The long summer days ahead may call for weekend barbecues, but planning cookouts on a budget can be challenging. According to Mint.com, the average American spent around $550 on meat in 2012.
Whether you're hosting a neighborhood cookout or a small family meal, here are a few ways to fire up the grill without burning a hole in your wallet:
Stock up on frozen foods. Keep track of grocery store sales and specials on frozen items such as chicken and hamburger meat so you can stock up for your cookouts at reasonable costs, as opposed to buying frozen items only when you need them.
Host a potluck barbecue. Many guests will be happy to bring a dish to a barbecue, which can help cut costs and take some of the load off your shoulders for preparing the food. Stay organized by creating a master menu, and encourage each guest to sign up for a specific dish to prevent attendees from bringing the same food.
Shop at the warehouse clubs. If you decide not to go the potluck route and want to take full responsibility for the menu, head to a warehouse club such as Costco or Sam's Club to buy items in bulk. Everything from hamburgers and buns to chips and salsa will often cost a lot less when you buy in bulk. Such savings can add up when you're feeding a large group of people, so consider making a few trips to the warehouse club for beverages, picnic supplies, salad mixes, meats and desserts.
Be smart about décor. Shop for party supplies such as balloons, streamers and other décor items at the dollar store or in the dollar section of big-box stores. You can also make your own decorations with some basic craft supplies. Clip coupons for decorative items at local craft stores, and make note of any sales running at craft stores in your area.
Stock up on charcoal. Many big-box retailers put charcoal on sale toward the start of summer and around the Fourth of July holiday. As such, stock up on charcoal early so you don't end up buying at premium prices due to last-minute purchases. Remember to keep charcoal cubes in a cool, dry place until the event, and store any leftover charcoal for next year.
Try new recipes. Instead of cooking traditional barbecue food such as chicken, burgers and hot dogs, try recipes such as meat and vegetable kebabs, grilled fish or black bean burgers. Find out if guests have any dietary restrictions, as you'll want to provide vegetarians or vegans with alternative food options.
Request RSVPs by a specific date. Whether you're sending email invitations, setting up a Facebook event page or doing things the old-fashioned way by mailing invitations, request guests RSVP by at least one or two weeks before the event so you have an accurate count of how many people you'll be cooking for. Also ask guests to inform you if they plan to bring extra company to the barbecue. This will help you buy enough food and supplies for the party and manage your budget better.
Prepare a food-buying schedule. When you have to stock up on fresh foods such as salad ingredients, fruit and prepared pasta salad, be mindful about expiration dates. Make sure you're not buying certain perishable items too far ahead of the event, or they will end up as food waste. Create a shopping schedule so those items stay fresh come the day of the barbecue.
Buy or borrow a grill. You can typically score the best price on a new grill near toward the end of summer. If you want to throw cookouts earlier in the season, consider buying a used grill on Craigslist or ask a neighbor if you can borrow a grill for the event.
Learn how to buy a BBQ grill and other shopping tips from Sabah Karimi's shopping comparison blog on WiseBread.com.