Decorations and the table/buffet
- Stick with natural elements for your decor. Pine cones, horse apples, chestnuts, gumballs (from the sweet gum tree, not the candy), winter squashes, dried corn, dried grape vines, and fall leaves make a gorgeous mantle display, especially when you add a little twinkle with Christmas lights or candles enclosed in votives or hurricane glass. Always remember safety first, though. Don’t let your display hang down if you have young children who might pull it down and risk injury and don’t use open flames around dried leaves. Using found materials from nature makes your display free. Using winter squashes bought from the farmers market makes for a nice addition to your decorations, and they are edible once you are done with them.
- Think ahead. A day or so after a major holiday, I am on the lookout for some bargains and deep discounts on decorations. Big Lots is one of my favorite places to shop for these. You would be surprised at the cuteness and quality that you can find there! While not as fantastic of a deal, you can find some good buys and beautiful things at Pottery Barn and Williams-Sonoma Outlet stores. When looking for a decoration, it must first pass this test—Will I want to look at this for another 5, 10, 15+ years? If the answer is no, I don’t care how deep the discount is, it isn’t worth it.
- Shop at thrift stores, estate sales, yard sales, and church bazaars. You might be surprised at what great deals you can find at these places. Baskets and cornucopias are sold for less than a dollar. Wreaths that might have seen a better day can be turned into something brand new with a glue gun and a trip to Hobby Lobby for a few inexpensive materials.
- Use coupons. I can’t think of a time when I’m not going to recommend to you to find a way to use a coupon. Thrift stores are sometimes in school coupon books or have half off days. Hobby Lobby, Big Lots, and Michael’s all have coupons available from time to time in their circulars or on their websites. I just received a mailer coupon from Jo Ann’s for 60% off of one item in the store.
- When buying linens, read the label. I’m the Imelda Marcos of tablecloths. I have more of them than any one person probably should, but I so enjoy changing the entire look of my table, of the entire dining room, with a simple change of the tablecloth. Look for something that has a polyester blend. 100% cotton will wrinkle and be a nightmare to iron. I’m not a fan of ironing, and while tablecloths aren’t hard to iron, I sure don’t want to spend 30 minutes doing that when I could be doing something much more fun. Check the label for stain resistance. It is a tablecloth—it is going to have things spilled on it. If you can only purchase one color of tablecloths, pick a cream. While stark white looks fresh and clean, cream will be slightly more forgiving in the wash and will serve as a basic backdrop for any theme. For cloth napkins, darker colors work a little better because they better hide lipstick stains. Again, opt for stain resistance and a poly-blend so that you won’t spend too much time spot cleaning and ironing.
- Jazz up your tablescape. Yes, I’m using the word tablescape in a sentence. Use a few yards of fabric, creatively folded or tucked to avoid finishing the edges, as a table runner. This is a super cheap way to add some color and flair to your table.
- If using flowers or candles on the table, for Pete’s sake, keep them low! If I’m going to be sharing a meal with someone, especially on a day like Thanksgiving, I want to be able to see the person’s face. You can use a few small vases with a couple of stems of flowers instead of having one large arrangement as a way to save money and allow your guests to converse back and forth across the table.
- Map out your platters, bowls and serving pieces. If I’m not having overnight guests, I will usually set a holiday table the day or night before. If you are concerned about dust, use another towel or linen on top to cover it overnight. Setting up the table beforehand, gives you an idea of how much space you need to save for the turkey, various casseroles, and other foods. As I’ve said before, if you don’t have a serving piece you need, find a way to repurpose something else that you already own.
- Prioritize your menu. All you really need is an appetizer, a main dish (in the case of Thanksgiving for most of us it is a turkey), a side dish or two, some kind of bread, and a dessert. The more you serve, the more the cost and work.
- Shop a little at a time. Each week, view the coupon matchups at Southern Savers to find what is a bargain. Focus on buying only the really good deals each time you go to the store, and you might be surprised at how much money you are able to save. Compare stores to see what is the better deal, and don’t be brand or store loyal. I’ve found that canned pumpkin from Ingles and from Kroger’s generic lines cooks up the same as the name brand stuff. When pricing the turkey, consider the cost per pound but also look at the prices of items you plan to buy when you go. If you save $5 on a turkey but spend another $20 on everything else, you’ve not saved a bit of money.
- Cut coupons and match them with sales. Similar to the previous suggestion, coupons can help you save a ton of money. For our sausage dressing, I have completely free cornbread mix because I matched a coupon with a sale at Kroger and stocked up.
- Next year, plan even further ahead. When planning your garden, think about the holidays. This year I’ll have green onions, parsley, and bell peppers from our garden to use in my dressing (for folks not from the South dressing = stuffing). I have corn that I froze in the summer for a side dish. I have all sorts of relishes and pickles that I’ve made and even some that my sister-in-law gave me for a relish tray. I have green beans canned from the garden and farmers market for another vegetable. There are a couple of butternut squash that can be roasted and either made into a pie or a tasty side dish. You get the picture.
- Weigh the cost of homemade versus store bought. As much as I love to make things from scratch, this year I will most likely be doing quite a bit of store bought for the ease factor. Sometimes making something from scratch will save you money, and sometimes when you find a good deal with a coupon it is cheaper to buy it pre-made. Also factor in your time and energy into the equation. If it helps, when I attended the Southern Living Cooking Show when it was in Knoxville last, the first thing that they taught us how to do was to make a Mrs. Smith’s pie look like it was homemade. ;) This year I’ll have a little more going on around Thanksgiving than normal, and I plan to buy more premade rather than baking and cooking it all myself.
- Drinks. Serving alcoholic beverages, ups the price of any meal. If you do choose to serve wine, consider buying it by the case to get a discount. This sounds like a lot of money, but if you typically drink wine, it might save you money over the long haul. You might also use the extra bottles as gifts for neighbors during the holidays. Sodas are more costly than tea, water, and milk (for kiddos), which is why I serve the later three instead of the first. Since couponers have been able to score all sorts of free coffee samples and flavored creamers lately, if you have any coffee drinkers coming be sure to make that an option with dessert.
- Work from a timeline. What can you make or prep this week to help make Thanksgiving easier for you? Mince parsley and chop onions and freeze. Freeze homemade dough for easy rolls. Freeze pie crusts. What can you do next week? The week before? The day before? The day of Thanksgiving the main things that you should focus on are the turkey, gravy, and entertaining your guests. Doing a little here and there ahead of time will help make that happen.
- Go non-traditional. My sister says that her favorite Thanksgiving ever was when it was just she and our father alone. They made crawfish ettoufee instead of the traditional fare. The entire meal cost about $15, and they ate every bite.
- Cooking space. When my uncle was having open heart surgery right at Thanksgiving, he asked me to make turkey dinner for everyone so that people wouldn’t miss out on the holiday. My father, sister, and I made a meal for 10 on a one eye cookstove and tiny oven in a hotel room kitchen. To this day, I’m amazed that we pulled it off. Prepping food in a small kitchen and cooking a turkey dinner with only one stove is difficult but not undoable. Use your toaster oven to bake rolls and keep foods warm. Wrap casseroles first in foil and then in a couple of bath towels to keep the heat in the dish. Fry your turkey instead of roasting it (again, I’m guessing that this is a Southern thing, but a fried turkey is absolutely delicious). Use an electric wok if you have one to warm side dishes. By cooking foods ahead of time and reheating them, you’ll be able to save a little time and oven space.
- Don’t throw it out, don’t despair. Cut your turkey in your kitchen alone so that you can easily fix any mistakes before presenting it to your guests. If your turkey is too dry, cut it and drizzle it with gravy, pan drippings, or a little broth to serve. Don’t forget the garnish of fresh herbs to make it look intentional and not like the cover-up that it really is. If you cut into the turkey and realize it isn’t fully cooked, you have a few choices. Baste it or add a bit more oil to the top (a piece of meat that is cut will let the juices run and the meat will be dry) and pop it back into the oven for a while. Offer up more appetizers to bide the time. The other option is to continue to cut the meat into slices. Then put it in a Pyrex with pan drippings, gravy, or a bit of broth on top and bake it for a few more minutes in the oven. This choice is significantly less time than the first option. If all else fails call the Butterball hotline and see what they suggest.
- Weigh the costs of travel options. If you have a choice between flying, driving, or riding a train, weigh the pros and cons of each option. If visiting someone across the country or overseas, plane flight might be your best or only option. If only traveling a few states away and only traveling with one or two people, plane flight might still save you money because you might avoid the need for a hotel stay. Also consider if carpooling is possible. When I was in college and would drive home for the holidays, I almost always had someone riding with me. Not only did it break the monotony of the trip but it also helped reduce the burden of gas prices.
- If booking hotel reservations or plane flights plan ahead. Look for deals on the internet. See if you have a blackout period for redeeming miles or points—if not, use them.
- If it is an option, stay with family. Pack sleeping bags if necessary. Sleeping on the floor or couch might not be as cozy as the Hampton, but it costs a lot less. Be a good house guest and offer to contribute to the meal in some way.
- Plan your trip to avoid roadblocks, construction, and rush hour if possible. Road construction may be closed for the week of Thanksgiving, but lanes might still be closed. On the biggest traveling week of the year, do you really want to plan your route through a major city at 5pm?
- Plan your trip to avoid hotel stays. Rather than breaking your trip into two short legs and an overnight stay in between, wake up early and make the trip in one day. You’ll save at the very least $50 on hotel expenses.
- This may sound simple, but opt for the car with the best gas mileage if you have an option. Sometimes renting a car with better gas mileage is cheaper than driving your unreliable gas hog 1000 miles.
- Eating on the road. Pack a meal, drinks, and snacks with you. Bring your coupons if you do have to eat at a restaurant. Remember that you’re about to eat one of the biggest meals of the year—do you really want to stop at a buffet ahead of time? Eat a piece of fruit and a muffin that you’ve packed instead of making a trip to Shoney’s for breakfast.
- If flying, keep it light. What will it cost for you to have a bag checked? Is there a weight limit? When I get in travel mode, I can pack lighter than my husband, which is saying a lot. Pack clothes that will be easy to de-wrinkle (Travel Smith is one of my favorite stores for clothes that hold up well) and are versatile. Only pack one pair of shoes other than the ones you are wearing, or only the pair that you are wearing if that is possible. Wear your jacket instead of packing it. To save you time and frustration, look at regulations of what you can pack and size limits on bottles when flying.
- Keep the kids entertained. Check out my post on car travel with kids. Many of the same tips apply to train and plane travel. Nope, this tip won’t save you money, but it will save you a lot of frustration and tears.
Make it fun
- Play board games instead of going to the movies. It is a family tradition of ours to play card and board games after the big meal.
- Visit a festival. If your city has the lighting of Christmas trees or another festival or event the day after Thanksgiving opt for that.
- Play Wii. While we don’t own a Wii, most people we know do. They are so much fun to play, and they give you a little exercise right after all of those calories.
- Take a walk. Being with family can sometimes be stressful. Take a walk after the meal is cleaned up to get away, take some deep breaths, and regroup.
- Use printables and crafts for the kiddos that are free. Find some great resources at Parents.com to get you started.
Black Friday shopping will be addressed in another post. While there are some great deals to be had, if you don’t spend any money, you might save more than anyone else. It is easy to get caught up in the frenzy of holiday shopping and Black Friday deals and to overspend. You might consider opting for a no-spend or buy nothing day this year instead.