An Outdoor Movie Party: 4 Strategies for Throwing a Generous Party on a Budget

Gatherings From The Kitchn

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Who doesn't love the idea of hosting a memorable party, one that feels thoughtful and generous, in addition to being a lot of fun? It's easy to do when the budget is unlimited, but even when cost is a major concern, you can throw a party that makes your guests feel like a million bucks. Here are the three strategies I used for the outdoor movie party I've been sharing this week, as well as the one money-saving idea I wish I had used.

Budget Strategy #1: Stick to Snacks

This is a no-brainer. Unless you're serving foie gras and caviar, snacks and appetizers will be cheaper than feeding a full meal to a crowd. For the movie party, I stuck to a menu of easy-to-carry snacks, but this strategy is also perfect for a cocktail party or afternoon bridal or baby shower. Just be sure to schedule your party for a between-meal time, so your guests won't show up expecting a full dinner.

Budget Strategy #2: Pay Attention to the Details

While it is certainly possible to go overboard with party details (Exhibit A: pretty much every wedding blog ever), adding a few special touches to your party makes it feel thoughtful, no matter how little money you actually spend. For example, popcorn — one of the cheapest, most everyday foods out there — was the main snack at the movie party, but I made it special in two ways.

First, I turned a portion of it into homemade Cracker Jack, which took more time and just a little extra money, but was definitely more impressive than plain popcorn or store-bought caramel corn. Second, I used printable labels to turn plain brown lunch bags into personalized popcorn bags, which made serving and eating even plain popcorn a little more fun.

And if you are putting a lot of effort into the food and drinks, consider displaying a menu somewhere. Guests always love knowing what they are eating and it's a classy way to broadcast the effort that went into the food and drinks.

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Budget Strategy #3: Create an Impressive Moment

Even at the most bare-bones party, planning a moment when a dish is carried out from the kitchen or a special round of drinks is poured creates a memorable moment of excitement, even when what is being served is actually quite humble. At the movie party, we created this moment by serving a round of root beer and stout beer ice cream floats. The ingredients were not expensive, but the guests were really excited for this shared treat, which we brought out about an hour into the party.

You can create the same effect by bringing around a tray of appetizers hot out of the oven, carrying out a cake or other dessert from the kitchen, or pouring a round of sparkling wine for a toast midway through the party. Anything that makes people stop, gather and enjoy a moment together adds another dimension to your gathering, without much added expense.

Budget Strategy #4: Share the Burden of Booze Costs

This is the strategy I didn't stick to while planning the movie party, and I regretted it. In my circle of friends, it is usual to bring a bottle of wine or a six-pack of nice beer to a party, but for this party, I really wanted to treat people, so they wouldn't have to bring anything except themselves and a few blankets. Then as I started shopping for beer and wine for the party, I had a duh moment. In order to stick to my budget, I had to go with cheaper beers and wines, cheaper than I would have bought if I was just buying enough to bring to someone else's party. I realized that as a guest, I wouldn't mind having to bring booze to the party if it meant the quality of beer and wine was generally better — which it likely would be, if the cost was shared by more than just the host.

I know that the quality of the alcohol offered isn't a concern for everyone — my husband would happily drink Two Buck Chuck and Bud Light at every party — but if I were throwing the party all over again, I'd provide beer and wine to get the party started, ask guests to bring whatever they would like to drink during the movie, and use the extra money to make (or buy!) one more substantial snack.

What are your strategies for throwing parties that feel generous but don't break the bank?

(Images: Leela Cyd Ross)

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