As discussed a couple weeks ago, Thanksgiving and Christmas are not about gifts – it’s about spending time and enjoying that time with friends and family. For most of us, these good times usually happen over a good meal.
On any given day, my family has no problem heating up leftovers or creating their own salad with random pieces of fruits and vegetables that happen to be in the fridge at the time (topped with their choice of homemade dressings does make the idea go over a little easier though).
But Thanksgiving is not an ordinary days. Feasts fill our dining room tables, crowds linger with coffee and pie and second helpings (or thirds) are common a few hours later during half-time munchies.
This meals require planning. No one wants a charred bird to take center stage among cold candied yams and mushy green bean casserole.
And no one wants to stew over the cost of that ruined meal.
My budget is tight enough as it is. Squeezing a bird, mounds of sides and homemade pies – for one single meal – out of my lean monthly budget just isn’t going to work.
Just like holiday gifts and activities, planning ahead can resolve budget woes before the tryptophan kicks in.
The good news is the best part of these holidays works in favor of our budgets – tradition. These meals are characterized by ritual meats and custom recipes passed down from generation to generation. To prepare our budgets now, we simply need to create our menus.
Turkey is the most common meat dish for Thanksgiving and for good reason – it can be extremely affordable.
The most inexpensive turkeys will be frozen and conventional, ranging in price from $.47/lb to $.99/lb. Conventional, fresh birds will range $.99 to $1.49/lb and an organic turkey will weigh in around $2.79/lb.
The average Thanksgiving meal feeds 10 people, so the turkey can range from anywhere from $7.05 to $41.85. If you’re feeding the crowd an organic turkey, that’s no cheap bird! (source)
Since turkeys don’t start making their debut on store shelves until a couple weeks before the actual holiday, and long-term storage for a massive bird is an issue for any household, it’s best to set money aside each pay cycle for this purchase to ease the burden later. There are seven weeks until Thanksgiving. Setting aside $5 each week makes paying cash for an organic bird without crashing your monthly grocery budget attainable.
Sweet potatoes, green beans, asparagus, mashed potatoes, brussel sprouts, squash and corn are the most common vegetables on the Thanksgiving table. The season for root vegetables has begun and we know it’s always less expensive to buy produce that’s in-season. Aim for vegetables that are $1/lb or less.
I recently bought a 10 pound bag of russet potatoes for $.97. We could allow 3 pounds of potatoes for a mashed potatoes side dish and we’ll have a traditional and frugal dish for a whopping 33 cents. While not everyone will eat mashed potatoes, pairing a very inexpensive vegetable with squash running $.99/lb helps to balance the bottom line.
If any of the side dishes require canned items, pick up one or two during a weekly shopping trip. Squash and other root vegetables will also last until the big day if stored in a cool location until you’re ready to use them. Not only will you ease the budget later, but you’ll spend less time fighting crowds as the holiday approaches.
Hands down, homemade breads are way tastier than store-bought. Loaves and rolls can be prepared a day or two in advance and warmed right before serving.
Take inventory of your pantry and make sure you have everything needed for your breads. Flour, yeast, salt and oil are consistently priced year round, but some stores will raise prices knowing it’ll be in high demand in a few weeks. You don’t want to empty your flour stash when you’re two cups shy in the mixing stage.
Canned pumpkin costs on average $1.50-$2 per can and if you’re like my family, two pumpkin pies are essential (one for me, one for everyone else ). Save some money by buying baking pumpkins (running $.78 each at Walmart) and making your own puree.
Another option is to take advantage of the inexpensive apples that are being harvested and bake pies or cobblers instead, or in addition to, pumpkin pies. Homemade crust is very easy and since everything is probably already in your kitchen, it’s much more affordable that store-bought crusts.
Butter for the bird.
Butter in the potatoes.
Butter on the bread.
Butter in the desserts.
Butter, butter, and more butter – isn’t that the key to a delicious feast?
If we know butter is a must, stock up now. Buy an extra package while you’re at Costco or pick up an extra pound when you find a good deal on organic. The $5 won’t hurt much now, but compile it with every other cost of the holiday and it’ll definitely sting later.
Besides, even if you don’t need it all for Thanksgiving, you’ll end up using the butter sooner or later.
Some other baking staples, as mentioned above, include yeast, flour, sugar (white, brown, powdered), salt, pepper, nutmeg, cinnamon, cream cheese, whipped cream, half & half, coffee… This is not an exhaustive list, but it should be enough to get the brain juices thinking about what else we usually eat and drink for Thanksgiving meals.
In the past I’ve made a trip to the store for one single package of cream cheese only for the shelf to be empty. Making a second trip to another store not only wastes more money in gas, but I had to end up paying more than what I anticipated.
Take the time to map out your Thanksgiving meal in the next week or so. Make a list of ingredients for your recipes (even the ones you know by heart) and compare it to what you already have in your pantries. Take note if anything is needed, or if something is low and will likely run out before the big day.
Armed with your grocery list, purchase $5-7 worth of non-perishable items during major shopping trips between now and Turkey Day. Once your list is complete, set aside that $5-7 dollars to pay for the remaining items in cash when needed.
Are you hosting dinner? Have guests bring side dishes or desserts to help disperse expenses. Don’t be shy about delegating if needed. Since the meat is usually provided by the host, be prepared to offer suggestions for appetizers, side dishes, breads and desserts. Guests like to be given a choice too – narrow it down for them by offering a choice between two, like either salad or bread. Write down who’s bringing what so there’s variation at the table. Everyone likes a good corn casserole, but one dish is plenty.
All in all, Thanksgiving can be covered by setting aside $10 each pay cycle – $5 for the turkey, $5 for everything else. Starting now will let our minds be at ease when we’re pouring a cup of coffee for that second helping of pumpkin pie!