Maybe your beach house share is up, or you just got back from an extended jaunt to Europe. For whatever reason, you may find yourself stuck at home during these last days of summer a little light in the wallet. You'd love to have friends over for dinner, but don't want to serve PBR and hot dogs. What to do?
Budget dinner parties are a specialty of mine. I started throwing weekly gatherings shortly after graduating from college. I didn't earn much, but I was determined not to let that stop me from having people over. So I picked up a few money-saving tricks that I still use to this day.
The main thing I learned is this: People will have fun regardless of whether you spend $30 or $300. Pretty centerpieces are nice and expensive ingredients can be a treat, but good friends are coming to see you, to enjoy a homemade meal and have a fun evening with friends. Some of my favorite dinner party moments cost absolutely nothing, like the time my musically inclined friends brought banjos over for a post-dinner jam session. Spontaneous musical moments aside, there are a few things you can do keep the costs down for your next get-together:
The simpler, the better. When you're entertaining on a budget, simple is the operative word, from food to drinks to décor. For the table, I use lots of inexpensive votive candles, plus one bunch of seasonal flowers (usually less than $10) that I divide into tiny vintage cosmetic bottles or mason jars to run down the center of the table. For napkins, I keep a stock of basic white cloth ones from Bed, Bath and Beyond to wash and re-use, a far better value than buying paper ones over and over again.
Get thrifty. If you're looking for extra plates, glasses, silverware or serving platters, thrift stores are your best friends. At places like Goodwill, you can often find great pieces for a fraction of what you'd pay in the name-brand stores. I recently found a gorgeous platter from ABC Carpet & Home that normally retails for $150 for a whopping $12 at Housing Works, a resale shop in New York.
One dish wonder. To save money, I love making one big main dish to serve family-style. In August, that could mean grilled fish tacos (using a more affordable fish like tilapia or snapper) with toppings like black bean puree, avocadoes and pickled onions. Homemade pizza is one of my favorite budget dinner party dishes all year round—I make a bunch of different pies, then serve them on cutting boards so people can help themselves.
Go vegetarian. A great way to save money is to skip the meat, which quickly adds up when feeding a crowd. I like to make a big pot of tomato chickpea curry and brown rice, a vegetable stir-fry or quinoa with roasted vegetables and feta, plus a big green salad or sautéed green beans or snap peas on the side.
Shop smarter. As much as I would love to buy every single thing at the farmers market, when cost is a factor, hit the stores where you get the most bang for your buck, like Costco or Trader Joe's. I use them to stock up on staples like grains, pastas, oils, vinegars and cheese. Depending on what state you're in, some of these big box stores sell discounted wine too, though you can also save by talking to your local wine merchants about decent wines by the box or case.
Let friends help. Don't try and do it all—especially if you're on a tight budget. One of the best ways to save money is to ask friends to bring something, whether it's wine, beer or a dish to share. I almost always ask people to bring wine, since that's what adds up the fastest. You'd be surprised by how happy most people are to contribute.