How to throw a fancy dinner party for your friends without going broke

Expensive restaurants will drain your wallet. Here's how to host a nice meal on your own turf.

Dinner party.
(Image credit: iStock)

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single woman, in possession of a minimal fortune, must be in want of an alternative to the dreaded group dinner in a fancy restaurant. Under the dim lights, the flattering candlelight casts your friends in a beatific glow while you ruminate over your own shortcomings over $30 grilled chicken and wonder what you ever had in common with these people.

The agony over seating arrangements ensures the most organized among you is seated like a queen at the center of the table. She is the Beyoncé and you — utter delinquent that you are — are the forgotten fourth member of Destiny's Child. And when the check comes and you begin the familiar juggling act that is splitting the bill multiple ways, you will again wonder why you are not, unlike the person to your left, an investment banker.

While late nights following raucous dinners out with friends are par for the course when you're young in the city, so is the hangover the next morning when you realize that — while you may be dehydrated — your wallet has essentially been liquidated. Indeed, young people are spending more money dining out than generations past, and with more frequency in recent years than ever before. According to Forbes, millennials spend 44 percent of their food dollars on eating out, and that percentage is a lot higher in major cities.

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Realizing the majority of my paycheck was going towards barely-touched salmon and gallons of overpriced Merlot, I made the decision to ditch the restaurant setting and start hosting dinner parties in my own home to rescue my wallet and (inadvertently) my friendships.

But I had a few challenges before me — not least of which was that I unapologetically detest cooking. I come from a long line of women who refused to set foot in a supermarket. To quote F. Scott Fitzgerald, "I know myself and that is all" — and I know that my refrigerator shall forever be a barren arctic wasteland of white wine, Diet Coke, and my roommate's eye cream. My stove counter has become a storage unit for discarded outfits on Friday and Saturday nights.

I couldn't compete with certain friends who have resurrected the lost art of entertaining — and who actually know how to cook. My friend Meghan, who is my only friend in New York City who has a child, recently invited me over and served an array of appetizers and homemade pizza. My own feeling of immaturity was astounding. For God's sake — homemade pizza? Or, so I thought. She told me later that it actually came from Trader Joe's. I was encouraged. I can do that, I thought.

Which brings me to my advice on how to host a dinner party without being able to cook (or hire a chef, or afford a caterer). Hit up your local grocery store of choice and make good use of the frozen food aisle. The options are endless: pizza, yes, but also fancy stuff like spring rolls, tuna burgers, curries of all flavors. Baked ziti is remarkably easy to make and a sure crowd-pleaser. Total cost at Trader Joe's: $30. Another crowd-pleaser: tomato soup and grilled cheese. Just pop them in your oven and hide any boxes or cans from sight. Your guests will not know (or care about) where the food came from, and your haul is likely to be cheaper and more bountiful than a round of appetizers at a restaurant. And if you can't make it to the store, there's always Seamless. Just put it in a serving dish, and voila.

To mimic a bustling restaurant vibe within the confines of your living room, it's all about the music. I recommend Motown at the beginning of the evening, and depending on where the conversation turns, as it eventually will, mirror that in the soundtrack. First glass of wine: The Temptations; third glass of wine: Kendrick Lamar; fifth glass of wine: Adele. To paraphrase the inimitable Chingy, after the (dinner) party is the after-party, and for that, my friends, we indulged in some Dashboard Confessional. At my party, not being restricted to assigned seats — or feeling judged by the watchful eyes of fellow patrons and waiters — liberated us from any pretense of formality. Secrets were shared, inhibitions released, and bonds renewed.

By hosting my own dinner parties, I found friends more than willing to return the favor. In total, I saved $500 in one month alone by taking the party into my own hands (or, rather, my own apartment). Often, the amount I spent for one get-together — under $80 — was less than I would spend at a dinner out, and the favor was returned six-fold.

Word to the wise: There is an exception to my no-dinners-out rule. And that exception actually derives from the aftermath of the dinner party itself. Whatever energy one has at the beginning of an evening with friends completely evaporates the next morning when the wine glasses are still in the sink. So, best to save dining out for brunch the next day. In those situations, I'd argue the $10 Bloody Mary is worth it — especially knowing you saved $80 the night before.

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