5 ways to save money on Thanksgiving dinner (and get a free turkey)

That plate of turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, green-bean casserole, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie doesn’t come cheap.

More than one in four hosts say that Thanksgiving represents a financial strain, according to a survey by LendingTree

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That shouldn’t come as a surprise given how expensive hosting a feast for the annual holiday can be.

On average, Americans said they expect to spend $334 to host 11 people this year, including $251 on food and $83 for housewares. Given that the average consumer is expected to spend more than $1,000 during the holiday season on gifts, décor and food, Thanksgiving can be a budget-buster.

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Here are some tips from savings experts on how to make the holiday less of a financial strain:

Create a menu — and stick to it

Create a menu so you don’t overshop. Check out promotional giveaways at grocery stores, said Mark Hamrick, senior economic analyst at personal-finance website Bankrate. Some stores, including ShopRite, gift shoppers a free turkey if they spend enough money by a certain date.

Consider making as many dishes from scratch as possible. While premade sides like mashed potatoes or green bean casserole can be time savers, they can quickly blow past one’s budget. Canned pumpkin is cheaper than fresh, and it can be just as tasty when used for a pie.

Avoid the name brands

Supermarket circulars will promise discounts on popular ingredients like cranberries or sweet potatoes, and that will include name brands. Don’t be afraid of going generic. “It’s likely the store brand is cheaper,” said Jen Smith, personal-finance expert at the savings website The Penny Hoarder.

Skip the whole turkey

Turkey, the centerpiece on most Thanksgiving tables, accounts for nearly half of the average family’s food-related costs on Thanksgiving, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation. The average price of a turkey fell 3% from last year to roughly $1.36 per pound for a 16-pound bird.

“If you are having a smaller gathering of, say, six or fewer people, you are probably better off buying turkey breasts or legs instead of a whole turkey,” said Jon Lal, founder and CEO of coupons and cash-back website BeFrugal. (The average turkey costs around $21.71.)

Another option for people who need to save a few bucks: Cook a whole chicken instead. In New York, a whole chicken costs as little as 99 cents per pound, while a whole turkey may cost double that, according to prices available on Instacart.

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Don’t cook too much

Along similar lines, Thanksgiving hosts shouldn’t go into the holiday with leftovers in mind. While leftovers help to spread out the cost of the Thanksgiving meal, they also run the risk of going to waste if they’re not eaten in time. One solution: Limit the number of sides and desserts.

“You don’t have to have the entire gamut to have a lavish Thanksgiving,” Smith said.

Consider making it a potluck

This is especially true for the perennial host. “If you are not taking turns hosting, and find yourself always hosting Thanksgiving dinner, a potluck might be a good way to share the hosting responsibility,” Lal said.

Make it a family affair, even among friends. Splitting up the food means that guests can spend as little or as much as they can afford. The potluck does not need to be limited to food. Beverages, paper plates and decorations can also split up among guests.

Jacob Passy is a personal-finance reporter for MarketWatch and is based in New York.

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