10 Frugal but Fabulous Holiday Party Ideas

Follow these tried-and-true budget-friendly holiday party ideas to throw a memorable holiday party that won't break the bank!

Holiday parties are fun, but let's face it, can be expensive to host -- especially during a season where you're already spending money left and right. This year, throw a memorable bash without going broke with these creative holiday party ideas from entertaining expert Erika Lenkert, author of The Last-Minute Party Girl.

1. Just-Right Invites
Create invitations that convey the theme of your party -- and that it's going to be really fun, a must-attend. Send a sprig of holly with details listed alongside a lipstick-imprinted kiss, affix a swizzle stick with a promise of a great custom cocktail you plan to serve or shoot out an Evite with whimsical, holiday-inspired verbiage. ("Join Vixen and Prancer on the dance floor and Blitzen as he strikes his usual barfly pose.") Then save yourself some cash with clever themes. Forget stocking glassware by asking guests to arrive with their most festive martini glasses, or skip a huge bar tab by suggesting each guest arrives with a bottle of vino.

Whatever you decide to do, send your invites out at least two to three weeks before your event. Two important rules to remember: Include a start and an end time on invitations so party hoppers can plan ahead, and clearly indicate the type of party (cocktail party, dinner party, etc.) you plan to host so friends know what to expect.

2. Dynamite Decor and Favors
Cheap chic is the name of the game when hosting a great party. Stock up on serving trays, bowls and any other necessary party decor pieces by borrowing from friends, shopping eBay or loading up at local garage sales. Customize your own party gear by spray-painting it wintry colors like white, silver, gold or cranberry. Add sexy lighting with tons of tea lights (use small water glasses if you don't have votives) or amber light bulbs, which cast a warm, sultry glow.

Make use of those Christmas decorations: String white lights around the front doorway, windows or the buffet table; stack same-color holiday ornaments in large glass bowls or vases; and hang colored globe ornaments from the ceiling with pins and fishing wire. Pick up a can of Crystal Frost spray to add an icy effect or snowflake designs to windows, and grab some tacky-fun tinsel for last-minute touches, perhaps as a tangle around an appetizer platter or a tie around rolled napkins. Inspire holiday kisses with good old mistletoe over one doorway and, if you're really looking for love, one sprig clipped into your hair.

You can even glam up glassware. To create custom wine glass tags, use an instant camera to snap mini photos of friends when they walk through the door, hole-punch the tops, add festive ribbon and attach to wine glass stems. Hosting a retro Christmas party? Think Shrinky Dinks! Encourage guests to decorate and sign their own designs on Shrinky Dink paper, hole-punch the tops, bake in the oven for three minutes and present on a silver platter.

WATCH: Why You Need Ice Balloons at Your Next Party

3. Easy, Fun and Glamorous Snacks

Unless you plan on serving a full-blown feast, your party should start long before dinner or well after. Even then, it's important to offer an array of snacks. Everyone loves delicious food at a party, plus it'll help soak up all that boozy holiday cheer. But there's no need to slave all day or stock up on plates and forks. Design a self-serve buffet full of finger foods. Then use vibrant, shiny, thick wrapping paper to line each serving tray or plate. Suddenly, all your platters and plates will match the mood. Try these menu ideas for starters and let your guests munch and mingle:

  • Brie, mango and roasted poblano pepper quesadillas prepped in advance, cut into quarters and kept warm in the oven until you're ready to serve them.
  • Make-your-own grilled cheese sandwiches: Set out your George Foreman-like indoor grill, a spray can of olive oil, sliced breads, slices of fontina cheese, slices of prosciutto or good-quality ham or turkey, and arugula. Let the guests do all the custom cooking.
  • Caesar salad crudites: In a low, wide bowl, arrange overlapping rings of baby romaine lettuce spears. Place a ramekin of creamy Caesar salad dressing right in the center. Breadsticks go on the side, displayed in a tall glass or vase.
  • Olives mixed with toasted almonds, olive oil and thyme. This mixture is also great when scattered in serving bowls throughout the room. Just don't forget small bowls for the olive pits.
  • Endive leaves filled with a mixture of blue cheese crumbles, chopped spiced nuts and a drop of honey.
  • A killer cheese plate served on a platter or cutting board complete with fruit, crackers and baguette slices.
  • Mini pancakes (homemade or bought at a gourmet grocer) topped with sour cream or creme fraiche, a layer of smoked salmon and minced chives.

And always be sure to serve one visually dramatic item. For example, fill clear juice glasses or clear plastic cups with brownies, custard, toasted almonds and caramel sauce for an original parfait. (You'll need spoons for this one.) Or try edible presents, like decadent brownies topped with chocolate icing and white icing bows you've created yourself.

4. Custom Cocktails
You can save big bucks and make a party memorable by creating a specialty cocktail. I'm into a drink called Santa's Helper. Start by soaking peeled and sliced cucumber wedges and crushed mint overnight in Bacardi Limon. Then right before the party, strain out the solids and add limeade concentrate, no-sodium soda water and enough cranberry juice to create a beautifully crimson cocktail. Garnish with lime slices and tie a bell around each cocktail glass.

You can make it in large batches in advance (leaving out the soda until right before serving) and set up your self-serve bar with style. Include plenty of ice (at least a pound per person), glasses (at least two per person or you'll be washing glasses all night), cocktail napkins, backups of everything (hidden in the kitchen or under the bar) and a note with the drink name and ingredients since guests will be asking you all night.

If you're hosting a more intimate gathering of close friends and have fun martini glasses you want to show off, try my Peppermint Stick Martini.

Peppermint Stick Martini

  • 1 peppermint stick, crushed
  • 1 1/2 ounces vodka
  • 1 ounce peppermint schnapps
  • 1 ounce Triple Sec
  • Ice
  • 1 small candy cane

    Moisten the rim of a chilled martini glass and dip the wet rim into the pummeled peppermint. Combine the vodka, schnapps, Triple Sec and ice in a cocktail shaker. Shake it like Santa knows you've been bad. Carefully strain the mix into the martini glass and garnish with the candy cane. Ho ho ho and away we go.

    (Recipe courtesy of GoodFood Catering)

5. That's Entertainment
Mingle, yes. But you should also plan something memorable. Encourage guests to do something together -- like sing a song -- so that they can really let their hair down in unison. Hand out lyrics to your favorite holiday tune, play a recorded version on low volume and let the crooning begin. (By the way, this works better when everyone has exchanged his or her inhibitions for a few cocktails.)

Pace of the party slowing down? Put a crazy disco compellation in the CD player and get your groove on. This always energizes a party and makes people laugh!

6. A Little Night Music
Set the mood of your soiree with all-time favorite tunes. Early in the evening, try the soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas (a classic), then pick up the pace midway through the party with festive music. (I like the Jackson 5 Christmas Album and the movie soundtrack to Four Rooms.) Choose music that you know your guests will love, keeps toes tapping and won't offend. Music is also your best end-of-evening friend -- turning it off and flipping on the lights is a subtle signal that guests should head on their way.

7. Look the Part
You're the master of ceremonies, so glam it up -- wear something fun and festive to set the mood. I always put a big flower in my hair. Try a boa or one super-fun accessory that will make guests smile.

8. Don't Leave 'Em Empty-Handed
Want a great way to send guests off? Try simple party favors. Fill a big bowl with candy canes, candies or personalized cookies (write your own messages with food markers) that friends can grab as they walk out. To start the giving earlier in the evening, consider place settings that incorporate novelty gifts from a gumball machine (too cute!). Or host an old-fashioned gift swap: ask each guest to bring a small gift and let the good times roll!

9. Closing Ceremonies
It's easy to get caught up in all the excitement and fun (you deserve to after all that hard work), but don't forget to raise your glass to toast and acknowledge your friends. One activity I love to do at the end of a party: Ask each friend to write a letter that describes his or her personal wish for the coming year and seal it in a self-addressed envelope. Then surprise and delight your friends by mailing the letters the following Christmas or New Year's. Prepare for the thank-you phone calls -- many of my friends meet or exceed their goals each year!

10. My Best-Kept Secret -- Revealed!
The secret to great entertaining? It has little to do with your cooking skills or your elegant collection of flatware. It's about being hospitable and adding a dash of personalized cleverness to each and every fete. You want to be jolly and jubilant when guests arrive, so plan your prep time and menu around your available time and budget. Add a little fun and personal flare to your decor, be playful, make your home warm and inviting, and even if you serve Chinese takeout or pizza, guests will know they're part of something magical.

WATCH: No More Messes! Savvy Solutions for Messy Party Snacks

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