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The following 101, on throwing a holiday party on a budget, comes from HOMEGROWN member Toni Tiemann, a Farm Aid staffer and—almost!—college graduate. (That's her, below.) Thanks so much, Toni, and congrats!
 

How do you throw a holiday party on a budget? Easy. You book a free chamber orchestra, stock up on tissue paper, and pass the burden of (most of the) cooking along to your friends! Uh, maybe I should back up a couple of steps.

 

I’m graduating from college this month and decided I needed to depart with a bang. Lucky for me, graduation happened to fall smack dab in the middle of my favorite time of year, the holiday season. Naturally, I was determined to throw the most spectacular holiday party my friends have ever seen.

The only problem? As of this month, I’m still a college student, meaning that while I’ve ventured beyond ramen and free campus pizza, I’m still on a college-student budget. But with the help of friends, some homemade decorations, and a few handy HOMEGROWN 101s, I pushed on and found that throwing a holiday bash was even easier—and cheaper—than I had thought.

 

Before we begin, repeat this mantra with me: The dollar store is your best friend. The dollar store is your best friend. The dollar store is your best friend.

 

PART I: LOGISTICS

1. Pick Your Party.

Yankee swap? Dinner? Cocktails? Desserts? Crafting? Wine? The first step of any party is to decide what type of soiree you want. I wanted food: hors d’oeuvres, cocktails, salads, soups, multiple mains, and desserts. You name it, I envisioned it.

 

Much to my dismay, one of—if not the—most expensive parts of any party is the food. I decided to turn my dinner party into a potluck so it would be cheap all around. A couple of people on apps, a couple on the main course, a few on desserts, and some more on booze: Bada bing, bada boom, you got yourself a four-course meal for a steal.

Now that we’ve got the party, what about the people?

Cost for this step: $0

Total so far: $0

2. Save a Date and Invite Friends. Early.

Everybody is particularly busy around the holidays, so planning ahead will help you snag your guests before they're booked. An early heads-up also will also give your crew time to get or make whatever they need to help out. Then again, a last-minute affair has a certain whiff of spontaneity and serendipity—and takes some of the party-planning pressure off. Your call!


Paper invitations can get pricey and time consuming, so let’s consider some free alternatives. I took the easy route and created an event page on Facebook. This seemed particularly affective because it made coordinating the potluck menu really simple. If you’re not on Facebook or want to go a more personalized route, try a free e-invite service, such as Evite or Eventbrite. You can also invite people through Gmail events. If you opt to use Google and have anything you’ll need to coordinate with your guests (food, a secret Santa swap, etc.), I’d recommend setting up a shared Google Doc.

Cost for this step: $0

Total so far: $0

3. Choose Your Entertainment.

How will you entertain your guests once they arrive? Do you have adequate speakers for music? Do you want to play holiday-themed games? These are things to think about so you’re not scrambling at the last minute.

 

Being the live-music junkie that I am, I wanted live entertainment—in the form of an apartment-sized chamber orchestra. But wait: This is a party on a budget. How could I possibly afford live musicians? For free, that’s how. Thanks to the on-the-rise service Groupmuse, I was able to book a classical guitar duo for my party with a customizable program. (One of the guitarists was sick on the day of the event, so it ended up being a lovely solo act.)

The service suggests a $10 donation from each guest, but I found that by labeling and setting out an empty teapot next to the food, I had a low-stress way to collect tips for the musician. I made a brief announcement at the beginning of the night and was quite impressed with how much my guests were willing to donate to the cause. The band played for about an hour after the food was served then we switched to a premade holiday playlist over speakers my friend had loaned me for the night. Services like Pandora and Spotify also offer solid holiday radio stations for low-maintenance—and free!—entertainment. And don’t forget HOMEGROWN’s food-centric holiday playlist.

 

Some other fun and festive ways to keep your guests busy:

 

  • Feeling crafty? Have everyone make his or her own ornament.
  • Play your favorite games, with a holiday spin (works well with: charades, Pictionary, Monopoly, etc.)
  • Rent a projector and screen your favorite holiday movie.
  • Have all of your guests help curate a playlist of their favorite holiday songs and take turns playing DJ!

 

Cost for this step: $0

Total so far: $0 (for me); $10 suggested donation from guests. With all the party planning, I forgot to get cash out of the ATM. Lucky for me, my friends were incredibly generous!

 

PART II: DECORATIONS

Of course you want to turn your house into a winter wonderland, but that requires decorations. I, for one, do not have deep enough pockets to fund an interior design overhaul for one night, but I do have a knack for crafts. And by that, I mean I know how to use scissors and glue. Lo and behold, that’s all you need—well, plus a plethora of tissue paper and popsicle sticks—to transform the drabbest apartment into something magical. A few suggestions below.

1. Coffee Filter Wreath

This idea came right out of the HOMEGROWN vault. Thanks, Maryanne! The wreath was easy to make, and the supplies cost me just $4, with enough to make a second wreath. That’s a steal in my book. I added holiday flowers for a more festive feel, but you could add ribbon, bells—whatever suits you.

 

I did make a couple of revisions to Maryanne’s directions: I don’t own a glue gun, so after messing around with a couple of other kinds of glue, I opted for good ol’ duct tape. This made the wreath ridiculously simple to throw together, and there’s no sign (yet) of anything falling apart. In fact, lots of guests asked me where I bought the wreath. My favorite part about this project is that, with the leftover supplies, I can make a holiday gift for family.

 

Cost for this step: $1 for 150 coffee filters at the dollar store, $1 for pipe insulator tube (enough for 2 wreaths), $2 for decorative flowers at the dollar store (optional)—so, $4 for two wreaths.

Total so far: $4

2. Lanterns

I recycled this project from HOMEGROWN’s Halloween archives. You say jar-o’-lantern, I say festive and beautiful candle holder. I had some red and gold paint lying around, so I put it—and some leftover tomato sauce and jam jars—to use for a few beautiful tea-candle lanterns.

 

This project was a bit of an afterthought for me but definitely worth it. It took me about 5 minutes to paint the jars, but if you wanted to, you could get fancier with the designs. I just slapped some red paint on the inside and gold on the outside without much thought about the appearance. Surprisingly, with lit candles inside, the jars looked really nice and were a great addition to the theme.

 

Cost for this step: $0, using supplies found around the house

Total so far: $4

3. Tissue Paper Pom-Poms

I went looking for these on Pinterest after seeing them around here and there: beautiful and simple. I read a few tutorials, watched a couple of YouTube videos, and went rogue. I highly recommend making these pom-poms. They’re easy but look complicated—like the best crafts in life usually are. Bonus: If you make these in colors like white or gold, they’ll fit the holiday theme but will also look nice year-round.

 

WHAT YOU’LL NEED

  • At least 10 sheets of tissue paper per pom-pom
  • 1 pipe cleaner or piece of crafting wire per pop-pom
  • String, ribbon, or fishing wire for hanging
  • Thumb tack or strong tape for hanging
  • Scissors

 

WHAT TO DO

1. Stack approximately ten pieces of tissue paper in a flat pile. If you use more paper, the pom-poms will be fluffier. I recommend using ten or more so your pom-pom doesn’t look sparse, although Martha Stewart uses as few as eight.


2. Accordion-fold all of the sheets together, with each fold about 1½ inches wide. Continue folding across the width of the entire stack. Then fold the bundle in half lengthwise.


3. Wrap the pipe cleaner or crafting wire around the middle fold then tie it. With the excess wire, make a large loop. You’ll tie the ribbon, string, or fishing wire to this loop to hang the pom-pom.


4. Cut both ends of the folded sheets into either a pointed or a rounded edge, depending on the look you’re going for.

5. Spread out the sheets so the tissue paper is in the shape of a bow tie.


6. Slowly and carefully to avoid tearing, lift one sheet of paper on one side of the bow tie. Then lift the same sheet on the other side. Repeat this step until you’ve lifted half of the sheets.


7. Flip the pom-pom over and, while holding it in the air, repeat step 6 to fluff out the opposite side.


8. Once you’ve lifted all of the sheets, separate them so the pom-pom forms a full sphere.


9. Tie the ribbon, string, or fishing wire to the pipe-cleaner hook and hang your pom-pom from the ceiling using thumbtacks.

 

Cost for this step: $1 for 40 sheets of tissue paper (enough for four pom-poms), $1 for ribbon, $1 for pipe cleaners, all from the dollar store—so, $3 this step.

Total so far: $7

4. Paper Snowflakes

These are exactly what you think they are. I folded some paper, cut interesting designs into it, and voila: A snowflake was born. Repeat 50 or so times, tie some decorative ribbon to each one, and tape them all to the ceiling at varying lengths for a DIY snowy landscape.

 

Since I don’t have a printer, I didn’t have any printer paper lying around the house. After digging around the office and school recycling bins, I was able to boast to partygoers that the snowflakes were made entirely of recycled paper. I put speckles of gold and red paint on most of the flakes, but this is entirely optional.

 

In case you forgot your childhood craft days, Instructables shares a quick tutorial on how to make six-pointed paper snowflakes.

 

Cost for this step: $1 for ribbon from the dollar store

Total so far: $8

5. Popsicle Stick Snowflakes

I came across this idea by chance on Pinterest and didn’t look back. A tip: Rubber cement did not work as well as I thought it would for this project. And by that, I mean it didn’t work at all. When in doubt, super glue saves the day. A hot glue gun would also do the trick.

 

I took the easy route here: I Googled images of popsicle-stick snowflakes to find designs I liked. I picked one design and made multiples of it—no need to make each one different. I painted the snowflakes red and hung them on the wall. These, too, got glowing reviews, even though I probably spent 30 minutes, max, and $1 creating them.

 

Cost for this step: $1 for 100 popsicle sticks from the dollar store; reused ribbon and duct tape from the projects above; paint found lying around the house

Total so far: $9

6. Book Page Christmas Tree

Remember how I said I was celebrating my graduation? As such, I thought it would be appropriate to take my old textbooks and turn them into miniature Christmas trees. These are definitely keepers! I saw one of these somewhere in the deep dark, depths of my crafting research. From there, I looked up several different tutorials and got creative.

WHAT YOU’LL NEED

  • Scraps of paper or old book pages (How much you’ll need depends on how big you want your tree to be.)
  • Foam cone or poster paper
  • Duct tape or hot glue gun
  • Scissors
  • Bowl or another circular object that can be used as a stencil
  • Ribbon (optional)
  • Bell, star, or other small ornamental piece to use as topper (optional)

 

WHAT TO DO

1. If you don’t have a cone-shaped mold handy, fold the poster paper into a cone. Use the duct tape or hot glue gun to attach the sides of the paper together. Trim the bottom so that it stands flat on its own. From this point, I made two different but similar versions of the tree. I’ll give a quick synopsis of both.


2. MODEL 1 (See pictures!): For this version, use the bowl to trace a circle onto a stack of the paper. Cut out the circle. You’ll have to repeat this step until you have enough paper circles to cover the tree.


3. Use the circles to cover the tree. As long as the tree is covered, it doesn’t matter how you go about this. It took one circle to cover the top part of the tree and several to cover the bottom edge. For the bottom, I folded the circles in half and placed them half on the outside, half on the inside. Use duct tape or the hot glue gun to secure the paper to the mold.


4. Now for the rest: Fold each circle in half. Then fold that in half once more. Starting at the bottom of the tree, glue or tape each of these folded circles around the tree, one row at a time. Make sure each piece of paper overlaps so there are no gaps. Repeat this until the paper sections cover the entire tree.


5. MODEL 2 (See pictures!): For this version, cut out strips about 1½ inches wide. Make cuts into each strip to give it a fringed edge. Again, the amount of paper you’ll need depends on the size of the tree, so I’d recommend making these strips as you go.


6. Cover the top of the tree using a small piece of paper and secure it with tape or hot glue. Then, starting back at the bottom, secure the paper in overlapping layers until the rows cover the entire mold. Optional decorations: I wrapped red ribbon around the tree and put a small plastic star on top. Get creative!

 

Cost for this step: $0, using supplies around the house

Total so far: $9

7. Vegetable Candle Holders

Hey, this one’s mine! I made these over the summer as a simple, fresh dinner table decoration and still love them. They’re adorable, easy, and cost efficient. I stuck to turnips because it’s what I know, but you could branch out to other veggies, if you’re up to the challenge.

 

Cost for this step: Approximately $2 in turnips

Total so far: $11

8. Other Supplies on a Budget

There are some things I’m just not crafty enough to make on my own. I did buy some supplies ready-made but I made sure to stick to my strict budget.

 

A piece of advice to remember in the face of adorable but costly decorations you'll see along the way: will power. Will power. Will power. While you might love that stuffed Santa, snowman, or what have you, I can assure you your wallet disagrees.

 

Here’s what I bought:

 

  • Three strands of lights, on sale for $5 a pop at CVS
  • Two lengths of fake garland, $2 total at the dollar store (If you buy a real tree, or if there’s a tree lot near you, you could request trimmed boughs for free.)
  • Two festive candlesticks and candlestick holders, $3 from the dollar store
  • Wrapping paper and a large bow, $3 total from the dollar store (There are two large sliding doors in my living room. I covered them in wrapping paper and added a bow, oversized-present style.)

Cost for this step: $23

Total so far: $34

PART III: FOOD AND DRINKS

If you ask me, food is the best part of any party. My potluck ended up being a little heavy on desserts, so it probably could have used a tad more coordination—but then again, is there such a thing as too many sweet indulgences? Just to brag a little, aside from my dishes outlined below, here’s the menu we ended up with:

 

  • Appetizers: Spinach and artichoke dip, homemade crab rangoon, seven-layer vegetarian Mexican dip, buffalo chicken dip 
  • Mains and sides: Horseradish roast beef spirals, fried chicken, mashed potatoes, grilled eggplant with roasted red pepper pesto and Cajun breadcrumbs, sweet potato casserole, baked mac and cheese, gumbo, dinner rolls
  • Desserts: Red velvet cheesecake, double chocolate cheesecake, brownies, countless cookies of all shapes and flavors, banana pudding, ice cream
  • Drinks: Besides the drinks listed below, we had loads of beer and hard cider brought by my generous guests. I also intended to make sparkling apple cider sangria, but time got the best of me. Next year!

 

After the music had died down and we had turned off the Christmas lights, someone asked what my favorite part of the party was. Selfishly, and scrumptiously, I had to admit that having so many leftovers was the winner. My fridge and freezer are filled with enough home-cooked goodies to feed a small army for a month.

1. Recipe: Spicy Pear Cranberry Sauce

I helped a loved one prepare this for Thanksgiving this year, and the outcome was too good not to share.

WHAT YOU’LL NEED

  • 2 cups cranberries
  • 2-3 pears
  • 3 dried chiles
  • Thumb-sized piece of fresh ginger, peeled and sliced thinly
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • ¾ cup sugar
  • 1 cup water

 

WHAT TO DO

1. Use a mortar and pestle to crush the chiles, ginger, and garlic. If you don’t have a mortar and pestle, a blender will do the job.


2. Put the above mash, along with the cranberries, pears, sugar, and water in a large pot.


3. Heat over medium-low for 20 to 25 minutes, stirring frequently.


4. That’s all, folks! This tastes great warm, room temperature, or chilled, but make sure to refrigerate it between feedings.  

2. Apple Cranberry Crisp

One of my guests requested this dish. I looked up a recipe and tried to follow it, but the independent baker in me won out. I used this this Taste of Home recipe as my inspiration. The outcome was scrumptious.

3. Kale Salad

The guest who had volunteered to make salad got swamped with finals, so I picked up a couple of last-minute items to toss together. The combo was simple and satisfying: kale, iceberg lettuce, apples, red onions, and cucumbers, with some balsamic and olive oil on the side.

4. Spiked Eggnog

I must confess: I tried to make homemade eggnog. Really, I did. Somehow, someway this Martha Stewart ’nog turned into pudding. I kid you not. Eggnog pudding. I still am not sure what went wrong.

 

Further confessions: Time was running short and guests were about to arrive, so I shamelessly strained that pudding, went to the shop down the block for supplementary eggnog, and added the necessary bourbon. Guests were none the wiser and polished off the pitcher. A good reminder: Only you need to know what goes on in the kitchen.

 

5. Mulled Wine

There’s a funny story here. My roommate generously offered to pick up some wine—and, boy, did she ever. We ended up with one bottle plus a huge box of burgundy wine. I thought that meant we’d have lots of leftover wine to mull on future occasions, but this was easily the biggest hit of the night. We drank it all up.

 

Based on the 101 from HOMEGROWN’s fearless leader, this is the best mulled wine I’ve ever had. I tried a few different recipes over the course of the past year. (As long as I’m confessing, let’s just say we drank well at many a Game of Thrones screening party). HOMEGROWN’s version is not only the tastiest I’ve had but also the easiest to make by far. I couldn’t find star anise at the grocery, so I left that out altogether, but otherwise I followed the recipe verbatim.

 

Cost for this step: This will vary based on what’s already in your pantry, but I spent about $75

Total so far: $109

 

PART IV: PARTY

Cost for this step: Priceless!

Grand total: Approximately $109 for a holiday feast with live classical music, around 30 guests, and a winter wonderland vibe. I’ll take it! Happy holidays and happy hosting!

MORE HOMEGROWN HOLIDAY HELPERS

JOIN THE CONVERSATION!

Got a question for Toni or a party-planning suggestion to share? Post it below and keep the conversation rolling! You might also be interested in 101s on hosting a food swap, meal planning, kitchen staples, starting a food recovery program, bartering, and community building. You can always find more things to make, craft, plant, grow, cook, bake, and celebrate in the HOMEGROWN 101 library.

ALL PHOTOS: COURTESY OF TONI

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