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Save Money on Thanksgiving Dinner

Cut costs on turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce and other seasonal favorites

Thanksgiving dinner doesn't have to break the bank. Despite rising food prices, you can serve up a delicious and festive meal this year by follwing these tips.

One of the simplest ways to cut the cost of Thanksgiving dinner is to rein in the number of dishes you serve. "People typically overspend on Thanksgiving," says Kit Yarrow, a consumer psychologist and professor at Golden Gate University. "The more different dishes prepared, the more money spent." 

While Thanksgiving meals are traditionally about abundance, in tough economic times focusing on a couple of side dishes to go along with the turkey is a surefire way to reduce your grocery bill. Pick recipes that require just a few common ingredients that you probably already have in the house. Avoid complicated casserole and side dishes that call for expensive, exotic spices like saffron.

Skipping appetizers is a good penny-pinching strategy, too. Since it's a given that diners will stuff themselves on the main course, avoid the effort and expense of preparing costly canapés. Alternatively, ask guests to bring apps (or dessert or wine). That not only eases your financial burden but also makes your guests feel like they're contributing to the success of the holiday gathering.

Now, let's talk turkey, probably the single most expensive item on your holiday menu. Despite the foodie hype surrounding "fresh" turkey, a frozen bird tastes the same and saves you a lot of money. Stephanie Nelson, founder of CouponMom.com, says a frozen turkey costs about half the price per pound compared with a fresh turkey.

Be a smart shopper

In the days leading up to Thanksgiving, sales abound at most supermarkets on specific items, such as cranberries or pumpkin pie filling. Make a list of your essential ingredients, visit multiple supermarkets and only buy sale items. If celery isn't reduced at your favorite retailer, there's a good chance it will be at your second- or third-favorite grocer.

Julie Garro, a 50-year-old personal meal planner in Arlington, Texas, makes it her business to shop around for bargains. "I'm not loyal to just one store — I am loyal to my wallet," says Garro, who will go to multiple retailers in search of discounts. "I check the sales, and if there is something that has a shelf life that I can use and the price is right, I'll get that," she says.

The same savings strategies that pay off on everyday groceries work at Thanksgiving, too. Clip coupons, either from newspapers or online, for items that you know for sure you'll need. CouponMom.com's Nelson says it's especially thrifty to combine grocery coupons with store sales.

Pennies per item can add up quickly if you're cooking for a large group. Ask for discounts on dented cans, and compare prices per serving on packaging. A large container of chicken stock is usually cheaper than two small containers. Don't shy away from generics, either. They often taste the same as, but cost less than, branded products.

Buying in bulk can pay off, as well. When you're feeding 10 or more people on Thanksgiving, there's no better place to do your bulk shopping than at a warehouse retailer, says Yarrow, the consumer psychologist. Focus on items such as canned goods and paper products that have a long shelf life. Avoid perishables unless you're certain you'll use up the entire quantity.

This article was originally published November 12, 2010

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