These days, everyone's pinching pennies, but that doesn't mean you have to sacrifice on holiday entertaining.
"Creativity, warmth and delicious fare are what count most when it comes to entertaining, not spending a lot of money," says Dina Cheney, author of "Tasting Club: Gathering Together To Share and Savor Your Favorite Tastes" ($22, DK).
"Your guests will remember how welcome they felt and the hysterical joke they heard, not that you spent $100 on a particular bottle of wine," Cheney says.
It all starts with a killer theme.
For a frugal BYOB, host a wine-tasting party. Print off tasting cards, and vote for the top vintage or most unusual label. In lieu of a traditional potluck, ask each guest to bring a mystery ingredient and create your own "Iron Chef."
How about a chocolate-tasting party? Have each couple bring a box of indulgent sweets. Whip up a batch of exotic chocolate-chili brownies, and serve flavored mochas instead of cocktails.
"Come up with a theme so fabulous that its novelty makes up for the low cost," Cheney suggests. "Plan a party that you yourself would enjoy. Stay focused on the vibe, and don't stress out about the details."
Don't get caught up in impressing your guests with a five-star meal. Sometimes simple is better and less really is more.
"It doesn't have to be a lavish dinner," says Louise Reilly Sacco, co-host of "Frugal Yankee" on radio station WNTN, serving the Boston area. "People make the party, not food, drinks or decorations."
"Beer and snacks, cider and cookies or wine and appetizers are all very good ways to entertain, and you'll have more time to enjoy with your guests when you don't have a colossal production in the kitchen," Reilly Sacco says.
Also, be mindful of how much you serve. As Mom used to say, you're not feeding an army.
"Most of us end up with a refrigerator full of leftovers, begging our guests to take food home," Reilly Sacco says. "You know some of your friends are going to bring things. You know you always have way too much. Think about how much was left from last year's party, and cut back."
*Presentation Is Everything
Know when to splurge and when to save.
Choose one expensive food with a big wow factor, and think thrifty on the rest, say Barbara Nowak and Beverly Wichman, authors of "The Saucy Sisters' Guide to Wine" ($14, NAL Trade).
Make a big statement on the buffet table with a whole poached salmon, p?t? topped with black caviar or a cheese wheel wrapped in a bread braid.
Pair posh appetizers with cost-conscious crackers, bite-sized vegetables and homemade dips, and elevate the inexpensive eats by serving them in nontraditional ways.
It's all in the delivery. Cut cheese slices into leaves with a cookie cutter, and display them as a wreath. Serve simple salsas and chutneys in bread bowls.
"Creativity in the visuals trumps expensive food," Nowak says. "If a food looks good, the expectation of your guests is that it will taste good, and it will."
*Serve a Signature Drink
"If you want to serve mixed drinks affordably, select a signature cocktail for the party, and invest in just those ingredients," says Maria Hunt, author of "The Bubbly Bar: Champagne and Sparkling Wine Cocktails for Every Occasion" ($17, Random House).
She recommends the "stiletto" -- a potent mix of a half-ounce of cognac, a half-ounce of Grand Marnier, brut champagne or sparkling wine, and bitters, garnished with orange zest.
People tend to sip sweet drinks faster, so choose a subtle cocktail -- or stick with sparkling wine.
"It is possible to have great sparkling wine at the party without spending $40 a bottle on champagne," Hunt says. "Look for alternatives like Cremant d'Alsace and Cremant de Bourgogne, which are made in the same method as champagne -- and often with the same grapes -- but cost a fraction of the price."
If you happen to have a few high-end bottles in the wine rack, serve them early, when your guests' palates are fresh.
"Once they've had blue-cheese dip and short ribs, pull out a more affordable wine. They won't even notice," Hunt says.