Party on a Budget

Throw an affordable holiday party with these clever ideas.

During the holidays, many things vie for your ever-shrinking wallet, and throwing a party may seem impossible. But you really can afford to do it up right, using these money-saving ideas.

Appetizer parties are a great way to entertain a group, especially if you are short on seating space, time, or resources. Although you'll want to allow about eight hors d'oeuvres per person, they needn't be expensive or complicated to taste good. Grilled, bacon-wrapped chunks of vegetables and fruits are always popular. So are halved tiny baked potatoes filled with sour cream, bacon, and chives or chili and cheese. Another favorite offering is fried stuffed ravioli or tortellini served with marinara sauce.

Rather than serve expensive whole shrimp, smoked salmon, or beef tenderloin, extend them by combining with spicy dressings, cream cheese, and vegetables for easy spreads. Accompany spreads with crackers and breads, or use them as fillings for puff pastry shells, wonton wrappers, or rolled tortillas.

Don't feel obligated to offer a full bar or even any hard liquor. Beer and wine are usually sufficient, or stick to one hard liquor drink in keeping with the seasonal theme, such as a punch bowl of eggnog or hot rum toddies.

For interesting buffet tables, use an array of unmatched china and crystal collected inexpensively at garage sales.

Taped background music sets a festive mood, but why not add extra excitement with live music? Engage a piano student to play, or invite carolers from your local church or club to drop by while the party is in full swing.

Use snow in ice buckets to chill wines, soft drinks, or beers. Snow chills better than ice, looks nicer, and saves you the cost of purchasing crushed ice.

Candles provide soft lighting that creates a relaxed party atmosphere. Scatter inexpensive votive candles on mantels, windowsills, plate rails, and tables. Fill tiered cake stands with votive candles for stunning displays of light. Use candles of assorted shapes, sizes, and heights for table displays. Candles burn more slowly if they've been stored in a sealed box in the refrigerator and are lit while they're cold.

Decorate your tables with whatever is close at hand. You need not go to the expense of cut flowers. Use foliage cut from your outside shrubbery, nuts, small white birch logs, pinecones, bird nests or birdhouses, toys, fresh fruit (such as pears, apples, oranges, and persimmons), and small potted plants or herbs. Arrange them on cake stands, in wicker baskets, or in bowls interspersed with satin ribbons, sprinklings of dried flower petals, wrapped presents, and old holiday greeting cards.

Purchase strands of tiny white Christmas lights during after-Christmas sales for next year's party. String your house with them to create inexpensive, intimate, and elegant lighting.

Clusters of beribboned helium balloons make festive decorations for any holiday party. Buy the ribbon in economical commercial-size rolls.