How to Set a Budget for Holiday Food

Inside: Ever noticed how fast your spending on food adds up at Christmas? It doesn’t have to be that way! Here’s how to set a holiday food budget.

Christmas is almost here. You probably have a holiday budget for spending on decorations, cards and gifts for everyone on your list.

That’s great.

But what about another holiday expense — food? You have your regular grocery budget, but if you plan to do any baking, prepping special food or meal hosting this holiday season, you’ll often find yourself spending more than you had planned. 

That doesn’t have to be the case, however. You can still enjoy all of your favorite holiday dishes, desserts and treats, without overdoing your holiday spending. Just follow these money saving tips.

Start with a ballpark figure from last year to set a holiday food budget

Before you begin your holiday meal planning, know how much you want (or have available) to spend. You must have a budget.

Start by looking at what you spent last year. Review your bank statements to get a ballpark figure.

Do you need to account for additional or fewer guests this year?

Now, add the cost of the special dishes you’d like to serve this year to your current grocery budget. If you aren’t sure how much the ingredients cost, use a service, such as Instacart, to find the prices at your store.

If you find your holiday budget doesn’t work with the additional food costs (or number of guests), you’ll need to shift your spending or change what you plan to serve.

Keep Christmas dinner simple and affordable

When you watch the holiday movies on the Hallmark Channel and see a holiday meal spread on a 12-foot dinner table, it makes your mouth water. It is lavish. But it’s not necessary.

There’s no need to plan an over-the-top Thanksgiving dinner or Christmas dinner. You can keep the meal simple.

Not only will strategic planning save you money, but you may also find it lowers your stress level. You won’t be stuck in the kitchen for hours on end, making food and desserts that will be devoured in minutes.

You can focus your time where you want to: on your family and friends.

Create your holiday menu ahead of time to avoid impulse buying

Don’t wait until the last minute to figure out what to make, or you’ll find yourself impulse buying what’s in front of you at the grocery store — and you may spend more than you need to. Take into consideration how many guests you need to cook for, so you can plan the amount of food needed ahead of time.

Make a holiday meal planner to map out all of your holiday meals and baking projects early. Go one step further, and make a list of every ingredient you need to buy. Then watch the weekly sales fliers to purchase items when they’re on sale.

Then when you get ready to start cooking, you’ll know that you not only have everything you need, you stayed within your spending limit, too.

Grocery shop for Christmas meals with a list

When it’s time to make a trip to the store, use a list — and stick to it. Always.

Using a list will help you avoid excess grocery shopping and curb impulse purchases. The list tells you what to buy — and nothing else.

Shop the sales and discounts, and use coupons

Starting in mid-November, grocery stores offer some of their best prices of the year on baking ingredients and other items you need to do your holiday cooking. Use these discounts not only to get what you need for the holidays but to shop in advance. 

You may need four sticks of butter for your holiday baking, but what about other times during the year?  Buy eight or 12 sticks and put the extra in your freezer. That way, when you need to make cookies for Valentine’s Day, you won’t be stuck paying full price for butter.

You can take your savings to ninja level by combining the sales with a coupon with an app, such as Ibotta. When items are on sale already and you add another $0.25 discount, that’s extra money in your pocket.

Save money on holiday meals by cooking ahead

There’s no rule that says you have to make all of your holiday dishes on the holiday itself. Not at all. You can cook many items in advance.

Doing so can serve a dual purpose. Not only will you save time on the holiday, but you’ll also avoid that last-minute rush to the store, which could cost you more.

What should you prep in advance? Things such as desserts, cookies, rolls, pies and cakes can all be baked ahead of time. Make this part of your planning process.

Save your budget by letting guests help with the meal

There’s no reason you need to cook everything yourself. Ask others to help! Assign dishes to each of your guests and allow them to contribute to the meal.

Not only does this save you time and money, there’s a chance your guests will appreciate the opportunity to provide something as well.

Choose less-expensive holiday food

When you ask people what to serve on the holidays, you’ll hear some of the same responses, such as turkey, ham, stuffing, gravy, potatoes, sweet potatoes, lavish desserts…you get the idea.

The truth is, you don’t need to serve an expensive meal. If the ham you envisioned is out of your budget, skip it. Get a smaller cured ham instead of the large honey ham. 

Don’t plan a big holiday meal because you think it’s what your guests expect. All they want is to spend the holiday together.

Skip the pre-made items

It can be tempting to pick up the ready-made veggie platter or the plate of hors d’oeuvres. It’s made for you, and you don’t have to do any prep work.

But you’re going to pay for it! It will cost you more for someone else to slice the carrots and arrange them on the plate.

Why pay for someone else to do what you can prep yourself? The items ready for pickup will cost more and can quickly eat up your holiday food budget.

Don’t let holiday food sink your budget!

Remember, the holidays are about more than the food or what you spend. Plan and spend what you can, and don’t allow your dining to create holiday debt.

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