The Monroe on a Budget column runs Tuesdays in The Monroe Evening News. Here is this week’s installment:

My tailgating experience involves parking lot parties at the NASCAR races at Michigan International Speedway.

But the lessons my husband, our friends and I have learned translate well to football season, especially when it comes to hosting a parking lot picnic on a budget.

One of questions to consider is whether tailgating is worth the time and effort. The money spent on ice and cooking fuel, for example, does have a diminishing return on investment when small parties are involved.

The “critical mass” point my husband and I have decided on is that that at least four people should be in our group to warrant a tailgate party. If just two or three of us are attending a sports event, we buy our food from a concession stand.

Another budget-friendly tip is to build up your tailgate supplies over time. When we started our annual MIS parties in 2000, we carried meat and cheese packets in lunch bags. But in following years, we repurposed or acquired supplies that include a canopy tent, flagpole with multiple race flags, portable gas grill, folding chairs and two ice coolers with enough food for cookouts both before and after the race.

To make sure each purchase is worth the money spent, take notes each year on what you wish you had, what pieces need replacing, and what pieces you ended up not using.

It’s also wise to stick with recipes that have been tested. In 2006, one of our friends and I looked through recipe books in hopes of graduating the race track dining experience beyond hot dogs. Unfortunately, the chicken wing dish we prepared wasn’t very good. Luckily, we also had burgers in our food coolers so no one went hungry.

Our tailgate crew has since decided to stick with burgers and brats.

Another money-saving tip is making sure you can pack the party equipment in the same vehicle as your passengers. While on-site parking is free at MIS, most other venues charge parking fees and the cost per vehicle can add up.

You also want the ability to tear down your tailgate in a hurry. Here’s why: We like to linger in the MIS parking lot after a race to let the crowds thin out and enjoy our second cookout. But there have been two occasions in which security shooed us out because the staff was preparing to close the gates for the night.

This year, we were nearly as fast as the pit crews of our favorite drivers with only 10 minutes from a friendly suggestion from a deputy sheriff to driving out the gate.

On the Web:

  • For University of Michigan tailgate rules, go to MGBlue.com and look up “parking information.”
  • For tailgate rules and fees at Eastern Market, which is one of the popular locations for Detroit Lions fans, go to www.detroiteasternmarket.com.
  • For recipe and fan decor ideas, go to the Game Day Food board on The Monroe News’ Pinterest page: pinterest.com/monroenews/game-day-food.

Readers may contact Paula Wethington at paula@monroenews.com or (734) 240-5745.

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