How to have a cheap summer party
When the weather's good, having a summer party is a great way to spend an afternoon and/or evening.
But it's also easy to get carried away! If you don't keep tabs on your spending, the cost of even a small garden party can mushroom.
The garden set-up
If you need 'hardware' like a barbecue, or tables and chairs, it's worth trying asking for them on Freecycle – an email list where people offer up items they no longer want – before you spend any money.
I've found good-quality, second-hand goods this way that perform far better than their 'cheap and cheerful' new equivalents.
Tealights are a pretty and cheap way of decorating an after-dark party. To stop the wind from blowing them out and to ensure they don't set fire to your plants, put them in jars and dot them around the garden.
Food and drink
Forward planning: You can keep your costs right down by asking all guests to bring a simple dish, or a bottle of something. People are usually very happy to contribute, and it'll mean everyone will have at least something they like to eat or drink.
Just try and get a vague idea of what everyone's bringing – otherwise you could end up with 16 bowls of coleslaw, 11 bottles of Chardonnay and not much else!
In the month running up to the party, it's also worth rooting around in the 'clearance' sections of your nearest supermarket to find reduced, freezable food.
This means you gradually build up a stock of affordable, good quality stuff for the day itself.
Bulk it out: Meat or fish is usually the most expensive part of catering for other people – so bulk up the menu with plenty of cheaper, carb-heavy dishes.
Pasta, rice or potato salads are all good options because they're cheap, easy to adapt to individual tastes, and simple to make in bulk.
Garlic bread can be easily made yourself and is much cheaper than the bought version. Cheap oven pizzas are also a good option.
Home-made popcorn usually works out cheaper than nuts or crisps, is a good bowl snack, and is usually very popular with children.
And home-made ice lollies, or ice cream cones, are another good cheap option if your party is child-heavy. Make a selection of lolly flavours using a home kit, or get in a couple of tubs of affordable ice cream and some cheap cones.
Dip fruit (like grapes or dried apricots) in cooking chocolate and leave to cool for a healthy(ish) summer snack that kids will actually eat.
Bananas are another good, cheap and filling barbecue standby. Remove the skin, add whatever you want (chocolate buttons, mars bar, a dash of brandy even), wrap in foil and stick on the barbecue. Yum!
Can your garden give something back? Mint is great for Pimm's or G & Ts, berry fruit can be turned into sorbet or chocolate-dipped, and veg can be added to barbecue kebabs. In other words, don't forget to use what you've already got.
Serving: Plastic cups, paper plates and napkins can often be picked up very cheaply in your local pound shop.
If you don't want people drinking out of plastic, see if your local supermarket provides free glass hire – several do. Just remember that you'll have to pay for any breakages!
Before and after
Snaps: Ask guests to bring their digital cameras, take a few snaps and email them to you afterwards. You can then put together a 'slideshow' of the day and email it to all the attendees as a reminder of the occasion.
Alternatively, if the party was in honour of a particular person, get the photos printed and assembled in an album as an affordable-but-special gift for them.
Precautions! Finally, make sure you don't end up with a huge cleaning/breakages bill at the end of it all.
Make sure there is easy access to the toilet, with a floor covering to guard against muddy footprints on the carpet.
And if you think your do might get a bit rowdy, stash away any breakable objects. Your guests may not treat those garden gnomes with the same respect you do!
As you can see, the key to a cheap party is to plan the whole thing well in advance.