How to Throw a Party...without Breaking the Bank

It's no secret that I love a good party. My personal philosophy:

Forget diamonds and fancy shoes.

If I've got to choose?

I'd rather have a party, thank you.

I lob invitations, easy as breathing, "We should get together! I've got some friends I want you to meet."

But you see, here's the catch.

I am not independently wealthy.

Last time I checked, there's no trust fund.

And you know as well as I do, parties aren't cheap.

While I'd love to host multi-course dinners and imbibe my friends with fine wine, let's be realistic. (Yeah, in the early days I flipped the bill for sumptuous parties. I'm still paying for them!) Long ago I realized, if I want to have parties...something's GOT to change.

So what's a girl to do?

How do you throw a party without breaking the bank?

Five years and a stream of parties later, I've finally got a system that works. For me, it's potluck or the kitty.


Share the labor. Share the cost. Discover new foods.

First thing you need to know: A potluck requires a theme. The word "theme" conjures up visions of luaus and leis and frankly, makes my skin crawl. But over time I've learned, people like to center themselves around an idea. So get over it, and pick something!

Ideas run the gamut. Broad stroke ideas like Appetizers or BBQ work well. Swine divine pork party? Dumpling feast? Or how 'bout a cookbook-themed potluck? (I need 12 lifetimes to cook through my books, how 'bout you? Grab your friends and get cooking!)

Often I'll pick a theme that begs for a story, and serves as a conversation point for guests. Last year I hosted an Americana-themed potluck and encouraged guests to explore regional or nostalgic dishes from their childhood. It was a blockbuster event with over 90 attendees! (See photo above.) The table heaved with pulled pork, baked beans, carrot and raisin salad, rootbeer floats, home made bagels, and brownies. Half the fun was discovering new dishes ...and figuring out who made them! (Who brought the jello mold?!)

Experience has taught me a few things:

1. Pick a theme.

2. Some folks don't cook. Fine. Give them an assignment: bring a cooler & ice, extra wine, a case of beer, or come early and help move furniture.

3. Goodwill/Salvation Army/Thrift Stores are like gold! Pick up wine glasses, plates, sliverware, serving platters and utensils here. Who cares if they match? These are your friends, get over the Crate & Barrel-I-can't-have-a-party-until-it's-perfect mentality. Life is short. People will remember the good times, not the your mismatched plates. (Even better? Throw caution to the wind and grab the funky ones. Iowa State Fair, anyone?)

Party time!

I provide:

- The venue
- Music
- Plates
- Silverware
- Glasses
- Serving utensils (always in short supply)
- Napkins
- My potluck contribution
- A couple bottles of cheap wine

The rest? It's up to my guests.

Trust me, I'm a control freak by nature and this takes a leap of faith. Fortunately, my friends are good cooks and potlucks give them a chance to strut their stuff. Relax, and enjoy what comes....


The premise here is simple. You shop, you cook, you host the event. Instead of bringing a dish (a la potluck), your guests bring cash.


You expect friends to pay for dinner?

Yes, happily.

In a restaurant, you split the check. Why not do the same at home?

For me, the kitty is not an actual kitty but a vessel for cash. Use a champagne bucket, vase or cookie jar...whatever. I stick the kitty by the door and guests deposit funds when they arrive. If folks need to leave early? No worries. All I need is a hug and a kiss goodbye.

It's a fabulous system that makes a festive win-win situation for everyone.

Pssst. On a budget and you want to host a seated dinner? See Potluck point #3. Thanks to Goodwill, I've got service for 40.


A typical invitation spells it out:

What to Bring: a potluck dish or $, and a bottle of wine

Experience has taught me...people have no idea how much they really drink. Over the span of a 3 hour party, I can drink a bottle of wine myself. (1 bottle = 750 milliliters or 25.4 ounces, which gives you about four, 6-ounce glasses of wine.)

I'm still baffled by couples who only bring one bottle of wine. Over time, I've learned. The more couples at your party...the more likely you'll run out of wine early, hence the secret stash.

I always keep a secret stash of wine, just in case we run out. It's not the good stuff...but by that time of the night, it usually doesn't matter. (Yes, I'm talking about Two Buck Chuck.)

A bottle of wine per person is about right. True, some people drink more, others drink less but for a typical party, plan on a bottle for each person. If you have a high couple-to-single ratio? Invest in a secret stash. You're going to need it!


It's true, I love nothing more than bringing folks around the table. Life changes so quickly...and after loosing the people you love? I regret holding back, worrying about trivial stuff like matching silverware.

Grab your friends and celebrate!

Ready to party? Which will you choose...potluck or kitty?