Putting together a successful cocktail party on a budget is about creativity and planning. Instead of losing money in easy but expensive solutions and last-minute fixes, you can cut costs with a well thought-out strategy. The good news is that no one is expecting you to serve them the moon, and witty conversation and the right atmosphere are generally the big stars of a cocktail party anyway.
Whereas a big party budget will support rushing around at the last minute and paying premium prices for everything, budget entertaining requires bargain hunting, and that takes some time and preparation. Begin with a list of guests so you can start to put together some numbers. Your guest list should give you an idea of how much of everything you'll need. If you know the people on your list pretty well, it'll also give you an idea of what types of beverages will be essential for success.
You don't have to have every type of alcohol known to man on hand. Choose a few favorites and let it be known what you plan on serving. The old stand-bys can be combined with different ingredients to make several kinds of mixed drinks, and buying larger bottles of liquor or wine will save you some cash.
Punch can be a good bet if you're working on a tight budget, too. It serves a crowd and can be portion-controlled via those small punchbowl cups. Also, depending on the recipe, you can use relatively inexpensive ingredients. But if you plan on adding a nice punch to the proceedings, don't water it down with ice. Instead, freeze a batch in ice cube trays and use it to keep your punch cold on the big day.
Planning for the Food
Decide early how much food you plan on serving -- if any. Get a firm headcount before you go to the store. When you're mixing liquor and food, less is usually more. Food isn't the star of the show, so leave your amazing and costly culinary creations for your next dinner party, and just keep it simple.
A good general rule is to have enough food on hand to serve everyone ten to a dozen small servings of a variety of options. This sounds expensive, but it can be manageable when you use some of the same basic ingredients for multiple offerings. That cheese and smoked ham can be served in both cold and hot canapés, and when you buy in larger quantities, you save money. If you plan far enough ahead, you can even make and freeze part of your menu and spread the costs over a couple of paychecks.
Handling the Details
If you don't have all the bits and pieces you need -- such as glasses, serving trays or a punchbowl -- you can usually pick up inexpensive or disposable serving items on sale if you watch the ads. You can also explore the possibility of borrowing the things you need. That crystal tray in your mother-in-law's cupboard probably sees the light of day only once or twice a year, and if you have some friends that are willing to participate in the equivalent of a party-store lending library, you can probably get together a very nice set of serving dishes, glasses and other necessaries and split the costs.
Another consideration for your party is the ambience. This is an area that creates a lot of stress, but in the end it isn't so much the decor, music or any theme you've concocted for your cocktail party that's important. It's the exchanges and interactions among your guests that will determine whether your party is a success. With a lively mix of personalities, anything is possible.