Essential Tips for Throwing a Dazzling Dinner Party on a Budget

By Jake Schroeder
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Photo Courtesy: bridgesward/Pixabay

Hosting an elegant dinner party can be a lot of fun. But if you’re picturing spending a ton of money and hours hovering over the stove, don’t stress. You can host an easy dinner party that looks much fancier than it was to throw together.

From the table settings to a signature drink, here are 30 ideas to help you host a simple, low-cost dinner party that looks surprisingly fancy. You’ll have all of your guests impressed with this high-class soiree on a budget.

Mail Paper Invitations

There’s something more formal and special about receiving a paper invitation in the mail. In an age where text messages, emails and e-cards are all the rage, take the time to send out paper invitations. To save money, buy some pretty cardstock in bulk and print your invitations at home.

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When it comes to mailing your invitations, use a colorful envelope and a metallic pen to address them. If you’re tech-savvy, you can print custom labels at home. If your dinner party just includes a handful of guests, sending paper invitations in the mail won’t cost lots of money. Be sure to tell guests how to RSVP!

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Print Name Cards & Menus

While you’re dusting off your printer, make your dinner party even more personal with printed name cards. Create a themed name card for every guest, and put one at each place setting. You can make these at home for only the cost of the sheets of paper. You may want to wait until you’ve decided on your decor to create coordinating tags.

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You can also print your menu out on nice paper and place a copy at each table setting. This is an elegant touch that sets the tone for the party and serves as something fun guests can take home to put in their daily journals or scrapbooks.

Keep the Menu Simple

When it comes to your dinner party menu, there’s no need to spend hundreds of dollars. Stick to recipes you know and love. Comfort food that serves lots of people and makes them feel at home is always a safe bet. You don’t want to try a 50-step recipe for the first time.

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To simplify things, go with recipes you know you can nail. Recipes that are one-sheet wonders or that you can make in a slow cooker are also great. You can set the timer and get ready for the rest of the party while your main course cooks.

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Prep Individual Desserts

Making individual desserts is a really special touch. Your guests will feel extra-fancy when you place mini desserts in front of them. Choose a recipe you can make in mini ramekin cups or cocktail glasses for a touch of whimsy. Use glasses you already have and go with an affordable, easy dessert.

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Photo Courtesy: RitaE/Pixabay

Some dessert ideas include individual brownies, warm cookies, mini parfaits, sundaes and mini flourless chocolate cakes. Cupcakes and mini cheesecakes are also great options that aren’t too complicated to make. There’s just something about the individual portions that makes them feel thoughtful and fun.

Make a Signature Cocktail

A signature cocktail adds class and elegance. You don’t need to spend a lot of money here either. If you have a punch bowl or a large drink dispenser, choose a recipe (or invent your own) that’s easy to make with or without alcohol. The nice thing about a punch is that you also don’t have to serve individual drinks all night — people can self-serve.

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For signature drink ideas, think about the season you’re in. If it’s summer, go with something light and fresh like white sangria. If it’s winter, do something that warms people up, like apple cider with cinnamon whiskey. Add some garnishes to help your drink feel more sophisticated.

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Use Chargers & Good Silverware

Nothing says "fancy" like a charger plate and shiny silverware. While most parties don’t include a salad fork, an entree fork or even a spoon, go ahead and put them all out there. It doesn’t cost you anything to empty your utensil drawer, and it’ll look super-posh when the table is all set.

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Photo Courtesy: TerriC/Pixabay

A charger is just a fancy word for a large plate that sits below the other plates in the setting. If you don’t have any, a large placemat can also do the trick. You can usually find chargers at the dollar store. They look great because they add color, and no one will know how much they cost.

Build a Pretty Centerpiece

A pretty centerpiece can make the table feel cohesive and gorgeous. You don’t have to go out and order a $100 custom bouquet, either. You can make a centerpiece using vases you already own and some inexpensive greenery from the grocery store.

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Greens like eucalyptus and dusty miller are available at most grocery stores, and you get a lot for your money. Stagger a few vases of these on your table, and use one vase of more expensive flowers. Arranging a variety of greens and flowers makes your table look expensive and polished. Add some fruit or holiday-themed items for more color and texture.

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Make a Custom Playlist

Silence at a dinner party is a major mood killer. Keep the energy going by playing some good tunes. When you set up a custom playlist, your guests will take notice of all the thought you put into every aspect of the party. The devil is in the details when it comes to dinners.

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Many streaming services have dinner party playlists already created. There’s no need to spend hours selecting each song — unless that’s something you like to do. Just type in the genre of music you’re looking for and hit "play."

Include Chalkboard Signs

Chalkboard signs are an inexpensive way to customize your party. You can get small chalkboard signs at the dollar store, online or at your local craft store. Add signs to label the food, write out a menu, call out your signature drink or write a welcome note. These also make fun place cards.

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A chalkboard sign saying what each food item is or what’s on the menu for the night is an alternative to printing on paper. A couple of these signs and some chalk should cost less than $10, and you can use them for future parties.

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Drink From Real Glassware

It’s time to upgrade from red Solo cups. While it may be a pain to wash all of your glasses after the party, using real glassware sets your dinner apart and makes it feel like a celebratory occasion. Besides, there’s no point in having all of your glasses if you never actually use them.

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One nice touch is to set a water and a wine or cocktail glass out at every table setting. Even if guests aren’t having alcohol, every drink feels fancier in a stemware glass. Choose your glasses based on your drink offerings for the night.

Use a Tablecloth or Runner

White tablecloths aren’t just for fancy restaurants. Bust out a nice tablecloth for your next dinner party. You can buy a neutral color to use for multiple occasions, but there are also some pretty classy disposable ones out there.

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In addition to jazzing up your table, a tablecloth helps set the tone for the night. Your guests will feel all of the efforts you put into making a pretty space for them to spend time in. Tablecloths also make for easy cleanup, but if they aren’t your thing, a nice runner creates the same effect. For extra pizzazz, layer a runner atop a tablecloth.

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Use Nice Napkins

Napkins are an inexpensive way to further stylize your party. You can use cloth napkins if you have them or buy some paper napkins that go with your theme. No matter what your theme is, chances are there’s a napkin out there to go with it and add pops of color.

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If you’re using cloth napkins, you can add a nice touch to each place setting by looking up some different ways to fold them, or use napkin rings. Another nice touch is to tuck your menus or guests’ place cards into each napkin.

Serve Multiple Courses

One big difference between a dinner party and a gathering is a coursed meal. Offering a coursed meal makes your dinner party seem elevated. Even if your courses were all inexpensive and easy to make, there's something about serving multiple dishes that takes your dinner party up a notch.

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Dinner party courses can include a variety of appetizers, a salad or soup, a main course and a dessert. You can serve each course family-style or serve each guest individually. Keep your menu simple so you can still enjoy time with your visitors — you don't want to be serving the entire night.

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Add Candles

Candles impart great glow and ambiance to a dinner party. Not only are they inexpensive, but they can also add drama and romance. You can set candles around your centerpiece at varying heights to add some dimension. Layer larger pillar candles with small votives for instant glamour.

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You can also add small candles at everyone’s place setting or around the house — the mantel, fireplace and stairwell. To set the mood before guests even come in, place small candles in your windows or on your front steps. Use battery-powered candles to keep things safe.

Play a Game

Games are a fun addition to any dinner party. From traditional card games to poker or ice-breaker games, let your creativity run wild. If you want to keep the fun going after dinner, add a game to keep your guests entertained — it’s easy to use what you already have around the house.

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Additional game ideas include a poker night or an old-school throwback using games like Candy Land, Monopoly and Battleship. Rummy, cribbage and dice games are also party pleasers. Depending on the crowd you invite, a mini video game tournament could be a great option.

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Serve Appetizers & Late-night Snacks

Appetizers are a great way to kick off your evening. You can serve appetizers casually as people come in and catch up before dinner, or you can serve them while people are seated before your main course. Either way, think of your appetizers as an extension of your main dishes.

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Appetizers should complement your salad, soup and entree but also be good enough to stand alone. Some easy appetizer ideas include stuffed mushrooms, bruschetta, spinach dip, bacon-wrapped dates and anything in a puff pastry. You can also bring these back out for late-night snacks as the party goes on.

Impress With a Cheese Plate

A cheese plate is a classy addition to every get-together. We’re not talking about butter crackers and cheddar here, either. Have a little fun by exploring some unique cheeses. When you’re at the grocery store you can explain your menu to the person working the cheese section, and they can give you some great pairings.

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You can also match cheese up with the drinks you’ll be serving. Add cured meats, grapes, some fresh bread, jams and honey for an awesome charcuterie board instead of hot appetizers. Nuts, beets and olives are also nice add-ons. Label the cheeses and meats with cute mini chalkboards.

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Make After-dinner Drinks

After your amazing meal, top guests off with an after-dinner drink. This dinner-party staple is a nice way to end your meal and transition over to dessert. The different liquors or wines often have some digestive aids to help your stomach out a little after a big meal. It’s also a classy touch your guests might not think of.

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Photo Courtesy: JillWellington/Pixabay

Traditional after-dinner drinks include brandy, whiskey, amaro, port wine, aged rum, ice wine, single malt scotch, sambuca, sherry, Kahlua and grappa. Serve them before dessert, with dessert or at the end of the night.

Arrange a Coffee Bar

Another nice way to end the evening is with a coffee and tea bar. After a big meal, guests may enjoy a little pick-me-up like a nice cup of coffee. The caffeine in coffee and tea can get people out of their food comas and ready to play some games.

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Coffee bar ideas include a pot of coffee, whipped cream, flavor shots like vanilla or hazelnut syrup, flavored creamers, chocolate sticks and a few different alcohol add-ins. Kahlua, Baileys, and Jameson make great additions to a cup of coffee at a dinner party.

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Include the Whole Family

If your dinner party will also include some younger guests, don’t forget to make fun food for them. Kids will love being included at the dinner table or at their own table with a kid-proof centerpiece and table setting. While toddlers are another story, older kids will love the chance to sit at a pretty table for dinner.

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While some may eat what the adults are having, finicky eaters might enjoy some kid staples like macaroni and cheese, pizza, mini sliders, fruit, a veggie plate and chicken strips. For dessert, kids can make their own sundaes.

Entertain the Kiddos

If the kids are staying later with the adults at the party, you can include them in your after-dinner games. Pick some classic kids’ board games or card games like Uno and Old Maid. A late-night movie is also great for keeping kids entertained.

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After a few games, have the little ones settle in for a movie night. Parents can hang in one room while older kids get snacks and some juice for watching a movie. While this likely won’t work for toddlers and small children, older kids might have fun hanging together and doing a special activity of their own.

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Choose a Theme

Adding a theme to your party makes it more special. You can easily carry it through to everything from the centerpiece to the menu. Signature drinks, cocktails, appetizers and desserts can also be parts of your theme.

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Photo Courtesy: pasja1000/Pixabay

Decor, music, flowers and games can be themed to match your party too. Holiday themes are always easy for parties centered around Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas or New Year's Eve. Other theme ideas include a wine and cheese party, a luau, taco night, something seasonal or old-school supper club.

Play Spin the Bottle…but Not the Way You Think

When you think of spin the bottle, you’re probably thinking of the game you played as kids involving an awkward kiss and an empty root beer. This grown-up version of spin the bottle involves a circle of friends and some good old-fashioned dancing.

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Photo Courtesy: Bru-n0/Pixabay

To start, sit all of your guests around in a circle. Next, put on a playlist of your favorite dance music. Once the bottle is spun, whoever it lands on has to do a dance in the middle of the circle. As people have a few more drinks, this dance game gets a lot more hilarious.

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Host a Classy Potluck

While potluck dinners may get a bad rap, there are definitely ways to class them up. Potlucks are a great way to host a dinner party without spending a ton of money. This also takes some pressure off of you. You can assign guests a course, a drink, a dessert, a side dish or even a game to bring.

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Photo Courtesy: Einladung_zum_Essen/Pixabay

The nice thing about assigning the elements people are bringing is that you can still keep it to a cohesive theme. It won’t feel like a school fundraiser where everyone brings some kind of random casserole. When everyone chips in, you can keep costs down and let everyone have input in a fun way.

Have Guests BYOB

Alcohol can be one of the most expensive parts of a dinner party. From wine and beer to hard alcohol and everything in between, booze can really add up. To keep costs down, ask everyone to bring their own alcohol.

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When you have guests bring their own, you can also make a fun game using wine. If everyone brings a bottle, they can write down on a card what type it is or its name. When you get each bottle, cover it in a brown paper bag, number it and compile the cards. People then get to taste it and will have to guess which wine is which.

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Step Up Your Bathroom Game

When it comes to a dinner party, people will see more of your house than just the dining room table. Don't forget to dress up the other rooms in your home as well, especially the bathroom. To add a fancy touch to guests’ restroom experience, upgrade your bathroom amenities a bit.

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Photo Courtesy: KrysMantovani/Pixabay

Without spending too much money, you can buy a new soap and a room spray, and add some decor that goes along with the theme of the party. Guests will enjoy a little callback to the theme in an unexpected place. Add a few battery-powered candles for a finishing touch.

Give Party Favors

Party favors aren’t just for kids. Even adults enjoy a little goodie bag every now and then. Treat your guests like the royalty they are with a special something to take home. Some goodie bag ideas include a card with the recipes from the night, a wine glass charm and a bag of retro candy.

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You can also incorporate the dessert into a take-home treat. If you know you’ll have a lot of leftover cake or dessert, send people home with a cute container, jar or treat bag. No one will complain about taking a little something sweet home with them, and you’ll save money not having to prep separate favors.

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Take the Party Outdoors

If the weather is nice on the night of your dinner party, why not incorporate the outdoors? You can host the entire dinner party al fresco with some pretty string lights and candles, or just take the party outside for dessert.

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If you have the outdoor space, host a fireside marshmallow roast complete with hot chocolate, s’mores and some warm blankets. Add a cooler full of drinks and you’ll have a fun outdoor activity for after dinner. You can also set up your patio or deck for appetizers before the main entree — it’s a relaxing change of pace.

Jazz Up Your Water

While water may be the last thing on your mind at a dinner party, it can actually class things up. There are a lot of fun fruits and herbs that can flavor your water and make it look gorgeous, too. To start, use a large clear drink dispenser or a pretty pitcher if you have one.

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Punch up your water with fruits and herbs that go well with your theme or menu. Some water add-ins include lemons, limes, cucumbers, lavender, basil, mint, strawberries or even apples. Don’t be afraid to try unique combinations; watermelon chunks and basil, for example, taste surprisingly good together.

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Get Your Next Party on the Calendar

After your classy (and budget-friendly) dinner party, guests will be asking themselves when they can come to the next one. With the success of your first fancy get-together, get your next high-class event on the books sooner rather than later.

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Photo Courtesy: Pexels/Pixabay

Everyone tends to have full, busy calendars. If you can get the next dinner party date set while everyone is there, you may not even need to pay for invitations next time. People can save the date nice and early. Instead of leaving the dinner party with everyone saying "We should do this more," you’ll actually have the next date all ready to go.