How We Made Thanksgiving Dinner for 12 for Just $85 (and Had Leftovers)

Updated November 17, 2016
by Lisa Rowan
Writer and Producer
Thanksgiving dinner

Cooking at home is a Penny Hoarder-approved way to save money while eating well.

But what happens to your budget when big holidays like Thanksgiving roll around? Preparing for a large family gathering can turn into way more than you bargained for.

The average Thanksgiving dinner for 10 costs $50.11, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation, with the major player being a 16-pound turkey at about $23. That leaves just $27 for potatoes, cranberries, vegetables and dessert. No matter how you stack the deals, it seems nearly impossible to feed an entire extended family on $50.

But we’re always up for a challenge. We decided to do the math and find out how frugally we could feed a dozen people from our office — while still serving a satisfying holiday meal.

This is no potluck. This is no picnic lunch. This is the Penny Hoarder Thanksgiving extravaganza.

What Does Thanksgiving Dinner Cost?

Thanksgiving dinner
Samantha Dunscombe – The Penny Hoarder

Is the American Farm Bureau Federation’s calculation too aspirational? We asked The Penny Hoarder Community Group on Facebook how much real families spend on their Thanksgiving meals.

Several readers budget about $125 to feed groups of 10, with some families featuring both turkey and ham on the table. But even more commenters said their Thanksgiving budgets run in the $65 to $100 range for groups of four or five.

So we set ourselves what we saw as a reasonable challenge: Make a (mostly homemade) Thanksgiving dinner for $10 (or less!) per person.

Pricing a Penny Hoarder Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving dinner
Samantha Dunscombe – The Penny Hoarder

Staff writer Jamie Cattanach took the role of menu developer and chef. Her first task was pricing ingredients for for both typical homemade dishes and some processed items (boxed stuffing, canned gravy, etc.) at three stores: Publix, Walmart and Aldi.

Aldi had the best prices for most of the items on our list — even though it doesn’t accept coupons. We stopped at Walmart for a couple of essentials that Aldi doesn’t stock (see below).

After comparing the prices and recipe options, it appeared we could make dinner for 12 people for less than $70. It felt too good to be true, but the math spoke for itself.

What We Spent on Thanksgiving Dinner

We had olive oil, flour and basic spices in our kitchen, so we didn’t count them toward the cost. Here’s everything we bought, and a few lessons we learned along the way.

What We Bought at Aldi

Turkey

Thanksgiving dinner
Samantha Dunscombe – The Penny Hoarder

21-pound turkey: $27.43

Jar of gravy: 89 cents

Fresh turkey is expensive, so despite the additional planning it requires, frozen turkey is the way to go. Did you know it takes one day to defrost four pounds of turkey safely?

Aldi blew us away with a Butterball turkey priced at $1.29 per pound. That’s half off Publix’s price for Butterball!

We purchased our 21-pound turkey one week prior to our Penny Hoarder Thanksgiving Extravaganza to give it time to defrost in the fridge. We named it Rhonda.

Green-Bean Casserole

Thanksgiving dinner
Samantha Dunscombe – The Penny Hoarder

4 bags frozen green beans at $1.39 each: $5.56

3 cans fried french onions at $1.99 each: $5.97

20-ounce can cream of mushroom soup: $1.19

10-ounce can cream of mushroom soup: 49 cents

Since green-bean casserole is a traditional side dish for many people and it was our only vegetable, we bought enough to make a large batch. It was so big, we had to split it between two dishes!

Mashed Potatoes

Thanksgiving dinner
Samantha Dunscombe – The Penny Hoarder

5-pound bag red potatoes: $2.79

2 boxes butter quarters at $2.69 each: $5.38

½ gallon whole milk: $2.09

Instant potatoes are convenient (and the cheapest option), but we decided to put in the arm workout to make fresh mashed potatoes.

Yes, we had to spend a little extra to get milk and butter (though we needed butter for the rolls, too), but the price of potatoes at Aldi made up for it by being at least $1 cheaper than anywhere else we checked.

Stuffing

Thanksgiving dinner
Samantha Dunscombe – The Penny Hoarder

3 boxes turkey/herb stuffing at 89 cents each: $2.67

The never-ending debate over whether Stove Top is an acceptable stuffing for the Thanksgiving table may tear our staff apart, so we can only imagine how it goes with your family.

But money talks; making stuffing from scratch would have cost about $7. It was no contest (cost-wise, at least).

Cranberry Sauce

Thanksgiving dinner
Samantha Dunscombe – The Penny Hoarder

Canned cranberries: 99 cents

Do you have any idea how much real cranberries cost? We do: $2.49 for a 12-oz. bag.

We could make our own cranberry sauce for an estimated $3.50, but canned is a more frugal option at just 99 cents per can at Aldi.

Rolls

Thanksgiving dinner
Samantha Dunscombe – The Penny Hoarder

2 canisters crescent rolls at 99 cents each: $1.98

The staff really cared about whether or not we’d have rolls at this feast. It’s hard to argue against more bread.

Premade and frozen rolls were competitively priced, but we decided to go with Aldi’s ready-to-bake crescent rolls at 99 cents for a canister of eight.

Ice Cream

½ gallon ice cream: $2.69

Ice cream was a bit of a splurge — our dessert probably would have been fine without it, but we decided to dress up our store-bought pies a bit.

Total spent at Aldi: $60.12

What We Bought at Walmart

Pies

Thanksgiving dinner
Samantha Dunscombe – The Penny Hoarder

Apple pie: $5.98

Pumpkin pie: $5.98

Jamie, her family’s resident dessert chef and a stickler for scratch baking, was totally torn by the pie decision: Buy pre-made, make it from scratch or cheat with pre-made crust?

While pumpkin pie isn’t too expensive if we use a pre-made crust, apple pie requires a lot of apples.

“Fresh apple pie might be about on par with pre-made if we already had all the necessary spices, but since we’d have to buy them, it would bloat our upfront costs,” Jamie explained in our planning documents..

“It will also be a ton more work — which factors in, since we’re making the meal on company time. As sacrilegious as this is for me to say, I think we should buy pre-made.”  

With the money we saved by buying two pre-made pies, we decided to spring for ice cream to put on top of our mismatched pies. Everyone’s (mostly) happy.

Wine

Thanksgiving dinner
Samantha Dunscombe – The Penny Hoarder

3 liters Franzia cabernet sauvignon: $13.24 after sales tax

What’s a holiday dinner without wine? For this Thanksgiving meal, we couldn’t rely on guests to bring a bottle to share, and we know wine can add significantly to the total tab.

But maybe there’s a middle ground. According to GoBankingRates:

The most recent average price of table wine is $6.30, according to Wine Business. Assuming you get three bottles for Thanksgiving dinner, that is $18.90 to add to the grocery list. That brings the average total for Thanksgiving dinner to $69.01.

We are skeptical of the quality of this “table wine,” but we picked up a box of Franzia — we’re not total snobs.

Total Spent at Walmart: $25.20

Grand Total: $85.32

So we were $15.32 over our estimate. Would it be worth it?

It was time to make the magic happen and find out.

Cooking Thanksgiving Dinner for 12

Thanksgiving dinner
Samantha Dunscombe – The Penny Hoarder

With a confirmed guest list of 10 adults and two kids, we got to work preparing our Thanksgiving dinner. Cooking started at 8:15 a.m. for our 2 p.m. meal.

It was Jamie’s first turkey, which meant much fretting. But seriously, if you’re going to spend nearly $30 on a turkey, you do not want to mess it up.

Here are the most telling entries from her notes:

8:21 a.m.: It’s in. I followed Food.com’s instructions to “season the cavity” and hoped for the best. Unanswered questions: Why does it have so much weird excess skin? Who eats the giblets? How exactly does one “tuck” the wings? SHRUG. IN THE OVEN IT GOES.

8:39 a.m.: The turkey already smells good. Is it supposed to already smell good?

9:03 a.m.: Opened the oven door. Closed the oven door. It looks… browner? I guess that’s good.

So maybe patience isn’t exactly one of Jamie’s virtues. But then, a realization:

9:55 a.m: Starting to realize exactly how much of a logistical nightmare this is. The turkey will be done around 1:30-2 p.m.; the rolls need to be baked for 10-13 minutes at 375 degrees; the green-bean casserole has to be baked for 40 minutes at 350 degrees; the green beans have to be thawed, etc. This is why my mother usually does this.

Holiday dinner hosts, we salute you.

Success! And Final Costs

Thanksgiving dinner
Samantha Dunscombe – The Penny Hoarder

Jamie survived the prep process, aided by several Penny Hoarders who were anxious to enjoy free food and do Rhonda proud.

Our gathering for 10 adults and two kids resulted in, besides very happy bellies: an entire untouched green-bean casserole, half of each pie, half the carton of ice cream, half the box of wine (?!), most of the milk, and enough turkey and potatoes to make leftover lunches for a while.

Not bad for $85.32!

We had a few unopened ingredients left over: an extra box of stuffing (89 cents); our emergency jar of gravy (89 cents); and a whole box of butter ($2.69). If we return them, our total tab for Thanksgiving dinner for 12 goes down to $80.85 — just $6.74 per person.

What We Learned

Thanksgiving dinner
Samantha Dunscombe – The Penny Hoarder

We gained a new understanding of how stressful it is to prepare a holiday dinner for guests.

Our dinner didn’t take into consideration dietary restrictions, traditional family dishes or potluck sign-up sheets. We kept it basic, and the price-comparison process alone was almost enough to make us quit and order takeout.

While your Thanksgiving meal may not entail making a spreadsheet to cross-check the prices for various ingredients at nearby grocery stores, you can follow these simple tips for a budget-friendly, delicious Thanksgiving dinner:

  • Look for free turkey deals at your regular grocery store. Many stores offer a free bird after you spend a certain amount.
  • Don’t be swayed by name-brand ingredients. No one’s going to guess you used generics once they taste your amazing side dishes.
  • Enlist help wherever possible. It took teamwork to prepare Rhonda for our feast. If someone asks what dish they can bring to your holiday meal, stop being gracious and give them an assignment!

Our Thanksgiving math? Not perfect.

Thanksgiving dinner
Samantha Dunscombe – The Penny Hoarder

But tracking this Penny Hoarding feat as it progressed? Worth every penny.

Your Turn: How do you save money on holiday meals?

Lisa Rowan is a writer and producer at The Penny Hoarder. She has never roasted a turkey.

Jamie Cattanach is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder who has now officially roasted her first turkey. Her writing has also been featured at The Write Life, Word Riot, Nashville Review and elsewhere. Find @JamieCattanach on Twitter to wave hello.

Kelly Smith is an editorial intern at The Penny Hoarder and a senior at The University of Tampa. Everything she knows about roasting a turkey, she learned from the internet.

by Lisa Rowan
Contributor for The Penny Hoarder

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