Debt-Free Holidays: 10 Tips for Elegant, Inexpensive Entertaining

People at a partyThe holidays are a festive time of year, but if the cost of all that celebrating leaves you feeling a little like Scrooge, WalletPop's team members and a pair of party-planning pros have plenty of advice on how to save.

Many WalletPoppers suggested getting together with friends and neighbors to split the duties -- and the cost. "Try doubling up for Thanksgiving," says Julie Tilsner. "A neighbor and I are having our respective families over to her house this year where the backyard is bigger. Yes, we can have Thanksgiving outside in Southern California! Cost is cut in half, and everybody's happy with the big party."

Another good way to get people together without having to shoulder the costs is to host a revolving dinner, says Teresa Ciulla. "Instead of hosting a holiday party or open house all by yourself, why not get a few neighbors to join in?," she says. "If each house provides just two kinds of appetizers or desserts and just one type of drink, you can cut costs, see more people and have more fun."

"If you want to keep costs down, one way is to do your party a little bit later and have it be dessert only," says Howard Givner, executive director of the Event Leadership Institute. "I'd almost rather see you do something less and do it really well," he says. "Desserts are much, much cheaper [than providing full diners], and people don't eat that many of them." So instead of having people gather at 6:00 p.m., tell them to come at 8:00. "Everybody knows they're going to eat before they come over," Givner says. "That will significantly cut down on costs."

Another clever way to be budget-savvy is to throw a retro holiday party. It lets you off the hook from buying roasted red peppers, pesto and other trendy (and pricey!) ingredients. Instead, serve treats like deviled eggs and pigs in a blanket, put on an Elvis Christmas CD, and ask guests to dress in their Happy Days best. If you really want to go all-out, search eBay for a Jetsons-era aluminum Christmas tree. Take photos of your guests in front of the tree, and then use software to make the shots look like old-fashioned Polaroid photos (Google "Polaroid effect" to find the software).

For many, one of the biggest party expenses is alcohol. Instead of doing a full bar, Jaclyn Bernstein, president and partner at Empire Force Events, suggests creating a signature cocktail and mixing up a few pitchers of it for guests. If that seems too bare-bones for you, an alternative is to just choose one spirit and then supplying complimentary mixers so guests can make their own concoctions. A pear-flavored vodka would offer a good base flavor; then give guests fruit juices, grenadine and other mixers and let them get creative.

Holidays are also the perfect time to ladle out big bowls of stuff. Try champagne punch or mulled wine (keep it warm in a crock pot and ladle it into mugs). By the time you add sugar, spices, juice or other spirits, even the cheapest plonk will sparkle. A big stockpot of spiced cider simmering on the stove will also give your home a delightful holiday smell, Givner says. If you'd like to offer wine, don't be afraid of boxes anymore, says WalletPop's Christina M. Fierro. "Boxed wines do not carry as much stigma as they used to -- there are options like Bota Box that are good wines but are cheaper than purchasing individual bottles," she says.

When it comes to champagne, your toasting libation of choice doesn't have to be one of the pricey brand names, says WalletPop's Jean Chatzky. "Serve Bellinis and Kir Royales -- stretch cheap sparkling wine with a little peach nectar or cran-raspberry juice," she says. "Drop a real berry in each, and no one will know you're cutting costs." Chatzky's go-to is cava, a low-priced sparkling wine from Spain.

If you're having a big crowd and the event isn't a sit-down meal, don't worry about renting a slew of folding chairs. Less seating makes for more mingling and a livelier party, advises Givner. For around $10, you can rent what's called a "high top," a chest-high table like the kind you see at airport bars. It gives people a place to put their food and drink while they talk, and it keeps people moving throughout the room instead of staying rooted in the same seat all night. If you are having a sit-down event, it's not really important that the chairs match, Bernstein says. Just decorate each one with a piece of garland or something festive so there's a similar element among them.

When it comes to plates and flatware, "I personally am a big fan of disposables," says Givner. When it comes to plates, get the sturdiest ones you can find, because a limp plate overloaded with food is prone to collapsing on the floor or -- worse yet -- in someone's lap. This especially holds true if you're serving weighty fare as opposed to just finger food or canapes. "With plates, you have to figure somebody's holding it with one hand," he points out. For flatware, Givner says the clear plastic variety is usually the strongest.

If you have the storage space, both Givner and Bernstein recommended buying inexpensive glasses that can be reused in subsequent years rather than trying to find elegant, disposable cups. For instance, the website barsupplies.com has a set of six wine glasses for a buck apiece, and dollar stores will often have stemware, tumblers and other glassware for the same price. Another bonus: The cheaper ones tend to be sturdier.

Looking for more tips to keep your holiday debt free? Check out our story on how to lower your holiday food bills here.

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