Planning an elegant wedding reception without spending a fortune

by Karen on August 27, 2008

In the past two Wedding Wednesday posts, I discussed getting started on the right track and planning a stunning ceremony on a budget. This week I’m sharing some tips for an elegant reception without spending a fortune.

The reception is usually the most expensive part of any wedding. With catering, entertainment, and venue costs, a typical reception can cost as much as $20,000. My total budget was only $5,000 for the whole wedding, so obviously I had to get a little creative.

The reception is your only opportunity all day to spend time with your guests and thank them for joining you at the wedding, so I wanted to find a balance between frugality and elegance. I didn’t want a wild and crazy party; I wanted a simple, intimate affair where I could spend some quality time with my guests.

Here are some tips for finding that balance yourself:

Look into unconventional reception venues.

I called many places in my rush to book a reception venue before we moved. I was shocked at the prices. Most of them charged a facility fee of $500-$2000 for the space. They also required a minimum catering bill of $1000-$2000, which wasn’t tough to reach with catering packages that started at $20 per person. Yikes. I did the math, and even for my small guest list, I was looking at a minimum of $3,000 for the food and venue alone. That wasn’t going to work on my $5,000 budget.

Out of curiosity, I called a classy little restaurant and art gallery where Tony and I used to eat Sunday brunch. With a gourmet menu and table linens even for brunch, I was pretty sure it would be out of our price range. To my surprise, it was exactly what we wanted.

For $13 per person and no facility charge, we chose 5 of their gourmet appetizers with non-alcoholic beverages included for our guests. We had chicken, steak and cheese quesadillas; artichoke and kalamata spread with fresh bread; mozzarella crostini; Thai-style chicken wings; and chicken sate with peanut sauce. The presentation was gorgeous. The appetizers were replenished throughout the night, so even though we opted to do appetizers instead of a sit-down meal, there was plenty of food.

The best part? There was no down-payment to book the date. This was a huge relief for us since we’d only been engaged for a few weeks and hadn’t had time to save the money for the wedding yet. All of our savings was going to the move, so we were relieved to have extra time to get the money together for the reception.

Part of the reason this restaurant was so affordable and elegant is because it was super tiny. The absolute limit was 50 people with no room for dancing, so they probably don’t host a lot of weddings there. My number 1 priority was elegance, not a dance floor, so this was perfect for me. Holding your reception at a small restaurant is a sure way to save money if you’re willing to sacrifice space for a DJ and a dance floor.

A bonus tip: When you call, don’t tell them upfront that it’s a wedding. Just tell them you’re planning a party for X amount of people. When people hear the word “wedding,” they’re inclined to charge you more.

Skip the sit-down dinner.

This is becoming an increasingly popular option. Many couples are opting for trendy cocktail parties with champagne and appetizers instead of traditional sit-down dinners. I chose to do it this way not only to save money, but because I liked the idea of spending the whole night mingling and sipping champagne instead of spending part of the reception tied to a table for dinner.

If you choose this route, just be sure to order enough appetizers that your guests won’t be starving when the food is gone. We had an unlimited supply, so there was plenty of food.

Don’t let the crazy wedding culture pressure you into paying thousands for an open bar.

I never even considered an open bar. It’s just too expensive. I also didn’t want a bunch of sloppy drunk people killing the elegant mood of my reception. I doubt anyone on my guest list would have been “that guy” anyway, but I wanted a classy affair … not a college kegger.

I was appalled when I read wedding books that said that cash bars are downright tacky. The thought of couples putting themselves into thousands of dollars of debt for liquor just to avoid being deemed “tacky” really upsets me.

Obviously, if an open bar for your guests is a priority for you, then by all means work it into your budget. But I’ve known too many people who say, “I don’t really want an open bar, but I don’t want people to think we’re tacky.”

If you’re not really into it, then don’t spend the money just because you’re worried about what people will think. This is a good rule of thumb for all of your wedding planning. If you spend money just because the etiquette tyrants say it’s tacky not to, your wedding will end up costing about $30,000 (the national average).

The fact is nobody that cares about you is coming for the free booze. Sure, people like to have a good time at weddings, but the people who matter most (the only ones who should be there, in my opinion) don’t care a bit about what beverages you’re serving. Besides, if they’re only coming for the free booze, do you really want them there?

The restaurant that hosted our reception had a full list of beers and wines that our guests could order in a cash bar system. We bought enough champagne for all of our guests to have a glass at the toast. If they wanted more alcohol, they picked up their own tab.

It worked out beautifully. There was an extensive wine list sold by the glass or by the bottle, so the tables that wanted wine with dinner just ordered a bottle. The wines were reasonably priced and quite good.

Another option is to do a partial open bar by supplying beer and house wine for your guests. Personally, I’m not that into that idea, either. My honest opinion is that the wine and beer served is usually not very good. Most of the time I’d rather shell out the extra money to get a glass of good wine, but the only option is the cheap house wine. I love cash bars, and I think they work out well for everyone involved.

As for full open liquor bars … well, in my opinion asking your guests to buy their own drinks isn’t as tacky as a reception hall full of sloppy drunk people who eventually end up behind the wheel. It’s also not as painful as a $5,000 bar tab at the end of the night.

Make your own centerpieces or decorations (if you have them at all) and keep it simple.

We didn’t have floral centerpieces at our reception. The restaurant supplied elegant white linens and pretty candles for each table. Roses were the only flowers at the wedding, so I bought some rose-scented votive candles and some fancy candle holders for each table. The room smelled like flowers, but the whole thing only cost about $30 with no labor beyond dropping the candles into the candle holders. Simple.

We skipped additional decoration because our reception venue doubled as an art gallery. Paintings and photographs by local artists adorned the walls, and I thought that was much prettier than any decoration I could come up with.

Be your own DJ.

DJs and bands are fun, but they’re also expensive. Because there was no room for dancing at our reception, we didn’t care much about the entertainment factor. Music is important to both of us, though, so we knew we wanted a special playlist for the reception.

We carefully combed through our music collections and uploaded a list of meaningful songs onto my iPod. We chose songs that symbolized different times in our lives and our relationship. At the reception, we hooked the iPod up to some speakers and pressed “play.” It was a personalized playlist for next to nothing.

Find a freelance baker for your cake.

When I started calling around for cake prices, I was disheartened. Since practically everyone was traveling a couple hours to come, even us, we knew that nobody would even be able to take home leftover cake. I didn’t want to pay hundreds for something that was ultimately going to be wasted.

I wanted a traditional cake, though. So I contacted Kacie at Sense to Save to ask who baked her cake, because she was also married in Bloomington. She recommended a friend of a family member who bakes cakes out of her home. She made us a beautiful cake that was exactly what we wanted for half the price of professional bakeries. She also delivered it and set it up for free.

It’s important to get referrals if you’re not going with a professional business, because you really never know what you’re getting when you hire a freelancer. Kacie was pleased with her work, so I trusted that it would be fine even though I paid her before the wedding and never even met her. If she hadn’t been recommended by a friend, I would have requested references so I could speak with other couples who had hired her to bake their cakes.

The grand total for our entire reception including food, champagne, entertainment, decorations, cake, and gratuity was $800. Not too bad for a beautiful evening of food and fun for 50 people.

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{ 12 comments }

1 Kacie August 27, 2008 at 8:46 pm

Lol! I never met the cake baker either. I’m glad she worked out for you as well. Our cake was so yummy!

We were our own DJs as well. It kind of worked out, thanks to the husband of one of my bridesmaids who took it upon himself to be the official “push play button guy” and announcer. He was great.

2 tiffanie August 28, 2008 at 1:15 am

Reading this, you have a ton of great ideas! I was on a decently small budget for our wedding and I saved my budgeting sheet which I just opened up to see what we spent, haha.

We ended up paying $2,860 for our food (130 people) and hall (ceremony and reception held at the same location all included)! Wow. It was $22 per person and included an awesome buffet with 3 meats (including prime rib), actual china and goblets, linens & linen napkins, a snack table, a punch fountain…I think that’s it. They did the catering there, so it was a package deal.

We spent $445 on liquor (bought our own and their bartender ran the bar for the evening)…this included rum, vodka, whiskey, peachtree and 2 kegs of beer. They provided all the pop/juice/mixers and ice/cups/etc for the bar. We had a ton of liquor leftover, too…we’ve STILL got some in our kitchen haha.

I made my own wedding favors (used leaf-shaped candy molds and made colored chocolate — we had a fall themed wedding). This cost under $40. Center pieces consisted of small rustic tin buckets ($30) with leaf shaped floating candles in them ($5 from the dollar store!).

My cake was $150 (family friend) and photographer was $150 (another family friend).

After all was said and done…we paid $6,300 (this included our honeymoon hotel and Bread & Breakfast — but didn’t include my dress or our rings).

I was very happy with how everything turned out and wouldn’t have changed a thing :)

I love reading your Wedding Wednesday posts! It takes me back to when I was planning my wedding :)

3 Margot December 8, 2008 at 3:13 pm

I just discovered your blog and read the entire thing. It’s interesting and useful. I assumed I’d become a daily reader. Then I made 2 comments to this posting regarding my opinion of cash bars. You never posted those. I also made one regarding pet food, which you posted. Are you only planning on posting positive, complimentary comments? Or will you also post comments that have constructive criticism or differing opinions? If you plan on censoring comments that aren’t profane, I will move on to other blogs and skip yours.

4 Karen December 8, 2008 at 9:03 pm

Margot- I tried to respond via email, but the email you provided does not exist. I’m sorry you were offended that I chose not to allow your comments, but to be frank they were not constructive. You called me and any of my readers who may have chosen a cash bar “tacky.” Forgive me, but reading that first thing on a Monday morning rubbed me the wrong way.

A wedding is a personal thing between a couple and the people they choose to invite. I found it very offensive that you would speak so harshly of people who make choices different from your own, and I didn’t want to subject readers to your nasty remarks.

I always encourage discussion and disagreement among my readers. I only ask for basic kindness and respect. I did not feel that referring to people who choose cash bars as “incredibly tacky” was respectful.

Honestly, despite the fact that I felt it was unkind, I probably would have approved if I had known you were a reader. Based on your tone, I assumed you had found me through the search engines, left a nasty comment, and didn’t plan to come back.

In the future, should you choose to continue reading, you are always welcome to disagree with me and share your own thoughts. However, I will not approve comments that include name calling or disrespectful comments about other people’s personal choices. There is a difference between disagreeing and tearing people down.

5 Margot December 10, 2008 at 1:21 pm

Hi Karen,
Thanks for responding. I regret we could not correspond via email – you are correct that I generally do not post with accurate email addresses because in the past I have found myself added to blog rolls or email lists that I do not wish to receive. I disagree regarding the 2 original posts that I sent to you, and I hope you will consider reposting them. Yes, weddings are “personal things” but they are also events hosted for others that, as you wrote about, are surrounded by etiquette, traditions, public activities and and entire industry. I disagreed with one of your assertions – cash bars – regarding weddings. And I disagreed regarding a point of etiquette. Breaching etiquette can be tacky, I’m sure we would all agree even if we don’t always all agree on what the etiquette standard is. My posts were primarily reasonable disagreements with you about what is proper wedding etiquette. Additionally, I was disagreeing with your premise. You said that people shouldn’t give into “wedding culture.” I don’t think it’s giving into wedding culture to pay for an open bar. I think it’s giving into our increasingly tactless world (where people have forgotten what it means to host) to have a bar and then expect others to pay for it. As I said, there’s nothing wrong with hosting exactly what one can afford to host, even if that means serving only non-alcoholic beverages.

Again, I hope you will consider posting my two original posts given that it is increasingly an issue that people expect others to pay for the events they purport to be hosting (i.e., having people give cash at weddings, having people give gifts in equal value to what their meal cost, demanding that people bring items to a party, making people pay for their entrance to a party or event that one is hosting, and the list goes on; if people read a Miss Manners column or something similar, you will see that this is becoming a growing and increasingly tacky issue, birthday lunches or dinners where others are expected to pay for themselves and the person whose birthday it is who invited them, etc.).

I enjoy your blog and wish you the best with your financial journey.

6 JKT December 10, 2008 at 2:31 pm

Hmmm…An interesting thread to come across as I help my daughter with her wedding! It seems like this blogger created a very successful event on a reasonable budget. Congratulations! I’m not sure what some of the previous posts are getting at, but I think I agree with them. Not too long ago, weddings and other events were hosted by hosts who did whatever they could afford and who paid for what they could afford. People got married in their back yards or modest churches and they cooked their own food if needed. Their weddings were just as special as today’s massive affairs. There was never a reason for a guest to spend money at the wedding. Whatever food or drink the host could afford, whether alcoholic or not, was provided by the hosts. Gift giving was sane and reasonable. People didn’t have made-up notions that there needed to be 5 various “showers” before the wedding, each of which require a gift, and no one had the made-up notion that it was OK to demand cash or expect a gift equivalent to what was spent to host the person. People didn’t demand that their friends fly all over the country for various pre-wedding celebrations. Brides and grooms didn’t go tens of thousands in debt for weddings. In fact, consumer debt is a relatively new thing. The masses have only had easy access to credit cards for a few decades.

Then consumerism, materialism and easy credit took over and with various events and other things (especially weddings), and people started wanting more than they could afford so they started asking for others to help foot the bill. It is tacky. For example, if I host a birthday lunch for myself, it’s me who is hosting the event and inviting my friends to celebrate so I pay the bill. If I can’t afford it, then I would do something else. I am tired of taking my children to birthday parties where I am expected to pay for the day’s event. If someone can’t afford to do a child’s birthday party at Chuck E Cheese or at a fair grounds, then have a sheet cake at your house. No one cares. The point is to celebrate the person and the occasion, not to have an extravagant event that your guests have to pay for. I’m tired of going to parties at people’s houses where they dictate what guests are to bring. I’m happy to bring a housewarming gift or other token of my appreciation if I choose. But, one is not hosting if you tell your guests to bring their own food and alcohol because you can’t afford it. If I couldn’t afford to host a dinner party or an event with alcohol, I would just have my friends over mid-day for some tea and cookies or for board games with cheap snacks. Again, my role as a host is to do whatever I can afford, not to expect others to subsidize me or to spend beyond my means. When I got married, I had a lot less money than I do now. We saved money in many respects and did many of the same things that this blogger did. However, we did not ask our guests to pay for anything. We couldn’t afford to pay for valet parking, so even though I found a great venue that had limited parking, we made sure to choose a location where people could easily park their own cars. We couldn’t afford an open bar, so we had some fun non-alcoholic drinks and that was it. I would have been personally mortified to ask my friends to pay for their own drinks at my own wedding. None of them seemed to mind that alcohol was missing and none of them complained. They were happy to celebrate the day and the wedding in the way that I could afford, and most importantly, we all still had fun.

A very small part of ridding America of its debt and consumer oriented culture is addressing the old fashioned notions of what it means to host (not asking others to pay for things for your own events) and what it means to host within one’s financial limits (not going into debt, spending more than you can afford to host something, and not forgetting that the purpose of hosting an event is not to show off your wealth).

7 Karen December 10, 2008 at 2:47 pm

Thanks for weighing in, JKT. However, I think you’re missing a very important point. Alcoholic beverages are not a requirement. I completely understand your frustration at the practice of inviting friends to a party and then asking them to pay for themselves. However, I see nothing wrong with providing food and drinks and allowing people the option to order an alcoholic beverage if they choose. In my opinion, drinking alcohol is a nice option, but not something that should be required.

8 JKT December 10, 2008 at 6:08 pm

Certainly agreed that alcoholic beverages are not a requirement! That’s why I said that non-alcoholic weddings are perfectly acceptable (whether due to the budget of the couple or the personal beliefs of the couple). I also wrote that I didn’t have an open bar (or any alcohol) at my wedding because I couldn’t afford it. My daughter will only have a few beer and wine options at her wedding because we do not wish to pay for an open bar, and there will not be an option for guests to buy additional kinds of alcohol. My point was that hosts should fully host, and guests of a hosted event should not be pulling out their wallets for anything. If the hosts can only afford soda and coffee, then that’s what will be at the wedding. If the hosts can afford a keg and soda and want it at their wedding, then that’s what guests will have. If hosts can afford an open bar and want it, then that’s what guests will have. From an etiquette perspective, it can’t possibly be that hosts only pay for “requirements.” Technically, very few things are “requirements” and then people will be asking for their guests to pay for even more than they do now. If someone gets married at 3 p.m., certainly food is not a “requirement” even though most hosts would provide some sort of snack. I don’t want to get to a world of etiquette where guests for mid-day weddings are asked to pay for their own food because it’s not a “requirement.” Again, regardless of the situation, hosts should host entirely within their financial means and personal desires and guests should not pay for anything even if it means they don’t have the option of a certain drinks, foods, activities, etc.

9 MargeM December 19, 2008 at 12:53 pm

This requirement line of thinking is troubling and could lead to even greater tackiness at events that are supposedly hosted. The blogger clearly demonstrates that dinner was not a requirement, as appetizers worked just fine and were what they could afford. Does this mean that it would have been acceptable to have a full dinner option for people who wanted to pay extra for it? I certainly hope not. What if someone served pasta at their wedding dinner to save money and then let people pay if they wanted to upgrade to fillet mignon? Or how about passed appetizers but you have to pay for the expensive sushi bits? Guests should not have to pay for anything at hosted events, and the hosts need only host events that they can afford. This line of thinking is troubling.

10 Karen December 19, 2008 at 3:56 pm

Honestly, this has gone far enough. Three comments have now been made on this post with different names and the exact same IP address. If you’d like to comment, please be honest. Don’t pretend to be several different people attacking me for the same issue. I know these comments were posted by one person.

I assure you, I did not invite anyone to my wedding who was judgmental enough to silently curse my “tackiness” for having a cash bar. I certainly wouldn’t have invited any dreadful people who are more concerned with what free stuff they’re getting out of the wedding than celebrating the bride and groom’s marriage.

We were at a restaurant, and I couldn’t control that drinks were available. Some people ordered drinks. Some didn’t. It was a wonderful time for everyone there regardless. What is so troubling about that?

My whole point was that a wedding is personal thing, and it’s up to you to decide what works for you.

11 Shannon December 31, 2008 at 10:14 am

I don’t believe that opting for a cash bar when your budget doesn’t allow is “tacky”. They aren’t obligated to use the cash bar but can take advantage of what’s available if they so chose.

12 Margot January 3, 2009 at 10:04 pm

A final comment copied and pasted from the most recent Miss Manners in The Washington Post:

Pay to Play? That’s Not Hospitality
Wednesday, December 31, 2008; Page C03

Here is a New Year’s resolution for which nobody asked: Do not try to live above your means.

Yes, Miss Manners knows that everyone has resolved to cut back on expenses. Probably every year since time began. It may be more urgent now, but people are always doing that.

However, that is not the resolution that Miss Manners proposes. She is hoping for an end to the now commonplace attempts to live above one’s means by means of mean devices to use other people’s means.

Sorry. Let her try that one more time.

Over the last decade, a huge number of questions she receives begin with statements of what the writer wants to do: celebrate a birthday, a birth, a graduation or a holiday, take a trip, throw a wedding or anniversary party, furnish a new house, or just give a dinner party or a present.

One might think that these people are writing to request social advice, but in fact they have already planned the specifics. It is to be a birthday party at a certain restaurant, or an extravagant present for their parents’ anniversary or a list of things with which they have decided to furnish a new house.

Next comes the line, “But I can’t afford it.”

All right. Miss Manners is poised to suggest cheaper alternatives. But the next line is never “What can I do instead?”

Rather, the query is how to get others to pay for this.

What galls Miss Manners is that — this being an etiquette column — they are requesting “the polite way” to stick others with their bills.

“What is the polite way to tell the guests that dinner will cost about $70 a head?”

“Is it polite to enclose my wish list with the invitation, or should that be only on the Web site?”

“How do I politely inform our parents’ friends that they don’t need presents, but we’re sending them on a cruise, so they should contribute to that?”

Notice that nobody is questioning whether it is polite to make such plans. Paid parties and gift registries are now so widespread as to be thought not just acceptable but obligatory.

Miss Manners hates to disappoint such dedicated auto-philanthropists. She pities their inability to imagine an enjoyable domestic and social life that is within their own reach. Often, what they claim is merely doing things “nicely” and even “properly” turns out to be what etiquette condemns as ostentatious and participants find wearying.

She has been unable to make them understand that they are gutting the very rituals they pretend to be following. The essence of hospitality is sharing what one has, however humble, with others. There is no point to people buying things for one another unless these are voluntary offerings that use symbolism to express thoughtfulness. By making a business of friendship, they are destroying friendship.

We have seen the economic crash that comes from living on credit. The crash when people decide

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