Holiday Place Settings For Less

by Kim Tilley

So you’re throwing a party or just having people over for dinner around the holidays and you really don’t feel like setting the table with your “Maps of the Fifty States” placemats and the “Sesame Street” dinnerware. How DO you come up with something that looks nice, matches your décor, and doesn’t cost a king’s ransom?

Don’t throw money at the problem-get creative! Creativity is a tightwad’s best defense in a “tight” (pardon the pun) situation. The best place to look for ideas is in the Sunday store ads. They often show all kinds of cool knickknacks and dishes we would love to have-but not at those prices.Save the ads you like and copy the look.You will learn a lot about your own preferences in the process.

Here are a few ideas to create a beautiful holiday table. I’m sure you can come up with more!


-Use old or new sheets, in patterns or solid colors.

-You can sponge-paint, stencil, or fabric-paint designs that match your décor, or create a theme for the table.

-You could also add a contrasting border to jazz up an existing tablecloth or sheet with a pattern. Why not do a border with a gold-foiled design or those fake jewels? Tablecloths cover the largest area, so treat them like the first layer of your décor.


These are probably the next-biggest thing besides the centerpiece, and a great background for your fabulous or not-so-fabulous plates.

-You can make disposable placemats very cheaply by sponge-painting large brown paper bags (the nonprinted inside) and gluing the backs together or using the ready-made kraft paper (same thing, just in a roll). Or trace cookie cutters onto fabrics, cut out the shape with pinking shears, and fuse right to the brown paper or a muslin placemat for a nice country look.

-You can sew or fuse together muslin, felt, or cotton placemats also, and add all kinds of fabric paints or decorative fabric scraps to the placemats. Get wild. This can be really fun!

-You can even personalize placemats using fabric paints or one of those paint pens. You can also apply contact paper over gift wrap, your child’s artwork, or your favorite Christmas cards. Or design a placemat on your computer, print it out, and then apply clear contact paper to it.

-Don’t forget iron-on transfers you can make on the computer! Who says tables have to be boring?


-Go nuts! Sure, you can buy decorative disposable ones, but you can also make napkins out of just about any lightweight cotton fabric, muslin, sheets, even the thinner towels!

-Don’t forget fabric scraps or that nice cotton dress that no longer fits. Clean it well, then cut out your napkins and edge them.

-Add a nice border of lace to dress them up. You can fuse or sew appliqués onto your napkins to match the place settings or tablecloth, too.

Napkin Rings:

-These can be made from just about anything. ribbon, wired pinecones, real sprigs of holly, juniper, or other greenery (if you have kids, keep the holly berries and other poisonous berries away from the dinner table just in case they want to sample some!).

-Paper towel rolls (or clean toilet paper tubes) are the perfect size and shape for napkin rings. Cut into 2 inch wide rings and cover with fabric, wrapping paper, even wall paper samples.

-Your kids can help you make salt-dough napkin rings, or you can even grab some copper tubing and twist a few, as we’ve seen on decorating shows such as Interior Motives.

-Costume jewelry, such as scarf rings and brooches, might also work, as long as your guests don’t walk off with your jewelry!


-Have plain old plates you want to look festive? Delta has those Ceramcoat paints out now to decorate with, but always check to make sure the sealants used in these products are safe when used to serve food. Porcelaine 150 claims to be safe for eating. Delta and other manufacturers have all kinds of neat projects, from sponge-painted dinnerware to those press-on pictures that you fill in, then press the shading on and seal.

-You may also want to try decoupage and photo transfers, but again, check to make sure you can eat off of these. If not, just use them for decoration. You can use these techniques on glasses and mugs, too.

-Don’t forget the glass-etching kits we’ re seeing everywhere these days! These require caution when using, but the results are beautiful! You can etch designs into glass cups and plates, as well as frost them entirely or partially, masking off areas to remain clear.

-Don’t want to go through all this painting? Pick up different designs of cups and plates throughout the year at yard sales and thrift shops and use them together. You can even collect all white or all black dishes from different makers for a really neat look.

-Get the Pier One look for less- use a gold paint pen on the rims of white plates. Write “Merry Christmas” in different languages (ie. “Joyeaux Noel”, “Feliz Navidad”). Or you could write the words to your favorite Christmas carol or a scripture verse.


We’ve all seen the flower arrangements and tablescapes featured on decorating shows, so there are already tons of ideas out there to choose from when it comes to centerpieces. Keep it cheap-just make it look expensive! Here are a few ideas:

  • How about a rosemary Christmas tree all decked out like a big one?
  • Or maybe a bowl of fake fruit that has been spray-painted gold (they have the really shiny metallic spray paint at Walmart in gold and silver for $2.50).
  • You could just use real fruit (no paint!) and suggest it as the dessert.
  • Dip nuts in glue and then glitter and put those into a basket.
  • Why not make a snowman out of Styrofoam balls and apply instant papier-maché, let dry, and then paint it. You can hot-glue rocks for the eyes, buttons for the mouth, a real or fake carrot (foil with papier-maché over it, painted orange) for the nose, a tiny broom made of twigs, and a felt hat. Anything goes!
  • More Centerpieces click here

I hope these ideas have jump-started your imagination, because you CAN do it-for less!

© Copyright 1999, Kim Tilley

About the Author

Kim Tilley is the mother of three boys, ages 9,6 and 2. She is the online editor for a local tv station and the editor of Frugal Moms. She is also a tightwad at heart. Her interests include cooking, crafts, gardening, computers, and saving money! When not typing away at the computer, she entertains herself by chasing kids and finding ways to create something out of nothing! Visit Kim’s website at


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