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How to cater your holiday party without going broke

Based out of Dallas, Texas, Mary McCoy is a writer and social worker for disenfranchised women and children. She's a single mom, lover of Texas barbecue, and a die-hard fan of yoga

Before you sign a contract, read up on catering pros and cons

Not sure how to pull off your holiday party like a champion? Catering might just be the answer you're looking for.

It's convenient, it's straightforward and it might even fit your budget. That is, if you understand how the whole system works so you can plan accordingly.

Catering on a budget

If you're like most people, the first question on your mind when it comes to catering is, "How much is that going to cost me?" The answer, more often than not, is "It depends." Catering costs are a lot more nuanced than a simple flat fee, so you can adjust your expenses up and down according to budget:

Time of day. A catered breakfast is usually the cheapest route you can take, and a plated meal during the dinner hour is the most expensive. If you want to cut costs on catering, plan your party during less expensive hours, like breakfast from 8:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m. or a coffee hour from 2:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m.

Type of party. Even if the catered food is equally filling, a backyard barbecue will be less expensive than light hors d'oeuvres. You can load guests down with a ton of good food at a cheaper price point if you choose more casual dishes.

Service staff and extras. You'll save on service staff if you choose a buffet or hors d'oeuvres format for your party. The food may cost the same as a plated meal, but catering companies typically charge about $25 per hour for service staff, and more servers are required for a plated meal.

All said, catering costs vary, but you can expect to spend between $12 and $30 per person just for the meal.

Hidden costs

Once you review price options, ask your potential caterer for a rundown of additional fees. Catering companies sometimes keep their prices competitive by tacking on hidden fees to the bottom line. The following fees can sneak up on you, so ask about them before signing a contract:

Extra labor fees. Let's say you're using your catering company to supply rentals. Make sure you ask about extra labor fees related to the rentals, because companies will often charge for setup and tear-down of the decor.

Cake cutting fees. Cakes are expensive, but so are cake cutting fees. According to Wedding Stats, the average cake-cutting fee in the United States was $1.46 per slice in 2013.

Alcohol fees. We all know that an open bar is expensive, but a cash bar will set you back, too. Your catering company will likely charge a fee for your event's alcohol license, the bartenders and sometimes even a police presence on the property where alcohol is served.

Benefits to request

Since party planning is such an art, many catering companies now offer full-service party management. That means that caterers can provide all the decor, dishes and flatware you might need — and the major benefit to consumers is that these items are available for rent through the caterer, so you don't have to splash down a huge chunk of change on decorative purchases.

According to Corner Kitchen Catering, it's pretty typical for caterers to charge $1 per person for disposable items. If you want fancy items, a catering company will often charge a 10 percent service fee, on top of the cost of rentals, for arranging the rental from a reputable company.

Planning ahead

It's imperative to book your caterer as soon as you set the date for your party. The most competitive and sought-after caterers in your area are likely booked solid through the holiday season, between parties and weddings. Reach out to several, and expect to put down 30 percent of your catering budget as a deposit for a large party and 50 percent for a small party.

The good news with all that planning ahead, however, is that you can spend the day of your party getting your nails done instead of sweating in the kitchen. Might prove worth the money, don't you think?

See all of our holiday articles

More holiday party tips

Tips to pulling off a flawless holiday party
Hot holiday party themes to shake up the season
10 Quick and easy finger foods

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