1. Decide how much to spend per person at your table. A few weeks before Thanksgiving, figure out how many people you will be feeding and set a dollar figure for each adult (a little less for each child). You don't have to be a hard-core penny-pincher to spend just ten dollars per person without serving celery sticks and boiled eggs. Read on for realistic suggestions to meet your requirements for a festival of abundance that still meets your low-budget needs!
2. Keep it vegetarian. If you don't serve a turkey, you don't have to buy oysters for the stuffing. You also won't have all those leftovers that never seem to get used completely, leading to wasted food and money. Hams, game meat (unless you've hunted it yourself), and other flesh dishes generally cost more time and fiscal resources to store, prepare, and serve than vegetarian dishes. There is a reason why the quintessential poor-man's food is rice and beans: it's cheap!
3. But I am not suggesting serving just rice and beans for Thanksgiving dinner, except perhaps as an inexpensive, filling side dish. Browse through this website for main courses and sides such as a rich Nut Roast, a vegetarian Gravy made without meat broth, and a flavorful home-made Cranberry Sauce. For dessert, try a vegan Pumpkin Pie that uses healthy tofu instead of expensive cream and condensed milk.
4. Make foods from scratch. Avoiding convenience foods, such as packaged pie shells, canned soup broths, biscuit mixes, and canisters of stuffing, will save you a surprising amount of money. If you would like to try a truly cheapskate trick, start your pumpkin pie with an actual pumpkin, not with a can.
5. Forget the fake turkey. Thanksgiving can survive without a vegetarian substitute for the bird! By all means, if you have the cash, or if you have looked at your budget and have twenty or thirty dollars left over, then buy and serve a "Tofurkey" or similar meat analogue. But consider thinking outside the roast. Why not spend the budget overage on organic ingredients, more side dishes, or a nice bottle of wine? (Note: some wines may be filtered through animal-derived charcoal. The same concern exists with regular granulated sugar. Talk to your vegan guests about it. But don't set yourself up for trouble. Just ask what kind of sugar they use when they bake at home, and whether they drink wine.)
6. Save time and cooking energy by baking many things at once. Compare your recipes and cook pies, stuffings, biscuits, and muffins all at the same time. Most baked goods can stand some minor temperature variation and still come out well. With a little extra attention at the oven while items bake, you may save yourself an entire day of baking.
7. Start now. Maybe you are reading this Thanksgiving morning. But if you have a few weeks before the arrival of Turkey Day (or, as we like to call it, um, well, to be honest we still do call it "Turkey Day" even though we have been vegetarians for ten years), put in an hour or so of preparation that will help you avoid spending money later. Cut some bread into cubes and put it in the freezer for stuffing. Make a big batch of Cranberry Sauce, and then seal it up in canning jars for use later in the holiday season. It will taste better because you will use just sugar instead of flavorless high-fructose corn syrup, and you can still acheive that cylindrical can shape if you strain it and cook it to the gelling point before canning.
8. Decorate from nature. Instead of buying those honeycomb paper turkey decorations and cartoonish pictures for the wall, scatter (clean) leaves over the tablecloth. Place an arrangement of twigs in a flower vase; it will look better than it sounds, especially if there are some berries on the branches. A bowl of fruit can serve as both a course for the meal and your table's centerpiece. Candles, table runners, and harvest-themed objets d'art are easily found at second-hand shops and garage sales, if not in your own attic.
9. Be wary of the season's supermarket promotions. Locally, some grocery stores offer a free turkey to households that spend a certain amount of money in the weeks before Thanksgiving. If you would not otherwise spend that much on your groceries in that time period, then a free turkey is no deal. On the other hand, if you can combine the offer with a well-thought-out strategy for stocking your pantry only with foods that you would ordinarily use, then the effort may be worth it. But do the math first, and investigate the restrictions that the supermarket may have imposed on their offer ... and consider incorporating more vegetarian options instead.
10. Avoid disposable dishes, cutlery, and napkins. Running the dishwasher a few extra times will cost less than purchasing paper plates and cups, plastic silverware, and one-use roasting pans and pie plates. And only the largest family's linens -- tablecloth, napkins, dishtowels -- will fill the washing machine completely. Using "real" dishes and napkins adds further elegance to a formal celebration while reducing waste and saving you real money. Linens do not need to match for an informal dinner (or even a formal one any more); matched sets are easy to find in thrift stores and charity shops.
Ideas for hosting a frugal Thanksgiving can help you save money throughout the year, not just during the holidays. Remember that Thanksgiving and the other holidays that arrive as the year comes to a close are about people, not things. A frugal -- and vegetarian! -- Thanksgiving can be cheap with money but rich with love.