Even with the most careful planning, a Thanksgiving budget can fall victim to bad weather, cranky relatives, and recipes that stray a bit too far toward the avant garde. Given that this is the last weekend to prepare and shop before your holiday celebration, let’s run through some of the more common budgetary traps, and how to dodge them:
The “Traditional” Dinner
Turkey. Potatoes. Pie. Some things just seem to belong on a Thanksgiving table. According to a survey by the American Farm Bureau Federation, the average cost to prepare the traditional Thanksgiving dinner for 10 people has fallen about 1 percent to $49.04 this year. At just $4.90 per person, that’s quite a bargain. But some families go overboard on “tradition” and try to include everything that’s ever appeared on a Thanksgiving table. That can get costly.
“Thanksgiving dinners are notorious for being too elaborate and wasting food,” says Coryanne Ettiene, a cooking show host and mother of three. “Create a menu that allows each guest to have two to four sides rather than the common six sides,” she says. “Where possible, make your menu from scratch, using similar ingredients to carry the cost across the whole meal. If you have only one recipe that calls for saffron and can’t use it in any other dish, maybe you skip the saffron this year.”
Nan Langen Steketee of Philadelphia cooks a large Thanksgiving dinner each year for more than 20 friends and family. Together, they keep the emphasis on the traditions themselves, rather than which plate they’re served on. “We make our own applesauce from a family recipe,” she says. “The apples are in-season and not terribly expensive, and it just tastes better.” Steketee saves bread scraps in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving to make stuffing, and uses the giblets from inside the turkey for flavor. Her guests all help with the preparations, and then enjoy the meal together.
A Plus-One for the Plus-One?
A seating arrangement at a large family Thanksgiving dinner can be as complicated as a small wedding’s, and the inclusion of last-minute plus-ones can throw off even the most carefully orchestrated meal. But according to the guide for Thanksgiving etiquette by Emily Post, simply saying “no” to those guests isn’t very polite. Since getting a firm head count can be difficult with the more spontaneous family members, have a plan in place or some extra sides available to account for drop-ins.
A Terminal Wait
Not hosting the dinner? More than 40 percent of Americans are planning to travel this Thanksgiving, according to a survey by TripAdvisor. Inclement weather can cause travel delays and all their hidden expenses: airport restaurants, rebooking fees, hotels, and other transportation if it’s available.
So before heading to the airport, you should have a plan B, and a cutoff in mind for how long you’ll be willing to wait until you use it.
The Unrequested Wake-up Call
Saving on hotel costs by staying with loved ones may seem like a good idea until it’s 3 a.m. and the dogs are barking, or the springs of the fold-out are popping through the mattress or a cousin’s baby is wailing away. Because so many people do opt for the fold-out couch or guest room, hotel deals actually abound during Thanksgiving weekend. But trying to find one in the middle of the night while sneaking out the back door might be a challenge. Before you arrive, be realistic about accommodations. Now would be a very good time to hunt down a hotel near your holiday gathering and book a room.
Overemphasizing the Liquid
Liquid refreshments are part of any Thanksgiving dinner, but they don’t all need to be top-shelf brands — or even, for that matter, alcoholic. “The second biggest expense this time of year is the booze,” says Ettiene. She suggests that hosts create a specialty cocktail for their Thanksgiving guests, and keep other selections to a minimum.
If you’re heading out to a restaurant, alcohol costs can drive up a tab far faster than a second slice of apple pie. By keeping liquid costs in check (and splurging for a cab when necessary) your Thanksgiving budget doesn’t have to hit the skids.