How to Throw a Great Party Even When Your Broke A$$ Can’t Afford it

Get over yourself and gather with your friends

Two Labrador Retriever dogs in Hawaiian leis and party hats, looking solemnly into the camera.
Rex and Fido are waiting for their invitation. Photo: Karen Arnold, Public Domain Pictures

Look, I get it: You’re ashamed to have people over. Your microwave has been broken since 2016 (reader, mine has been). Your floors are warped. Your dog sheds. You don’t have enough chairs. Plus, you’re not sure how you can afford party food and drinks when you can’t even spare the money to get your tires fixed. Frivolous stuff like this can wait, right?

Except it can’t. Think about the last time you saw some of your friends — I mean really saw them, not texted or liked their pictures of lunch on Instagram, but saw them. When was the last time you got your friends together, introduced them to one another, and took a break to enjoy their company in your own home?

Frankly, you can’t afford not to do that.

When was the last time you got your friends together, introduced them to one another, and took a break to enjoy their company in your own home?

Frankly, you can’t afford not to do that

I’ve been where you are — quite recently, in fact. At some point I gave up trying to host parties altogether because I knew we didn’t have the money to “do it right” — with tons of great food, colorful party goods, free-flowing beverages, awesome music, and perhaps most of all, a flawless home.

But you know what? Your friends need you, and you need them. Especially these days, people need to be together, play, laugh, talk, complain, and eat good food.

Don’t wait to get rich. Get rich in friendship.

Here’s how to throw a great party on a broke-ass budget.

Plan.

It’s been said that you can have either money or time, but not both. I don’t know if that’s true for the one percenters with nose-bleed high passive incomes from investments, but it’s true for the rest of us. It’s especially true for entertaining: if you have no money, you have to take time.

To throw a successful party inexpensively, give yourself at least a month to plan. If you will be providing most of the food and drink, it’s not unreasonable to set aside two or three months to save your funds for the big shopping trip. Imagine the thrill of paying cash for a lavish grocery bill — cash that you have saved for just this occasion?

If you have no money, you have to take time.

For a modest get-together or potluck, a month should be plenty of time. Plan your menu with care and watch the sales. Decide on a theme, including what your friends’ role will be (see Set Expectations, below). Have fun putting together your invitation and guest list, and keep it small if money is especially tight: just four to six friends is enough to make a party.

We recently planned for a month to pull off my birthday party. We bought nonperishables in little bits over several grocery trips, borrowed games from friends for a game-playing theme, and settled on a guest list that was just big enough. I did not have the guilt I usually have at inviting only some friends and not others, because I’ve become more confidant and I know I will have more parties soon.

I think the single biggest reason I could never handle the expense of a party was that I expected myself to conceive of it on a Monday and throw it together by Saturday. I know better now. It’s less expensive and many times more fun to slow down and savor the whole process.

Set Expectations with the Invitation.

Let your guests know what they can bring. It’s fine to provide everything to your guests if you can afford to, but if it means you’re just never gonna have that party, relent and let your friends contribute.

People actually love having something to offer. If you set the expectation that your party involves sharing, you may be surprised how delighted your friends are. Whether it’s a potluck, a bring-your-own-to-grill BBQ party, or a pizza night where everyone will chip in, just say so on the invitation. While this won’t work for every kind of party, it’s amazing what a range of occasions are suited to collaborative entertaining.

The special alchemy of a party atmosphere does call for the host to provide something, but you can offer beverages and light snacks pretty inexpensively, even if you serve alcohol. Have a “starter kit” of a sixpack and a nice inexpensive bottle of wine, and tell friends they can bring more. Pop popcorn and put out mixed nuts and fresh fruit or olives, and you’ve got the basics done.

See Your Home the Way Your Friends Might.

Your friends aren’t scrutinizing the design flaws in your crumbling porch or counting the pennies that went into making that Betty Crocker cake. (The ones that are, don’t have to come back). Most people only want a little relief from the daily grind, some fun and some hope. Can you provide that? You bet you can. But first, you have to look at your home the way they will.

Most people only want a little relief from the daily grind, and some hope.

Here are the things that do not matter to your friends:

  • what’s broken (unless it’s the toilet).
  • why that door is closed.
  • whether your pillows match.
  • whether your appliances are new.
  • that you’re in a studio apartment, and your bed is next to the kitchen.
  • that your living room is only divided from the entry way by a thin curtain.
  • that your lawn looks like crap.
  • pretty much anything that you have been thinking is such a big deal.

Here are the things that do matter:

  • pets — make sure and tell friends if you have them.
  • pathways and traffic circulation to get food and mingle — especially in a small place, this could present a challenge. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good, but do give thought to where you place the food, seating, and other elements for the day or evening.
  • climate control — another hard one. It will surely get very warm when all the guests arrive. If you, say, live in an apartment wherein you don’t directly control the heat (radiators, for instance), or your house is finicky, you may have to do some trial and error to get it right. Make sure you have plenty of ice and a pitcher of water among your offerings. Open windows if you can. Bonus: these hacks are pretty close to free.
  • seating — make sure you have seating suited for all ages and abilities. You may need to borrow chairs and throw pillows, and get some blankets for babies.
  • access — we can’t all live in full accessible dwellings, but if you have stairs or other barriers to or in your home, take special care to make your guests with different abilities welcome, and to make it easy for them to move around and stay.
  • conversation, games, diversions — we’re all, literally, dying for fun and affection. That’s really what your guests are looking for in your home, and they will make it themselves if they have space and safety.
  • your life and personality, as expressed by your things— before your party, survey your home as a curious friend might. Can you put out some things to intrigue them? Having a party in a few weeks might inspire you to hang some art or organize your books. Interesting surroundings are especially helpful for shy or introverted friends who may need a personal break from the excitement of a party. Even your serving things can tell your story. I have a uniquely adorable sugar and creamer that was my mother-in-law’s, and it always gets compliments.
cute white unglazed porcelain creamer and sugar bowl, modern looking.
My mother-in-law’s inexplicably adorable cream and sugar set. Always gets compliments.

Borrow Stuff.

Why are we so blasted afraid to borrow from our neighbors and friends? Is that just me? From chairs and tables to games and ice buckets, don’t simply do without if it’s a simple matter of asking. Ask.

(But make sure they’re invited 😬)

Shop Smartly.

I sometimes splurge on one signature item that brings an elegant note — cocktail shrimp, let’s say, or asparagus to grill, or Marcona almonds — and then I’m frugal with the rest of the menu.

I also purchase certain things and stockpile them. A store I won’t name (cough-cough Trader Joe’s) is really good about frozen party food you can keep on hand.

Now that we are throwing parties more often, I confess that I even freeze some party food, as appropriate, to serve at a future party. We always seem to have trays of leftover cake, for example, which can freeze for up to a couple of weeks. It can also be crumbed and served over ice cream, if kept longer.

Calculate how much you think you will need and — if you are like me and usually overestimate out of anxiety— cut quantities by about a third. Unless you like leftovers.

Here are some inexpensive things to fill out the menu.

  • popcorn
  • fresh fruit in season and on sale
  • seltzer instead of soda
  • seasonal juice, bought in small quantities and mixed with seltzer and perhaps sherbet for a punch
  • a “starter kit” or beer/wine instead of the whole caboodle
  • homemade cake or cookies
  • green salad
  • canned or jar olives (yes, I love me a good olive bar, but that doesn’t count as inexpensive)
  • packaged salami or prosciutto if you don’t go for the snob brands
  • homemade hummus
  • quiche
  • turkey meatballs
  • small bites of cheddar or gouda cheese
  • cheese quesadillas, served with Salvadorian crema like this one, if you are lucky enough to live where you can get it

Relax First.

This is REALLY important: Plan everything so you can take 10 to 15 minutes of downtime before guests arrive.

Help yourself to one of your beverages, sneak a snack from your own table, and sit down. Collect yourself.

My friends are mostly a half-hour or an hour late to arrive. I aim to be ready a half-hour earlier anyway, because it’s so important to me to be in a positive frame of mind, not down on myself or anxious, before we entertain.

One important aspect of doing anything cheaply is to make good memories about the experience. Chances are, even with all these great ideas, you’re still a little focused on what’s lacking. That’s not your fault: We are programmed from a young age to be anxious about our ability to provide for people and our ability to show status. The act of giving a party touches both these pain points.

We are programmed from a young age to be anxious about our ability to provide for people and our ability to show status. The act of giving a party touches both these pain points.

So take your time now, before anyone arrives. Rest, look around, and survey the transformation of your modest crib into Joy Central, while you wait for that first pleasant knock at the door.

Now go have a beautiful party. Your friends are waiting for you.

Postscript: Building Up Your Party War Chest.

While you can have a sweet little party with minimum expense, taking your hosting to Level 11 with less fuss will take a bit of extra equipment, time, and elbow grease.

GIF of “You can take it up to 11” from This Is Spinal Tap

If giving parties is going to become your passion, you will need to be crafty about finding and storing the goods to epic up your game. Your list will vary by what you already have, how old you are, how mobile you are (staying where you live for a long time? Prefer to travel more light?), and, of course, your budget. Again, the key factor is time.

Now, I have to acknowledge some privilege: At age 56, I now finally have plenty of plates and glassware and flatware from living my life and from family who’ve passed them down. I also have the privilege of storage space in a home that has some room for these things. I do remember what it was like to have none of these. So I am not saying this can happen right away. Becoming a great host — especially frugally — involves commitment over time, like a hobby or other passion. It’s such a vital investment in the people you love, that you might even put it in the category of saving for the future. What is more precious than friendship and community?

If you decide to go full-on party animal, here are some things you’ll need to build up over time, many of them easy to get as vintage or used items. Feel free to adjust these suggestions as your own life and storage space permit.

  • a couple of extra tables and chairs
  • throw pillows for the floor
  • utensils for such things as barbecue and slow-cooking
  • serving bowls
  • plain but nice plates (glass catering plates are relatively inexpensive, and pay for themselves over paper plates pretty soon. Plus, the look of them is lovely).
  • barware
  • plates and forks and glasses
  • serving carafes for water, coffee, and hot water
  • items for serving milk and sugar
  • table cloths
  • weird stuff like tongs, cheese slicers, little knives and spoons for dip — totally optional; I’m really getting fussy here

Remember, it’s better to plan a party that’s modest now than wait for some far-off date when you’ll be “ready.” Like love, a chance at a party isn’t going to wait: Ready or not, live your life.

Say, drop me a line and tell me how your party went. I’d love to hear your goals. Keep going — and don’t lose your nerve!

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I’m a 50-something bohemian with a mountain of debt and regrets. Can I dig out before it’s all over? I brake for poets.

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