I’m a huge fan of the cocktail party. Anytime I can get 15-20 people in a room together to drink fancy drinks, eat finger foods, and talk for hours on end is a good night, and probably one of my favorite social activities. It’s less stressful than a full-on dinner party, and allows for much more mingling for the hostess, instead of being trapped in a kitchen all evening. Especially in summer, when most things are served cold, it’s a huge relief to be able to just put things out there and get in on the party yourself.
But it can get expensive, because once you get into “let’s party” mode, you justify the purchase of everything from an adorable tablecloth to pricey cheeses to bottles of champagne. So, being that my life is all now about financial dieting, I’ve been trying to find ways to throw cocktail parties for a fraction of the price, and have found that the challenge of setting a budget and sticking to it is actually more fun in some ways than just buying whatever I want. I’ve found, in my trials and errors, that there are generally 3 rules for keeping things cheap come cocktail party time:
- Make sure everyone brings something to drink. This should be obvious, but some people are too embarrassed to ask — don’t be. When inviting, ask to bring a bottle of something, and you can even go as far as to ask that it be “season-appropriate” or fit a certain theme. For this summer cocktail party, recommending things like white/sparkling/rosé, light liqueurs, sweet vermouth, or a summery liquor like vodka/rum/tequila will cut your cost in half immediately. The goal is that YOU start off the drinking, and everyone else keeps it going.
- Throw it with someone else. If there are two of you, you cut all the cost in half and can manage your time much more efficiently. Plus, the whole prep period can be a ton of fun instead of something stressful you have to rush through at the last minute while people are ringing your doorbell.
- Everything you can make from scratch, do. With very few exceptions, the more you can make things from scratch — hummus, fresh salsas, even hot dishes like mini quiches or crostini — the more you will save. It can be tempting to go through a grocery store (especially a fancy one) at the last minute and stock up on absolutely ADORABLE nibblies, but it’s also a huge mistake. Unless you absolutely need to buy something pre-made, you should try your best not to.
For this party, the theme is beginning-of-summer, so you want everything to feel light, airy, and fun. I’m a big believer in mix-and-match food and drink to whatever suits your taste, but in this case our budget is based on decor, a selection of four savory and two sweet dishes, and two cocktails (which you’ll make before your guests arrive). As I said before, you’ll plan on having your guests bring a bottle of something each to keep the drinking going, but prepping two basic cocktails for when everyone arrives is a huge help to feeling fancy and thoughtful without being too expensive. (It’s much nicer than just handing someone a beer.) This plan is for 15-20 people, adjust the amounts as you need to.
For the decor:
To keep things cheap, use what you have. You can repurpose your Christmas string lights by putting pretty little paper cups over the top that you cover with tissue paper. You can get a pack of these cups for $3 and these adorable multicolored tissue paper squares for $6.
To add to the lighting you have going with the string lights, and to make it feel airy and ~ethereal~, place tons of tea lights everywhere. They’re particularly nice along windowsills, but you can also put them in pretty lines in the center of the table, or scatter them around your counters. You can put them in glasses or mason jars, or just leave them as-is. The more tea lights, the more magical everything looks. And you can get 100 of them for $3.50.
Instead of just regular white napkins, get some cute pastel ones. 50 of these beautiful blue ones from Target are $3.
Finally, to make the drinks feel more festive and summery, get some paper straws. You can get these from Etsy, $5 for 50, and you can mix and match whatever colors you like best!
Decor total: $29
For the drinks:
To keep the cost down, try to think of simple, fruit-based, few-ingredient cocktails like a quick blueberry lemonade with vodka, a greyhound, a gimlet, or a pineapple rum punch. Plan to spend $10 each on two bottles of liquor, and find recipes that include simple things like fruit, seltzer or water, sugar, and other stuff you probably have on hand. Try not to put more than 8 or so bucks towards the mixers you have to buy, and include fruit as much as possible, which is cheap and super delicious in a summer cocktail. Have them both ready in punch bowls with a big side bowl of ice so everyone can self-serve and the guests can bring more to drink as they come.
Drink total: $28
For the food:
Basically, as you have less than $20 to put towards food, you want to be judicious about where your money is going. Every party needs two things that are SUPER cheap but fill everyone up: “fancy” popcorn and nuts. There are tons of recipes for popcorn you can make at home for literally less than a dollar (for tons of it), seasoned with everything from Old Bay to truffle salt to maple and bacon. Same goes for the nuts — get a bunch of peanuts for dirt cheap, like a store brand can for $2 — and toast them up in the oven with some herbs, a sweet honey mixture, or whatever flavor you’d like. For $3, you have a big baseline of things to keep people fed. (But don’t put out just plain peanuts and popcorn, or they will feel robbed.)
Then, choose the kinds of appetizers you want to make. This list has a ton of great stuff for under $1 per serving, and the things you make in “bulk,” like hummus, tapenade, or fresh salsa, are even better. Lauren has a great recipe for homemade hummus, and when I’m looking to make dirt-cheap appetizers, I love things like fresh tuna salad in crunchy lettuce wraps, a baguette cut into crostini with a few different cheeses sprinkled on toasted in the oven, crudité, fudge squares (often only two or three ingredients), and whatever else I have on hand. This is a great time to raid your fridge and see what you can come up with, and supplement the things you’re getting from the grocery store. (Since there are two of you hosting the party, you should definitely have some things on hand.)
Food total: $18
Everyone’s party will obviously be unique, but the challenge of setting a budget and sticking to it is awesome for leading you to try new things you never would have before, and repurposing old stuff that’s just been lying around (like some seasonings and spices you rarely touch, or your old Christmas lights), instead of buying everything brand new. Even a few dollars spent towards paper straws, or putting your drinks in punch bowls with a nice little serving station, can make all the difference.
Summer is the season of the impromptu cocktail party, and on a budget like this — particularly when taken on as a duo — this is the kind of thing you can whip together on a moment’s notice and still feel like Betty Draper.