How I Pulled Off My First Adult Dinner Party (on a 20-Something Budget)

updated Jun 8, 2019
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(Image credit: Cambria Bold)

I’ve always been in love with the idea of hosting dinner parties. My mother used to host game nights at our house when I was a kid, and she’d also throw parties for milestones throughout the year. As a 20-something adult, I’ve loved venturing into the playful, well-appointed world of hosting. But working with a tight budget, mismatched flatware (I know we have another fork somewhere around here), and small spaces means the way you go about it looks a little differently.

Here’s the thing: That’s OK.

If you’re throwing a dinner party in your 20s, there are a couple things to know upfront. First of all, it will not be perfect, but that might be a good thing. Even if it’s a crappy dinner party, the whole point is to hang out with your friends, right? When I hosted my first dinner party, guests were mostly just shocked I was able to cook without burning everything. For the purposes of this specific dinner party in question, I wanted to go above frozen pizza (although there’s nothing wrong with that) and aspire to something a little more fancy.

Secondly, recognize that a great dinner party doesn’t have to eat up your rent for the month. Give yourself a budget, keep your guest list small, don’t go overboard on the accents, and let simple food and good company be the star of the show.

Here’s How I Pulled Off My Own Adult Dinner Party

If there’s one thing that keeps people from throwing the dinner party of their balmy midsummer night dreams, it’s the cost. Shelling out the cash for a fabulous, ‘just because’ party can be a little overwhelming, but there’s hope! Before you send out any invitations, sit down with your bank account and figure out how much you have to spend on the evening (realistically). That could be $30, or it could be $300.

To develop my budget, I looked at how much money I usually spend on eating out in a weekend (about $85), and set that money aside (plus a little extra) for the party. It came out to be about $160. I skipped a meal out each week for about a month leading up to the party, then used the money I would’ve spent dining out that weekend to cover the rest. And knowing that I’d probably need to spend about $20 per head on the menu, I decided that a party of no more than seven guests would probably work best for me.

If these numbers still seem a bit too big for you right now, plan your party a few months out, then use your monthly coffee budget to offset the cost. When it comes time to do the shopping, I like to go to my local farmers market, but you can also hit up budget grocers like Trader Joe’s, Aldi, Costco, and Kroger to make your budget stretch.

Ready to get going? Here’s how to throw a 30-something dinner party on a 20-something budget.

(Image credit: Alexis Buryk)

Don’t feel too tied to a theme.

Listen: You’re a bunch of people in your 20s, not a close, intimate gathering of Martha Stewart’s friends. Don’t feel like everything needs to be perfect, and don’t feel too beholden to a specific theme or genre of food. There’s nothing worse than feeling uncomfortable at a dinner party, or trying to throw some stuffy, carte-blanche dinner that you’re not financially able to pull off. Give yourself a break and revel in the fact that you’re even able to host a dinner party at all.

Sage advice: Free

Make your guests bring the drinks.

As for the drinks, one word: BYOB! Alcohol is one of the most costly ingredients for a dinner party, but that doesn’t mean you have to foot the bill for the beverages on your own. If you really want to, make a signature cocktail for the appetizer hour, then have everyone bring a bottle of wine to share for dinner.

As for your cocktail? Keep it simple, and opt for something you can make in a big batch. A vodka mint lemonade should do the trick. I like Deep Eddy Lemon Vodka for this, but use whatever works with your budget.

Pitcher Drink Ideas

My budget: $25

(Image credit: Rachel Joy Barehl)

Use what you already have for decor.

For your first dinner party, keep things simple. Mason jars with votive candles, old fruit baskets, twine for napkins and accents, and farmers market flowers will do just fine. Keep drinks cold in an old wash bucket (you can usually find these on the cheap at flea markets and old junk shops). Place cards made from recycled grocery bag paper let you be sophisticated and cheap, and big, mismatched bowls make any table look well-spread.

My budget: $25

Tomato & Mozzarella Caprese Skewers (Image credit: Faith Durand)

Embrace the courses.

Even if you’re serving small portions, rolling things out in courses makes any dinner feel a little more special. As guests arrive, offer them some light nibbles to get the evening going. Set out a few snack plates, and label your appetizers with hand-written signs with ingredients listed. Even if you’re serving something simple like a cheese board, the presentation is everything and gives the illusion of a veritable feast. You’re on a budget, so something unfussy will be critical.

For a cheap but chic amuse-bouche, try something like cucumber watermelon goat cheese bites. All you need is sliced watermelon, a cucumber, a log of goat cheese, and some fresh mint. Another great four-ingredient option is caprese bites — skewers of cherry tomatoes, cubed mozzarella, a sprig of basil, and diced chicken (optional). Serve with balsamic glaze for dipping if you’re feeling fancy. To avoid totally blowing the budget, pick up your ingredients at Trader Joe’s.

My budget: $30

Keep it family-style.

Whether you’ve been hosting for a while or are planning your very first dinner party, every host knows that there’s nothing worse than prepping and plating in the kitchen while your guests kick back. To avoid being stuck over the stove, prep everything out in family-sized portions to pass and share.

For the salad course, this simple recipe should do the trick. And as for the main event, nothing’s easier (and more cost-effective) than this summery risotto with squash. Bonus: It’ll keep your vegetarian guests happy, too.

More Family Style-Ideas

My budget: $65

(Image credit: Talenti Gelato)

Keep things simple for dessert.

No dinner party would be complete without a sweet treat to cap off the night. End yours on a high note with a dessert that’s easy and elegant. For my dinner party, I added a scoop of Talenti ice cream (or sorbet) to a Champagne glass, added diced strawberries, and topped with inexpensive bubbles.

More Simple(ish) Dessert Ideas

My budget: $15

Total Soirée Spend: $160

And that’s it! That’s how I budgeted for my first adult dinner party on what I consider a budget. Do you have any advice to share? Let us know in the comments!