More Than Just Turkey and Cranberries: Making Cents of Thanksgiving

by Beverly Bird ; Updated November 19, 2017
More Than Just Turkey and Cranberries: Making Cents of Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving dinner is all about eating, so it might seem almost sacrilegious to pinch pennies on the menu. Then you go to bed, sated and full, and you wake up to Black Friday… and the possibility of even more spending. It might occur to you that you'd have a few more holiday dollars to spare if you hadn’t gone crazy with Thursday night's meal.

Thanksgiving Doesn’t Have to Leave Your Pockets Empty

Thanksgiving isn’t as expensive as you might think, at least if you’re not traveling for the holiday. The average feast for 10 cost an average of just over $50 in 2016 – about $5 per person. Not bad, but this doesn’t include wine or liquor, just the turkey, the trimmings and the basic sides.

It’s estimated that the average American will spend about $97 on a Thanksgiving meal in 2017, including alcohol, decorations and everything but travel costs. It’s still not a staggering amount of money when you think about it, particularly when compared to the holidays that wait right around the corner in December.

You can trim your Thanksgiving budget even more, however, if you want to make sure you have plenty of money left over to spend on those other holidays.

Do You Really Need Those Carrots?

We’ve all been there. The dining table is groaning under the weight of all that food as you and your guests sit down to dig in. Then the meal is over, and that bowl of glazed carrots is still sitting there, barely touched. The tureen full of squash soup remains full almost to the brim. The turkey, on the other hand, is pretty much bare to the bone.

It’s a safe guess that none of your guests would have missed those untouched dishes if you hadn’t included them. It’s even possible that someone took a spoonful of those carrots just to be polite, so you pretty much dropped the money it cost to make them down the garbage disposal.

Think back to years past and skip those dishes that are rarely big hits. Yes, cranberry sauce is traditional, but why bother with it if no one in your holiday circle particularly likes it?

And if you feel that you must serve a Thanksgiving dinner staple even if it’s the most unpopular thing on the menu, consider buying a generic brand or ingredients so you can save a little money.

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How Much Food Do You Need?

Now that you’ve trimmed the number of dishes you’ll serve down to a realistic list, it’s time to figure out just how much of these you should buy.

A common budget-buster at Thanksgiving is purchasing a huge turkey to feed just a handful of people. Numerous websites, including Butterball, help calculate just how big of a turkey you’ll need for the number of guests you’re expecting. The accepted rule of thumb is that a 12- to 14-pound turkey should feed up to 10 guests. If you’re serving that many or fewer, you can save some money by not purchasing a behemoth bird that will end up providing you with leftovers until Christmas.

It Pays to Shop Around

OK, you have your grocery list. It’s time to start shopping…almost. Do some homework first. Take note of supermarket and grocery store prices in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving.

Store X might always offer great prices on produce, while Store Z usually has great deals on meat and poultry. There’s no rule that says you have to do all your Thanksgiving shopping at one store. You don’t have to pledge your undying loyalty to the market you usually go to and eschew all others if it’s just not cost-effective. Spread out your purchases.

Yes, time is money, and this approach might take a little more time. But you’ll be buying groceries for other meals leading up to the holiday, so use this time to change things up a little and explore. Shop at Store X one week and Store Z the next to get a handle on the best pricing trends at each, then do your Thanksgiving shopping accordingly, even if it means multiple stops.

You can also check out stores’ sales circulars to get a feel for their prices, but these mostly just mention one-time discounts, not everyday low prices. Of course, if it's days before Thanksgiving and you're ready to shop for the holiday, those discounts can be real money-savers.

You already know that canned goods and other non-perishables are often sold at deep discounts at warehouses and dollar stores, and that prices at supermarket chains will almost always beat those at mom-and-pop grocery stores.

As for fresh produce, go with what’s in season – it will cost less. This may mean foregoing that green bean casserole, but why not offer winter squash or Brussels sprouts instead if the beans aren't everyone’s favorite anyway? Both are in season this time of year, and so are sweet potatoes.

The one thing you don’t want to cut corners on is the turkey, but there are ways to cut costs with that centerpiece bird as well. Keep an eye out for store promotions. Many offer free turkeys at the holidays if you spend a certain amount there in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving – another reason to break out of your shopping comfort zone and buy for pre-holiday meals at a store you don’t normally patronize.

Don’t overlook the value of coupons. Start clipping and gathering well in advance of your holiday shopping, but not so far in advance that the coupons might expire. And don’t buy what you already have in your pantry. Take stock of the non-perishables and canned goods you already have on hand before you spend money on more.

Make It From Scratch

There’s no getting around it – premade, packaged foods cost more. It’s almost always cheaper to buy the ingredients you’ll need to make your own dishes from scratch instead, particularly if a lot of those ingredients are things you already have in your cupboard. You can even base many of your side dishes on ingredients you already have.

The same goes for decorations. Why spend top dollar on that accordion turkey for a centerpiece? Help your kids make one of their own – if nothing else, it should be a great topic of mealtime conversation even if it’s not the best-looking decoration in the world.

Share the Burden

Ask yourself if you really feel compelled to make this a one-person show. Do you have to create every single menu item yourself? Of course, if you have a specialty, you’ll want to serve that…but your guests probably have their own specialties as well. Provide the turkey and one or two side dishes, then ask each guest to bring a dish to round out the meal.

Be sure to keep track of who’s bringing what so you don’t end up with six bowls of stuffing and no greens. If one of your guests is culinary-challenged, ask him to bring the wine.

If You Must Travel

Maybe saving money on a turkey is the least of your Thanksgiving concerns because you’re not cooking. But you just checked into the cost of airfare so you can go home for the holidays, and your head is still spinning.

There’s no easy way around this one. If you wait until the last minute to book your flight, you’ll pay top dollar. You can save almost 30 percent if you buy your tickets a week in advance, and even more if you do it while everyone else is trick or treating on Halloween – the earlier the better.

You can also save money by avoiding flights on the day before Thanksgiving or on Sunday at the end of that long four-day weekend. Everyone wants to fly then, and the airlines know it. If there’s any availability at all on those dates, tickets are going for top dollar. Consider flying in on Tuesday and back home on Tuesday if you can manage it.

So there you have it. Get where you’re going, sit down, dig in, enjoy your holiday and your loved ones…and have some money left over for the rest of the holidays.

About the Author

Beverly Bird has been writing professionally for over 30 years. She is also a paralegal, specializing in areas of personal finance, bankruptcy and estate law. She writes as the tax expert for The Balance.

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