This post is from staff writer Sarah Gilbert.

We’re all skilled in the ways of the holiday budget; most of us start thinking about it in the fall, with most attention paid to Christmas gifts, feasting, and New Years’ celebrations. And if we’re traveling to visit family and friends for Thanksgiving, that budgeting has already occurred. But few of us give much thought to a Thanksgiving budget. (This is born out by the few responses to our Facebook post about saving money on Thanksgiving; Taco Bell isn’t exactly a “strategy”!)

Estimates of spending for Thanksgiving are slim
Unlike Halloween and Christmas, the retail groups generally don’t produce a spending estimate for Thanksgiving; all energies are focused on Black Friday and every Saturday-Sunday-Monday-Tuesday-Wednesday-Thursday-Friday of shopping days after that. Instead, we have an agricultural estimate of costs of a Thanksgiving dinner that is something like the 12 Days of Christmas price tag; more a measure of inflation than a gauge of what people are actually doing. (For the record, the prices are up big this year for a 10-person feast, at $49.20 from $43.47 in 2010.)

As such, the Thanksgiving price tag seems an amazing bargain. At less than $5 a person for the meal, could we really be skating into the holiday shopping season with only a $20 dent in our budget for a family of four (less travel costs, of course)? If this were true, would charity organizations be so keen to get our cans and cartons of food for their Thanksgiving boxes?

I suspect that the real costs of Thanksgiving are far more than these soundbite-sized news bits reveal; and that it’s a holiday for which many of us fail to plan financially.

Being realistic about Thanksgiving spending
I made a budget for November, and I included all the bills due for the month,took proper reference from my free credit report,the cost of a little early Christmas shopping I plan to do, and the ingredients for the annual gift I give my mom and sisters: homemade vanilla (it’s so much fun and easy, too). I added in the turkey. And then I stopped budgeting and turned to other things.

I should know better — I love shopping for food for Thanksgiving, and often blow $75 or more at the special “reunion” farmer’s market held the Tuesday before the holiday in my childhood neighborhood. A combination of nostalgia plus a last chance at good food from beloved vendors pushes all my spending buttons.

A bigger produce budget

So, I’m re-doing my budget today and including all of the spending I plan to do:

  • Yes, the turkey. This year I’m buying two; one for our family holiday celebration the Saturday before Thanksgiving and another I ordered weeks ago from a local farm. I’ll either share this one with friends left family-less, or give it to charity (more on that later). I have to remember to assume the weight of the turkey will be higher than I expect; in past years, I’ve found that farmers end up with more extra-large turkeys than small-to-middling ones (those birds grow fast).
  • Vegetables in quantity. Vegetables may be cheaper than meat, but Thanksgiving is one of those special times when we serve far more vegetables than normal; and often our recipes call for a wide variety of expensive or unique vegetables. I love celeriac, and it’s only available for a little while each year, so I’ll buy three roots, sometimes; potatoes are often sold in 10-pound bags this time of year; and don’t you want shallots and red onions? Brussels sprouts and green beans? I’m doubling my budget here.
  • Sweet and salty and spicy and staples. This is the time of year most of us replenish our spice rack, according to a friend who owns an herbs-and-spices shop. (Sales the two days before Thanksgiving, he said, are five to 10 times normal — or more.) We’ll need a lot of sugar (in my family, maple syrup and molasses consumption are already up) for all that baking. And we need snacks to eat while we cook and our family mulls around waiting for us! Finally, there’s the staples we probably haven’t considered in a while and want to make sure we won’t run out of on Thursday morning (no one wants convenience store pancake mix in the pie crust): I’m budgeting to stock up on flour, cocoa, butter, and (yes, it’s a staple here) cream.
  • Gas and pit stops. We’re headed out to my parents’ house for the weekend, about 50 miles away; we don’t drive, but I’ll pitch in for gas for our ride. And I’ve learned that we always need to stop on road trips for treats that aren’t in our normal budget (I’ll bet you do, too!).
  • Alcohol. Most of us drink when we’re around family — my husband, who spent many years as a bartender, has long attested to this — and wine or fancy liqueur is a regular host gift. Unless your family is an unusual (and admirable!) group of teetotalers, budget — honestly — for these purchases.
  • Extra restaurant meals. Most of us take the holiday vacation time as a cue to live it up a little — take a little extra time for ourselves, get away from the dishes or the often tense family emotions, or even just pick up lunch while we’re rushing around before and after the big day. Budget realistically for these luxuries, and maybe you can avoid putting them on credit.
  • Donations. Remember? This is the time when you start remembering how much others need in your community. Don’t forget to add the cost of food or financial donations into your budget. And do the less fortunate in your community the kindness of buying the same quality foods you would for your own family (if I decide I can afford it, I’ll donate a pastured turkey to a local organization).

Strategies to save and spend smarter this month
I definitely could use some thoughtfulness in my budgeting. But I’ve already started making some decisions that will cut down on costs and spending; and learned some strategies that spread out the money I do spend.

  • Consider your turkey a feast. We know it’s a feast. But let’s plan like it. If you’re cooking a turkey for a smallish family, and spending $50 or more, think of it as the principal meat around which your next week’s meals should be planned. Don’t go out for hamburgers or fried chicken next weekend! Make turkey sandwiches (you love them anyway), and freeze the turkey in slices for next week’s lunches. Make turkey enchiladas, tacos, or soup for the weekend’s meals. When you’ve finished the meat, make turkey stock and freeze it for use the rest of the month. It’s a great base for French onion soup, gravy to serve with biscuits for brunch, or any number of other meals.
  • Buy in bulk for the whole season. I put in a big order of butter in late October through a buying club, as I know I’ll be using a lot more than usual from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day. It’s in my freezer and was way cheaper than buying at the grocery store. I also bought a bunch of chocolate in cases, for ingredients in Thanksgiving pies and holiday hot chocolate and gifts for my kids’ teachers. I’ll buy flour in bulk through the grocery co-op (most grocery stores let you special-order 50-pound bags) and split with my siblings, all of whom love to bake. Think like a farmer: this is the best time to stock up on storage onions and apples and squashes and potatoes, all of which are cheap thanks to holiday sales and seasonal availability and can last (stored well) for months.
  • Potluck. Want the huge spread of a traditional feast but can’t really afford it? I know most of us do this anyway, but it bears repeating: potluck! I’m buying the turkey for our big family feast, and my mom is doing the pies, my middle sister is bringing vegetables and breads, and my youngest sister is bringing the potatoes. Some of my friends do a post-Thanksgiving leftover potluck, which encourages the utilization of that great food and also allows friends to get together on the cheap.
  • Waste not… you know the rest. I’m as guilty as anyone of choosing an easy, yummy stop at a coffee shop for lunch rather than go home and deal with a messy kitchen (or mess up the clean one). But I love leftovers, and I’d rather eat them and save my money for gifts (or paying down debt, or saving for my emergency fund). Being mindful of what’s at home in the fridge is a good way to be grateful during the holiday and the days and months following it.
  • Say “yes” sometimes. “Yes” to invitations to dinner; “yes” to a break; “yes” to offers of help. We can’t be the hostess with the mostest every year. Maybe this year you’re under-employed and stretched and it’s time to let your in-laws cook. Maybe this year you’ve finished paying off debt so you can’t really afford a big spread and you take a seat at a friend’s table for the meal. Maybe your family would be okay with pizza this year; maybe you’re totally broke and someone is offering a charity box of food; maybe your wealthy step-dad wants to throw around a little money and buy you a turkey. It’s okay to say “yes” once in a while.

All told, my Thanksgiving expense is more than a turkey or two. In addition to $100 for two turkeys, one for the family and one (very large) for charity, I’m budgeting at least $200 or $250 for seasonal staples, $75 for vegetables and winter fruits to get me through several weeks, $25 more for the inevitable donation request, $25 for gas and treats on the way to visit family, and $25 for festive beer and a couple of bottles of wine. That’s almost $500 for Thanksgiving; a lot more than the American Farm Bureau Federation’s numbers.

How much will you be spending this season?