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How to Have a Low-Cost Summer Party

group of people having a backyard party

The sun is shining, the birds are chirping, and a faint scent of sizzling meat carries on the afternoon breeze: it must be grilling season. Forget about opening day; Memorial Day is the unofficial start to America’s true favorite pastime — tossing heaps of beef, chicken, and pork over open flame. There is no reason you can't save money while dishing out some of the best barbecue your neighborhood’s ever tasted. The trick? Hunting down deals and asking friends to chip in (this is, after all, a community event). Here’s everything you need to know to master the art of throwing a low-cost summer party on a budget.


Before it’s time to prep the grill, you’ll need to make a plan. How many people are attending? What’s on the menu? Tailor your offerings around coupons from your local grocery store to avoid high-cost dishes, and then itemize the list of ingredients to ensure you’ll stay on target while wandering the aisles. Better yet, catalog ingredients with a free smartphone app, such as Grocery IQ, so you don’t find yourself scrambling to find the deals once you're in the grocery store.

Don’t own a grill? Before adding an expensive Weber® to your credit card balance, consider your surroundings. If you live in an apartment, there’s a good chance you can find a grill tucked away in a corner of the complex — if you’re lucky, you’ll discover it by the pool. Add a cheap bag of charcoal, some lighter fluid and a set of tongs to your shopping list, and you’re set.

If you live in a house, ask a friendly neighbor if you can borrow a grill for the day (most modern rigs are on a set of wheels for easy moving) and invite him or her to swing by your summer party. Still no luck? Relocate the party: many parks have grilling stations for public use.

Where’s the Beef?

Chatting up the local butcher is a great way to find low-cost deals at the grocery store. Ask about the difference between skirt and flank steak, get meat-prepping advice, and solicit seasoning tips. You’ll expand your knowledge, and he or she might let you in on the upcoming “manager special,” a surefire way to save cash on expensive cuts of meat. Your butcher also may give you some techniques for substituting inexpensive meats without sacrificing flavor.

Not looking to make a new friend? Just scout out what is already on the shelves, and think ahead. Snatch up a few pounds of those sale-priced split chicken breasts and freeze them for future backyard get-togethers. Do this a few times and your next summer party will only require a trip to the freezer. You can use the savings to scoop up a few six-packs of quality beer.

One of the cheapest barbecue headliners is the burger, but is it best to go with premade frozen patties or do-it-yourself ground beef? Although prices fluctuate, there’s no reason to downgrade to a frigid box of hockey pucks for the sake of saving money at your next barbecue. If you get creative, it is possible to make gourmet burgers and still throw a low-cost party. Form thrifty 80/20 patties around inexpensive produce such as raw onion rings, or add a dash of minced jalapenos and hot sauce to the mix for restaurant-worthy burgers that cost a fraction of the price.

Elevating classic backyard fare doesn’t have to be as expensive as you might think. For example, if you buy a protein such as hot dogs at a steal, you can reinvest the money you saved and dress up the dogs with an easy bacon wrap or serve them alongside a toppings bar with inexpensive offerings such as pico de gallo, guacamole and seasoned grilled onions.

Few barbecue items balance budget and flavor like the kebab, the delicious anything-goes-on-a-skewer dish that can be tailored to every wallet. Combine low-cost cuts of beef and chicken with a variety of inexpensive ingredients, such as canned pineapples, green bell peppers, squash and onions. The possibilities are endless, and you won’t have to dig too deep into this month’s paycheck.

Crowdsource the Sideshow

You may provide the meat, but what about everything else? You’re directing this summer blockbuster, and every good director needs to know how to delegate tasks. Use Google Docs or social media to list what the party needs and have guests sign up to bring everything from extra chairs and cutlery to cups and a portable stereo—they could even donate a grill for the day.

Request all the side dishes of a classic cookout, including potato salad, chips, baked beans and soft drinks. Or, if you run in a foodie crowd, spice it up by adding a theme—such as small plates from around the world—and turn your party into a multicultural event with the likes of French cheese, Italian salumi, Mediterranean salad and North African couscous. With the costs split among guests, you'll be hosting a classy barbecue that no one will guess is a low-cost party.

Just like with going out to eat, the cost of drinks can add up quickly. Everyone has their own favorite beverage, which is why barbecues are well-suited to be BYOB affairs. Complement the selection of adult beverages with a case of whichever beer is on sale.

Be sure to serve nonalcoholic options, too. Instant iced tea and powdered lemonade are thrifty nonalcoholic options, but if you want to stretch your budget while still serving something fancy, take a cue from high-end resorts: infuse pitchers of ice water with lemons, limes, cucumber slices or berries for refreshing summer sippers.

Serve it Up

If you plan to be that one friend who throws a barbecue every other weekend, you might want to rethink paper and Styrofoam plates. Sure, they’re cheap, but investing in reusable plastic burger baskets from a restaurant supply store (around $15 for a set of 12) will cut down on waste and save you money on your barbecue get-togethers over time — just add a sheet of wax paper to each basket. And don’t bother with plastic forks and knives; they’re awkward to use and you already have a perfectly fine set of everyday cutlery in the kitchen drawer.

To save money on condiments at your barbecue, transfer small amounts of dressings to lidded containers to avoid tossing out that entire leftover jar because it spent all day in the sun. Keep the bottles and jars in the fridge and refill the trays as needed.

Play the Game!

Even low-cost parties need quality entertainment. Instead of making a trip to the nearest big-box store for a selection of backyard games, head over to your local thrift shop or secondhand sporting goods outlet for entertainment without the sticker shock. Pick up a variety of items such as a football, soccer ball and Frisbee. Bonus points if you find a badminton set!

[Any reference to a specific company, commercial product, process or service does not constitute or imply an endorsement or recommendation by the National Endowment for Financial Education.]