Cost-Cutting Tips for Thanksgiving Dinner

You may have recently mastered the art of budget-conscious grocery shopping, but preparing for Thanksgiving dinner is a whole other ballgame. Carving off some savings will take a lot more time and effort, since each dish typically requires its own set of ingredients, some which are a bit pricey.

Before you check your bank account and automatically fall into panic mode, breathe and take the following steps:

  • Set a realistic budget for groceries.
  • Assess your priorities. Is it your intention to offer a wholesome meal and have the time of your life with your loved ones, or are you trying to impress your guests? If you are trying to do the latter, you either need to reassess what matters most or withdraw from hosting for your bank account’s sake. Impressing others is not a justification to run up credit card balances.
  • Compile a list of all the dishes, drinks, desserts, and anything else you want to offer.
  • Go shopping in your kitchen to see what you already have on hand. If you find anything that’s on the list, cross it off.
  • Now, narrow down your options based on what you can comfortably afford. Don’t forget to leave a little wiggle room.

Now that you have a realistic meal plan, here are some ways to soften the blow to your wallet when shopping for Thanksgiving dinner:

1. Skip the Booze

If money’s tight but your family is looking forward to an alcoholic beverage to accompany their meal, implement a new policy: BYOB (Bring Your Own Booze). While some may be taken aback or completely against the idea, others will be understanding and willing to lighten the burden by pitching in. In fact, some folks are particular about their favorite craft beers or brands of scotch and may embrace the opportunity to bring and share their favorite drink.

Another option: Create a list of the family’s top three preferences, and have everyone pitch in to curb costs.

But if you absolutely insist on supplying the drinks, go for wine, since there are many affordable options available. If possible, check out Sam’s, Costco, BJ’s or any other local warehouse club as they usually have steals. Or load up on bottles of Charles Shaw at Trader Joe’s — known as “Three-Buck Chuck,” it’s surprisingly good table wine. And don’t forget to inquire about clearance items and bulk discounts.

And if it becomes too much of a hassle, cut out the booze altogether. Guests may be upset, but it’s your home, and they must abide by your rules or eat dinner elsewhere.

2. Keep it Simple

Each year, families spend countless hours in the kitchen preparing a host of dishes — many of which will only get touched twice, at most. After a couple of days of eating leftovers, much of it will end up in the nearest trash can. What a waste of time and money!

But this year, history doesn’t have to repeat itself. First of all, keep things simple. You don’t need to serve 12 different types of pie. And while it’s great to try new recipes, don’t go overboard on unproven dishes if you’re not sure people will devour them.

Second, don’t overdo it. No matter how much you enjoy Thanksgiving leftovers, they start to lose their appeal after your fourth straight turkey dinner, so try not to prepare too much food. Take a head count of everyone who’ll be joining your family for dinner, and only prepare two servings per attendee: one for the main course and one for leftovers.

Since we rarely make it home for Thanksgiving dinner, we keep the portions to a minimum because my husband and I hate throwing food away! And you just never know with small children; one day, they love down-home cooking, and another, they’re looking at their plate like it’s covered in slimy worms.

3. Buy Generic

Before you speed off to the store to load up a grocery cart, carefully peruse your list to see where buying generic makes the most sense. And once you arrive, confirm that the price variation is steep enough to warrant a deviation from your original plan.

I often find that prices on canned goods and panty staples are comparable. And I test out generic products first in small quantities before stocking up. Since money’s tight, I strongly suggest you do the same, and don’t forget to compare the ingredients on the label. Most of the time, buying generic pays off and you won’t even notice a difference — but don’t risk ruining your dessert to save 20 cents.

4. Pay Attention to the Bottom Shelves

Shelf space at the grocery store isn’t free; it comes at a cost to food suppliers, and those who want the most optimal positioning must cough up extra cash, leaving consumers to absorb the premium. So when you’re walking up and down the aisles picking up the items on your list, don’t forget about the lower-level shelves. Some items may not be brands you recognize, but if the ingredients are identical, they may be worth a shot.

Supermarket giant Publix takes the cake for bottom-shelf selections. I’ve stocked up cheaply on everything from tortillas to salad dressing to applesauce by letting my eyes wander.

5. Stay Out of the Freezer Case

Time always seems to fly by when preparing all the meats, side dishes, and desserts for Thanksgiving dinner, so you may be tempted by the ease and simplicity of a few pre-prepared items from the frozen food aisle. What sensible, time-crunched consumer wouldn’t? I mean, from savory appetizers to decadent pies, they look delicious and all you have to do is pop them in the oven.

My advice: Do yourself a favor and whip up simple homemade items instead, since you’re paying for convenience with the frozen dishes. The manufacturer has to recoup the packaging, production, and marketing expenses incurred to get the item into grocery stores. If the cost of fresh ingredients is too steep, try the local produce stand or discount grocers.

6. Don’t Forget About Sales

Unless you and your family don’t eat meat, expect to spend a good chunk of your money on the turkey or ham that will grace the center of the table. But as I write this post, both are being offered at steeply reduced per-pound rates, so stock up before it’s too late.

Another option worth considering: Some discounted grocers are offering all-inclusive deals, while others are enabling customers to score a free turkey with the purchase of select items or a certain amount of expenditures.

And there’s no need to drive to each store to see what’s on sale. Find their weekly circulars online, pay attention to local ads, or download a price comparison app such as Favado or GroceryPal.

7. Leave the Kids at Home

It’s way too easy to get distracted and blow right through your shopping budget when kids are in tow. They always come up with a particular “need” for school or some other project out of thin air. Younger kids may spot a treat and whine until you give in out of sheer desperation to calm the storm. No bueno!

My boys are the masters of manipulation. It’s almost as if they begin planning their method of attack as soon as we turn into the parking lot. If we’re in the cereal aisle for syrup, they all of a sudden start complaining about how much they miss a certain brand of cereal they haven’t eaten in years, or why I should purchase a bigger box of Pop-Tarts when they just consumed more than they probably should have in the last week or so.

And it only gets worse when it’s time to purchase seafood and meats, since these products are adjacent to the snack aisle in our store. I’m suddenly alerted that we’re running low on goodies for lunch, or that the class desperately needs us to contribute a dozen bags of Goldfish, or some other exorbitant number, for snack time.

And then there’s the checkout counter, loaded with candy bars, toys, and other junk that serve no purpose, at least not for my two. I’ll leave that battle to your imagination.

I know I’m not alone in this struggle, since I’ve personally witnessed multiple children use identical tactics on their parents. By the way they carried on, you’d think they’d never eaten in their life. So, it’s best to leave the children at home this time around for the sake of your sanity and your wallet.

8. Use Coupons

I’m no longer a fan of couponing because of the time commitment it requires; I actually prefer meal planning based on sales circulars. However, a few weeks prior to Thanksgiving, practically every newspaper contains a coupon book loaded with manufacturer’s coupons for many popular Turkey Day items. So take a few minutes to flip through the pages and clip any that could save you money.

Also, don’t forget to scan the weekly sales circular from your favorite grocer(s) for opportunities to reduce costs even more by doubling up the manufacturer and store coupons.

9. Discounted Paper Products and DIY Decorations

Using your own dishes and flatware will of course be cheaper than buying paper or plastic plates, cups, and utensils for the occasion. But if you don’t want to send your dishwasher into overdrive after dinner or spend hours cleaning soiled glassware, it’s an option worth considering — and in fact, for a big gathering, it may be your only option.

Either way, unless they’re on sale or clearance, I never purchase name-brand paper or plastic goods. In fact, Walmart has been my brand of choice for several years, and it’s never let me down.

As for decor, skip the fancy offerings from home goods or arts and crafts stores, and do it yourself; you can even delegate this job to your kids if they enjoy crafts. Browse the various Thanksgiving and home decor boards on Pinterest, where there are a slew of creative, cost-efficient ideas waiting for you, using cheap or free materials like acorns, pine cones, and construction paper.

10. Buy in Bulk

Assuming you’ll use some non-perishable items, such as canned pumpkin, cranberry sauce, chicken stock, or soup, for this year’s feast, consider visiting the local warehouse club and taking advantage of the discounted prices. The initial investment may be a bit steep, but the per-unit price is a steal, and the items will be useful for many months to come. Who wouldn’t enjoy a hot, tasty bowl of soup or chicken broth during the chilly winter months ahead?

Not a member of a warehouse club? No worries! Just clip a complimentary pass out of the paper or fork over the one-time shopping fee.

11. Avoid Procrastination

We’re all busy with our families, careers, and other activities that command our attention. But waiting until the last-minute to shop could cost you — in time, money, and frustration. There may still be a decent selection to choose from if you begin your shopping on Thanksgiving Eve, but don’t expect to score the deal of a lifetime.

This was a valuable lesson I learned years ago, when I decided to add collard greens to the menu at the last minute. Not only did I spend an hour or so searching for a store that wasn’t sold out, I had to enlist as a soldier in the parking lot wars and endure endless lines at the register. And of course, the sale prices were long gone.

12. Consider a Potluck

Depending on your family tradition, you may be a bit hesitant about his one, especially if you were adamant about hosting guests and don’t want to appear cheap. But the idea of a shared feast is as old as our traditional (if not entirely true) “first Thanksgiving” narrative. If money’s tight and you’re thinking of cutting costs by limiting the selection of dishes, it’s definitely an idea worth considering.

Communicate to your guests that you want to add a twist on the day by switching things up a bit this year. Offer to provide the turkey or ham, and request that each guest bring a favorite side dish or desert. Make sure to keep track of what everyone is bringing to avoid duplicates and ensure there will still be variety at the dinner table.

Potlucks were common in my younger years for family gatherings. My grandmother handled the turkey or ham, while my mother and her sisters contributed a few of their favorite dishes. In addition, each household contributed three (sometimes more) sweet potato pies for desert along with the drinks, and we were all set. Most importantly, everyone stuck around for the post-feast cleanup, and we all spent the remainder of the day looking through Black Friday sales ads. (This was before stores starting opening their doors on Thanksgiving Day.)

No one ever complained about how much they had to spend, or exhaustion from meal preparation. With time, things have changed, but I’ll forever cherish those memorable moments.

13. Make the Most of Leftovers

Hosting a full Thanksgiving dinner is going to drive up your grocery bill, there’s no question. But you’re bound to have leftovers. So if you prepare dishes your family enjoys — and who doesn’t like turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, and cornbread? — chances are, you won’t have to spend much on food the next week; you may not have to go shopping at all!

Look for different ways to mix up your leftovers, so you don’t burn out eating the same Thanksgiving dinner four nights in a row. You can make turkey noodle soup, turkey salad sandwiches for lunch, or sub in a different meat with your leftover side dishes.

One easy recipe that also helps hasten the cleanup process: Thanksgiving pot pie. Layer your leftovers (e.g. turkey, stuffing, squash, carrots, peas) in a pie plate or casserole dish with plenty of gravy, and then top it off with mashed potatoes. Store it in the fridge or freezer, and reheat it in the oven for an easy one-dish meal later in the week.

Bottom Line

You don’t have to break the bank to have a memorable feast this Thanksgiving. Instead, stick to a meal plan, implement some of these suggestions, and don’t forget to set cash aside for the grocery fund to ensure you don’t overextend yourself financially. Going overboard to appease the needs of others simply isn’t worth it, and you’ll be stuck footing the bill.

It doesn’t take a ton of cash to create special moments — what it does take is a lot of love.

Happy Thanksgiving!