How can I talk to my family about reining in the cost of Thanksgiving?
Update 10/30/20: Check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for any COVID-19 guidelines before you travel or attend any holiday gatherings.
Starting with Thanksgiving, the holidays tend to bring out our extravagant side. Many of us feel moved to be generous toward those we love—which is what the season is all about! Consequently, we get locked into certain spending patterns to uphold traditions—whether that means traveling to Grandma’s house two states over, cooking that beef tenderloin dish everyone loves (and gasping at the price), or door-busting with the cousins on Black Friday.
What Thanksgiving—and any holiday—shouldn’t be about is financial stress. If we overextend ourselves, we risk straining those all-important family relationships—let alone our bank account. Here are some ideas that should help reduce the anxiety and let everyone focus on what’s important: being together.
Switch up the destination
About 48.7 million Americans travel away from home for the Thanksgiving holiday, according to a recent AAA estimate. Those miles add up to dollars spent on gas, plane/train/bus tickets, hotels, and bad coffee. If you’re always the one flying back to be with your parents in Pennsylvania, or road tripping down to Aunt Marjorie’s place in Texas, odds are you’re spending a bundle.
Consider proposing a change: Maybe everyone can come to your place this year. You’ll need to float this idea several months out, before people start getting their plans in place (so, this is for next year). Try something like this: “Mom, I love spending Thanksgiving with you and Dad, but how about I take the load off you guys? I’d love to invite you to my place this year. Of course, Thanksgiving won’t be the same without your potatoes gratin, so I’m hoping we can spend some time in the kitchen together.”
If your family isn’t up for coming your way, consider celebrating with them on alternating years—one with them, the other at your place, with family who live in the area or a few close friends. (There is a lot to be said in favor of Friendsgiving.)
Share the costs
The American Farm Bureau Federation has found for the last several years that the cost of Thanksgiving for a family of 10 is around $50. While $50 is nothing to sneeze at, many families easily spend more than that going out to eat on a weeknight.
What’s more, that $50 estimate is for a basic Thanksgiving, with a grocery-store turkey, cranberries, a couple sides, some pie, and milk and coffee. Some people order a pasture-raised bird from a local farm, which can easily cost four times what a Butterball will run you. If you cook with organic or local produce, make your piecrusts from scratch using fancy European butter, whip up Grandpa’s traditional oyster stuffing and other dishes with expensive ingredients, and then tack on beer or wine, you’re easily looking at hundreds of dollars in grocery costs.
Shocked? Then you probably haven’t really added up how much you spend at the supermarket, the wine store, the farmers market, and so on, to produce your Thanksgiving feast. Once you do, you’ll get why some people have floated the idea of charging a price per head to sit down at their Thanksgiving table. (Not that I’m suggesting this—but I understand the urge.)
It might be better—and more popular with guests—to make a potluck out of Turkey Day. That way, they can help shoulder the expense. Everyone has a favorite dish they can make—or, if they’re not handy in the kitchen, they can bring a bottle of wine or a cheese platter from the store. You can make a turkey, a ham, a Tofurkey—whatever floats your boat—and a side or two, and then rely on others to fill out the feast. Circulate an email (or even a Google spreadsheet) ahead of time about who’s bringing what, so you don’t end up with five different versions of sweet potatoes and no cranberry sauce. And here’s a secret: People like to be told what to bring. It eliminates any guesswork and anxiety for your guests.
Make a realistic budget
Ask if you can, as a family, set a Thanksgiving budget. “Can we all commit to spend no more than $X?” Family members may readily agree, not realizing how it all adds up, so it’ll be up to you to point out some of the trade-offs. If everyone wants the pasture-raised turkey, you may need to skip the oyster stuffing. As a family, create a menu that fits your budget and does its best to satisfy all appetites.
Then keep track of how much you actually spend. (You can even make it a fun activity by getting the kids involved.) Many people I know proudly tell me they set a budget for a particular holiday, but when I ask whether they hit their target, they sheepishly confess that they’re not sure. A budget is only useful if you use it.
Don’t bond over shopping bags
More than 150 million Americans did holiday shopping during Thanksgiving weekend last year, spending nearly $300 per person. In some families, Black Friday can be the curse of Thanksgiving weekend, tempting people to spend more than they can afford on gifts for each other, and for themselves. Many families count shopping as a major bonding activity. If it occupies center stage for your family, try suggesting less-expensive pursuits to round out the weekend.
Go to a movie (the cost of a ticket is probably less than what you and your loved ones would drop at that Gap super sale) or a museum exhibit. Come up with a DIY gift that people can give each other during the holidays, and put together the supplies ahead of time. Or keep the focus on the “giving” part of Thanksgiving and take your leftover canned goods and unopened food packages over to a local food pantry as a family.