Just in Time for Thanksgiving…

Liz Weston is the Web’s most-read personal-finance writer. She is the author of several books, most recently “The 10 Commandments of Money: Survive and Thrive in the New Economy.” Weston’s award-winning columns appear every Monday and Thursday, exclusively on MSN Money.

Celebrating the holiday can be costly, unless you know how to keep the expenses under control. Here are some ways to host the day’s festivities without spending excessively.

Turkeys can be cheap. It’s the rest of the traditional Thanksgiving meal that gets expensive.

I hadn’t realized that the first time I volunteered to host a holiday feast. For one thing, there’s infrastructure involved: I didn’t have a big enough roasting pan or a rack. Or enough seating. Or sufficient serving dishes, cutlery or plates. I discovered all this, of course, the day of the party.

Rather than borrow what I needed, I bought new — mistake No. 1. I turned down offers to help (mistake No. 2) and chose an expensive white wine (mistake No. 3). Everybody raved about the turkey, but I was too busy calculating what percentage of my reporter’s take-home pay this one meal was eating up to enjoy the praise.

 So learn from my mistakes, and heed the advice I collected from my Facebook fans about how to contain your Thanksgiving expenses. Some ideas to consider:

Let somebody else host. Perhaps you have a younger family member who is, as I was, all bright-eyed and ready to strut some holiday-hosting stuff. Or maybe you can foist yourself on friends. You’ll want to contribute to the meal, of course, but that’s a darn sight cheaper than hosting the whole thing yourself.

Brandylyn Swafford of Riverview, Fla., is happy to let other family members host the holiday dinner.

“For a family of seven . . . making two dishes and attending Thanksgiving at someone else’s house is super cost effective,” she wrote.

Call it a potluck. The first Thanksgiving was a potluck, so you’re upholding a tradition. The Pilgrims supplied the birds, and their Native American guests brought the venison. (Sadly, there were no pumpkin pies, as the English sugar had already run out.)

If you’re hosting, you’ll probably want to cook the turkey — it’s often the cheapest part of the meal if you get one on sale. Besides, a basted turkey is pretty hard to transport. Your guests can bring side dishes, drinks and dessert.

Just make sure you assign the pies to someone who’s a good baker or a foodie, rather than a friend you know to be a cheapskate. I made that mistake once, too, and Mr. Miser brought a truly inedible concoction complete with soggy crust and a vaguely orange, flavorless filling. I didn’t think anyone could screw up pumpkin pie, but whaddya know — it’s possible.

Limit the bar. Buy expensive Scotch and Uncle Larry the Lush will suck it down like water. Trust me, he’ll be just as happy with cheap wine after the first glass. So skip the full bar and provide just wine and beer, or suggest your guests bring whatever they’d like to drink. Another tip: Don’t let the kids serve themselves the nonalcoholic sparkling cider. The little fiends will chug down a bottle apiece if you let them. Again, this is the voice of experience speaking.

Volunteer. Lots of people volunteer to serve Thanksgiving meals to the homeless and others experiencing tough financial times. If you’re not already hooked up with a church or other organization that hosts a meal, go to VolunteerMatch. Type in your ZIP code and the word “Thanksgiving,” and you may turn up opportunities to serve in your community. In Los Angeles, the Salvation Army and the local food bank are looking for hands to help prepare meals.

Take a hike. If you live in a warm-weather climate, a Thanksgiving Day hike with a picnic basket can provide you lots of things to be grateful for: fresh air, the natural world and a great appetite. You can substitute a bucket of chicken for the roasted turkey and not have to cook at all. Score.

Let someone else cook. This isn’t really a cheap option, but it can save you time and effort, which is worth something. Costco has a dinner-in-a-box it says will feed eight people for $150. Local grocery stores and restaurants may have similar deals for less. Or you can simply go out to eat at a restaurant. You don’t even have to eat turkey; you can emulate that scene in “A Christmas Story” where the family winds up at the Chinese joint.

 Host a brunch. As cheap as turkey can be, eggs and pancakes are even cheaper. Hosting a day-of or day-after brunch allows you to spend time with friends and loved ones without going into hock. You can go alcohol-free or serve mimosas with domestic sparkling wine instead of more-expensive Champagne.

Plan carefully. Still have the urge to host that picture-perfect, Norman Rockwell feast? The good news is that Thanksgiving is one of the cheaper holidays to host, if you plan ahead and make smart choices.

“Thanksgiving should not be an expensive holiday,” wrote Sarah Nelson Miller of Beaverton, Ore. “Turkey is less than a dollar a pound. Potatoes are super cheap. A can of pumpkin is maybe $1.50. A bag of cranberries another $1.50. Flour, butter, sugar . . . all can be gotten for very little. People who break the bank cooking for this holiday are just trying to justify the acres of granite and stainless steel appliances they bought for their kitchens.”

Or maybe they’re just inexperienced, as I was. The first thing you need to do is ditch the pretensions. No heritage birds or organic sausage stuffing — the thrifty stick to the basics, including frozen birds that can be had for $5 or less. Brine them overnight, and no one will be the wiser.

Allison Burnell of Reston, Va., wrote that she buys her staples weeks in advance on sale.

“You have to be prepared, know what you need, and then look for it — I keep a list in my purse,” Burnell wrote. “I also have a good Dollar Store with decent food items in it that I can stock up on for the big day — canned french cut green beans for the green bean casserole, $1 bread to toast for the stuffing, even fancy little jars of olives, pickles and the like. I’m a bargain hunter year-round, so it comes easily.”

 Whatever else you need, consider borrowing or buying secondhand. Goodwill is a good place to buy roasting pans and other kitchen items you might need, my buddy Marla Jo Fisher noted. And keep your eyes peeled for sales after Thanksgiving that might make hosting cheaper next year.

“I bought my turkey roasting pan at last year’s after-Thanksgiving sale marked down from $20 to $3,” Fisher wrote.

Now that’s a deal to be thankful for.

Liz Weston is the Web’s most-read personal-finance writer. She is the author of several books, most recently “The 10 Commandments of Money: Survive and Thrive in the New Economy.” Weston’s award-winning columns appear every Monday and Thursday, exclusively on MSN Money.

Thanksgiving feasts on the cheap
Tagged on: