How to Plan a Cookout on a Budget

by Charlie Higgins
Cookouts are an enjoyable summer pastime that don't need to be expensive.

Cookouts are an enjoyable summer pastime that don't need to be expensive.

Nothing spells summer like an old-fashioned cookout with family and friends. Cookouts work for a wide range of occasions, including birthdays, national holiday celebrations, neighborhood block parties and children's sports banquets. If you're not careful, a cookout can become really expensive, really fast. Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to keep costs low while maintaining those timeless cookout traditions Americans have come to cherish.


Recruit friends and family members to help. Formal catering is not necessary for such an informal outdoor event. Send an email telling people you're planning a backyard barbecue and need help preparing, serving and eating the food. Most will be more than willing to help.

Purchase your place settings, decorations and other non-food items at a dollar store. Nobody expects high-quality cups, plates and utensils at a cookout. Stick with cheap plastic and paper. Hit the thrift stores if you're planning a fancier cookout. They often have stacks of plates at very low prices. Aim for less than 50 cents per person for plates and cups.

Plan your appetizers and sides, choosing the most affordable options whenever possible. Popular, healthy options that won't break the bank include macaroni salad, corn on the cob, potato salad, low-fat chips and dip, and baked beans. Spice things up by making cold salads with creamy dressing instead of mayo and sprinkling dried seasoning mixes over the beans.

Purchase beverages. Look for generic-brand sodas instead of the leading brand-name product lines. Make a big batch of homemade lemonade, cheap and easy to prepare drink that kids and adults love. Serving alcohol can be very expensive, so ask adults to bring their own alcoholic beverages. Don't forget ice and mixers.

Buy your meats and vegetarian main courses. Buy hamburgers and hot dogs for meat eaters and frozen veggie burgers for vegetarians. Grilled chicken is an option that tends to be inexpensive, especially if you buy cuts like thighs and legs. Avoid steak and seafood, as these are typically much more expensive. Set out condiments, dressings and dips.

Make a homemade dessert. Store-bought cakes, pies and other desserts are generally more expensive, though you may find a deal at an outlet bakery or discount supermarket. Cupcakes are a cute, easy-to-serve option.

Borrow any additional equipment and furniture you may need. A basic cookout requires at least a barbecue grill, serving table, food platters, salad bowls and a drink cooler. Ask around the neighborhood so you don't wind up having to buy any of these items.

Items you will need

  • Place settings
  • Decorations
  • Food
  • Beverages
  • Cookout equipment


  • Shop at big outlet stores that sell food and supplies in bulk.
  • Plan ahead. If you're throwing a Memorial Day cookout, don't wait until Memorial Day weekend to buy everything. You'll miss out on off-season sales or, worse, you may find certain key items are sold out.
  • Plan a rain date in case of inclement weather.

About the Author

Charlie Higgins is journalist, editor and translator based in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He has written for a variety of lifestyle and niche market websites, including International Food Trader, The Olive Oil Times, microDINERO, Sounds and Colours, Connecting Worlds and The Buenos Aires Reader.

Photo Credits

  • Comstock Images/Comstock/Getty Images