How to Host a Stylish Thanksgiving Dinner on a Budget

Experts weigh in on how to throw an unforgettable affair without going overboard on expenses.

Whether you're a first-timer or seasoned pro, having Thanksgiving at your place can be intimidating. From curating the guest list to finalizing the menu and everything in between, hosting the culinary centerpiece of the holiday season is no small feat.

After all, it's not just about the food. Pulling it together requires at least one trip to the store (if not more) to ensure you've got everything covered.

Fortunately, there's no need to lose sleep over mounting receipts. We asked the experts for the lowdown on how to make Thanksgiving memorable without draining your bank account, and the good news is, it's easier than you think.

open kitchen decorated for Thanksgiving
Sweet Magnolia Photo, Courtesy of Tara Berger

Get Inspired

When it comes to occasion planning, knowing where to begin is often the hardest part. According to Tara Berger, event stylist and founder of One Stylish Party (an entertaining blog and online party boutique), finding an "inspiration piece" can help get the ball rolling.

"This inspiration piece can be anything from a color to a texture. It can be something you own, or it can be something that you pick up at a thrift store," Berger explains. "Once you find this inspiration piece, you can use that to build upon for the rest of the decor."

Berger says thrift stores can be a great resource for inspiration pieces at bargain prices because they offer a variety of unique, one-of-a-kind items including candle holders, glassware, antiques, and serving platters.

outdoor table set for Thanksgiving dinner party
Brittany Gidley Photography, Courtesy of Tara Berger

Before heading out the door, she suggests "shopping what you already own first," and taking inventory of your dishes and glassware to see if you've got the basics—such as white plates or simple wine glasses. "Then, you want to focus on the textures and layering items in there to make it fit and work with your theme—building back around to that inspiration piece," she says.

From there, Berger says to continue adding visual interest, like layering dramatic accent plates on top of dishes you already have. "Maybe you find really neat placemats at a dollar store that go underneath and you're just building these layers, giving it that seasonal vibe."

Create an Inviting Tablescape

Since most of the Thanksgiving dinner is spent gathered around the table, how you style it goes a long way in helping set the stage for your meal. "There are some key foundations that I use when setting a table, especially for Thanksgiving," says Heather Grahling, founder and owner of Vivid Hue Home + Gifts in Farmington, Connecticut.

cheetah print plate setting
Vanessa Van Ryzin @ Mindful Motion Photography, Courtesy of Heather Grahling

According to Grahling, it's helpful to set your table a day or two before the holiday to give yourself extra time to layer pieces to help make a "grand statement." Grahling also suggests avoiding extra-large or tall centerpieces. "You want your guests to be able to see all attendees from across the table."

Heather Grahling, Founder & Owner of Vivid Hue Home + Gifts

I love to create a 'wow' factor on the table, but it's important to be practical at the same time.

—Heather Grahling, Founder & Owner of Vivid Hue Home + Gifts

Adding flowers to the table is a style must, Grahling says. She suggests using three to four vignettes of flowers set in vases across the middle of the table, and purchasing them from places like the dollar store or Home Goods. "I purposefully seek different shapes and sizes to hold the flowers to create some unique interest."

outdoor Thanksgiving dinner party tablescape
Brittany Gidley Photography, Courtesy of Tara Berger

To keep expenses down, she recommends picking up flowers and greens at Trader Joe's, as they have a large assortment to choose from at reasonable prices. "One tip I always give is to purchase flowers that all fit the same color scheme," she explains. "It creates a more professional-looking outcome, and most guests don't realize you've purchased store-bought flowers."

Another trick Grahling uses is buying fabric from a crafts store for an accent on a solid tablecloth. "Layer the additional fabric as a runner or addition to the centerpiece," she says. To hide the unfinished edges, she recommends folding them down and then ironing them.

Think Outside the Box

Finding your Thanksgiving décor may be as easy as walking out the front door, says Samantha G. Thomas, designer and owner of Samantha Gale Designs Vintage Farmhouse Home Store, located in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.

"You don't need to spend any money to decorate your dining table," Thomas says. "You can go outside and clip some hydrangeas, and they're the Thanksgiving holiday flora gift that keeps giving." According to Thomas, hydrangeas are beautiful fresh or dried out, and they look great in flower arrangements. "I love to take dried hydrangeas and mix them with faux flowers, because it gives you that full-bodied arrangement without the big dollars."

Thomas also suggests looking for items in your home that can be repurposed in unique ways, like old picture frames, which can be used for printables like the dinner or wine menu. "It costs you nothing and it makes the guests feel good," she says. "It's an elegant way to do something special, without really spending any money."

If you've got old pillowcases stowed in the closet, Thomas says to give them new life as chair covers. "If you've never noticed, pillowcases fit perfectly over the back of most dining chairs," she says. You can simply slide them down onto the chair, and then use a wide strip of burlap or ribbon at the bottom to make a bow and help complete the look.

Thanksgiving tablescape with stacked teacups
Courtesy of Samantha Thomas

Don't own candle holders? No problem. Thomas says to try using empty wine bottles instead. "Take a wine bottle, soak it, get the label off, and you can tie a ribbon around the middle—a nice, big, full-bodied jute ribbon—then stick a candle on top and you have a candlestick."

Finally, if you've got old teacups gathering dust in the back of a cabinet, they can be used for layering, says Thomas. Flipped upside down, they can be stacked to create multi-layered appetizer or serving dishes. "It's a cool thing you can do that adds another unique flair."

Don't Forget the Details

Outside of the meal itself, it's the ambiance that makes Thanksgiving an unforgettable occasion; and when it comes to creating the perfect atmosphere, small things can have a big impact.

alternating height food presentation
Brittany Gidley Photography, Courtesy of Tara Berger

Putting some extra thought into the food presentation is one way to level up your game. "One of the techniques I recommend is using height variation when laying out a spread of food," says Berger, who suggests hitting up the dollar store for unique items, like seasonal boxes or craft items, that can be used as risers for serving plates and desserts.

Tara Berger, Event Stylist & Founder of One Stylish Party

I like to look at each event as an immersive experience. The little details help tie it all together and make your guests feel special.

—Tara Berger, Event Stylist & Founder of One Stylish Party

Berger also suggests swapping out foil pans for real dishes if you can. "Yes, they are practical, but it's one extra step to pick up a plain white platter from the dollar store to set items on."

pouring wine for dinner party with flowers in background
Brittany Gidley Photography, Courtesy of Tara Berger

When it comes to details, Grahling recommends welcoming arriving guests with a glass of champagne or creating a specialty drink for the occasion. "You want guests to feel comfortable and welcome in your setting," she explains.

Take It to Go

If you're trying to stick to a budget, it's okay to ask guests to bring a dish or bottle of wine if they're able and willing. According to Thomas, most people feel good when they help out. "It's something special when everybody's involved, instead of just one person pulling the weight for everybody, and I think people want to contribute."

For those who do end up bringing a dish to share, Thomas suggests asking them to forward their recipe ahead of time. "You can print it out and roll it up in a scroll, tie it with a little ribbon, and put it with dessert as a parting gift," and it serves as a nice reminder of the evening, she says.

Finally, Berger recommends stopping at a dollar or discount store to stock up on to-go containers and plain white gift bags ahead of the big day. That way, you can pack up extra food to send home with your guests. "It's just part of the experience—having it already thought out. And it's an inexpensive touch to have it there, ready to send them home with leftovers."

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles