8 ways to make this year's Thanksgiving debt-free and delicious

By Andrew Housser

Holiday gatherings can stretch your food budget to the breaking point. Thanksgiving is well-known for launching the holiday season, but it can also be the start of a tradition of overspending. This holiday season, be thankful for the many ways that you can host a delicious, enjoyable dinner that celebrates family and friends, without throwing budgetary caution to the winds. Here’s how:

Add up your options honestly. Last year, the traditional Thanksgiving dinner for 10 people cost about $50 to make, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation. Of course, $5 per person is affordable compared to dining out. Or is it? A different analysis – using full-price grocery store prices – found it would cost double that amount, about $105, to cook for 10 at home. The difference lies in your choices. If you use brand-name products, prefer a fresh turkey to a frozen one, and like to cook so you have plenty of leftovers, you will spend more.

Weigh the costs of dining in or out. In many areas, it’s possible to find a take-home, pre-cooked Thanksgiving meal from many grocery stores and chain restaurants for around $100 for 10 people, similar to the higher home-cooked cost above. Some people wind up leaving work early or taking days off to complete their preparations, or paying someone else to clean their house because they’re too tired after cooking. In those cases, buying a premade dinner might actually be more affordable – and more relaxing.

Lighten up the carving platter. The costliest item on a holiday menu is usually a meaty centerpiece. A 16-pound turkey costs about $23 on average, and ham or other meats cost more. The best way to save is by planning ahead. Buy a frozen turkey, which can be found for as little as $0.59 a pound some years – a total cost closer to $10. Thawing a turkey in the refrigerator requires one day of thawing for each 4 pounds of weight. That means you will want that 16-pound turkey in your fridge by early in the morning on Sunday, Nov. 19, this year.

Use what you have. You probably have many grocery staples in your kitchen already. Before you head for the store, check your supplies of flour, sugar, chicken stock, cooking oil and spices. Avoid buying new containers of items you already have. Maybe you already have frozen or canned green beans, canned pumpkin or dinner rolls. For products you do need to buy, do a search online for printable coupons, or look at your grocery store’s online app for coupons.

Consider the dessert menu. If the tradition of baking your own pumpkin pie is important to you, fire up the oven! But if not, choose a different dessert, or buy a supermarket pie. Pies can be pricey to make, by the time you purchase ingredients for filling, crust and topping. Retailers can do it more affordably, and you can benefit with dessert for $5 to $8.

Keep it simple on the sides. The cost of side dishes can add up quickly. Stick to some basics, and your wallet will thank you. Choose between mashed potatoes and sweet potatoes, for instance. You likely can get by with either cornbread or hard rolls, and with just one kind of dressing. And in this age of health-conscious eating, your guests might even appreciate it.

Plan a potluck. If guests offer to bring something, go ahead and take them up on it. Make it more fun by asking them to bring the recipe along with the dish to share. Bringing a dish also allows people to meet their special dietary needs without adding to your expense.

Ask guests to bring a beverage. Instead of bringing a food dish, guests could bring along their favorite beer, wine or soda. It keeps overall expenses down, and saves you from trying to remember who likes what, who is on a no-carb diet and who does not consume alcohol.

With careful planning, you can host a memorable gathering of gratitude – without going overboard financially or in terms of stress. And that is something to be truly thankful for.

Andrew Housser is co-founder and CEO of Freedom Financial Network. The family of companies, providing innovative solutions that empower people to live healthier financial lives, includes Freedom Debt Relief and Bills.com. Housser holds a Master of Business Administration degree from Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Dartmouth College.