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.

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.

Seven Tactics for a Fun and Frugal Block Party

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. 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.

5. 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.

6. 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.

7. Buy food that can you prepare easily in large quantities for entrees

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.

Planning and Preparation

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?

Trent Hamm
Trent Hamm
Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

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