Setting a Thanksgiving budget: When to spend out and when to cheap out

Guest post by Helen Jane
Thanksgiving at the Trolls © by martha_chapa95, used under Creative Commons license.

This post originally appeared on

You may think I’m a weirdo for putting this much thought into the budget of the glorious meal, but I assure you, if I don’t, I won’t have enough money by the time turkey purchasing day is upon me.

My Thanksgiving budget is $340.

That might sound like a lot for one meal, but consider this:

  1. Wine. I like to have at least three bottles of good wine for Thanksgiving.
  2. No potluck. My brother is flying in from Chicago for the big day (also his birthday!) so there are additional costs of a birthday cake as well as being responsible for all the sides.
  3. I live in Napa Valley, yo. Food, although glorious, ain’t cheap.
  4. It includes food for the next day.

Where do I plan to spend out vs. be cheap? (Naturally) I made a table:

Spend out

Wine: $100

I know, wine seems like a silly thing to spend an entire third of my budget on. That said, I hail from the Napa Valley — good wine does cost a little more than that $6 jug you picked yourself up. It’s only once a year and like I said, it’s also my brother’s birthday.
P.S. My Napa Valley brethren are giggling at me right now for saying that $100 for 3 bottles of wine is my budget. “Cheapo-head,” they just muttered in their brains.

Turkey: $50

Since so much of my stuffing ingredients come from my turkey, I spend a lot of money on my turkey. Yes, it’s a lot for a big piece of meat, but if I want to make sure my turkey was raised in a world with fewer chemicals and breast modifications, I’ll spend my ducats.

Vegetables (roast brussel sprouts, green beans, cranberries): $50

If I want to eat more vegetables, my veggies need to taste better. Good tasting vegetables often come from organic or local sources. And they often cost more. We have a farm stand in town that I adore — and I’m much happier knowing I’m paying the proprietress for my produce than some giant weirdo importer from Chile.

Cheese & Appetizers: $30

The thoughtful Thanksgiving host always has something for the circling sharks to nibble on before the big meal. Mostly light credit, but also a more substantial American cheese. Artisinal American cheeses.

Day after Thanksgiving meals: $75

Your day after Thanksgiving meals are only eaten once a year. Let’s invest in making the most out of these rare and unusual leftovers. Good bread for sandwiches and thick bacon for breakfast maximize those remainders.

Be cheap

Table settings: $0

What with reams of child-produced art, dried gourds from years past and very little spare room on the table, I’m going to go ahead and excuse myself from spending any money on my table setting.

Cornbread & Dinner Rolls: $5

Cornbread is inexpensive to make, so are dinner rolls. And as I use them as a turkey/gravy/stuffing vehicle anyway, I’m fine to go with a less spendy alternative.

Potatoes: $5

Mashed potatoes smashed potatoes. They’re regular. Of course, mine are spectacular. What can I say?

Dessert: $15

One pumpkin pie. One birthday cake. One container vanilla ice cream. One pint whipping cream. Thank you Easter Bunny, bok bok!

Thanksgiving day meals: $10

Thanksgiving day meals, eh, who needs them? Cereal for breakfast, picked on leftovers for the evening, you know it.

What are you spending out on this Thanksgiving? What are you pulling back on?

Comments on Setting a Thanksgiving budget: When to spend out and when to cheap out

  1. Every year I have to organize a Thanksgiving dinner for 100+ people. Since our caterer is also a personal friend, he has no qualms with candidly telling me what to spend money on and what to skimp on for the dinner. His list is very similar to yours. He also will change out the green vegetable from year to year depending on what pricing is like. Some years brussel sprouts are too expensive, so he’ll change it out for kale or collard greens, etc. Being flexible in your side dishes will help save money. He also recommends using dried herbs instead of fresh if you don’t grow your herbs to save money. All told our catered dinner is $10/person every year. The dinner at my home runs between $6-10/person depending on how much we have to spend that year.

    Epicurious also has a good write-up on ways to cut costs on your Thanksgiving meals. The only one I don’t agree with is the turkey tip, but that’s because my personal ethics guilt-trip me into buying a local farm pasture-raised bird.

    • I like your caterer!

      Love the tips for dried herbs, too. Dried herbs work just as well (in this meal anyway) because it seems we’re in it for the tradition, and I *know* my mom wasn’t buying fresh sage for our stuffing.

  2. Thankfully we still go to dinner at my parents house and I dont have to come up with a budget yet, I do bring all the desserts though. So my budget is like $25 to make pies and get whipped cream. 🙂

  3. My father hosts Turkey Day. Therefore, my budget consists of enough moolah to pick up a really good bottle of egg nog from the local dairy. I can’t remember what it runs. But it’s worth every penny!

  4. I have to spend a chunk of my budget on my table setting. This is my first year to host. I had to hit the stores for a gravy boat and turkey platter. Then there were the items I really didn’t need, but got suckered into just to make the table look purty. I’m guessing this will be the only year I’ll make that mistake. happy thanksgiving!

    • Craigslist and Freecycle are awesome for that. I had to replace my roasting pan and scored one for $10 off Craigslist last week. I wanted some pillar candles for the table this year and got a bunch for free by posting on my area’s freecycle listserv. Goodwill is also a good option for things like gravy boats and platters.

      • I got some good deals in the home section of Marshalls. Although I was bombarded with adorable cloth napkins and other unnecessary cuteness.
        I’m a total sucker for the holidays though. If I have to spend hard earned money somewhere, I’m ok with spending it on entertaining.

  5. My mom hosts Thanksgiving, so I’m generally on tap for prepping/cooking food that they’ve bought and preparing one dish for a potluck at work the day before Thanksgiving. Everything I spend beyond that depends on the budget. Last year, I bought a bottle of blush wine and potatoes for the work potluck and a bottle of prosecco for my parents’. This year, it looks like I’ll be buying as little as humanly possible.

  6. I love how unapologetically excited this post is about Thanksgiving. It’s our first married Thanksgiving in our new home, so I am too!

    Guest count: 7-8

    Food: I went to a Sporting Clays tournament and won a turkey raffle! I was planning on spending $20-30 on an organic free-range one or even considered a Heritage one. Meh, next year. A $13 value, FREE!

    Other food: About $75-100 total.
    Our farmer’s market is delicious and cheap. Brussels sprouts, potatoes. Stuffing will be homemade/cheap. The main splurges will be Crab’s legs as an appetizer and the cheese board.

    Wine: We have rum and a gift cards for a wine store left over from our wedding, so I’m cheating a little here. It will run us about $20 for the cider and spices, and beer. WINE= FREE.

    Decor: $45
    Gourds, at Ralph’s, about $5 total.
    Michael’s just had a sale this weekend and I got a straw wreath (to make a yarn one out of) which will work for the full holidays, and some garlands, berries, all for $20.

    I also printed out some vintage clip art of animals (including a turkey) from the interwebs and got several cheap Ikea frames for $10. They look amazing, just framed them!
    They would also be great as placeholders without frames, for free. ( for great stuff and links to other great stuff)

    I also splurged on buying some fancy pants candlesticks on Ebay for $10, but we’ll have them forever.

    SIDE NOTE:I cleaned out my pantry this weekend to make room for T-day stuff, and gathered up a bunch of unused stuff that I can donate to a food bank. I thought that this would be a good idea for everyone on OBH to consider doing. I never knew how much soup and pasta I had!

  7. I love the picture that accompanies the article! This is a really interesting post but I have to comment on the wine bit, that good wine *must* cost more than $6. I lived in Germany for a number of years where wine is a LOT cheaper than the US due to taxes and subsidies, I believe, and, from what I understand, not too shabby. 😉 I’ve been very happy with a $6 bottle in the US but I’m not coming your Thanksgiving and you’re not coming to mine, so I think we’re both set. 🙂 Now beer is a ‘whole other story!

    Do you bake yourself or have a favorite bakery?

  8. I’ve been plotting and planning, waiting for excellent sales, then hitting it on double coupon day at my grocery store. Some things I’m getting for free or practically. I’ve been doing this over the course of the last month or so, taking my time and getting the best deals. We don’t have a lot of extra this year. has helped me out tremendously. She breaks it down on which stores have what on sale and which coupons can be used to maximize your discount. I’m all about having an awesome Thanksgiving dinner but not spending a bunch.

  9. OMG HJ! I am so glad to see you guest posting in OffBeatLand!! Esp since you tucked your entertaining content back into your main blog.

    We are doing our first “new-ish-ly married just us at hour own home thankyouverymuch” Thanksgiving and I am interested in how other people prioritize the grocery list — it’s almost like prioritizing a wedding budget, actually! What are the most important things (good wine wine, a happy turkey, awesome gravy, my grandma’s cranberry relish, his grandma’s sweet potatoes) and go from there.

  10. So I’m sort of a moderately-priced wine evangelist, but the idea that $100 for 3 bottles of wine is cheap throws me. There are some really wonderful $10-20 bottles out there that we’ve served to serious wine drinkers who have been really impressed. Ok, our trial and error hasn’t been cheap, but it’s worth it to have found a $12 house wine that is universally loved (Tenuta del Portale Starsa, if you’re interested). A good decanter is a GREAT investment here. We got the Gemini decanter as a wedding gift and thought it was a little ridiculous, but it’s worth its weight in gold. We just threw a dinner party for eight adults, seven over the top courses plus drinks and hors d’oeuvres, for $300.

      • OOH OOH!! Brainstorm! I’m going to make a holiday post about my personal wine-buying philosophy based on price + best label design. Unless someone else wants to do it first. :-#

      • I recommend checking out a book called “The Wine Trials” by Robin Goldstein. It’s all about blind taste tests of fancy $50-150 wines versus under-$15, and includes some great suggestions of cheap wines that beat the big, fancy ones. It also has some really uncomplicated tasting notes so you can get a hint of what it’s like without having to decipher things like “notes of blasted earth with a crisp, graphite acidity.” It’s a good overview, because I cannot suggest a Merlot (gives me migraines) or Chardonnay (gag), and you may prefer styles that I don’t like as much, and vice versa.
        That said, a few of my go-to suggestions (available in the west-central Florida market, YMMV):
        Kudos Pinot Gris
        Pretty much any Vacqueyras (I like Domaine Mas du Bouquet and Soirée d’Automne a lot, but if you set a $16-20 budget on this one, I haven’t gone wrong yet.)
        Tenuta del Portale Starsa Basilicata (our #1 go-to red)
        Celler de Capcanes Mas Donis Barrica
        Albino Armani Pinot Grigio
        Avalon Cabernet Sauvignon
        Parducci Sustainable White

        If you’re lucky enough to have a Total Wine near you, their featured selections are generally really good, and I haven’t had anything listed as an Alfio Moriconi Selection that I didn’t really enjoy (and some of those are WAY cheap). No matter where you live, you can check their site for recommendations – they even have some Thanksgiving pairings up right now. (You have to choose a location to see that – just pick one arbitrarily if you don’t live near any.)
        Anyway, that’s a start. I know that spending $100 on 3 bottles of wine isn’t outrageous, but I think the idea that you HAVE to is why so many people are scared to get into wine. You can get a $15 bottle of wine that’s really delicious and enjoyable – everything under $50 is not vinegar. (Not that this article is implying that! Just that it’s a misconception a lot of people hold who haven’t jumped in to the wine world.)

        • And please understand, I live in Napa Valley, and this is the most I spend on wine all year. It tends to be split up into one 60-ish dollar bottle (which is usually discounted from something more expensive) and two less expensive wines.

  11. I have hosted a Canaidan Thanksgiving for my friends pretty much for the last 6 years. This year we had 14 people. I do ask that my friends bring some sides (I make veggies and potatoes and stuffing).

    I find the best place to get table decorations is your local dollar tree. I buy in early october (since Canadian Thanksgiving is the 2nd weekend). I think between the reusable stuff and the disposables, I’ve probably spent about $20 over the years.

    One other investment to make is a roasting pan! Having a nice one makes preparing and serving the turkey soooo much easier!

  12. I’m eating two thanksgiving meals! My mom’s for a dinner at 2/3pm and one at my mother in law’s at 9pm! Nom nom nom!

    So I’m only buying my train tickets to Philly ahead of time, but I like your list and hope to employ it someday.

  13. We have a group of six (ish, depending on the year) friends that gets together every Thanksgiving, and we all pitch in a couple of dishes + wine. It keeps everybody’s budgets reasonable and ensures that we always have an OBSCENE amount of food. 😀

    I’m loving the cheap wine suggestions. I might have to see if I can track some of those down…!

  14. Well now I’m hungry! (and I don’t even like Turkey).

    Things mentioned here that I’ve never tried but would like to: Corn Bread, Egg Nog. Not sure exactly what either are, but it sounds good 🙂 I’ll probably try make my own one day, since I doubt you could get any decent versions of it here (in Australia).

    I would happily come to any of your Thanksgiving parties. Sounds delicious!

    • Cornbread is divine. When I was living in Japan I made some for my friends from Perth and Sydney and they couldn’t get enough of the stuff. Just make sure to use a recipe that’s 100% cornmeal based!

  15. this year, my coworkers are throwing a thanksgiving dinner the sunday before so we can all get together. the hostesses are making turkey, rolls, a pie and a cheese cake. everyone else brings other sides, desserts and beverages. it may not be a traditional meal, but its gonna be our not related family and hey, if we have really random food there, at least its gonna be a blast!

  16. EVERYTHING is made from chemicals, you can say you want farm raised or free range turkey but “fewer chemicals” that doesn’t even make sense.

Join the Conversation