Besides asking friends for recommendations, the best way to find a caterer is to go to a cooking store, like Williams-Sonoma or Sur La Table, and speak to the employees running the demonstrations. Many of them do catering gigs as well, for less than standard local rates. An independent caterer will often be more wallet-friendly than a large company, which can have high minimum requirements (as much as $2,500 per event) and more operating costs, like paying full-time staffers. In contrast, independents are usually amenable to negotiation. So ask for a 10 to 20 percent break, or see if they’ll toss in a few more appetizers or another entrée for the same dollar amount.
If you’re having a dinner party, opt for a buffet. Sit-down dinners are more labor-intensive and therefore expensive, as they usually involve multiple courses and preplating. Or host a brunch—it’s up to 40 percent cheaper than dinner, since foods like French toast and crepes are generally low-cost. Or think about throwing a party where you serve just appetizer-type bites and sweets. You’ll save at least 30 percent on the overall bill by skipping the entrée altogether (and your guests will be just as happy).
Stretch your holiday budget with arrangements that contain greens, like fir, pine, and juniper. They’re wonderfully aromatic and seasonally appropriate, and they can be half the cost of fresh flowers, since the trees grow in most states and are therefore readily available. Plus, they will probably last around three weeks or more, compared with flowers, which wilt after five to seven days. If you want to include flowers, skip red and white ones (roses and lilies, for example)—you might pay 30 percent more in December because those are popular holiday colors. If you have your heart set on white flowers, gardenias make attractive holiday decorations. A single stem can run about $10, so buy the entire plant, which could have 10 to 12 blooms, from a nursery for around $25.
If you’re feeling crafty, head to a nursery that sells Christmas trees. You might score free greenery, because many nurseries cut off the bottoms to reduce the trees’ size. The leftover pieces can be ideal for making wreaths, centerpieces, or door decorations.
Yes, you may be in a hurry to start decorating your Douglas fir, but don’t forget to negotiate a good price first. You might save 30 to 40 percent, especially if it’s the day before Christmas and a lot of stock remains. (Be sure to ask when the last shipment came in, so you get a fresh tree. If it arrived before December 10, that evergreen might not make it through New Year’s.) Don’t be afraid to ask the seller, “Can you do better?” It’s all about how nicely you ask. If you sound stubborn and inflexible, many merchants will say no—and may even mark up the price another 10 percent (prices can change, since they aren’t always posted). So keep your Christmas spirit alive and you’ll be more likely to bring home a bargain.
People tend to stock up on wine and spirits at the closest store, but that place may not have the best deals. Go to wine-searcher.com (an inventory database of several thousand stores nationwide) and enter the vintage or the wine’s name and your ZIP code to find the cheapest retailer in your area. Or fill your “cellar” with wines from affordable online retailers, like Zachys.com and Winelibrary.com. Both have a huge inventory and e-mail specials to customers on a weekly basis; you may be able to get discounts of up to 40 percent off or free shipping.
Also consider buying bottles from somewhat less prestigious wine-growing regions, such as Oregon; Santa Barbara, California; and France’s Loire Valley. These wines are priced up to 50 percent less than their more famous counterparts. A high-quality Bordeaux, for example, costs between $20 and $50, whereas a comparable bottle from the Loire Valley might cost as little as $10.
Tips from an anonymous shipping-company representative
Shipping rates are often determined by three factors: a package’s size, weight, and destination. So if you can fit something into a small box, you could spend less. Use a small to midsize flat-rate U.S. Postal Service priority box ($5.20 to $11) to send compact, heavy items (up to 70 pounds). To keep any shipment as light as possible, use inexpensive packing peanuts or popcorn for cushioning instead of paper, since they’re almost weightless.
Procrastinators, keep this in mind: About a week before Christmas, some carriers may automatically send packages out next-day within some regions of the country, regardless of whether you paid for expedited service. If you’re willing to take the risk, this could pay off big—saving you $30 to $40 a package.
Also, if you’re sending a box from one destination to another that’s reasonably close—say, from Long Island, New York, to Scotch Plains, New Jersey—during the final week before Christmas, you may not have to send it next-day delivery to have it arrive quickly. Send it ground—it still might arrive on the following day.