How I Threw a Graduation Party for Just $62

My Taste of Home colleagues' best eat-cheap ideas helped me pull off an amazing bash for next to nothing. This mostly meatless grilled spread was a fun, cheap and easy way to commemorate my friend's college graduation.

Overhead top down view colorful raw vegetarian appetizer vegetable kabab with bell peppers and red onion pieces on bamboo skewer with cucumber slices and impaled cherry tomato on barbecue gas grillShutterstock/PeterVandenbelt

I’ve met a lot of fun people through my side hustle at a local wine shop. A special friend is Margaret, an art student who also worked part time at the shop. When she graduated college and was preparing for a prestigious summer residency out of state, I wanted to celebrate Margaret with a great graduation party at the shop. The shop owner agreed, but with one caveat: I’d be on the hook for all the groceries.

I’d cooked on our little grill behind the shop plenty of times before, but never on my own dime. So, how to feed a dozen people—who all adore good food and good wine—on a shoestring budget? Luckily I had Taste of Home colleagues to help me brainstorm. With their clever menu ideas and shopping tips, I grilled an amazing dinner for 12 on just $62and I even had leftovers.

You can throw a big bash on a tiny budget, too! Here’s how.

1. Go (mostly) vegetarian.

Meatless foods are cheap and healthy, and produce is at its peak in graduation season. I started with grilled margherita (I called them Margaret) pizzas cut into app-size pieces, followed by Thai chicken kabobs, and a sit-down main dish of irresistible chiles rellenos from the grill. No one missed the meat, and four attendees asked me for the recipe!

2. Shop at an ethnic grocery store or fruit market.

A thrifty colleague, Marie, turned me on to Cermak Fresh Market, a Chicagoland grocer with the best deals on Mexican ingredients and international produce. I’m talking about 99-cent pineapples, lemons that are 15 for $1, and more. Scoring cheap peppers, zucchini, corn, sour cream and queso for my entree made the 10-mile trip to Cermak worthwhile.

3. Enlist the help of a card-carrying Costco member.

Peggy, my food editor friend at TOH, suggested margherita pizzas as a pretty dish, and recipe editor Irene told me how cheap they are to grill with naan flatbread crusts from Costco (about $5 for 12). Irene scooped up the naan, fresh mozzarella, tiny multicolored tomatoes, and a lush basil plant for my party—all for a song from Costco! The store specializes in fancy (often pricey) foods for a low price, which can really elevate the menu. (And if that’s not enough, check out five more reasons to love Costco.)

4. Choose inexpensive meat.

I made Thai chicken skewers with boneless skinless chicken thighs instead of breast meat, per Irene’s suggestion. Besides being more affordable than chicken breast, thigh meat is far more forgiving on the grill—you don’t need precise timing for juicy results. That’s a great help for a busy host!

5. Skip unnecessary steps and sauces.

I made a separate honey-rich version of the marinade to brush over the chicken skewers when they finished cooking…and I skipped the sauce. The skewers were flavorful, saucy and glistening, and I saved the expense and hassle of making a separate dipping sauce. (Easier for backyard guests to eat, too.)

6. Stretch your grocery dollar by repurposing ingredients.

For dessert, I grilled a pan of stone fruits (apricots, plums, peaches, cherries and lychees—practically free from Cermak) with brown sugar, butter, peach schnapps and fresh basil from my plant. It was so fragrant and pretty served hot over ice cream in Chinet “cut crystal” disposable cups. I served a cheap and fruity moscato alongside, but you could repurpose your schnapps into a signature cocktail for the event.

7. Hit the dollar store for party goods.

You can save big on paper plates, tablecloths, plasticware and more. It’s my favorite place to stock up on party goods (and these other great buys)!

8. Don’t be afraid to break the rules.

My eclectic menu (from Italian to Thai to Mexican to boozy, elegant fruit sundaes) fit my budget. These were all winning, affordable dishes that either I or my TOH friends had had success with. So what if your menu breaks a few rules? The best part of a celebration is the wonderful memories we make when friends gather.

Try these budget-friendly party recipes, too.
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Christine Rukavena
Christine loves to read, curate, sample and develop new recipes as a senior book editor at Taste of Home. A CIA alumna with honors, she creates cookbooks and food-related content. A favorite part of the job is taste-testing dishes. Previous positions include pastry chef at a AAA Five Diamond property. Christine moonlights at a boutique wine shop, where she edits marketing pieces and samples wine far higher than her pay grade.