses on not overdoing it. Prepare one abundant main dish and play off that. How about a mild vat of chili that can be spiced by each guest? Just remember to match a pound of tomatoes or tomato sauce for every pound of meat or beans, then add garlic, cumin, chili powder, paprika, salt and pepper to taste. Twenty bucks can feed a dozen. One WalletPop colleague suggested a chili cook-off as a turbocharged potluck if you're in super-economizing mode.
Maybe racks of chicken wings? Just bake 'em, then coat them with a sauce of melted butter and Tobasco. Perhaps coils of kielbasa ($4.99 a pound at my Polish deli) make your starting lineup. This is a day of old-fashioned indulgence, not the moment to show off what you learned at Le Frou Frou Culinary Academy. Cold cuts are OK, but WalletPop leans toward the hot for special occasions. Cooked food feels more welcoming. If you don't want a kitchen workout, try Chinese takeout. A giant tray of chicken lo mein ($29.75 to feed eight adults at my local) or General Tso's chicken ($50 to serve eight) are crowd favorites. We haven't forgotten about the kids. WalletPop has learned some hard lessons about trying to please them at a grownup event. They'll have chips, crisp veggies, juice and dessert (a Carvel football-shaped ice cream cake that serves 8 to 10 for $22.99?) to keep them happy.
As for the beverages, remember this: How many times have you seen a team with an overly complicated game plan lose? Repeat after WalletPop: Beer and wine. A keg will save you about 40%, one liquor store owner told WalletPop. On this day, five-liter boxed wine ($12.99) can pass. Juice (individual boxes) and a smattering of soft drinks for everyone else. If there are guests who insist on spirits, you can buy a half-gallon of everyman vodka for around $14 at a discounter. It's a neutral booze that blends with just about any juice or soda.
If you're concerned that you won't have time to enjoy the proceedings, hire a mature kid to help you serve and clean for $40 and a couple of meals. Better yet, pay the kid a little more to tend to the kiddies. That scores big points with your guests.
WalletPop is not a fan of themes. A clean home ($20 to $30 for two-hour maid service in some places) makes a bigger impression than Fleur de Lys-emblazoned Saints coffee cups or Peyton Manning pillows.
Even in tough times, WalletPop refuses to compromise on the actual game-viewing. A medium to large flatscreen is a must. If you don't have one, rent one. Buddyrents.com lists 42-inchers for as low as $26.99 a week. Or prices are actually so low, you might just decide to damn the torpedoes and buy a big-screen for just this ocassion. The uninterested might want to watch something else in another room, where an old TV coming off the bench in one last bid for glory will do.
WalletPop does not endorse gambling, but a pool for even modest gifts such as bookstore certificates, a CD, or antacid tablets might inspire even football widows. Award a prize at the end of every quarter. Have an experienced fan explain how to draw a pool grid, in which partygoers have to match the teams' last digit in the score with the boxes they fill in beforehand. It's not as complicated as it sounds.
The rest is free: Relax, enjoy the game, mock the commercials, and make sure the Who doesn't keel over.
Congratulations. You've just hosted the most fabulous bargain Super Bowl party of the season.