11 Ways to Save on Summer Barbecues

Despite the calendar, this morning as I write this post, we still haven’t seen the temperatures make us feel like summer is just around the corner. In fact, “Princess” (our beautiful hanging basket of purple petunias…yes, we name our plants) slept last night in the house to avoid us having to put a winter sweater on her to keep her warm!

11 Ways to Save on Summer Barbecues

But just as light follows darkness, summer is going to arrive soon and for us, Memorial Day weekend is the kickoff to those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer! And what says summer more than a good old fashioned barbecue?

A barbecue gives you the chance to get out in the sunshine with friends and family and enjoy the tastes and smells of delicious foods and drink. Bring out the lawn games and enjoy the backyard or even in the park where barbecue grills are available for use and they’re free to enjoy! Speaking of free, that’s one thing that making your barbecue won’t be, but summer fun doesn’t have to eat away at your budget when planning a festive event! Here are my 11 tips to save on summer barbecues so your parties will be great without breaking the bank!

1. Set an Event Budget

If your barbecue is a special event (like a holiday or birthday party), the very first thing to do is to make an event budget. It’s simply a list of what you need by category and what you can afford to spend. It’s fairly simple and easy and it’s totally necessary to plan in advance or you will find that you are stocking up and not tracking the money…and that’s a bad thing. Stay within in your plan and you’ll enjoy your barbecues a lot more.

2. Get Only the Tools You'll Need

The first thing a lot of people do each grilling season is to run out and buy the tools they think they will need to cook and prepare their outdoor meals. Wrong!  First of all, they can be expensive unless you go to the dollar store and even those are going to cost you. And they probably won’t be around for next summer and that will cost you again. Why not use the things you already have in your own kitchen? Investing in your everyday tools makes sense and can avoid the endless routine of replacing them each year. If you really want to stop wasting and spending your money, please avoid the 1,001 special items for the barbecue you see everywhere from supermarkets to home stores. Do you really need a cast iron garlic roasting thingamabob? Really a set of tongs and something to clean your grill are the true necessities.

3. Gas or Charcoal or ?

I’m making the assumption that you already have a grill of some kind (buying a grill is the subject for another day and time). We happen to have an overbearing condo association that will only allow an electric grill outside (think oversized George Foreman…the grill, not the man). So much for our fuel alternatives. But for you, there are some ways to save even on the fuel you’ll use for the events.

When cooking with gas grills, when you reached the desired temperature, turn off any excess burners and conserve your fuel. Keeping your lid closed will enable you to use indirect heat which will make you dish more tender and still give you that great grilled taste. Most gas grills have a temperature gauge, but if not, then one tool you should invest in is that one (dollar store here I come!). If you leave the burners all on it cooks faster and may make your burgers and hotdogs taste best, but other proteins are just fine with the indirect approach and may make them healthier as well as cost effective.

If you have a charcoal grill, you may want to shop around for sales on charcoal and lighter fluid, or places where you can buy charcoal in bulk. Don't forget to check your home improvement stores, big box stores, and supermarkets for deals.

4. Think About What to Serve

The choices for your barbecue are really wide and wonderful. The classic choices—hamburgers and hot dogs—are always a favorite and of course will be the least costly to buy and serve. It’s great that just when demand is at its height, these items are generally on sale (would you buy them any other way?) and now’s when you search out your coupons and discounts to make them really affordable.

All-beef hot dogs are my favorites and a great price is about $1.99* per lb. or package. If you want to save even more, get a package or 3 of the meat dogs (not all beef) and you may come in under a dollar each!

Hamburgers give you more options about taste, fat content, and prices. Although ground beef has climbed in cost since last year, knowing the grades, fat content and cut will give you the best chance to save and still get a tasty meal.

Ground chuck is a lower-cost higher-fat meat and is a great hamburger choice despite the fact that it may shrink the most of all choices. Sirloin ground is better for things that are being cooked in sauces and such, so avoid those in my opinion as they are the most expensive cuts.

There are blends that range from very lean, 93-95% to 80-87% and as low as 70-77% lean. It’s your choice with the higher percentage being the leanest and most expensive. Check the labels to be sure. My personal choice for grilling is in the 80% ranges. The fat is just right for a great taste and it’s usually priced well. A great deal these days is about $3.00 a pound (I just picked up some for $2.49/lb.), although you may pay as much as $4.00 and still be getting a sale price.

5. Consider Other Options

When it comes to other choices like chicken, ribs and other meats, choose bone–in types. They will be less expensive and cook better without drying out. Beef like flank steak or skirt steaks are great choices, especially if you marinate them to keep them tender.  Chicken legs and thighs will be hit as well. Make your own rubs and sauces from ingredients around the house and save there too. If you're not up that challenge, you can be certain that all of the sauces, rubs, and condiments from ketchup to mustard and relish to pickles are going to be featured in the sales. Look for prices around $1.00 or less for most of these items including your basic hot dog and hamburger rolls!

You may find some meats on sale in the meat case that can be ground by your butcher for free. Whole meats are often priced cheaper than the already ground up beef and probably will have less fat content if you choose wisely. Grinding up the meat assures a good deal. Do you think the butcher is measuring the % of fat content in the back room when he grinds it? Just ask for this service and you’ll be getting a better grade for a lesser price.

If you can, try to shop for your meat choices just before the end of the ad cycle. A Saturday night before the Sunday ads break is a perfect time. The butcher will gladly mark down your choices while they are changing their stock to the newest sales. Just plan to use the purchase in the next 48 hrs. You will save 30-50% off the price marked. Again simply ask!

6. Don't Forget the Side Dishes

Make you own if you can. Potato salad and pasta salad can cost you up to $4.99/lb., but you can make it right in your own kitchen for less than half that amount. Grilling fresh veggies is really cool and healthy so buy some peppers, asparagus and zucchinis and just top them with your favorite dressings or simply butter and they be nice addition. The best part is that in season, these are good buys.

Two classics are a nice fresh salad which you should make yourself, and corn on the cob that’s now at sale prices. Whether you buy them at the farm stand or in your supermarket, the prices should be under $0.25 per ear all summer long to be a bargain.  We just purchased a nice head of iceberg lettuce for $0.99 and tomatoes on the vine at $0.99 a pound and that can’t be beaten.

7. Dessert, Anyone?

Summer means fruit to me and please don’t miss out. From watermelon (and who doesn’t love that, especially at a price like $3.99 for whole one!) to peaches and nectarines and of course all kinds of berries, this is the time that you go for it. The items are at their peak and best prices at this time of the year. They’re healthy and always a hit whether you make a fruit salad or serve them au natural, maybe with a little whipped cream or better yet ice cream? In any event, saving on fruit from Memorial Day to Labor Day is always a frugal buy.

8. Control Your Portions

Needless to say, we love barbecue. But leftovers? Not so much. It’s not exactly like that turkey sandwich the day after Thanksgiving. Planning properly is the key, and allowing the right portions will allow you to come very close to using it all and not loading you refrigerator with baggies of everything. Make ¼ pound burgers and allow 1½ per person. Hot dogs, 2 per person. The rest of your dishes, use your best judgement and allow for 3-4 oz. portions of the sides minimally, with perhaps a little extra for “Uncle Buck” (not his real name!!!). Perfect planning will mean all gone!! If necessary give away some treats to take home, you’ll be glad you did.

9. Drinks Are On Me

OK, the question here is what to serve. If you choose to serve alcohol (and I don’t recommend it), keep in mind that some people may overdo it. If there are kids around maybe you want to avoid it. After all they are called adult beverages… I choose beer and wine in strict moderation. And I can always say I've run out, if I have to. 😉

The better choices to serve are things like iced tea and fruit punches that everyone and the kids can enjoy. Oh, and I always say this, “when life hands you summer fun, make lemonade”! Make it at home yourself and you will save lots of dollars but even if you do buy them at the store they’re less expensive and can be healthier than soda. You can also get flavored seltzers for a good price. If it’s hot and people are thirsty, there's ice water as a basic backup, although not quite as special.

Meet Princess, our purple petunia plant. Feel free to invite her to your barbecue!

10. Paper or Plastic?

No, I’m not talking about the bags you use to carry everything, but rather the plates and things you use to serve your foods. If you are a person who rarely serves from the backyard grill, then by all means use paper plates and cups you can get from the dollar store and toss them away when done. Plastic forks and knives are no biggies so everyone can use those too. However, if you re the type who grills all summer long and enjoys that, then consider buying some quality plastic servewear, You can wash and reuse them over and over and that will save you money for years. I recommend that you make that investment; it’s good for your wallet and for the environment too.

11. Fun and Games

Does anyone still have a boom box? Well even a portable radio will do, but the point is, unless you're Jay- Z, you don’t need live entertainment to please your family and friends. Set up in advance to stream your favorite tunes, or even some CD’s or WXYZ radio will do the trick.

Break out the horseshoes, lawn darts, Frisbee or the whiffle ball bats and balls, and you can get the kids involved for practically nothing. Younger kids will appreciate bubbles and chalk. The dollar store is the place to shop for most of this fun stuff! Getting out in the fresh air is the main thing.

Barbecues are the best times and make summer really fun. Grilling and enjoying the fresh air right at home is a big way to enjoy yourself without spending a fortune. Remember that it's the company that makes it special, so don't make yourself crazy making it Pinterest-perfect. Save on summer barbecues and relax with your family and friends.

Are you a barbecuing fan? What are you planning this summer and have you any ideas that can make a barbecue really special? Please share your ideas and have a great summer!

* Prices are based in my area (NJ) so your prices may vary