How to Have a Successful Thanksgiving on a Budget

It’s that time of year again. The leaves have fallen, the air is cooler, and there might even be a promise of snow in the forecast. Whatever the weather might be doing in your neck of the woods, one thing is for sure: if you live in the United States, then you are gearing up for the first of many expensive holiday celebrations – Thanksgiving.

I have to be honest with you, Thanksgiving has always been my favorite of all the holidays. Not only does it come with two days off of school for my husband and girls, but family, football, and great food (minus the gifts that come along with other holidays) make for a great day each and every year.

The problem, though, is when you try to pair that budget with that elaborate turkey dinner. Perhaps you, like me, have struggled in the past not to put the entire meal on credit, or want to cancel it altogether to avoid the expense. Whatever you might be feeling, today we can address a few of my thoughts that just might help you make sure that Thanksgiving meal doesn’t destroy the budget you’ve worked so hard to keep over the past few months.

Tip: It’s not too late to get ahead with your Christmas budget! Grab this free printable to help you do so!

Thought #1: Start shopping well before the big day.

Whether you are hosting or just attending a Thanksgiving party, it’s critical that you not wait until the last minute to purchase the items you need for your part of the meal. There are a couple of reasons for this.

Sold Out

First, stores actually run out of popular items during this time of the year. Need eggnog or pumpkin puree? If you wait until the last minute, those two items will be few and far between. Not to mention, the store brand (and possibly less expensive item) will definitely not be there anymore. Save yourself some money, and frustration, by picking up those ingredients early.


Another reason to shop early is to embrace the specials. A lot of times in my area, you can find a deal with Fred Meyer (also known as Kroger) to purchase $150 or more worth of food and, in exchange, receive a FREE turkey. I know that each and every November, we try to work our food budget into that deal, even if we don’t plan on hosting the entire dinner. It never hurts to have an extra turkey in the freezer for a later date.


The final reason to shop early is that you will be less likely to notice the money missing from your budget. Don’t worry, I’ll explain. If you haven’t taken the time to include a Thanksgiving dinner line item in your budget that you’ve contributed to over the course of the year, then you likely don’t have a chunk of money to throw at the meal.

Instead of getting down to the wire and panicking when the total comes to $100, just for that one meal, purchase one or two items at a time as part of your regular budget. For us, we budget our groceries on a weekly basis, so I might just pick up a couple of cans of olives one week, the pumpkin puree for the pies the next, and cranberry sauce the third week. Sure, those items will add up to $15 or more dollars, but I normally don’t even notice the $3 I spent each time I went to the store.

Just something to think about.

Thought #2: Choose a Potluck Style Meal

If you are serving up a meal for friends and family, or have people coming from different households, then it might make good sense to split the cost of the meal by allowing each person to bring one part of it.

We typically have a mix of friends and family into our home for Thanksgiving and have done that since we were newly married. While we are always responsible for the meat (because that’s not an easy thing to travel with), we ask others to bring their favorite Thanksgiving dishes, coordinating so we don’t end up with three versions of Green Bean Casserole and no potatoes.

The best part of having a Thanksgiving like this one is that we get to eat different foods that might not be the same as what we had the year before. It keeps the day exciting year after year.

Some of the things we ask others to bring include the following:

  • Green Bean Casserole
  • Twice Baked Potatoes
  • Mashed Potatoes
  • Sweet Potatoes
  • Cranberry Sauce
  • Olives
  • Veggie Tray
  • Chips and Dip
  • Pie/Dessert

Of course, the sky is the limit, so get creative with your meal and ask your friends and family to do the same!

Thought #3: Pick a Different Meat

The first year that Justin and I hosted our own Thanksgiving, we did so with another family. We had no money, and neither did they, but we were all really excited to celebrate together. Needless to say, standing in the turkey aisle at the store that month, we just knew we couldn’t afford one, at least not in combination with the potatoes, pie, and cranberry sauce that we knew we wanted to include as well.

It was definitely disappointing, and yet, when we found a spiral-cut ham that was a quarter of the price, we knew that was the best choice to make. (And who doesn’t love ham?)

Whatever you do, it’s important to recognize that Thanksgiving, while usually represented by a turkey, is really all about togetherness. If you can’t afford to pay for the traditional meal, make a new tradition with whatever fits your budget.

Turns out, everyone loved the ham that year, so much that we made it a yearly thing for the rest of the time that we lived in that town. It was a hit, and we were able to keep our budget intact so that we could continue on with our holiday season.

Your Traditions

How do YOU manage to keep your traditions for Thanksgiving, while also maintaining your budget? Do you tend to overspend and only worry about it when the credit card bill comes in, or do you hold firm to the amount you have set aside?

I’d like to challenge you this Thanksgiving season to focus on what’s really important, and to stick to your budget, so that come January, you aren’t kicking yourself for the additional expense you put out for that one meal.

Tip: Have you added the line item for Thanksgiving to your budget for next year? There’s no better time than the present to do so! (And it’s not too late to put together your holiday budget using this free printable).