Whether you’re serving an eight-course plated dinner or putting together a casual buffet, it’s the little things that make the difference between a gorgeous table that people will admire and a tacky spread that people will talk about behind your back. By following a few simple rules, you can easily put together a beautiful table. Of course, rules were made to be broken, so I’ve given you a few options for that, as well.

No matter the size of your party, you needn’t spend a fortune to make your gathering a celebration.

A beautiful table doesn’t require extravagant, expensive china. You can (and should) work with what you have, but there is one golden rule; to paraphrase Joan Crawford, “No paper plates. Ever!” The new plastic plates are almost indistinguishable from china and are reasonably priced. A packet of 50 only runs about $25, and if you want to be thrifty, they can be hand-washed and used a few times before they begin to show wear.

The same can’t be said about the new plastic flatware that looks like silver. It’s fine for single use, but doesn’t hold up to reuse. If you want, you can even use these for an elegant sit-down dinner. They make clean up quick and easy, everything goes in the trash.

Another good option is to head to the thrift stores such as Povorello or Out of the Closet, which usually have sets of china that have been donated. Pick up a complete service for 12 for less than $50. If you don’t have room to store it, donate it back after the holiday. The tax deduction will almost pay for the purchase!

Now that’s you’ve got the china, concentrate on your table setting. I’m a firm believer in setting up the table a few days ahead of time so you can plan your layout and décor. Go through your serving pieces and decide which you’ll use. Choose vases, bowls, platters and trays that look good together. I write the name of each dish I’m serving on a Post-It note and attach it to each serving piece. Then, whether you’re serving family style or a buffet, place all the serving pieces on the table and design your tablescape around the pieces on the table, making the food the focal point.

Choose a color scheme: at Christmas red and green are to be expected, so are red and gold and gold and green. For Hanukah blue and white or blue and silver are traditional. Traditional is fine, but you can also shake things up. It’s Florida, go with tropical colors; pink, aqua, sea foam, even purple. Metallics give things a luxurious and festive vibe. Black and silver for Christmas? why not?

Start with your tablecloth as a base,. Keep it neutral (white or black but never beige) or make it your central color, go with the traditional green/red combination. Avoid those expected holiday prints, not only are they usually very tacky looking, you can only use them once a year. Florals and abstracts are good choices, as is a tasteful plaid. The added bonus of a pattern, if there is a small stain, it’s less likely to be noticed. IF you do choose to go with a “holiday pattern” such as embroidered poinsettias, Christmas trees, even angels, do it with an ironic wink.

Keep the look consistent; use the same plates, the same cutlery, and the same napkin rings at every setting for a carefully planned and elegant look. Or don’t; use a mixture of patterns, but make certain there is a connecting theme (color scheme is the easiest) so that it looks intentional, not sloppy. If you’re not certain you can pull off this look, don’t try it.

Once you’ve decided on a color scheme, go though the supermarket and find items that work well. Don’t limit yourself to flowers, a tall vase filled with red and green apples is striking. I once filled a vase with cranberries and a battery-operated string of submersible mini-lights then added two sprigs of pale green orchids. It was breathtaking. You can also use many shades of one color, say green, and pick a variety of produce; artichokes, grapes, pears etc., and place them in a shallow bowl. Don’t forget your backyard; gather a few branches, some giant leaves or flowers. Just make certain to hose the foliage off and let it dry. You don’t want any critters crawling from a plant onto your table.

Candles on a table are like earrings with an evening gown, they add that bit of sparkle that takes something from fabulous to faaaabulous! It doesn’t have to be elaborate candelabra; tea lights scattered about, a cluster of pillars on a small mirror, or tapers running down the center of the table will all work. There are just two rules; use fresh candles, not the one you’ve gathered from around the house and light them before your guests are seated. If you’re worried about candle wax dripping on your table, place your candles in the freezer overnight. Voila, they become dripless candles. You can freeze them any time and store them for weeks and this little trick still works.

Set your table long before you expect guests. That way you can relax and enjoy your company without having to worry about putting everything in place. It’s nice if the table looks stunning, but what you want your guests to remember most is the wonderful time they had.