Frugal Living 

Can you do Thanksgiving dinner for less than $20?

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Is it possible to put together a recognizable Thanksgiving Dinner for $20?It’s now a week until Thanksgiving, and since thawing a turkey takes a few hours shy of forever, you’d better start your meal planning now. That is, if you don’t want to end up doing the walk of shame to whatever sad buffet restaurant your ill planning consigns you to. (Full disclosure: I’ve eaten out for Thanksgiving exactly once and I am still kind of traumatized, but maybe it’s actually great and I just don’t know.)

My wife and I like to cook, and we usually do it up for Thanksgiving. But I’m still amazed at the lengths people go to, and what they’re willing to spend, to put an impressive Thanksgiving dinner together. For all the Martha Stewart or Alton Brown wannabees out there, that free-range “heritage” bird can cost you more than a $100, not to mention all the black truffle mashed potatoes, organic kale and all the other delicious stuff you can make to go along with it if you feel like spending the money.

But what if instead of having a foodie Thanksgiving, you had a frugal one? Instead of spending the maximum amount you can on Thanksgiving to impress your friends and family, what if you tried to cut costs as much as possible? How low could you go?

After all, frozen turkey isn’t all that expensive as long as you’re not buying a massive bird or one of the fancy heritage varieties, fresh produce can be replaced with frozen to get to a lower cost, and so on. Using grocery prices on the grocery delivery service, I decided to find out the lowest price target I could hit for Thanksgiving dinner  for a family of five. Here’s what I came up with:


Thanksgiving for $20

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I started with the bird, which, although it’s pretty cheap at $1.29 a pound, they’re really big. The smallest they sell on Peapod is 10 pounds, so at $12.90 apiece, that was biggest part of each of my menus and left me only $7.10 to come up with two sides for five people.

From there I looked at potential sides — I wanted a carb or starch and a vegetable for each. I settled on stuffing and mashed potatoes as my two carb/starch items. Surprisingly, the stuffing was much cheaper than the potatoes, which I often think of as being good food for living like it’s the Great Depression. I also added margarine to go with the mashed potatoes because it’s cheaper than butter (hopefully you have a cup of milk on hand to add to make them edible).

For the vegetables, I went with frozen green beans on the first meal, because they are also cheap as hell, and frozen corn. And yes, I’m aware that corn isn’t really a vegetable, it’s a grain, but this is America and we have a proud tradition of pretending things are vegetables to make ourselves feel better, so get over it. Plus I felt like I couldn’t really plan two Thanksgiving meals and not include corn, which was a staple of the Native American diets we’re supposed to be emulating on Thanksgiving anyway.

For the desserts, I went with stuff that was pretty cheap and easy to prepare. Option 1 got a pretty sweet-looking pumpkin pie, and option 2 got a brownie mix, but I didn’t include the price of the oil or eggs that you’ll need to make it, thinking that most people have at least a couple eggs sitting around in their fridge. I also didn’t include the price of spices at all, so your $20 Thanksgiving is going to be pretty bland if you don’t have some basics like salt and pepper lying around. As for booze, $20 isn’t going to get you that AND dinner for five, although not having any would be a major disservice to the memory of the Pilgrims considering one of the reasons they landed at Plymouth Rock in the first place was they were running out of beer.

But all-in-all, I think these are very serviceable Thanksgiving dinners, and I think this exercise was a good one in that it shows that you don’t have to spend hundreds of dollars to observe the holiday and have a nice dinner with loved ones.

What do you think? Does anyone have any tricks to share to push the cost down further? Am I missing something here?

(Photo: Bruce Fingerhood)

{ 9 comments, please add your thoughts now! }

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9 Responses to “Can you do Thanksgiving dinner for less than $20?”

  1. Claes Bell says:

    FYI, a friend tells me I should ditch the frozen turkey and go shoot one myself. That would give me $20 to spend on a much better selection of sides.

    • Bryan says:

      That depends on how good of a shot you are. With the current cost of ammo, you might come out ahead buying a turkey. 😉

  2. carolyn says:

    We have a lot of ppl for Thanksgiving. So the foods are potluck. Each family according to size brings 1 or 2 dishes, therefore each one saving a good deal of money. And there’s always leftovers. And each year is a variety of tastes and flavors.

  3. Kim N says:

    I believe if you shopped at another store you could do much better then that for $20. A 10 lb bag of potatoes is right around $1.50 at Aldi and their vegetables are usually $1.09. Thanksgiving can be done very frugally and I thank you for writing about it.

  4. fabclimber says:

    My company gives us a free frozen turkey for the holiday, so the meal is less expensive. If we don’t need it we donate it to the food bank. Part of giving thanks is splurging on the relatives to share our bounty. It is a privilege to do it, and you can’t beat the nap afterwards!

  5. bloodbath says:

    It will be difficult in 2013 to make Thanksgiving dinner for 4 diners on $20.
    $20 can feed a single person but not more than that. If you bought only the turkey and cranberry and use supplies you already have in the pantry, you may be able to pull it off. But it would be a sad day!

  6. Joan says:

    My mother, very frugal depression-era girl, saved the bread ends for a few weeks, added celery and spices, and voila! Great stuffing. The extra celery was the appetizer. She always splurged on olives to go with the celery. And a bag of shell-on nuts and grapes. Otherwise everything except the canned cranberry sauce and peas and margarine was home-made – pumpkin and apple pie, cranberry bread, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, gravy, creamed onions, and salad. I learned how to be really frugal from my mother – there were 6 kids. I still save bread ends to make bread crumbs. Note: nowadays she enjoys our much more extravagant meals at our homes.

  7. Olivia says:

    We have a bump and dent grocer near us. Great for canned goods. Cranberry sauce 69 cents. Sweet potatoes 49 cents lb. Turkey purchased at the regular grocery when you buy $25 of other stuff. (So I can get milk which has price controls in our state). If you use a Butterball coupon and buy 4 cans of Green Giant corn you get an additional $3 off. 12 pound turkey came to $9. Or go with store brand for 69 cents a pound with the $25 purchase. Corn would be $2, but I’d only use two cans, so $1. Potatoes from the garden. Frozen brocholli is now on sale at $1 on a 1 pound bag. Apple pie from scratch about $3. Pumpkin about $4. Just under $20.

  8. Shell says:

    These prices seem a bit high. I got our Thanksgiving Turkey on sale at Kroger for .78 a pound. Homemade dressing is cheaper as well. You make your own cornbread to go in the dressing and your own homemade cream soups. We made our own pies with on sale ingredients bought about a month before Thanksgiving.Vegetables are always on sale in one form or another.

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