Your Game Plan for a Frugal Tailgating Party

Like pale lagers and football itself, the tailgating party is largely an American institution. I spent several months living in New Zealand a couple years back and was shocked by the lack of pre-game activity outside the rugby pitch. Perhaps the fans were so dedicated to their sport that the game itself -- and not partying -- was the sole reason for seeing a live match.

Personally, I yearned for a full day of celebrating, not a meagre 90 minutes. Who wouldn't want to endure frostbite, sunburns, and free brews in a parking lot for untold hours? I'm already salivating. But this species of football fanatics can spend a lot of money. According to numbers from Tailgating.com, almost 75 percent of folks spend $200 or more tailgating throughout the football season. Factor in parking fees and gas, not to mention exorbitant ticket prices, and one modest party could leave your discretionary account drained.

Budget-conscious fans need not forgo the lot: After all, frugal living doesn't have to equal boredom. Planning is one key to saving cash on any game day event and gathering the right tailgate gear beforehand will leave a surprisingly small dent on your wallet. To get you started, I've put together a 15-step game plan for victory on the asphalt gridiron, all tailored to the cost-cutting tailgating enthusiast. Go (insert team name here)!

1. Jersey Up
NFL and college jerseys comes in more forms than can possibly be worn at once, but an authentic jersey is essential for any dedicated fan. 

2. Know the Lot
Most stadiums have room set aside for fan-fueled parties, but some flat out don't allow it. Before making any grandiose plans, check all rules or regulations. Certain places don't allow alcohol, while others restrict the type of vehicle or amount of time spent in the lot.

One near-constant, from Oakland Coliseum to New Meadowlands, is the parking fee. Several college fields don't charge with a student ID, but you can expect to pay anything from $5 to $60 simply to post up. Bring enough people to split the cost and the problem solves itself.

3. Make a Checklist
This ain't your typical half-baked college tailgate, requiring only beer and a football. Make a list of every item you'll possibly need, including paper products, extra trash bags, cutlery, briquettes, whatever, and snag deals at big-box or warehouse stores. Most supermarkets also offer rotating weekly specials on tailgating supplies, so build your menu around discounted items.

As for the actual list, if you have a smartphone, close the fantasy football app for a minute and download Springpad. On the surface it's a free list-making app, but beneath it's so much more. Make lists by picture, barcode or name, then sync it with other programs and it can do the leg work for you by finding the best deals at local stores.

4. Prep and Freeze the Food
Just as people debate Chad Ochocinco's merits as a receiver, people will never agree on tailgate food. Some bring burgers, others brats, still others extravagant feasts. No matter what route, prepare everything beforehand. It'll be exponentially more convenient to whip out pre-cut tomatoes, lettuce and onion than chopping in the lot. You'll also end up with less waste. For meat, freeze everything, plain and simple. It's easier to move, cook and keep fresh.

For a wealth of creative, delicious and easy tailgate recipes, hop over to the dedicated page on All Recipes. You'll find everything from burgers and dip to chili and fish. Yes, you can tailgate with fish, although chili is a lot cheaper.

5. Be Ready for Weather
If there's one thing the tailgate faithful pride themselves on it's authenticity. This means sticking it out, come rain, shine, or driving snow. Some are content to keep only a thin layer of paint between themselves and the elements, but extra layers will keep you comfy in the lot as well as the stadium. Always pack warm clothing, including a sweatshirt, gloves and rainproof jacket. That way, you're less likely to depend upon expensive and excessive liquor to keep warm. It goes without saying to check your local forecast, but I said it anyway.

6. Supply the Fun
Sure, there's always a pigskin being tossed around somewhere, but tailgating is high time to show off your entertainment ingenuity. It's also a stellar way to attract and make friends. Forgo buying pre-made kits of your favorite tailgating games. For quick and easy thrills, build a "horse balls" set (also know as ladder golf) or a washer game board.

7. Pack Storage Bins
You have boxes for Christmas decorations, old photo albums and various degrees of junk. Why not use dedicated bins for tailgating supplies to make preparation, travel and clean-up more convenient. Keep one for grub and another for dry goods, like paper plates, trash bags and cooking gear. Pick up a couple durable bins that way you won't find yourself scrambling to restock for each game.

You'll likely need a large cooler as well. To save on ice, buy bottled water and freeze it the night before a game. In the morning, place your food in the cooler and cover it with frozen water bottles. You can later drink these cut-rate ice packs or save them for the next game.

8. Plan Your Drinks
In all likelihood, water won't be the only libation available at a tailgate. However, some stadiums don't allow fans to bring their own booze. But you were already aware of any such restrictions after following step two, right? If you're expecting plenty of company, cater to those both over and under 21 with a variety of options. However, if you're the primary source of food, don't hesitate asking others to bring the drinks. You deserve a liquid gift or two.

9. Pull Out Cash
Plastic is useless in a vast, dusty parking lot, and I can't count the number of times I've had to bum a few bucks off friends. Drop by an ATM and grab enough green to at least cover the parking fee. Saving money is nice, but making it is better. Having a side bet on the horse-balls match won't hurt, but don't bring too much cash or you'll leave with empty pockets.

10. Bring the Barbecue
The holy grail of tailgate gear can be gas or charcoal, but you'll need one that's easily portable. If you have a truck, bring whatever you have at home, or try the popular Brinkmann Tailgate Grill, made specifically with the space issues of a parking lot warrior in mind. This full-size grill is for seriously large parties. It has four burners but is also collapsible, fits in most trunks and is ready in minutes. 

Most hardware stores also carry small charcoal grills no larger than a pizza. Be sure to buy briquettes or top off your propane before game day.

11. Bring Friends
Carpooling, coordinating and combining with other groups means more than saving cash on parking fees. You'll spend less on supplies, indulge in a variety of free food and clean up in half the time. Tailgating is very much a social event, but partying with fans of the other team is your prerogative.

12. Arrive Early
Again, tailgate areas around the nation open at all different times, but the average is three to four hours before a game. Plan to be there for at least that long, plus an hour or two after the final whistle. Maybe it was this marathon quality of tailgating that didn't appeal to my laid-back pals from New Zealand...

13. Find and Mark Your Claim
Finding a prime place to park shouldn't be difficult if you show up early enough. Search for medians or end spots, but avoid tailgate bully syndrome by hogging more than your allotted space. Once there, unload and set up any tables, club chairs, grills, games or extras you may have.

While you fire up the grill and prep munchies, have a few others bring out the team colors. Everything in the tailgate camp should reflect your choice in teams because, in the end, any party feels empty without decorations. 

14. Game Time
Most think the tailgate ends when the game begins, but for those looking to soak in the atmosphere without expensive tickets -- expect nothing less than $40 a pop for nosebleeds -- the party can stay strong all day. Bring a generator, a small TV and enjoy surround-sound courtesy of the stadium, or grab a radio and simply picture the last-second, game-winning catch. It's almost as satisfying.

While enjoying the game from your car is fine at most NFL stadiums, many college campuses clear the lots a bit before game time, forcing everyone either inside or to the bars. Again, know the rules.

15. Leave It Clean
There's no need to leave the lot looking like it got the worse end of a food fight. Plus, cleaning will give you and your friends quality time to rave or bitch about the team's performance.

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