All across America last week, families sat down to enjoy their annual Thanksgiving feast of turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, and all the other yummy goodness that is our more gluttonous holiday.

Working, as it is so ingrained in our culture, can sometimes cause us to overlook certain nuances within life. One of those being to give thanks for those around us. We work these long hours not because we want more or better food, it’s so that we can enjoy these times with friends & family.

I’m still amazed at the lengths people go to, and what they’re willing to spend, to put an impressive Thanksgiving dinner together. For all the Martha Stewart or Alton Brown wannabees out there, that free-range “heritage” bird can cost you more than a $100, not to mention all the black truffle mashed potatoes, organic kale and all the other delicious stuff you can make to go along with it if you feel like spending the money.
But what if instead of having a foodie Thanksgiving, you had a frugal one? Instead of spending the maximum amount you can on Thanksgiving to impress your friends and family, what if you tried to cut costs as much as possible? How low could you go?
Top Five Tips

  1. Take advantage of the sales
    Many grocery stores offer ham deals. They might offer a free ham when you buy $50 or more in groceries or $20 in free groceries if you buy $100 in gift cards at the store. Either one of these deals can save you $15 to $20, especially if you were already planning on buying groceries for the week or you were buying the gift cards, perhaps for presents.
  2. Plan your meal around low cost foods
    A 10 lb. bag of potatoes can be bought for anywhere from $2 to $10, depending on your location and the sales. A big bowl of mashed potatoes can help fill your guests as well as save you money. Sweet potatoes are also a low-cost option. Looking for a dessert? Why not try a favorite of the original tightwad, Amy Dacyczyn–apple crisp. Simply peel and dice apples, mix together equal parts of flour, butter, oatmeal, and brown sugar, and sprinkle over the diced apples in the pan. Bake for 20 to 30 minutes at 350 until the apples are soft and the topping is melted, and you have a delicious, seasonal, low cost dessert.
  3. Skip the premade food
    As much as possible, skip the prepaid meals and desserts. You will pay 50 to 100% more than you would pay for the same food that you make yourself. If you don’t want to spend the entire morning of thanksgiving cooking, consider using your slow cooker for some of the side dishes. You will still save over buying premade food and not have to spend the whole day in the kitchen.
  4. Consider having a potluck holiday dinner
    Another alternative is to ask your guests to bring their favorite dish to pass. The guests are assured they will have a dish they like (which can be important for families with fussy young children), and you will have a few less dishes to prepare.
  5. Don’t cook too much food
    Every year we tease my mom that she cooks for an army. After the meal is over, there are at least as many leftovers as the amount of food we just ate. Sure, leftovers are nice the day or two after the holiday, but if you are looking at saving cost, don’t buy double the amount of food you need just to have leftovers (that despite best intentions often eventually get tossed out).

Katherine McBride, who is a senior consultant for and a dear friend, has a unique take on saving money on the Thanksgiving meal.

My attempt at a frugal thanksgiving
In the spirit of this article I attempted to put my Thanksgiving dinner together for $20. I used my local Ralph’s grocery store for all the produce, but any of the cheaper grocery stores will be the best bet at securing the dinner for under $20!

In the spirit of this article I attempted to put my Thanksgiving dinner together for $20. I used my local Ralph’s grocery store for all the produce, but any of the cheaper grocery stores will be the best bet at securing the dinner for under $20!

The bird
I started with the bird, which, although it’s pretty cheap at $1.29 a pound, they’re really big. The smallest they sell in Ralph’s is 10 pounds, so at $12.90 a-piece, that was biggest part of each of my menus and left me only $7.10 to come up with two sides for five people.

From there I looked at potential sides — I wanted a carb or starch and a vegetable for each. I settled on stuffing and mashed potatoes as my two carb/starch items. Surprisingly, the stuffing was much cheaper than the potatoes, which I often think of as being good food for living like it’s the Great Depression. I also added margarine to go with the mashed potatoes because it’s cheaper than butter (hopefully you have a cup of milk on hand to add to make them edible).
For the vegetables, I went with frozen green beans on the first meal, because they are also cheap as hell, and frozen corn. And yes, I’m aware that corn isn’t really a vegetable, it’s a grain, but this is America and we have a proud tradition of pretending things are vegetables to make ourselves feel better, so get over it. Plus, I felt like I couldn’t really plan two Thanksgiving meals and not include corn, which was a staple of the Native American diets we’re supposed to be emulating on Thanksgiving anyway.
For the desserts, I went with stuff that was pretty cheap and easy to prepare. Option 1 got a pretty sweet-looking pumpkin pie, and option 2 got a brownie mix, but I didn’t include the price of the oil or eggs that you’ll need to make it, thinking that most people have at least a couple eggs sitting around in their fridge. I also didn’t include the price of spices at all, so your $20 Thanksgiving is going to be pretty bland if you don’t have some basics like salt and pepper lying around.

As for booze, $20 isn’t going to get you that AND dinner for five, although not having any would be a major disservice to the memory of the Pilgrims considering one of the reasons they landed at Plymouth Rock in the first place was they were running out of beer.
But all-in-all, I think these are very serviceable Thanksgiving dinners, and I think this exercise was a good one in that it shows that you don’t have to spend hundreds of dollars to observe the holiday and have a nice dinner with loved ones.
What do you think? Does anyone have any tricks to share to push the cost down further? Am I missing something here?