How to Organize and Host a Frugal Block Party

One of the biggest reasons I like living where I do is that two or three times a summer, someone hosts a block party. The format is pretty simple – bring a side dish, grab a plate, fill up, and talk to people. Yet, I know from watching the hosts, the actual hosting can be really frenetic – the hosts often look completely frazzled, even if everyone else is having fun.

Block party.  Photo by jeffk.
Block party. Photo by jeffk.

I had planned on having a block party early this summer to celebrate the release of my first book, 365 Ways to Live Cheap, but the release date wound up being substantially earlier than I expected. So I decided to push the idea off until the release of my second book (which I anticipate to be late next spring).

During the process of thinking about the party, I stopped by and had a chat with a person who had recently hosted one. He told me that it was (a) surprisingly expensive and (b) a lot more work than he expected it to be, but it was very worthwhile because it gave him an opportunity to meet so many neighbors – something I find very valuable, too.

So I resolved right then to plan out a frugal block party. If you’ve ever wanted to host a block party but have been thrown off the scent by fear of the cost and time investment, here are the tactics we’re using to trim both factors without reducing the fun.

Buy Only the Basics – But Buy Far in Advance As soon as you’re sure you’re going to host a block party – even before you set a date in stone – make a shopping list. The earlier you make a list, the longer you have to shop for the items – meaning, the more time you have to find huge sales on the items you need to get.

The items to look for are pretty simple: paper plates, silverware (I prefer biodegradable corn plastic silverware), napkins, and cups. Over a long period of time, it’s easy to find each of these items on sale somewhere.

Invite a Neighbor or Two to Co-Host This enables you both to serve as hosts and be involved in the meeting and greeting of everyone, but split the costs and effort in setting up, hosting, and tearing down.

Estimate High on What You Need Estimating high will cause you far fewer headaches than estimating low. The items that are left over can be saved and used again for other occasions, whereas if you start to run low on items during the party, panic will ensue and difficulty will follow – including high prices because you couldn’t shop around. Of course, if you’re buying in bulk, this likely will not be a problem.

>Rely on Guests for Side Dishes and Some Beverages Preparing a flyer for the party is key – and on that flyer, be sure to highlight some key information – your address, your phone number, and also a note to bring a side dish.

As for beverages, you can set out a few beverages in bulk – like water and tea – in self-dispensing jugs with cups, but if other beverages are desired, you should note this for guests who might come.

Depending on available seating arrangements, you may also ask guests to bring their own lawn chairs. In some neighborhoods, there will be a plethora of options – picnic tables and the like. However, you may want to have backups for some guests.

Borrow Equipment Don’t hesitate to ask the people you know well if you can borrow some items for the party, such as extra chairs they might have, extra tables, or even their grill. The more items you can borrow, the fewer items you have to invest money in for such a limited use.

What About Entrees? This is going to be an experiment in cooking for a large group, so go with something you can prepare easily in large quantities. I almost always think sandwiches are a good idea. Have bratwursts, hot dogs, and veggie dogs (for any vegetarians) – or have burgers (beef and soy options). Another option – pulled meat sandwiches.

Along with these, you’ll need to buy buns in bulk, as well as condiments. Again, plan this as far in advance as you can, so you can seek out bargains.

Get Cheap Help A big reason that you’re having this party is so that you can meet neighbors and build relationships, not run around on small errands. One good solution is to hire some neighborhood help – and one great solution for that is enlisting any teenage children that live nearby. $10 or $15 is a small price to pay to have someone making sure that there are no emergency needs or other things, keeping beverages rotated, and so forth, leaving you to actually meet and greet people.

The Week Before Clean! Clean your garage. Clean the yard and make sure it’s mowed two or three days before the party. Clean any portions of your house that people might use for the restroom – and also in event of rain. It’ll leave you feeling refreshed and more prepared.

The Day Before Borrow equipment from neighbors and store it in your garage. Begin thawing anything that needs thawed. Make sure all equipment that you’re going to rely on is in proper working order – fire up grills and so forth. Doing this now will save you a lot of money and stress compared to putting it off.

The Big Day Something will go off wrong. Expect it. Don’t stress out when it happens. Recognize that it’s just part of life, and make do as best you can. If you’re prepared for this, you won’t react with strong emotions and you won’t be drawn to throw money at it just to solve it.

Also, plan to cook so that a large batch of food will be put out thirty minutes after the start time. This gives the on-time arrivers plenty of time to mingle, get side dishes set up, and when people start going through the food line, the first batch won’t sit out there for long. I find that putting food out when people start arriving usually means many people just eat and run and many other people end up eating food that’s sat out for a long time.

The biggest thing, really, is not to panic. Something will go wrong. Don’t worry about it too much. Spilling a beverage won’t ruin everyone’s day. Nor will being fifteen minutes late with the entree. No matter what, don’t throw cash at the problem – just solve it calmly, with what you have.

Any other frugal and/or time-saving suggestions for block parties?

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  1. KC says:

    When I lived in Memphis we did block parties all the time. It was a pretty highfalutin neighborhood and some streets would go all out. But my street was a little more modest and there were a lot of renters and young people. We’d pick two houses with side by side driveways (for more concrete space) and sidewalks. The host would usually supply a chest of ice (free from several peoples fridges) and paper supplies (plates, napkins, utensils, cups). Everyone else brought a food item in a dish and a serving utensil. You also byob – wine, beer, soda, water, whatever. We never signed up in advance and it usually worked out that we had a good variety. Tables and chairs came from neighbors who’d drop them off earlier in the day or a couple days earlier. I’d usually donate a card table and 4 chairs which I’d drive down the afternoon before the party. So the host was only out the cost of paper supplies and setup time and everyone else was out the cost of one dish and some drinks. It was great. It was also a great deterrent to crime because we’d get to know our neighbors better, we’d discuss current problems, and we’d be outside our homes letting criminals know this was a tight knot street that looks out for one another.

  2. Jade says:

    Wow… We have block parties every year in my neighborhood. I used to like them. Everyone brought dishes to share. At least one neighbor had a grill they wanted to show off, so they’d bring it out and anyone who brought stuff to grill could use it. I guess one person typed up the flyer to stick in mailboxes and coordinated stuff and they’d ask around if anyone could bring tables, chairs, etc. People with kids would bring their kids and a few toys, lay out a few blankets on the grass… Oh yeah, we’d borrow the lawn of the school across the street. And we’re on a dead end street, so that’s always quiet. A couple of years I brought out my stereo and played DJ with my limited CD collection, but the Santana album was a hit. Then we had some neighbors move in who had a band, and they came up with some pretty good music.

    Then 2 years ago all of our neighbors with kids decided that sharing toys and riding their bikes and playing together wasn’t good enough for the kids, so they rented a bounce house. Maybe everyone else might think this is a good idea, but it made me yearn for the days when we kids would use our brains and come up with our own ideas on how to have fun at the block party. Back in my day, we felt spoiled when one neighbor brought out their ping pong table! So instead of the sound of kids playing, we get the sound of that air machine that runs the bounce house, and all anyone does is jump in the bounce house. So I quit going. We have enough other neighborhood gatherings without bounce houses for me to go mingle at. I miss the days when we’d just pool the resources we had and have a great time…

    And now, everyone has decided that September is a better time for a party. On a Sunday, so we’ve gotta end early so the kiddies can go to bed early because they have school the next day. And they usually pick the weekend I’m at the local skating competition, so I now have a perfect excuse not to be home to listen to the air machine running the bounce house, which drowns out the sound of people talking and laughing at the party.

    There’s even been some talk of having the main dishes catered and everyone pitch in for the caterer and bring a side dish to show off if they want. As long as they plan it for the same weekend I’m at the skating competition, it’s fine by me! I miss the old potlucks…

  3. San Antone says:

    At our last block party, we organized the kind of neighborhood swaps I’ve been reading about in the paper. My neighbor and I share our household tools and lawn equipment now. I get twice as many tools and power equipment, at half the price.

    I even share my neighbor’s newspaper now. I like to relax and read the paper for local news and ads, but I don’t care if it’s the same day. So, I asked my neighbor if I could pay half of his subscription if he would throw yesterday’s paper over onto my yard when he came out to get the current day’s morning paper. I read the paper a day late and enjoy it just as much. (For immediate, up-to-date news, I use the internet.) Now we’ve started doing the same thing with magazine subscriptions. We get to read all of our favorite magazines at home for half the subscription price.

  4. Kevin M says:

    I highly recommend either a water balloon toss or egg toss game for any block party.

  5. Krysten says:

    I’ve found if you’re grilling something it’s really nice to sign up grillers in shifts. So say 2-3 different people each with a 30 minute grilling shift. It leaves the other hosts free to put out other “fires” and mingle with the rest of the guests.

    We’ve also asked people to bring leftover paper plates/napkins from birthday parties — usually a nice assortment of disney themed, over the hill etc paper goods. It always seems like everyone has a few leftover from a recent party and this is a fun way to use them up.

  6. I’m having my graduation party tomorrow and have found that it is a bit of a hassle to try and organize everything when you aren’t sure how many people are going to attend. You want to plan for a large group but don’t want to waste food in the event of a small turnout.

    I think your tips are good and I wish you the best when it is your turn to host!

  7. Gena says:

    In our neighborhood, we’ve got a long-running annual 4th of July tradition. On July 3rd, a bunch of the guys get together for “Guys Baking Pies” at one of the neighbors’ homes. Doesn’t matter if you’ve never baked or you’re a pro. If you’re a guy, you’re welcome. They hang out, prep and bake, and then on the 4th, their creations are served with much pomp and hilarity at the gathering’s end. We always end up with at least 8-10 pies, and sometimes closer to 12 or 15. We all get to sample each other’s creativity.

    On the 4th itself, the neighborhood gathers at one neighbor’s house. They have a grill and an EZ UP, but everyone brings extra grills, chairs, drinks, coolers, and a dish to share. You grill your own whatever and there’s always a TON of food. The hosts provide dishes, but sometimes ask if people mind bringing their own, just to help keep the trash and environmental impact down. How big a deal is it to bring some plates and silverware? Not much.

    These things can be as frugal or fancy as you make them. The point is COMMUNITY and that’s what I really appreciate. The Guys-Pies event is the highlight of the year, and we all look forward to the next one.

  8. Kate says:

    Our block party runs like this: We take turns hosting it on the same day every year (the first day of school),the hosts print up a flyer and pass it out and we contact our local police to get cones to block off the street;we bring our own place settings,lawn chairs,drinks,meat and one side dish. A few people offer up their grills for everyone to use and then the men(their choice!) take turns at the grills. Whoever is hosting asks the other neighbors to borrow extra tables. We hosted last year and after the meal we all pulled our lawn chairs into a large circle and played ” The Ungame” which was very non-competitive game which helped all the neighbors get to know each other better.
    BTW: I love your site and thanks for all your great work!

  9. Strick says:

    We just had a great block party. Everyone brought a side dish and their own drinks and chairs. WE had two people grilling and everyone gave them $2/person to cover the meat. No one was out any money and the only real time was for the two that grilled, and they really love to grill…

  10. Sophie says:

    Our block parties are “no host” and they’re tons of fun. We always gather at the same house, but only because it has an enormous tree for shade in the front yard. One neighbor prints up flyers two weeks in advance, and rounds up a few of the kids in the neighborhood to deliver them around. (Any new neighbors get an in-person invite.) On the day, two or three guys roll their grills over and the homeowner sets out a couple of folding tables for the food. Everyone brings burgers/brats for their own family, plus a side dish and soda/beer to share. All of us pool our condiments, paper products, ice, blankets, and chairs. You can send a kid (yours or someone else’s) back home for anything that’s missing or runs out during the party. It’s cheap fun at its finest and we are talking about expanding to add a couple more get-togethers in the spring and in the fall.

  11. Kathy says:

    Just a note for the veggie dogs. You want to make sure that you make them on a grill that’s not meat tainted. (yeah, that seems so obvious…. ) It doesn’t matter for someone that still eats meat, but there are some vegetarians that get sick if it’s cooked on something that recently had meat on it.

  12. Jade says:

    @Sophie – sounds like the parties we used to have. I miss that…

    @Steven – I had a similar problem with my graduation party. I ended up having a second party the day after to finish off the leftovers and sent my guests home with bags of leftovers. Not to mention a goofy picture I have of a friend with his mouth full of carrot sticks, doing his part to finish the leftovers!

  13. Lindsay says:

    The least expensive way, IMO, is to organize your block party around the Sheriff’s Dept’s “National Night Out” celebration, which is usually in August (I think). Flyer the neighborhood every 2 weeks for about 2 months prior to the event, have everyone bring their own foods to cook, on the flyers ask people to volunteer usage of their portable grills, get city permit to block off the street, and then the entertainment will be provided by the Sheriffs who come with their units and delight both children and adults, alike. We did this last summer and had a marvelous turnout with over 150 people in attendance. We also found a local DJ in our tract who offered to set up his equipment and speakers and have music playing throughout the event, plus a PA system so that we could announce arrival of each sheriff’s unit. People loved it and asked to have it again this year.

  14. Lindsay says:

    P.S. We also asked each family to bring 1 dish to “share,” and we borrowed large tables to set up the food from a local church. We had a “greeting” table set up with name badges.

  15. Debbie Ditton says:

    Another option for keeping the cost down on the main dish… We had a Luau and asked each family to bring a side dish and contribute $5 per family for the pulled pork. We had them RSVP so we knew how much to buy. Also, our neighbors had no problem bringing their own dishes, silverware and cups. We provided some inexpensive crafts for their kids and dug the pit to roast the pork the “right way”. Everyone felt some ownership for the part and it was tons of fun!

  16. jana says:

    We all chip in and rent a bounce house-even the adults have fun with it!

  17. Lexi says:

    My parents have a block party every 4th of July. They live a cul-de-sac so space isn’t a problem. They get with the neighbors who live in the cul-de-sac to work out times, etc so no one is inconvenienced. They are also able to get all the tables and chairs they need from their church. They also set up several large coolers full of ice water. Everyone else brings their own meat and a side dish, and a few men (or women) who enjoy grilling bust out the grills and get to work. The only real expense my parents have is paper/plasticware and many people in the neighborhood are willing to help out in that area. After everyone’s done eating, we make it a game with the kids to clean up, so it happens very quickly. Lastly, we all share the fireworks so there’s a big show at the end of the night for very few $$’s.

  18. Nice post and novel concept.

    I have found that when it comes to most guests– I think you can count on people to bring some things as well to ease the burden . . .

  19. littlepitcher says:

    Next party, we have an offer of a band looking for exposure. An amp, a guitar or two, and an invite to the local homeowners and/or tenants should get an offer or two of free music in exchange for food.

  20. Beth says:

    Our neighborhood has a block party each year during the Labor Day weekend – it’s been an annual event for 75 years now. (We haven’t participated that long :) It’s held on a small side street. One of the neighbors adjoining the street provides a grill and the use of their lawn; everyone pitches in with tables and chairs. Each family kicks in $5 (or more if you want) and brings a side dish; meat and non-alcoholic beverages are included. Some families bring beer or wine coolers to share, others bring a package of bratwurst or other meat to grill.

    The key, I guess, is cooperation. I think it’s easier to have a block party when no one person is responsible for expenses like meat or drinks. Everyone benefits from getting to know their neighbors.

    Traditions like this are really important to the creation of a community – thanks for drawing some attention to them.

  21. Bill in Houston says:

    My wife and I have organized a block party for the 4th of July this year. We’re doing the heavy lifting part (grilling and supplying meats, buying the ice). Everyone else will bring their own chairs to sit on, but we’ll haul out our garden furniture and a big plastic table I have (as a buffet). Our meats will be burgers, hot dogs and chicken kebabs. Easy stuff all done on the grill.

    One neighbor is bringing plastic flatware, cups, plates, and napkins.

    Another neighbor is bringing a piñata for later in the afternoon.

    Two neighbors are bringing soft drinks and bottled water.

    Wine and beer are BYOB. We’ve asked neighbors to bring a covered dish or dessert. We’re fortunate (we did this back around Easter, too) in that no one brings a bag of Oreos and says, “here’s mine!” Most of my neighbors are older, and a good portion retired.

    There will be a few kids in the mix, and I hadn’t thought of games until a previous poster (thanks, Kevin) mentioned water balloon or an egg toss. I’m going to go with water balloons because the cartons of Egg Beaters I have just don’t work right…

  22. Amy says:

    A guy named Fred started FredFest on our block many years ago, and we just had the latest one last weekend. He sets up a big smoker grill, tubs of ice/soda, and there’s ladderball and cornhole in the streets. Some guys get a band together. The local fire dept comes down and parks their trucks on our street. We sign a petition a few weeks before to get the city to close the street to traffic for the evening.

    I love the idea and we make an appearance, but frankly since I don’t eat meat and many of us don’t trust the kitchen cleanliness of others providing side dishes, it kind of turns into a gossip fest about the neighbors, being able to point them out while chatting! But at least it brings some folks together and the yards are cleaned up for a day.

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