50 Budget-Friendly Ideas for Holiday Parties: Food, Gifts, Decor, and More

Whether it's in a hotel ballroom, a local bar, or even in the conference room, an end-of-the-year gathering can remain stylish while showing gratitude to employees or customers. Here are 50 ideas that address the bottom line without feeling bottom-of-the-barrel.

By Lisa Cericola & Mark Mavrigian November 2, 2009, 9:00 AM EST

MoMA's pop-up centerpiece

Photo: Courtesy of MoMA Design Store

1-3. Skip cupcakes for a fresh, high-quality sheet cake. Bleeding Heart Bakery in Chicago makes spice cake with apples, brown sugar frosting, and streusel; a half-sheet for $130 feeds 45. Mäni’s Bakery in Los Angeles makes an organic carrot-raisin cake, which costs $160 for a half-sheet and serves 65. Miami’s Yummy Cakes and More can make its chocolate explosion cake, with a half-sheet (enough for 65 guests) starting at $65.

4. A low-tech, high-impact way to serve shots is to create your own ice shooters with Pure Modern's Cool Shooter shot mold, available for $12.95 each.

5-6. Forgo the frat-party look and stash cold drinks in a stylish ice tub, like one from Broadway Party Rentals in New York, which rents for $30 and up. Or, to dress up a plain bin and keep things cool, Classic Party Rentals provides the 6 Velon chilling wrap (prices vary).

7. Combine dessert and cocktails in one form: spiked hot chocolate. Jacques Torres makes classic and chili-infused mixes with real chocolate to blend with your favorite spirit. An 18-ounce canister retails for $18.

8-11. Savory pastries are filling and inexpensive. Ciudad in Los Angeles makes wild mushroom empanadas for $38 a dozen, and Casa Foods in New York offers mini ground beef and tomato empanadas for $12 a dozen. Chicago’s Sweet Dreams Organic Bakery and Café serves ricotta and spinach strudel at $55 for 20 pieces. Indian restaurant Dévi in New York prepares three kinds of hors d’oeuvre-size samosas at $1 each for 200 servings.

12-14. Boxed meals don’t have to be boring. Food Box in Chicago will drop off 20-serving containers of hot chili for $65. Miami’s Bulldog Barbecue offers Bulldog-in-a-Box packages that include either a whole barbecue chicken or a chicken and pulled pork combo, baked beans or macaroni and cheese, corn, coleslaw, and corn bread. Each box costs $50 and feeds four. Susie’s Supper Club in New York can deliver hearty fare like flank steak sandwiches with chimichurri aioli, new potato salad, carrot-ginger salad with sesame dressing, and brownies for $14 per person.

15. Throwing a potluck? Use holiday place-card holders from Beau-coup, 12 for four, to display descriptive cards so everyone knows what they’re eating.

16. Dole out cocktails in cups decorated with the names of holiday drinks, $24 a dozen.

17. PrimaVista’s reusable polycarb flatware comes in festive jewel tones and costs $12 for a four-piece set.

18-19. Desserts or finger foods act as stand-ins for centerpieces when presented on Anza Event Rentals’ three-tiered silver display, which rents for $45 and is available in Southern California. In New York, Broadway Party Rentals has a four-tiered revolving pastry tray, which rents for $20.

20. Suck UK’s notebook with built-in pencil is a practical and fun favor for $12 each.

21. Nix the standard T-shirt giveaway for eco-friendly garments from Me to We Style, which are produced in Canada with sweatshop-free labor and sustainable materials. T-shirts retail for $25 to $35, with lower rates for bulk orders, and 50 percent of the company’s profits go to the child-rights group Free the Children. Custom orders are possible for as few as 12 pieces.

22. Bubble Calendar’s poster-size bubble-wrap calendar lets staffers pop their way through 2010, and costs $29.95 each.

23. TSP Spices creates premeasured organic spice collections, each packaged in a compact tin with a recipe. There’s a kit for holiday pies, cookies, turkey, mulled drinks, chili, and roasts, priced at $9 each, or $42 for the set.

24. Employees can brown-bag their lunches in style with Crate & Barrel’s new polyester-vinyl lunch bags.

25. Piñatas lend a festive vibe—and a playful way to take out any end-of-year frustrations. Paper Dragon Piñatas offers custom-made piñatas in holiday themes. A 24-inch model starts at $50.

26. The Livio Radio, $149.99, can play 11,000 free Internet radio stations wirelessly. When the party’s over, use it around the office, or give it away as a generous raffle prize.

27. Screen a DVD of retro Christmas cartoons like The Original Christmas Classics (available from Amazon) either on mute as a kitschy backdrop or with sound, as entertainment for young guests. The set includes a CD and retails for $23.99.

28. Let partygoers play Ping-Pong, $27.99 per set, on the conference room table.

29. Give gift-wrapping parties a green spin with eco-friendly wrapping paper. Green Raising creates playful designs from recycled materials and vegetable-based inks. Two 22- by 33.75-inch sheets cost $9 total, and a portion of the purchase price goes to the charity of your choice.

30. For a group activity that is also a good deed, assemble and decorate gingerbread houses from Wilton’s prebaked giant gingerbread house kit, $39.99, and then donate them to a local hospital, shelter, or youth center.

31. The DJ Company provides old-school entertainment options in the New York metro area, including foosball tables or pinball machines, which start at $225 to $300 per day.

32. Amusitronix provides virtual reality games like a holiday gift grab, trivia competition, or paintball for $995 for four hours, including necessary equipment and staff.

33. Skip the photographer and collect everyone’s digital photos with Canditto. Partygoers insert their memory cards into the device, which makes copies of the images and stores as many as 4,000 photos on two four-gigabyte thumb drives. A week’s rental and round-trip shipping is $450.

34-35. Dress up an entryway with decoratively shaped faux topiary rentals from American Foliage & Design Group; pricing varies. Or add a rustic, wintry look to the room with birch logs from Green Set Inc., which rent for $5 per foot and are available in Southern California and Las Vegas.

36. Add a hint of pine fragrance with Pacifica’s Avalon Juniper soy candle, which retails at $6 for a three-ounce candle.

37. Used Event Stuff lists items like flowers, candles, and decorative props in a variety of cities that are being unloaded for low prices—in some cases, for free.

38. Write out holiday greetings on chalkboard candles. A seven-and-a-half-ounce candle costs $19.50, chalk included.

39. A festooned banner is an easy—and inexpensive—way to set a gleeful tone. Make your own, or purchase a custom version for $12 each from Earmark Gatherings.

40. Dress up a buffet or sparse surfaces with pop-up centerpieces from the MoMA Design Store for $25.95 each.

41. A drab table can be dressed up with a reusable, rechargeable LED table runner from Sylvania, which provides 10 hours of illumination and retails for $99.99.

42. String up some energy-saving LED lights. A 35-foot string of 100 lights costs $19.99.

43. Need to stash supplies or booze, or divide a room? A four-part gray fabric 43 folding screen from Ace Props in Miami rents for $100.

44. The deep red and green Concord plaid tab Concord plaid tablecloth from BBJ Linen dresses up a boring table; rental prices start at $18 for a 90-inch square. Or opt for a red and green plaid runner, which starts at $12.50.

45-46. A grouping of large pillows makes for casual, impromptu seating. Designer 8 Event Furniture Rental provides custom pillows nationwide, starting at $20 each for a 24-inch square. Need something larger? The company’s 46 slip-covered banquette provides ample seating and rents for $160.

47. Not enough surfaces for the buffet? Order extra tables, like the Dustria bar table that Greenroom rents nationwide, starting at $150.

48. “We hosted a potluck lunch in our board room, where each employee brought a dish to share. We also offered activities like Wii and board games, and hosted a holiday gift drive for underprivileged children. Even with a 95 percent reduction, the event was a huge success.
—Liz King, manager, special & charitable events, iStar Financial Inc.

49. “We took our holiday party in a new direction last year by hosting the office at my apartment for cocktails, trivia games, and our traditional white-elephant gift exchange. We kept the bar simple with white and sparkling wines and Pellegrino, and did a great buffet spread of cheeses, charcuterie, and fruit—it reads as very chic, and you don’t need anything more elaborate.”
—Paul Wilmot, founder, Paul Wilmot Communications, New York

50. “In years past we have hosted a dinner and dance reception at a new venue, but last year we opted for a lunch event to cut costs and to accommodate the entire staff. We chose Planet Hollywood as our venue, and with more than 50 screens in the main room, we looped a slide show of candid shots of staff members at work, a spoof video of ‘a day in the life of an Economist employee,’ and a live feed of speakers and raffle winners.”
—Heather Rush, senior manager, events and sales development, The Economist, New York

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