6 Ways to Save: Big Celebrations

Wedding brunch for 80? Family reunion for 150? It’s the perfect season to celebrate life’s special events. And because keeping costs down is on top of everyone’s party to-do list, we asked the most fun-loving frugalistas we could find to share their secrets. 

It turns out a big budget isn’t nearly as important as big ideas. “Creativity and personal touches definitely outweigh the money you’d spend to do something chic and memorable,” says Erika Lenkert, author of The Last-Minute Party Girl: Fashionable, Fearless, and Foolishly Simple Entertaining. “The more personal it is, the more impact is leaves.”

Creative thinking really pays off in these six places:

1. Location, location, location 
The right venue can elevate a party from mundane to magic, but hotels and banquet halls are pricey and predictable. Instead, look for character: historical societies, funky VFW halls -- even churches and libraries often have portions of the building, including garden spaces, available to rent for reasonable rates. 

To celebrate her father’s 80th  birthday, Julie Rains of Winston-Salem, N.C., and her family rented a banquet room in a park in Charlotte, N.C. With linen tablecloths and a glass wall overlooking the park, the $250 room “just made the event," says Rains. "It was so pretty!” she adds.

2. One-of-a-kind invites
For her wedding invitations, Lenkert and her husband posed for 30 strips of dime-store photo booth pictures, cut them out with craft scissors and attached them to card stock. They did all the printing on her computer. 

“I tried to match funny pictures with people who’d get a kick out of it and romantic ones with others, and I included antique postcards for the RSVP, which I also personalized," says Lenkert. People were blown away. "One even gave me back that same photo as a wedding gift -- she loved it so much she had it mounted and framed,” she says.

Savings on invites can be significant. When Janis Brett Elspas’ two triplet daughters chose a roaring ’20s theme for their bat mitzvah, the Los Angeles mom designed invitations with recycled paper textured like alligator, then accented it with a rhinestone buckle and velvet ribbon to make it look like a 1920s purse. “It cost us about $4 each -- we saw the same type pre-made for $18 to $20 elsewhere,” she says.

3. Unforgettable food
Feeding people well doesn’t have to break the bank. Sheila Lukins, a Silver Palate legend and author of Ten: All the Foods We Love and 10 Perfect Recipes for Each, swears by big pots of ethnic foods, “like a curry or couscous." Because they’re usually served over rice or pasta, they’re inexpensive, she says. "And because they’re a little exotic, they’re very impressive.”

Another favorite, discovered on a recent trip to France: “A small-plate buffet, based on dishes like roasted peppers with homemade pickled onions and paella rice with shrimp and chorizo. There’s something so beautiful and inviting about all these brightly colored vegetable dishes laid out on the table -- almost like a patchwork quilt,” says Lukins. Small plates, whether it's tapas, antipasti or hors d’oeuvres, allow you serve up plenty of flavor but not too much food.

4. That’s entertainment! 
Hiring a band usually means paying the going rate for what is -- and let’s be honest here -- three parts bad oldies, two parts Macarena and one part noise. 

Try thinking smaller. For elegance, get a single harp player from a local college; for fiesta ambiance, see if the guitar player from your local Mexican restaurant ever moonlights, or book a juggler who’ll wander through your garden party. “I am hiring my girls' former gym teacher to come and teach the Charleston,” says Elspas. And for music? A pre-loaded iPod. “It’s a lot cheaper than live musicians or a DJ.”

5. Signature spirits
To save on booze, “I love to come up with a signature cocktail for the evening and put a twist on it, like Thai margaritas,” says Lenkert. “Since you mix it in batches, you don’t need to buy high-end liquor -- just serve it in really pretty glasses.”

6. Strong and simple decorations
Keep décor simple by focusing on a few colors and things you can stock up on for cheap, such as mason jars to fill with wild flowers. And be wary of themes: “Buying red, white and blue paper products for a Fourth of July family reunion, for example, is much more expensive than buying red cups, blue plates and maybe just themed napkins,” says Jenn Fowler, a mom in Syracuse, N.Y., who blogs at FrugalUpstate. Not only will it create a more unified look, you’ll get more use out of every item. “I’ve got big star platters in both red and blue, which are great in the summer, but the red ones are perfect for Christmas too,” adds Fowler.

by Sarah Mahoney