7 Secrets to Trim Thanksgiving Costs

Every year, the American Farm Bureau Federation announces how much the average cook will spend on a Thanksgiving feast for 10. And every year, many of us just roll our eyes: “Last year they said it would cost $42.91 for everything,” says veteran Thanksgiving host Carol Reiman of Mountain Lakes, N.J. “I easily spend that much on the turkey alone.”

You, like Reiman, might never quite match the AFBF’s low Thanksgiving price tag, “but if you get creative with simple substitutions, use coupons and plan ahead, you may find that number to be pretty realistic,” says Stephanie Nelson, founder of CouponMom.com.

Here, some tips to help you trim Thanksgiving costs -- without skimping on your celebration. 

1. Start saving Sunday circulars now.
Stores start issuing coupons for Thanksgiving staples like cranberry sauce and stuffing mix weeks in advance. “No need to actually clip the coupons,” says Nelson. “Just write the date on the front of each circular and keep them all together.” A week or so before Thanksgiving, log on at CouponMom.com or a similar coupon website. You’ll learn which stores near you have sales on the Thanksgiving foods you need. Then compare the listings with the coupon circulars you saved for a double discount.

2. Organize and inventory before you shop.
“Pull out all the recipes you plan to use and make a list, along with specific amounts of what’s needed,” advises Nelson. Then inventory your cabinets: Knowing now there’s only 1/8 teaspoon of baking powder in the can helps you avoid a last-minute dash to the pricey market around the corner. Discovering you still have two cans of cranberry sauce from last Thanksgiving helps you avoid redundancies.

3. Cut back on how much you cook.
Families across the country waste nearly 25 percent of the food they prepare for Thanksgiving, because they simply prepare way too much. Try reducing overall quantities. Do you really need to triple grandma’s candied yam recipe, or would doubling do? Or just reduce the number of options: Make one kind of potato instead of two and do away with traditional warhorses (like that green gelatin) that nobody seems to eat anyway.

4. Don’t be afraid to make substitutions.
When that sweet potato recipe calls for chopped pecans on top, don’t shell out $5 for a 16-ounce bag. Use whatever nuts you have on hand -- or get creative. “I use a crumble topping with oatmeal, butter and brown sugar that comes from an apple crisp recipe. It costs just pennies to make,” says Nelson. For recipes with small doses of specific spices or flavorings, you can usually make a substitution (swap an onion for a shallot, for example) or just skip it altogether.

5. Warehouse wisely.
Bulk prices aren’t a bargain if you have to buy more than you need. Since you’re cooking similar menus, Thanksgiving is the perfect time to shop with a buddy and split those monster bags of potatoes, vats of grapes and buckets of onion dip.

6. Trim the trimmings.
Instead of paying big bucks for flower arrangements, work with what you’ve got. Ferry in your potted mums from outside. Fill clear glass bowls with lemons, oranges or apples from the fridge. Or clip evergreen stalks from trees in the yard and arrange them in tall vases: They’ll smell great and be right in tune with the season.

7. Delegate, delegate, delegate.
If guests offer to bring something, take them up on it! Granted, the turkey is your gig. (Frozen store brands are your best bargain; many stores even give out free frozen turkeys once you spend a certain amount.) But everything else -- dessert, appetizers, side dishes, wine -- is fair game. Just be sure you don’t put perennially late Aunt Sally on hors d’oeuvres duty. And if you’re not crazy about Uncle Fred’s kitchen flair, ask him to bring ice cream. Remember, Thanksgiving is all about sharing the harvest’s bounty. And most people are more than happy to contribute to the table.