Considering cancelling your annual holiday shindig because of cost? No need. "With planning and a little creativity, it's easy to throw a great party without spending a lot of money," says former caterer Denise Vivaldo, author of Do It for Less! Parties: Tricks of the Trade from Professional Caterers' Kitchens and Do It For Less! Wedding: How to Create Your Dream Wedding Without Breaking the Bank. Try some of her favorite themes for successful celebrations on a shoestring. Your guests will never guess that you didn't spend a bundle on them.
Cider and holiday cookie party Instead of hosting an affair in the evening, try the afternoon. Just changing the time of day can save you -- and your guests -- money. If you slate the party for Sunday at 2 p.m., for instance, you don't have to provide a full meal. Instead, you can get away with serving hot apple cider, desserts and perhaps some mulled wine. A favorite crowd-pleaser is ginger carrot soup: simply saute carrots and leeks until soft and puree in a blender along with some fresh ginger, adding chicken or vegetable broth if necessary. Then serve with a big basket of chewy breadsticks.
Success secret: The best party soups are easy-to-sip purees -- no one wants to deal with spoons when standing and socializing.
Champagne tasting More unusual than a regular cocktail party, a tasting is the perfect way to kick off the New Year. Ask each couple to bring a bottle of bubbly in the $20 to $25 range. Prepare some nibbles, such as cheese puffs, or try this recipe for a succulent baked brie that only looks expensive:
1. Cut a 2-pound round of brie in half crosswise and spread the bottom half with two 6-ounce containers of pesto.
2. Replace top half, place on a sheet of puff pastry (from the supermarket's frozen food section) that's been slightly thawed and rolled out on a nonstick baking sheet.
3. Fold the corners up and seal at the top with a little beaten egg white. Spritz the brie with cooking spray, then bake for 20 to 25 minutes at 350 F or until lightly brown.
4. Serve the delicious gooey results with crackers. For a dessert variation, fill the brie with raspberry jam and candied walnuts and serve with shortbread cookies. Then pop those corks, and rate the different bottles.
Success secret: If you don't have enough champagne flutes, borrow or buy them cheaply (Vivaldo stocks up on elegant glass flutes from IKEA at $4.99 for six and stores them in the box between parties).