Setting a Table on a Budget
It may seem daunting at first to set a table on a budget. One that will both impress your guests, and be practical for entertaining. A nicely set table on a budget is very doable though. As a food blogger, “cheap Yankee” and former part time antiques dealer, I’ve sniffed out a lot of deals and tricks to put together attractive tablescapes.
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Start with what you have
Look through what you have for table settings, and serving pieces. Even if all you have is ugly worn everyday dishes, you may have a couple nice crystal bowls, serving platters, glassware, linens, even casseroles or candlesticks to use as a starting point. Take a look at them and decide what you like. The overall style of them, modern, traditional, simple, fussy, etc., will be your guide when selecting more pieces.
Stick with white:
White is so versatile. It will allow you to mix and match from different sets without looking mismatched. White tableware will also allow you to simply swap out linens, centerpiece and perhaps glassware for a holiday or event specific look.
Consider how you serve
If you serve ready made plates to your guests, then serve ware will be a low priority for you. Hosts who prefer buffet style service will really want the spread to look it’s best, but may want to keep table settings simple. More of an hors d’oeuvres and cocktails kind of host, then think, small, durable, portable & plentiful. A huge stack of small inexpensive plain white dishes will have a inviting effect on guests. No one wants to hang onto the same plate for an extended period of time. Just toss them in the dishwasher after.
Thrift shops, consignment boutiques, yard & estate sales can be an excellent resource for tablescaping. When people declutter, move or get divorced, those lovely overpriced wedding gifts often end up on the front lawn at a fraction of retail (and they want to get rid of it quick before Aunt Edna stops by to see her gift up for grabs). I’ve found consignment shops in particular to be great sources for linens. Often these were put away for special occasions, then forgotten about. I’ve gotten lovely vintage hand-worked linens in pristine condition, at a fraction of the cost of their lower quality modern counterparts.
Note: I suggest you mostly stick to linens, glassware, serving pieces that won’t hold hot dishes for extended periods or items made in the past few decades. Many antique and vintage dishes have lead glaze and/or their finish has “crazed” (the term for when the glaze crackles over the clay body), neither is food safe for serving anything other than dry goods, such as nuts or dinner rolls.
Discount stores & mass retailers:
I often shop stores like HomeGoods & Christmas Tree Shops for food photo props. They are an excellent reasonably priced resource for tableware, offering a huge array of seasonally appropriate items. Dollar stores are good for grabbing cheap glass stem ware, and don’t overlook mass retailers, like Walmart. They often have good deals on large services of flatware, glasses or dishes, especially around the holidays. They may not be fancy, but will be fresh, without scratches or nicks from use.
Don’t count out higher end retailers and top quality brands. Off season and clearance sales can often bring those coveted pieces to you at reasonable prices. Discount stores that focus on designer brands (like Tuesday Mornings) can have amazing deals. I’ve gotten plates that retail for $20 each for less than two dollars each. If you don’t mind shopping and digging through the clearance you can sometimes make out like a bandit.
Set up alerts:
If you have a specific pattern you are after, set up a Google alert for the pattern. If it is a common name, then add maker, and perhaps set up a couple as combined terms with “sale”, “discount” or “clearance”. Online replacement services will often offer to email you if they get your pattern in stock , and some deal sites also offer alerts for members (I believe you can get term related alerts from Slickdeals .
Seasonal Harvest Centerpieces:
Seasonal fruits and herbs can make for outstanding centerpieces, and a great way to stretch a flower budget. In the summer a big bowl of lemons with sprigs of mint and perhaps a few wildflowers makes for a fresh and cheerful look. In the cooler months, create a look reminiscent of the bounty of a cornucopia, with winter squash, apples, oranges, pomegranates, and nuts. A small floral arrangement can be “extended” with spare culinary herbs, or snips from plants and shrubs in your yard. Large produce like pumpkins and watermelon and even serve as a centerpiece vessel.
This is often overlooked until the last minutes before guests arrive, but the ambiance created by lighting or lack thereof, can have a huge effect on both you and your guests. Lighting can also drastically change the way your table scape looks. You don’t need to do a full dry run of your table setting, but put out the lines you plan to use along with a few dishes and planned accents, in the actual area you will be using them in. It is easy and inexpensive to add or mute light, but you won’t be running to the store for light bulbs or cheap window sheers an hour before guests arrive.
Think outside of the box:
A little creativity can go a long way in stretching your budget to organize a lovely celebration. Think about the holiday or occasion you are celebrating and the guests who will be there, anything from vintage Christmas ornaments topped with hand tied bows, to paper printed place mats featuring family photos or the kids artwork could add just the touch to make your guests feel special and appreciated… that after all is the ultimate goal isn’t it.