Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Five Ways to Save on Wedding Food: A Guest’s View

There’s a lot of budget wedding talk floating around the personal finance blogosphere lately, presumably because thousands of engagees are in the midst of planning their nuptials for Summer 2009. I’m a veteran of these conversations, not because I’m married myself, but because I’ve attended about 50 weddings in the last ten years (20 as a waitress, 30 as a guest).

As a wedding frequenter (and proud owner of over 14,000 bridesmaid dresses), I’ve noticed things. Lots of things. Frugal things. Crazy things. Things like:
  • No one cares if a bridal gown (or a bridesmaid’s dress) is custom-made, came off a Macy’s clearance rack, or was assembled by elves in the trunk of the Keebler Dress Tree. As long as it fits, you’re good to go.
  • DJs and bands are slowly being replaced by iPods and halfway decent sound systems. They're less pricey, and - bonus(!): no Macarena.
  • Building-sized floral centerpieces are tremendous wastes of money. They’re hard to take home, and not conducive to table discussion. (Substitution suggestions: candy, candles, pictures of George Clooney, more candy.)
  • Videographers are, without exception, monumentally annoying. Invest in a solid photographer instead.
  • You can spend a million, billion dollars on a reception, but guests will inevitably remember the personal touches. F’r instance, this weekend, I went to a shindig where the couple wrote the entire (awesome) ceremony themselves. The vows included pledges like, “For every 300 hours of home improvement shows I watch, I promise to make one positive change to our home,” and they were perfect. Long after their families and friends have forgotten what color the napkins were, they’ll remember that line.

Beyond these observations, what’s struck me most lately has to do with wedding food. Maybe this is a natural reaction, having run a frugal cooking blog for the last year-and-a-half, or maybe formalwear just makes me hungry. Either way, here are five things that I, Wedding Guest Extraordinaire, might do to save cash on matrimonial meals.

(Please note, these tips are not meant for those planning a super-frugal reception. But if you’re looking to scale down a bit, they could be very cuttable corners.)

1) Skip the open bar. I’ve never heard one – not one – person complain that he or she was limited to beer and wine at a wedding reception. If you have a cadre of aging uncles who insist on straight-from-the-unopened bottle Maker’s, you might reconsider. Otherwise, mid-range lager and vino, perhaps served alongside a signature mixed drink, are more than sufficient.

2) Don’t go crazy with the cake. Though it pains me to diss any industry that employs Duff Goldman, there are two reasons for this:

  • I can’t tell you how many pieces of uneaten wedding cake I’ve cleaned off catering hall tables. Why? Well, by the time the cake is served, most guests are either a) full already, b) busy with the Electric Slide, or c) drunk. Buttercream is the last thing on their minds.
  • In over four dozen weddings, I’ve been able to get within 50 feet of the ceremonial cake-cutting exactly twice. It rarely occurs to me that there IS a cake until it’s even served. I think this is true of most guests.

Instead of a three-tiered monster, consider cupcakes, donuts, or a modest single-serving cake with a backup sheet version. It could cut costs by hundreds of dollars.

3) Ease up on the rehearsal dinner. In the northeast, it’s not unheard of to have a lavish sit-down dinner of 50+ people before the big day. While it’s a lovely gesture, the formality can be unnecessary. In 2006, The Boyfriend and I attended a full-family barbecue in Seattle that took the place of the rehearsal meal. A group effort, it was laid-back, delicious, and a fantastic way to welcome travelers. I’ve never felt more instantly comfortable in a place where I didn’t really know anyone.

4) Serve one or two really well-made dishes instead of six or seven mediocre ones. That same Seattle couple served the simplest of buffets at their wedding: two choices of expertly-smoked meat, the best garlic mashed potatoes in existence, and a small array of fresh vegetarian sides. It was OUTSTANDING, and I still talk about those potatoes in my sleep.

On the flip side, I’ve catered weddings and Sweet 16s that would make Warren Buffet blush, but the sheer number of food choices meant that nothing could be prepared very well. If food matters to you (and it does to me), maybe ask: do I want one incredible ravioli dish, or would I rather have 15 mediocre pasta options? (To see this principle in action, check out Orangette’s mind-blowing wedding menu. There’s a sample picture to the right. You might die of envy.)

5) Defy expectations. Whether you crave uniqueness or adhere so strictly to tradition that Martha Stewart would consider you conservative, your wedding is yours. And there’s no law set forth by the universe that says YOU MUST SERVE chicken, beef, and fish. If you want soul food, go nuts. If lo mein floats your boat, do it. If you’d rather humanity ate nothing but baby carrots and macaroons, have fun. And if someone raises a stink? Unless you’re actively depriving allergic, vegetarian, or lactose-intolerant guests of a meal, tell ‘em to shove off.

For more ideas on how to step outside the box (and then crush it), check out Indie Bride, Offbeat Bride, and A Practical Wedding. The creativity and range of ideas will astound you.

Readers – you perennial wedding guests – what do you think? Am I anywhere close to accurate here? What do you like to see out of wedding food? What are other ways to cut corners, but keep it classy? Do tell.


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(Photos courtesy of and Orangette.)

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KMAYS said...

I will be quick to admit that we served BBQ-style food at our wedding. The brisket was perfect, and I have never had baked beans like the ones our caterer prepared. We did wine (a dry white and unoaked red) and beer (Shiner Bock & Corona Light), and everyone loved it.

If I had to do it again differently, I would love a big ol' Indian buffet or a crawfish boil. Mmm!

Kitschen Bitsch said...

Oh Kris. May I high five you? I've been in a screaming ton of weddings in the last six years and have enough lavender and burgundy chiffon and taffeta to outfit a brigade of single women, and I've probably spent more on those weddings combined than I will on my own (it turns out that lavender was to the early oughts what burgundy was to the nineties). Mr. B and I have talked about what will transpire should we ever hitch. He has a small family, and mine is something like 100 people, plus 50 friends. It's ridiculous. We will have a private ceremony (ie: no rehearsal dinner!) and post-honeymoon have a giant party with a cake, fwoofy dress (for me, not Mr. B), dancing, horse doovers (I just finished a day as an English teacher -- I refuse to even try), candid shots, and whatever forms of alcohol (perhaps those will be candid shots as well). I think it's more about the party, celebrating with loved ones, not expensive flowers and lots of people dressed the same. Though, I don't begrudge those who do the traditional deal... if he had a large family, we probably would do something a little more "normal." Awesome post.

alienor said...

For our wedding, we ordered takeout and paid an extra fee to have it delivered. Then we hired the waitstaff to come serve the food (since they were at the site anyway...). Extra benefit? Afterwards the leftovers were ours! They were thoughtfully packed up by family members and stuck in our basement freezer. We ate them for about 2 months after the wedding.

We did something similar for the after party (except picked it up on the way from the reception to the after party and we served it ourselves), and we're still eating on those 5 months later (we over ordered the BBQ).

Christine said...

Will you remember saying the words, "With this ring, I thee wed"? Many brides and grooms don't remember these details. After spending thousands of dollars on your wedding, aren't these details important enough to capture them on video as to remember them the way they actually occurred?

I'm sorry you find videographers annoying. ALL of the brides who have hired my father have been no less than THRILLED with their videos. Still pictures don't do justice to the day that moves too fast.

I'd say, Skip the formal photographer and hire a videographer instead. A good videographer knows how to blend in with the crowd as necessary. For pictures, place disposable cameras each table and invite guests to take pix.

Chief Family Officer said...

My husband and I both felt that as a guest, the only thing you were going to remember was the food - as in, was it served in a timely manner, and was it good? Fortunately, my parents wanted to pay for a 5-star hotel (I had a rather small wedding), and we chose their excellent buffet for maximum choices (necessary for picky, crochety, diet-restricted grandparents). My friends still talk about the food at our wedding - alas, I know it was good, but ate very little of it b/c I was so worried about staining my dress!

Nicola said...

I'm so with you on this one. It's the small personal things that make a wedding remember, not the same old, same old you get with wedding food at every wedding you go to.

As long as the food is fresh, well prepared and presented no one will care if it's a buffet or a three course full-on wedding breakfast.

We had a buffet and it was devoured by all. It was simple, but very tasty and followed up with endless gorgeous cheese and strawberries and cream. Yum.

Ann said...

I agree with almost everything here EXCEPT skipping the open bar. Even if the food. music, cake, etc. sucks, a wedding is not complete without an open bar.

triiicia said...

I completely agree! The best weddings I've been to have been the simplest. Frankly, the excess of cocktail hour (full meal), followed by a multi-course meal (full meal #2), followed by dessert bar (full meal #3), has always been an embarrassment. People seem to think you have to demonstrate excess in order for guests to leave thinking "that was a great wedding!" It's not true! Spend less, focus on quality food and entertainment, and your guests will have a fantastic time.

melissa said...

Great article! I'm planning our wedding for next September so this is all well-timed, though we're doing most of this already. I nearly choked when I saw to skip the open bar - until I realised you meant open as in "everything" not open as in "free", which is how I've always seen "open bar" used. And there really WOULD be a riot if we made our guests pay for beer!!

In the fog of awful wedding sites, there are also two others I really like: Budget Savvy Bride and the rather new Wedding Alternative, which has a bunch of crat ideas for people like me who'd rather make than buy...

I Heart Kale said...

Oh wow, this is right on. We had a really frugal wedding (about $8K for everything, with 100 guests) and still have people tell us how nice it was at family gatherings--no one seemed to notice or care that we had no videographer, no open bar, pizza at our rehearsal dinner and a buffet reception instead of a sit-down dinner. Just like you said, people remembered the personal touches and the defiance of expectations--we had Indian food at our reception, wrote our own ceremony and designed our own invitations. The only change I would make is that we had a small fancy cake and a back-up sheet cake, and if I had it to do over I'd just have all sheet cake. Really, like you said, by the time we served it no one seemed to be aware of the cake artistry, and the sheet cake tasted just as good. Thanks for the great post!

Anne Stesney said...

I'm 100% with you on the cake thing, Kris. We spent close to $400 on ours and it was a complete waste of money. Though it did really look cool.

Much better to have a dessert buffet with cakes and pies. (We had that too because our love is gluttonous.)

Marcia said...

Good article! I am in a wedding very soon (with a burgundy dress...maybe it has found it's way back from the 90's?), and it's painful to hear about the costs associated. Admittedly, my friend had a short time to plan (harder to pinch pennies that way).

I totally agree on the open full bar. We had a full bar, but in reality, 90% of the 100 guests were fine with beer and wine. Wait, about 10 of those guests were kids. Okay, 80% of the 100 guests would have been fine with beer and wine.

The food was amazing at my reception. We did a sit-down meal because it's actually less expensive than a buffet (at most places). At a buffet, you have to make extra because people want a little of everything.

One of the best receptions I attended was an outdoor brunch with coffee, tea, juice, and champagne for drinks and a vegetarian buffet for the meal. Simple, classy, and THAT's a meal I still talk about 12 years later.

Anonymous said...

I just got married a month ago, and I agree with all of your suggestions. I actually had two receptions, one in Oregon and one in Washington. Both were attending by about 200+ people. The one in Oregon was more of an "open house" and we served punch, nuts, and had a selection of amazingly tasty cakes.

At the Seattle reception we had hors douvers (sp?) and cupcakes made by a friend that were very, very delicious. That's it. We rented a gorgeous location on the Puget Sound, had a friend be the "DJ" with a mix I made myself, and had a pinata for the kids. Basically, our goal was to bring everyone together for a good-time party.

Our costs were much lower though, because we are Mormon and don't drink, so there was no bar. (The "wayward" family members came pre-sauced, that was interesting!)

One other thing I would mention is flowers: choose seasonal flowers and don't use too many. Seriously, people don't care that much. We had just enough decoration to make it look like there was a party going on, but by the time the place is filled to capacity and people are loud and noisy and chatting with each other and having a great time, they really don't care!

Michelle said...

I did a very classy little afternoon tea-type reception. I offered sparkling water and champagne (all the alkies could go to a bar leter). Instead of a wedding cake, I went to the amazing Black Hound Bakery and they carefully placed a small cake atop a large one - it was delicious and we saved a fortune on 'pay by the person' wedding cake. When I checked out an expensive bakery for the cake, I learned this same bakery had a restaurant and lovely food for far less than you'd imagine - little sandwiches, puff pastry goodies. Elegant, and a couple of lovely folks doing the serving really made it complete.

I also got my flowers at the Greenmarket.

Emily said...

I just read about someone who got married after living together for a few years, abd, in lieu of wedding gifts, did a potluck for the reception. Tacky? Fer sure. Frugal and fun? You got it! Save classy for the millionaires - I'll take "cheap and tastes good" any day!

Anonymous said...

I happen to work for a Seattle caterer Foodz Catering and I would agree with everything you said although sometimes a really good DJ can help a wedding go much smoother. We also recommend people think about the venue they are renting too. Is it a big room that is going to require lots of decor? Choosing a place with built in decor really helps. Also doing things like: choosing flowers that are in season, making your own centerpieces, choosing a caterer with vendor connections, choosing vendors within close proximity of your venue (no travel costs!), choosing a venue that includes rentals, getting a friend to by the officiant, and yes, lowering your guest count - invite the people that matter most to you! It's your wedding!!!

Also, if your venue doesn't include rentals think hard about your menu with rentals in mind. Passed appetizers take away the need for small plates, or choose a buffet over a plated meal (much fewer paltes) etc.

It doesn't hurt to think about getting married during an off peak season or evening on a Sunday. Rates are usually much lower too.

Anathema said...

Yep. Had an incredibly frugal wedding (it was almost 20 years ago, but I doubt we spent more than $2,000). It was awesome--had it in a nightclub that was dark that night anyway so they were happy to let us have it cheap, used Halloween decorations (it was Halloween), a caterer friend did the food for cheap, and another friend baked the cake. My outfit was part thrift and part what seemed to me at the time a very expensive skirt (I think it cost $200.) A friend took photos for $100 or so. And maybe I'm weird, but I can't even imagine when I would want to sit down and watch a video of my wedding. I can barely keep up with The Daily Show.

aymelovestrees said...

Instead of inviting a bizzillion folks to our wedding, we kept the guest list short (only parents, siblings, grandparents and close friends). We had a quiet and intimate ceremony in the mountains. A friend played his violin to accompany the ceremony. Mom baked a gorgeous coconut cake with sugared daisies and squished out a million cream cheese mints (thanks, Mom!). We served champagne and take-out from my favorite restaurant. Everyone enjoyed a relaxing afternoon.

Two weeks later, we rented out a dance hall and invited everyone we've ever known (and a few we didn't know so well). We served hors d'ouevres with the open bar and had kick-ass dessert: three kinds of angel food cake trifle whipped up by my new step-mom. Delish, and with none of the drama/toothaches associated with wedding cakes. Dad took pictures at the ceremony and reception; the final photos were more candid, surprising and beautiful that I could ever have expected from a high-priced photographer. The final bill (dress, suit, food, live band, flowers, decorations, photos, invites, the whole shebang)?

Lucy Elliott said...

Love your ideas - particularly agree on the don't go crazy on the cake suggestion - if you're having dessert, it just doesn't make sense to spend money on cake as well.

Why not serve a cake made from rounds of cheese instead? From a tiny goats cheese as the top tier to a brie or stilton further down.

We saved money by serving this "cake" as an evening buffet for those guests who we couldn't afford to sit down for the main meal.

My sister in law decorated it with foliage from the garden and it looked fab.

Plus it cost £100 rather than £600 which is what a lot of professional cake-makers charge over here.

There's a photo of it on my site in the saving money on food section -