Cost Cutting - Wedding Reception on a Budget
© All Rights Reserved
The average cost of a wedding reception in the U.S. is $10,000. It's a very intimidating number indeed for many of us. If you are like me (a penny pincher with an exquisite taste), you probably want to pay less than one-fourth of that without sacrificing too much of the glamour and food quality. The great news is an inexpensive wedding reception with an elegant flair is totally achievable, but you will need to plan far ahead. Allow yourself at least 4 - 6 months to do all the budgeting, price surveying and planning. I will guide you through the process as well as provide some realistic estimates of how much you can save with these cost cutting ideas. My goal is to help you lower at least 50% of all the wedding reception costs without making your banquet hall resemble a homeless soup kitchen. Let's start, shall we?
Before Planning Your Wedding Reception, Watch the "3 Ds"
Before getting into the details of your wedding reception, think about these essential factors first. I call them the "3 Ds".
The Dollar Flow - Calculate your wedding fund by adding up these amounts:
your and your partner's savings + an affordable percentage of your and your partner's projected income until the wedding date + any financial help from family members
Once you come up with a realistic budget, allocate 40% - 50% of it for the wedding reception. That's the magic number you must stick to. Don't get a loan just for this or put too many expenses on your credit cards; your dream wedding should not put you in debt for the next ten years.
The Damages - Wedding reception expenses can be divided into 4 broad categories: wedding reception site, food, entertainment and decoration. Decide which two of these are the least important aspects of your ideal wedding party. This way it will be easier to find the right spots to cut spending. Some couples might be satisfied with a simple dinner menu as long as they have a live orchestra playing Beethoven's Symphony 9 in a high-end banquet hall, whereas some others might want to offer their guests one of the best meals of their lives while scrimping on the roses and linens a bit.
The Beloved Diners - After estimating the budget and the awaiting expenses, now it's time to throw together a realistic guest list. You know how big your budget is and how many bellies you can afford to feed. One of the biggest woes of wedding planning is trimming this list down. You wish you could have everybody there but your budget book is screaming "RED ALERT"! In fact, instead of making one guest list, you should come up with three:
1.) close family members and best friends 2.) other relatives and not-so-close friends 3.) coworkers, clients and acquaintances
When you realize you have some trimming to do, start with the third list first. I know shortening the guest list can be even more difficult than picking the wedding dress. But what would you rather do: throw the best party for those who matter to you the most or compromise with a not-what-you-wish wedding reception just so that you can invite every face you know? It's not the time to be overly generous. Your guest list not only will determine the amount of food but also many other details of your wedding reception from the capacity of the banquet hall and the size of the parking lot to the number of utensils to rent and the number of servers to hire.
Cost Cutting Ideas - The Right Timing for Your Wedding Reception
Sometimes it's smarter to focus on the "when" rather than the "how." Many couples resort to extremely frugal choices just to make the budget, unaware that they can have a nicer reception party at a more affordable price, simply by changing the date and time of their wedding.
Budget-Friendly Wedding Months - Cost Cut: 20% - 40%
In most U.S. states, it is more cost-effective to get married some time during January through April, and November through December. Why? Because these are the non-peak months when wedding reception sites and caterers are usually in low demand and thus quite enthusiastic to drop their prices. You'd be surprised how much more expensive an identical dish of beef bourguignon from the exact same caterer could cost if you have your wedding in August instead of March! However, this might not be true in all regions, so a thorough price survey is still much needed.
Budget-Friendly Wedding Days - Cost Cut: 15% - 30%
When it comes to wedding receptions, Friday and Saturday nights are the norm. It's easier for your guests who live far away to make a travel arrangement; traffic is usually less stressful; and most people don't have to work the next day. You want to make it as convenient for your guests as possible; that is very considerate. BUT if most of your guests are within half an hour's drive, why not consider having your wedding on a weekday night? It can be much cheaper!
Budget-Friendly Wedding Times - Cost Cut: up to 60%
Breakfast, brunch and afternoon-tea wedding receptions have become the hottest trend for budget-challenged couples. You might think it sounds too nontraditional, but I suggest you take some time to consider these advantages before tossing these options out. First of all, a lot of wedding sites charge higher rates for evening wedding receptions. Some places even demand a substantial extra fee for late-night wedding parties. Second, most wedding caterers are less busy during the day, which means they will have more time to make sure the food is at its best quality.
Third, in many evening wedding receptions, alcoholic drinks end up costing way more than the food since the nighttime tends to ignite many people's party mood. It is more appropriate and convenient to get away with a nonalcoholic party if you have your wedding reception early in the day. Even if you decide to serve alcohol at your wedding brunch, most people tend not to drink as much (well...unless you invite a bunch of alcoholics!!!). And last but not least, early meals are usually lighter and cheaper. That doesn't mean your buffet table will have to appear boring and depressing, though. I've been to a high-tea wedding reception where they offered an array of tantalizing finger foods with chic French and Italian names I couldn't even pronounce. I'm sure they were much cheaper than lamb shanks and mahi mahi steaks, but did they make the wedding party less impressive? Not at all.
Cost Cutting Ideas - Cheap Wedding Reception Venues
To elminate a big chunk of your wedding reception costs, forget the high-profile hotels and reception halls with ubiquitous full-page ads in bridal magazines. Those places are going to charge you top dollars even if all you ask for is a basic, cookie-cutter wedding party. Consider these more affordable wedding reception sites instead. They might not have that extra "glam factor" but they can be just as beautiful and functional.
Cost Cut: 20% - 40%
- Multipurpose Meeting Halls - Many business buildings offer banquet rooms for either business conferences or personal parties. Most of these sites are only big enough for a medium-size wedding party of about 50 - 100 guests, and you might need a talented decoration team to transform a humdrum-looking room into a charming reception hall. But still, I think it is worth your creative effort. Their rates are usually quite attractive.
- Your Favorite Restaurants - Is there a nice restaurant you've been frequenting for years and years? If it happens to have a private banquet room big enough to accommodate all your guests, your favorite eatery could be your ideal reception venue. You know you can trust their food; you won't have to rent any chairs, tables, linens or utensils; and the owner might even give you a discount for having been such a loyal customer.
Cost Cut - 50% - 70%
- Your House of Worship's Banquet Hall - Some churches, temples and synagogues have an affiliated hall, well equipped with tables, chairs, stereo system and basic decorative items. Some of them even offer an in-house caterer, too.
- Historic Buildings, Public Parks, Museums, Arboretums - A government-owned property might not be an easy reception venue to book, but if there is availability, don't let it slip away. You will have to pay just a small fee for it. Also, often times, these sites are unbelievably gorgeous. You might want to have both your wedding ceremony and reception at the same place, and forget all about the transportation issues.
Cost Cut - up to 100%
- Your or Your Family's Home- Yes, I said "up to" 100% of cost cutting because even though you don't have to pay for a space in your own house, you might need to rent tables, chairs, tents, linens, utensils, etc. Think twice...no, think at least three times before deciding to use your home as your reception venue. If you have a mansion, there's no problem. If not, you have to make sure your home or backyard is spacious enough to accommodate all the guests as well as the catering crew and their equipment. Will the party be too loud for the grumpy neighbors? Do you have enough people to help you clean up after the celebration? And what about parking? All these little issues may lead to a wedding reception nightmare! Having said that, throwing a reception party at your home might not be headache-inducing at all in some scenarios. For example, if you are planning to invite only about 30 people and have quite a few friends who love to grill, a backyard barbecue reception might be a stress-free way to celebrate your wedding.
A Few Questions That Will Save You a Bundle
Once you find a reception venue you like, don't be too quick to sign a contract. Shop around and compare prices first. Also, ask the site manager these questions to avoid any hidden fees as well as to make sure what you'll get is really worth the money you spend:
- Will there be free parking for your guests? If the answer is no, you'd better start looking for another reception site. You don't want to be responsible for all the guests' parking, and it will be pretty rude to have your guests pay for this.
- Are you allowed to supply your own alcoholic beverages? Yes is the desired reply. Being able to supply your own alcohol could save you big bucks.
- Are there rental fees for party equipment such as microphones and speakers? There'd better NOT be!
- Is there an extra fee for bringing in your own caterer or a musical band? Hopefully not.
- Is there an extra fee if your party runs a little over the schedule? If so, how much do they charge? Most places usually charge for this, but some can be much greedier than the others!
- Do they have liability insurance? They should. Unfortunate accidents can easily happen at a wedding party when most guests are drunk and start acting like baboons! Sad but true.
- What is their cancellation policy? You should not have to pay the full price upfront and should be entitled to a partial refund of your deposit if you make a cancellation months before the booked date.
Do-It-Yourself Wedding Food
Cutting Costs by Making Your Own Wedding Cake
Cost Cutting Ideas - Wedding Food on a Budget
Cheaper Ingredients with a Creative Presentation - Cost Cut: 15% - 30%
Try to find a caterer who's enthusiastic to adapt and create a menu that will suit your personal taste and budget. Just because you want to cut the food cost doesn't mean you have to serve meatless pasta and a pathetic pile of mashed potatoes. Cheap ingredients can be prepared and presented with a gourmet flair. For example, serve chicken or pork instead of filet mignon or lobsters, but ask the caterer to prepare it in a creative way. It can be complemented with the chef's signature sauce or crowned with in-season colorful veggies. Instead of serving expensive and boring crab cakes, consider a cheaper and cuter choice like Waldorf salad in dainty cucumber cups. There're various ways to make a cost-effecive dish appear more interesting.
Opt for a Sit-Down Dinner - Cost Cut: 10% - 15%
A buffet might be budget-friendly for a breakfast or afternoon-tea wedding reception, but for an evening party with a multiple-course meal, a sit-down dinner is a more cost-effective option. Keep in mind that you will need to stock the buffet table with more food than the guests can consume. Besides, certain piggish guests might keep going back to the bowl of cocktail shrimp more than twenty times. When you do a sit-down dinner, however, you can better control the serving portions of both the food and beverages. According to Weddingreports.com, wedding guests usually consume about 20% less when foods are served to them instead of being offered at a buffet table.
Half and Half Menu Plan - Cost cut: up to 50%
Strike a special deal with your caterer if that's possible. Ask them to prepare only the main courses, and you take care of the rest. Your own team of cooks (recruit all the talented aunties and sisters!) can prepare the appetizers and side dishes as well as do all the setting up and cleaning. If you don't know any living souls who are skilled at cooking, you may consider ordering affordable appetizers and side dishes from your local supermarket. Some high-end supermarkets can make stuffed mushrooms almost as scrumptious as those from a first-class restaurant but sell them at a much more reasonable price. Also, you might want to forgo the dessert course completely. A slice of your yummy wedding cake is quite enough for a dessert.
No Bartender Needed - Cost cut: up to 60%
Many couples think offering a cash bar at the wedding reception is like slapping their guests in the face. I agree it is bad wedding etiquette. For those of you who don't have a budget for alcohol, just opt for a nonalcoholic breakfast or lunch party. However, if you would really love to see your guests drink and be merry despite your limited budget, try to find a caterer that allows you to supply your own booze. Instead of having an open bar, let the guests serve themselves. Place an ice bucket, a few bottles of mid-priced wine, some beers, a beautiful jug of sangria or some wine coolers on each table. As for the champagne toast, just provide one glass per guest. This self-serve style not only makes it easier to stick to your budget but also cuts the costs of bartender and corkage fees.
Small and Sneaky Wedding Cake - Cost cut: 20% - 30%
In many wedding receptions, the wedding cake is not just something to eat but also a major ornament of the room. It can add much luxury to the ambience and serve as a fabulous photo background. Yet, the bigger the cake, the lighter your wallet. The 4-foot wedding cake in Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta Jones' wedding, for instance, cost $7000! For a couple with a small budget, I suggest you limit the size of your cake to three tiers maximum; it's an economical size but can be quite elegant if craftily presented. Don't worry you won't have enough cake for the large crowd. Ask the baker to make another plain sheet cake with the same filling and frosting, and hide it in the kitchen until the serving time. Yes, be sneaky! This way you can save quite a bit of money on cake decoration. Moreover, you should choose decent-quality ingredients to ensure the yumminess but try to keep everything simple; one cake flavor, one filling and one frosting. Don't favor extravagant decoration over the taste. A wedding cake with minimal but clever decoration can look as lovely as one with numerous piped lilies.
Cost Cutting Ideas - Wedding Entertainment
Hire a Solo Musician or a DJ Instead of a Band - Cost Cut: 50 - 70%
A small musical band of 4 - 6 musicians usually charge around $800 - $2000 for a four-hour wedding reception. A solo musician and DJ, on the other hand, will cost you just about $400 - $1200 for the same amount of time. Plus, a band will need a relatively large space for themselves and their instruments, meaning you will likely end up with a bigger reception hall and bigger bills. A solo musician (pianist, violinist, harpist, etc) is highly recommended for a wedding reception with a sophisticated and romantic theme. For couples who prefer a wild party and electrifying dance music, a DJ with professional equipment and sound system is the way to go.
Amateur DJ - Cost Cut: up to 100%
If you already have the songs you would like to play at your wedding reception, it is not that difficult to create your own music mixes as well as set up a decent sound system. Ask your relatives and friends whether anyone would like to be your volunteer DJ. Just make sure that person is really comfortable with it and has the "right personality." You can even do a 50/50 program in which you hire a solo musician to play while your guests are enjoying their food, and switch to your volunteer DJ once people are ready to get up and dance. This way you can impress the guests with a professional performance and also minimize the dollars spent on wedding entertainment.
Budget-Friendly Wedding Reception Decorations
Cost Cutting Ideas - Cheap Wedding Reception Decorations
One thing that could elevate the cost of wedding decoration is extravagant floral arrangement. It's true that flowers and weddings usually go hand in hand, but that doesn't mean you have to bombard the banquet hall with hundreds of gardenias. Consider these equally chic but cheaper options:
Green Wedding - Cost cut: 50% - 70%
Instead of ordering ten vases of flowers from a florist, get only one for the centerpiece and decorate the rest of the room with flowering potted plants from your own or your friends' backyards. Greenery adds liveliness to the party and can blend in with all types of decoration. Even if you can find none or not enough shrubs to borrow, it's still much cheaper to purchase blooming potted plants from a store, such as Home Depot or Lowe's, than hiring a florist to arrange so many vases of flowers for you.
Balloon Arch vs. Flower Arch - Cost cut: up to 80%
An elegant flower arch can cost a fortune, especially if you hire a florist to make it. Balloons, on the other hand, are usually dirt cheap. I know some of you might be thinking, "It's a wedding party, not a circus!" Who said you have to buy silly and gaudy ones? Visit a party store nearby and you'll find a huge selection of cute balloons. A combination of white and red heart-shaped balloons goes very well with a romantic-themed party. If you have a crafty crew, tying and transforming tiny bunches of pink balloons into flowers can be another chic decoration idea. You can even mix balloons with a few flowers to create a more picturesque entrance. Don't assume you always have to pay a big price to get something gorgeous. A twenty-dollar balloon arch, if artistically created, can appear quite splendid and lovely.
Flowers Deconstructed - Cost Cut: up to 80%
Say you have about 20 guest tables and garnish each of them with a lavish vase of flowers, it could end up costing you around $500 - $1000. Instead of this expensive and overdone choice, buy a few roses and gently pull off their petals to sprinkle on each table or float in a little glass jar filled with water. Be creative with what you put on the guest tables. Budget-friendly and edible decorations, such as baskets of assorted bread and dainty bowls of colorful candy, have become the new trend. Minimalism is another decoration style I would like to endorse. A framed photo of the bride and groom along with a sprig of baby's breaths, for example, can be as precious-looking as a tall vase of imported orchids.