Updated on 11.24.15

Tips for a Thrifty Thanksgiving

Trent Hamm

Thanksgiving Spread by CarbonNYC on Flickr!Thanksgiving is in two days, and it’s likely that most of you have plans of some sort: getting together with family, eating a tremendously large meal, enjoying some football on television, getting caught up on your sleep, and so on. Some of you may have already begun on those plans – I know that for my own family’s Thanksgiving, the turkey is already slowly thawing as you read this.

Of course, with such a big spread (and also with the requisite travel for many), Thanksgiving can often be a very expensive holiday. Here are seven tactics I’ve found over the last year that can help mitigate the expenses of this costly day.

7 Tactics to Cut Down Thanksgiving Costs

1. Freeze leftovers in manageable containers

Sure, freezing leftover turkey is a common tactic, but many people make one big mistake when doing it: they jam multiple pounds of turkey into individual bags, then when they go to thaw some out for later use, they either talk themselves out of it (thinking that they don’t need so much food) or they thaw a multi-pound bag and let much of it go to waste.

Instead of freezing such a tremendous amount of food in a few big containers, pare it down into a lot of smaller containers (Ziploc freezer bags work well). This way, when you do choose to thaw some over the next several months (frozen turkey is good for six months or so), you can easily thaw just the amount you need – and no food goes to waste.

2. Don’t waste the carcass

Many people are happy to toss the leftover bones and small amount of meat left over after carving up the turkey. Don’t. That carcass can be used to create a lot of tremendous broth that can also be frozen and used to make simple, flavorful dishes.

Just take the entire carcass and toss it into the biggest pan you have. You can also toss in the neck of the turkey and the giblets (but not the liver). Add a chopped yellow onion, a cup of dry white wine, a bit of pepper, and a chopped stalk of celery, and let the whole thing simmer for three or four hours until the broth tastes tremendous.

When it’s done, remove all of the large solid pieces (bone, etc.), leaving nothing but broth, and store that broth in Ziploc bags in the freezer, two cups or so to a bag. This stuff is tremendous for any homemade soup or anything you wish to make – just add egg noodles to it for an amazing homemade soup. You can also use it in casseroles to great effect.

3. Go potluck

If you’re hosting a Thanksgiving dinner, go potluck with it. Encourage all guests to bring a side dish, then just focus your efforts (and expenses) on the turkey and other staples. This not only saves money, but greatly reduces stress as well, as you have far fewer dishes to prepare.

For some, this may seem too forward, but remember that quite often people volunteer to bring a side dish – and when they volunteer, you should always accept that dish. It makes the person volunteering happy and takes stress off of your shoulders as well.

4. Use the environment for decorations

Instead of using tired, store-purchased decorations to make your setting look festive, take a walk outdoors the day before Thanksgiving and look for appropriate natural decorations. Pine cones, acorns, bright red maple leaves, cuttings from a pine tree, and other such decorations, laid carefully at the center of the table, are not only free, but they also look gorgeous and can smell quite nice, too.

Parks and wooded areas are great places to gather this material. Take along a small bag and pick up anything that appears to have potential – you don’t have to use everything that you pick up. Plus, a walk in nature the day before the big meal can help you de-stress if the holiday season is dragging you down.

5. Encourage guests to bring their own leftover container

This does several things at once. First, it encourages people to take leftover food with them, giving you less to deal with in the cleanup process.

More importantly, it eliminates the risk of (accidentally) losing a leftover container if someone forgets to return it – and it also saves the guests the effort of having to remember to return the container. My parents have lost many nice food storage containers over the years when packing them full of leftovers and sending them with guests. The guests often simply forget to return the containers.

6. Don’t overspend on the “extra” items – like wine

At many holiday meals, hosts often sweat and worry about making sure that all of the minor details are perfect – and often overspend on those details. One of my relatives, for example, obsesses over wine – often winding up buying several bottles, most of which go untasted or only partially drunk.

Instead of getting caught up in the details, take it easy. The joy of the holiday comes not from the “perfect” bottle of wine, but from enjoying time with family. For the details, just pick something simple and inexpensive – stop by your local wine shop and just get a bottle or two of a very low cost but solid table wine. Virtually everyone at your table will be thrilled with it, it will all get enjoyed, and you won’t have several expensive and only partially empty bottles left at the end of the meal. Best of all, you will have saved yourself quite a bit of money.

Similar logic applies to almost every side dish you can prepare: go simple and don’t prepare tons of options. This reduces your cost greatly without reducing the quality of the meal at all.

7. Use the opportunity when family is gathered to discuss important matters

For many families, Thanksgiving is the only time when everyone is gathered together in one place. That also means it can be the perfect time to discuss family matters – how to help your parents in their golden years, for example, or other such issues.

Many people opt not to talk about such things at Thanksgiving, not wanting to “ruin” a family moment, but often the reverse is true: if such things are not talked about, they end up painting the holiday with a sense of regret, of an opportunity missed. Take advantage of the holiday – or the day after – to handle such important discussions while everyone is gathered, reasonably rested, and relaxed. Doing so can save you a great deal of peace of mind – and also likely save you all some money as well.

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  1. Jennifer says:

    It was surreal for me to discover that there are some families out there where the entire burden of cooking is placed on the host. Maybe it’s just the size of my extended family, but our holiday get togethers have always been potluck. That way it’s not on one person to do all the cooking, and there’s plenty of dishes to choose from!

  2. Allie says:

    I wanted to give two supplementary recommendations:

    1. Don’t toss the fat. After you make the broth, there should be some fat at the top. Chill the broth, scrape the fat and use it in your cooking. Turkey pot pies get a lovely boost from using the fat in the crust. Also, after the cooking itself, fat can be separated from the drippings and also used in this manner, or for other recipes (with or without turkey meat in them).

    2. Containers. In my experience, even when you ask guests to bring a container, at least one will forget. I hang onto the containers deli meats come in (usually Ziplock or Hefty storage containers), or even the cheap lidded bowls you get when you buy certain things in the bulk section (fresh peanut butter, olives, salsa, etc). These are perfect for guests who didn’t bring their own container. It reduces your clean-up as previously mentioned, still allows the guest to take home food, saves your good containers and recycles an object that might otherwise go into a landfill (and as my boyfriend would say, cuts down on the amount of crap I store in the kitchen).

  3. Andrew says:

    If you’re going to make broth/stock, you’ll need more liquid than the 1 cup of wine you recommend. Depending on the size of the carcass, you’ll need about 8+ cups of water.

  4. jen says:

    Turkey stock is so much more flavourful than chicken stock – it is amazing.

    It is very easy to make it in the crock pot. Put as many bones as you can fit in your crock pot and add onions, carrots, celery and fill with water. Leave it on low overnight or 12 hours and it is delicious with almost no effort.

  5. cv says:

    I like the idea of using natural decorations, but just make sure that your local wooded area isn’t a nature preserve or other wildlife area. Some parks have rules against taking anything out, even pine cones and acorns, because it disrupts the ecosystem.

  6. Frugal Dad says:

    Despite my frugal ways, I confess to usually tossing the carcass after picking away scraps to feed the dog. Not this year! If nothing else we’ll make up some broth for the soup you mentioned.

  7. CuteFingers says:

    Loving these tips! Recently discovered your blog and come back each day for your fabulous updates.

  8. Chris says:

    My wife and I have done the potluck thanksgiving ever since we got married and it has worked out very well. My wife does the planning for it and tells everyone what to bring and we have all the food we would need and then some.


    the link is what we are having for this thanksgiving. And we only bring a few of the items.

  9. Kristy T. says:

    Like Allie mentioned, I save (throughout the year)a few cool whip and sour cream containers for occasions such as this. And I find I send things home with people on occasions other than Thanksgiving also. Oftentimes these containers are ones I would otherwise recycle, so I don’t care about getting them back.

  10. Rae says:

    Yes, but is it tremendous? ;)

  11. Stacey says:

    We also save our plastic containers throughout the year. 32 oz yogurt containers, cottage cheese, butter tubs – anything goes! It’s so convenient to have guests take the containers home and not worry about getting them back.

    Coincidently, these are all containers with a “5” recycling designation. We can’t recycle 5’s in Pennsylvania, but we can reuse them! They will stand up to several trips through the dishwasher, but do not use them in the microwave. These containers WILL work in the freezer, but only for short periods of time. After a month, freezer burn becomes an issue.

  12. JB says:

    Trent — I love The Simple Dollar, and have been a reader for a long time, but something that drives me crazy caught my eye in this post. You wrote “unthaw” — you mean “thaw” (which means to unfreeze). I have no idea where the “un” came from, but I’ve been seeing it all over the place – even though spellchecker software catches it!

    Simple mistake aside, keep up the great work, and happy Thanksgiving!

  13. Karen Taylor says:

    Rae, comment #6, that was funny – thanks!

  14. s says:

    I am looking forward to that turkey and family.
    Gobble, Gobble. But, I must say I could not ask
    to bring your own leftover dish. How about a thick paper plate and foil to cover.

  15. Beth says:

    Trent – another fantastic and timely post. Thanks for the good suggestions, particularly your last regarding family conversation.

    Happy Thanksgiving!

  16. !wanda says:

    Wow, that last recommendation sounds like a good way to get turkey grease and cranberry sauce thrown at you. People are tired from traveling, cooking all day, or pretending to like people they rarely see, and you want to talk about potentially contentious things?

  17. Well, we already had our Thanksgiving. Canada celebrates Thanksgiving on the second Monday in October. However, these can be applied next year.
    A Dawn Journal

  18. Sara R says:

    Making broth from the carcass is a great idea. If you are brave enough you can also pick meat off the bones to use for future casseroles or soups.

    Another tip for a thrifty Thanksgiving is to cook what you can from scratch, the way people did a few generations ago. Buying a pie is usually more expensive than making it from scratch. Pumpkin pie is even cheaper if you turned your jack-o-lantern into edible pumpkin. You can make stuffing out of stale bread. If you don’t have stale bread, make some bread in the bread machine today, cut it into cubes, and let it sit out on cookie sheets to dry. These steps take extra time, but if you plan in advance and let the kids help, it can be fun.

    Also, now is a time of year when there are great deals on Thanksgiving foods in the grocery stores. Take advantage of those sales.

  19. Cathy says:

    I’m surprised by the suggestion to make Thanksgiving a potluck. My grandma ingrained in me if you are invited to a house for dinner, you never show up empty handed. Are there some households that expect the host to supply everything? I could not show up without at least a bottle of wine in hand.

  20. Gig says:

    I make a turkey every 2 months or so…we have a turkey meal the first night, then it’s cut up for inexpensive and healthier meat for brown bag lunches and soups. I always make broth from the carcass, but I like to store it for freezing in glass canning jars. (BTW I never use wine to make the stock) Much easier than a ziplock, they come in different sizes and they’re totally reusable. Tops from certain other products like some peanut butters are the same size as the mouth of the small mouthed jars so I save them making it easy to secure the top. Otherwise I just use a canning top and ring (however if the broth is hot when you put it in and put the top on it could seal as if you were canning, wait until it’s fairly cool). Just be careful to leave at an inch or two of space at the top or when the broth expands from freezing, it’ll crack the glass.

  21. Saver Queen says:

    I have childhood memories of my Dad scraping people’s leftovers into the soup pot!

  22. Doctor S says:

    I think I am still eating turkey that we froze from last year! If it is one thing I love all year around, that is those hot turkey dinners. We have been deep frying the turkey for almost 13 years now and it tastes great even after freezing for 5 months!

  23. mary says:

    Great suggestions — except for the last one. To talk about family issues that involve taking care of elderly parents etc.,right after a huge-family Holiday bash is very idealistic, but when have the holidays not been rife with external pressures and private angst, money woes and seething resentments: Most family members have spent months in therapy just to be able to “get through” a dinner with the “alkie” uncle or controling mother-in-law; Wine is flowing as are the zanyx and anti-depressants — While a lovely but alas, naive belief that people have the capacity to suddenly shift from the post-holiday frazzle and the next day to actually maturely discuss a loaded-issue like parent-care! Careful! Where there’s a “will,” there’s often not at way…
    Save it for the lawyer’s office — or a Sunday afternoon with advance notice by the parents outlining exactly what they want to discuss.
    To leave it out of the holiday mix seems a more realistic thing to do. Most families I know could never navigate that last suggestion, in particular, at the holidays.
    Hate to be a Scrooge! But good luck with this difficult issue.

  24. Jenzer says:

    I use the broth I make from the carcass to freeze the leftover turkey meat. After putting pieces of boned, skinned meat in quart-size zipper freezer bags, I fill the bags with cooled broth before sealing them shut. By covering the meat this way, it’s much less susceptible to freezer burn, and it’s more moist when thawed out later.

  25. steve says:

    @ Jenzer:

    putting turkey broth in with the meat when freezing sounds like a brilliant idea. I’m going to try it too.

  26. Frugalchick says:

    Using the environment as a decoration is a wonderful idea! I’m picturing in my head a simple white table cloth with orange and red leaves scattered on top would look pretty. It would be free too if you gather the leaves from your backyard.

  27. ReddH says:

    What a great idea on having people bring their own leftover containers!

    You know what else would be neat would be printing out a few recipes for items using leftovers and send those home with your guests too.

  28. Julie says:

    I heard from a UK government source (wish I could remember which one!), that shopping for a turkey dinner averages 40% less than a regular grocery shop if you factor in leftovers and the number of people you feed.

  29. Kate says:

    A suggestion about stripping the turkey carcass: do it right away. It is so much easier when the carcass is warm, but it is also so easy to put away in the refrigerator to wait until later. :o)

  30. Jorge says:

    Great tips for Thanksgiving, I never thought about making soup stock from the carcass before!

    Growing up, we always had Thanksgiving at my aunt’s house with about 35 or so relatives – pot luck was the way to go – and we always had different dishes to try!

    One more thought on leftovers – don’t freeze everything, turkey sandwiches are fantastic the next day!

  31. Lolita says:

    One other thing to note on picking “natural” decorations. Be sure to microwave the stuff you pick up for at least 30 seconds. They can have nasty little bugs in them that you won’t see until you’re sitting down to eat. Microwaving will kill any insects that might be lurking.

  32. Lisette says:

    Great tips.

    Can I add my own, in terms of writing? In the first hint (about freezing leftover turkey) you use the word “tremendous” three times. Repeating words makes any writing feel stilted. Just by going over your writing before posting (and using a thesaurus if necessary) you’ll catch a lot of those repetitions.

  33. Shannon says:

    Hey, Trent, I think you forgot to mention that in addition to the wine, you need to add water to that carcass! :)

  34. Kevin says:

    I made turkey soup last year from a carcass that was going to be thrown away.

    It was tremendous!

    Sorry, couldn’t resist.

  35. Hi Trent,

    Drinking bad wine is a sin, but I’m a wine guy! I think holidays are special times and it’s kind of a sin to present guests with both bad wine and mediocre food. On the wine part, you can find some great bottles of wine in the 10-20 dollar range (and I would buy a bottle or two extra, it’s not cool to run out of wine at a party). See my wine guide here: http://www.scordo.com/blog/2008/11/wine-buying-101—how-to-choos.html

    On the food part, and given that it’s a holiday, it’s nice to go to a good market and get high quality ingrediants, see my market shopping guide here: http://www.scordo.com/blog/2008/11/how-to-buy-fruit-vegetables-an.html

    Good post, Trent! Enjoy the holidays!

    http://www.scordo.com/blog/blog – a practical living guide.

  36. Emily says:

    My great grandfather makes a mean turkey soup. It is very tremendous. :)

  37. MVP says:

    I must disagree with you on the wine. My entire family are wine connoisseurs (no, we’re not drunks, we just enjoy wine), and we don’t consider it an “extra” item on the Thanksgiving table. There’s rarely a partially empty bottle leftover at the end of the night. On the contrary, sometimes we don’t have enough! But it doesn’t require several expensive bottles. You can save by getting 1.5 liter bottles of GOOD wine or choosing a few of the many delicious, inexpensive wines on the market. I’d just suggest offering both white and red choices and having plenty on hand – general rule of thumb is 1/2 bottle per person for the entire evening. Rose goes great with turkey too!

  38. Wendy says:

    Unfortunately I only cook a turkey breast. Can I use the carcass from the turkey breast to make a stock? I am 51 and new to cooking. Thanks.


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