How to celebrate the fourth of July on a budget

4th of July Flag Cake: Barefoot Contessa Recipe

My absolute favorite holiday is the Fourth of July. Every year, I look forward to the combination of down time, swimming, good food and drinks, hanging with friends in the outdoors and fireworks. Something about it all just helps me de-stress and feel like a kid again. I give myself permission to turn "off" my brain and enjoy the small, simple things. But a huge part of shutting out the noise of the world is careful planning so that I don't have to worry about overspending on my celebration. Here are some of my favorite savings strategies.

Thinking Outside the (Decorating) Box

It's easy enough to purchase inexpensive, pre-made patriotic decorations for your Fourth of July party, but I say don't go through all the trouble. Sometimes, less really is more. With the exception of having to accommodate inclement weather, I've never been to July Fourth party that was held indoors. Whether it be a backyard, park, or other outdoor venue, being outside usually is decoration enough.

One year I tried decorating with red, white and blue balloons and a fun tablecloth, and it all backfired because the wind was so bad -- it wasn't worth the hassle. From that point on, I decided to repurpose existing food items for décor. Some ideas including hollowing-out some bell peppers to hold condiments (it's a nice punch of color), using a patriotic cake as a table centerpiece (or spreading out patriotic cupcakes on various tables), or arranging blueberries, pineapples and watermelon cubes (raspberries or strawberries also work) in the shape of an American flag on a platter. You get the picture: When people are hungry and decorations are edible, you won't have to throw your money out with the trash!

Finding a Free Location

I'm all about free, except when it means throwing a party at my house. I'm a bit of a clean freak and like my house in order. Parties are all fun and games until everyone has left and you're left with a huge mess to clean up. Though I do frequently host people at my house, I get lazy around the Fourth of July; the last thing I want to do is spend hours cleaning before my guests arrive, only to have to do it again once they leave. So I scout out the top locations in my area where a group of us can meet for free. I'll bet if you look in your area, you'd be surprised at what you'll find.

My top picks are neighborhood parks with gazebos and grills, which usually are available to rent for a small deposit that you'll receive back if you leave everything in order. This is a great option if you want to grill and need tables. It's also a good option for children, since there's usually a playground nearby for them to expend all of that energy.

Another good option is the neighborhood pool. If you don't have one, maybe one of your friends does. We did this one year and had a blast grilling poolside and staying cool in the water. Afterward, we sat on our towels and watched some of the neighbors' fireworks.

Finally, find a patch of grass and host a potluck picnic in an area where you can view a public fireworks show. Assign everyone a dish, spread out some old blankets on the grass and enjoy each other's company while waiting for it to get dark. This is a great option because it's low-key, easy to clean up and can even be planned at the last minute.

Planning Ahead

Finally, don't forget to use coupons! In any of the above scenarios, food and beverages are a must. We often scan the latest grocery coupons weeks in advance and plan our menu around what's on sale. For example, last month we saw a great deal on brisket at our local grocery store, which we purchased and froze for the Fourth of July. You don't have to plan that far ahead -- you can still shave something off your bill if you base your menu around what's currently on sale.

You also can save on entertainment. We used to buy games for our friends to enjoy, but nowadays we ask them to bring their own horseshoes, washers or other games. Dig in the closet and pull out that old game of Twister for the kids. Fun doesn't have to be expensive and friends are usually more than happy to lend a hand.

Copyright 2015 U.S. News & World Report

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