Barbecue on a Budget to Unlock Your Best Summer

Is there anything better than a summer cookout? Sharing good food and good vibes with friends and family doesn’t have to be expensive. Here’s how to save money on your next barbecue.

The temperature is rising—and so is inflation. Backyard barbecues are a summertime tradition, but they can also get pretty pricey. Luckily, there are quite a few ways to host your friends and family without spending more than you can afford.

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Set Up for Less

First, let’s talk about the prep work—in other words, everything other than food. Careful planning will help minimize costs, so don’t skip these steps!

RSVPs, Please

You’ll need to get a firm headcount before you head to the store. The only thing worse than having not enough food for your guests is having way, way too much. Sure, you can—and should—save the leftovers, but your guests should do you the courtesy of an RSVP so that you can estimate how much food to buy.

Assorted delicious grilled meat with vegetables on barbecue grill with smoke and flames in green grass
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The Best Grill for Your Buck

If you don’t already have a grill—or if your grill is more rust than metal—then you’ll need to upgrade. Unfortunately, this is the worst time to buy a grill. It’s worth asking friends, family, and trusted neighbors if you can borrow a grill before investing in a new one. If you decide to buy, here’s a list of the best gas and charcoal grills under $100.

There’s another alternative you might not have considered: public parks. You may need to reserve a picnic shelter to host your barbecue, but some parks offer picnic tables and charcoal grills year-round and free of charge.

BYOC: Bring Your Own Chair

When you only host a large crowd once or twice a year, it doesn’t make any sense to keep a dozen or more folding chairs in storage. If you don’t have seating for everyone, ask your guests to bring their own camp chairs.

It’s also perfectly reasonable to ask friends or neighbors to borrow folding tables if you don’t have your own. Just make sure that you return them promptly and in good condition.

Dollar Store Décor

Summer barbecue decorations will almost certainly get trashed. Whether it’s damage from kids or pets or rogue condiments, this is not the time to break out your best linens. Buy table coverings at the dollar store. You can also get decorations and even helium balloons!

Plan Your Grill Strategy

What do I mean by grill strategy? You should know how long to cook each dish you’ll be making, as well as the ideal temperature. For example, you can toast buns while a gas grill is heating up or when a charcoal grill is starting to cool. Grilled corn might take 15 minutes, while burgers take half as long.

Once you finalize the menu, plan how you’ll grill everything. That way, you won’t be wasting fuel and the food will all arrive on the table at the same time.  

A man with a barbecue plate at a party between friends. Food, people and family time concept.
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Forget Paper and Plastic

People are divided about whether to use disposable cups, plates, and cutlery these days. On the one hand, it’s much easier to clean up at the end of the party when you don’t have dishes to wash. But disposables are bad for the environment. They also cost money, while washing up only costs your time. The choice is yours.

Save Money on Your Menu

The classic backyard cookout is all about hamburgers and hot dogs, but those aren’t your only options. Let’s look at ways to shave down your grocery budget without sacrificing flavor.

DIY Sauces and Seasonings

Once you see how easy it is to make your own marinades, glazes, and spice rubs, you’ll never buy the premade stuff again. Best of all, you can control the sodium level and potential allergens. You’d be shocked at how many store-bought products contain gluten! Here are five healthy homemade marinades to inspire you from Real Simple Good.

Go for Cheaper Cuts of Meat

Chicken breasts are expensive—and honestly, they’re not the best meat for the grill. Because they are so lean, they’ll dry out much faster than dark meat, like chicken thighs. Bone-in cuts of beef, pork, and other meat are also cheaper and better for grilling. Personally, I love flank steak on the grill since it takes marinade so well and cooks in just a few minutes. It’s a better pick for backyard grilling than porterhouse or even sirloin, in my opinion.

Develop a Signature Burger

What barbecue would be complete without burgers? Sure, a plain ol’ burger is delicious, but a signature burger can make your cookout memorable. Not only that, but when you mix other ingredients with ground beef, the meat will feed more people.

Vegetarian guests can enjoy veggie burgers or—my favorite—black bean burgers. Rather than buying frozen burgers, make them at home.

Group of young people having fun in the park at barbecue grilling and eating meat skewers together
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Grill Kebabs, Too

The kebab should be your new favorite barbecue dish. A stack of bamboo skewers (remember to soak them in water before you grill) and bite-sized meat and veggies will turn into the tastiest treat you’ve ever eaten. Okay, that might be hyperbole, but kebabs are fantastic. They balance meat with plenty of vegetables or even fruit. Add a homemade marinade and you’re good to go.

Batch Your Drinks

Whipping up a batch drink is a lot less expensive than buying lots of different bottled beverages. You can go classic with iced tea or get fancy with a batch cocktail. This is a fun—and surprisingly affordable—alternative to stocking up on sodas, and it’s more generous than telling your guests to BYOB.

Keep Your Leftovers

Before you start cooking, have a plan for handling leftovers. That starts with having containers on hand, but it also includes knowing when side dishes were set out. On a hot summer’s day, food is no longer safe to eat after just one hour, according to the USDA.

Make It a Potluck

Some people believe that when they host friends and family, they should provide everything for their guests. Other folks are more comfortable with asking friends to pitch in so that everyone can have fun.

Whether you want to turn your cookout into a potluck is up to you. If you do decide to ask guests to bring a dish, it’s important to have some kind of organization. Otherwise, you’ll end up with six containers of potato salad and nothing else to eat.

Friends having a barbecue party in nature while having a blast
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Shop Smart

Now that you know how many people you’ll feed and what you’ll feed them, it’s time to start shopping.

Find the Best Bargains

When you’re cooking for a crowd, discount clubs like Costco and Sam’s can be your best friends. Buying in bulk almost always saves money. However, if you aren’t already a regular shopper, try to get a friend to take you as a guest instead of buying your own membership.

If you have a Euro-style grocery store, such as Aldi or Lidl, in your area, then be sure to check out what they offer. Their store brands are typically much cheaper than other grocery stores and just as tasty.

Major bargain shoppers can look for bakery outlets, where bread, roll, and other baked goods are sent when they are close to their “best by” dates. These baked goods are still safe to eat, so consider stocking up the morning of your cookout.

Assorted delicious grilled meat with vegetables sizzling over the coals on barbecue
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Clip Coupons

Couponing got something of a bad rap over the last decade, as reality show personalities clipped coupons to buy stockpiles of things they didn’t actually need. However, savvy shoppers know that coupons should be part of anyone’s shopping strategy. Look for store sales, double-coupon days, bonus fuel points—literally any way to maximize your savings.

Read More: The Best Coupon Sites for the Biggest Savings

Make a List

You know that going to the grocery store without a list is a recipe for disaster. But when you’re planning a cookout, it’s even more essential to have a shopping list. If you forget something, you’ll have to go back out. That means using more gas—and gas isn’t exactly cheap. Instead, make a list and plan your route for maximum efficiency. Do a little homework before you head out to know which stores offer the best prices on the things you need.

Small group of friends drinking alcohol and having a meal at barbecue party
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Shop Your Pantry

Finally, here’s a thrifty tip that’ll help you save money on your barbecue. Shop your pantry! See what you’ve got on hand, and then come up with side dishes that use up ingredients you already have. Pretty much everyone has a few cans or bags of beans, for example, and you can whip up a wide number of sides with those as your base.

Whatever you do, remember that the point of the summer barbecue is to have fun with the people you care about. You might be tempted to make everything Instagram perfect, but ultimately, people will remember spending time together more than the decorations—or even the food. Keep it simple, focus on what matters, and don’t put yourself in debt just to impress the Joneses.

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