Planning out the Perfect Wedding Reception on a Budget

Are you recently engaged or planning to get hitched in the near future? A romantic engagement and a perfect wedding day are nearly every woman’s dream. I’ve personally been through the entire process myself and I’ll admit, it was a lot of fun. However, it can also be one of the most stressful times as well.

In my situation, both of us were still new to our jobs and not making great money. We were trying to buy our first home together which also requires a lot of cash. And all you want to do is make the wedding day and reception perfect. When you are “young and in love,” it’s easy to forget about costs.

A wedding and wedding reception are extremely important life events and memories, so I’ll never recommend that you should cheap out on it. But at the same time, if you asked me and my wife today whether we would have rather paid for the beautiful reception that we had, or just have half the money back now, we would both take the money in a heartbeat.

The good news is it’s more than possible to have a beautiful wedding reception on a budget. Just because you can’t afford 50 to 60 grand for the fancy party, doesn’t mean you can’t throw an event that everyone will remember for a very long time.

My wife and I had some help from my parents for our wedding, but we footed most of the bill ourselves. We still get together with friends and reminisce about how fun that night was, and it’s been nearly eight years ago already. Just like anything, find what’s important to you and plan, plan, plan. If you want it badly enough, you can have the perfect wedding reception on a budget.

The Budget:

First things first, you must figure out what the actual budget is. A wedding reception is a strange one where you could spend as little as a few thousand, or as much as $100 grand if you want to go all out. The key here is to pick a number you are comfortable with and can truly afford, and just stick with it throughout the process.

Finding and sticking to the budget is the most important part of this process. Even if your budget seems like more than enough, I promise you the little things will start to add up. If you slowly start to increase the budget or just say “it is what it is” when it comes to cost, I imagine you will end up spending almost double compared to having a structured plan.

Do your research on everything you’ll need at the reception and start making some calls on items that you will hire out to get an idea of costs. Remember, you don’t have to set a budget within 10 minutes of getting engaged. Often a wedding reception doesn’t even happen for 12 to 16 months after an engagement. This isn’t an excuse to sit on your hands and not do anything, but you do have some time for a planning phase.

Most data will show that the average cost for a wedding reception is between $70 to $100 per person. Please do keep in mind the bigger the reception, the more you will have to budget. When trying to figure out the best possible wedding reception on a budget, let’s focus the cost on a per-person basis with the ultimate goal of getting below the $70 per person price tag.

Big Ticket Saver Items:

When you start looking at the costs of a wedding reception, most of your expense is going to get eaten up (pun intended) by food and beverages. Alcohol will run the tab up very quickly if you are offering that as well.

If you truly want to be cost-efficient, my biggest piece of advice would be to not do an “all-inclusive” type of event. This would be a facility where you can likely have the ceremony and reception, and they provide all the food and beverages as well. This can typically be the most convenient way to plan a wedding, but not the most cost-effective.

In many conversations I have had with friends, these types of venues hold you hostage in at least one area. Whether is be beverages or food, there is typically some type of minimum and you are required to use their catering services. By renting a venue that allows you to bring in your own food and drink, you can price shop and still make sure you are getting a high-quality product.

What are the two most important items at a wedding reception? Booze and food will be almost everyone’s answer. Remember, just because you are having a wedding reception on a budget doesn’t mean you have to skimp on what you offer.

At my wedding, we roasted a hog and had pulled pork sandwiches. I had an aunt who loved to cook that made a ton of macaroni and cheese, and we had a salad to go along with it. The food was absolutely fantastic, and the day before the wedding, our families were in the garage pulling pork and getting barbeque sauces ready to use.

For booze, instead of paying a 25% or more markup, we drove to a nearby state where alcohol is cheaper, loaded up, and brought it all home. We hired a bartender to make sure everyone stayed in check and saved an absolute fortune while still providing a great menu of options to our guests.

I have been to weddings where they have three different entrée options, and ten different types of alcohol to choose from. If you want to spend the money on that, great. But remember, 95 percent will be satisfied with even three options. We had vodka, rum, a light beer, and three or four mixers for the liquor. If someone is that picky, they have no problems bringing their own anyway.

On food and alcohol alone, I would imagine we only spent $20-$25 per person compared to $50-$75 (or even more) if we would have gone to a venue and had to pay for their services. Our wedding had over 275 guests so that savings added up quickly on the final tab.

The Little Items That Add Up:

In full transparency, the two items of food and booze which we have already discussed are where you can cut the most cost when planning a wedding reception on a budget. I should also specify, it’s where you can cut the most cost without noticing a budget-conscious reception. But as with anything, the little items will easily add up as well, and if you don’t watch them from the beginning, costs can get out of hand quickly.

Do It Yourself

The old DIY or do-it-yourself mentality can save you a fortune with a wedding reception. It’s the one day when you can ask family to do some stuff and you won’t get a lot of pushback. Everyone understands how big the day is, and is more than willing to chip in.

Using my wedding as an example again, we had family and friends bring in tables off the truck, set tablecloths and chairs, and even put up our centerpiece decorations. We had limited decorations inside the venue of our reception, but what we did have were put up by us.

Not only did we put together the reception venue, but we also set up the food. We did hire some folks to work for a few hours to clean up plates, drinks, and things of that nature, but we had the food set up for when the guests arrived.

Last but certainly not least, our families also cleaned up the facility for us. Put tables back, took out the trash, and cleaned up the small kitchen where the food was put together. It, truthfully, was a good amount of effort by both of our families, but it saved us a fortune compared to hiring a group of people to do all that work.

Think Outside the Box

I don’t want this to turn into an article on how to be cheap. Trust me, I’m all about saving money and budgeting, but I don’t like to be cheap. But I will tell you with a little outside-the-box thinking, you can save some money when planning a wedding reception on a budget.

The first area was the DJ. We did some shopping around and it was going to be almost $3,000 to have a DJ come to the wedding, play some songs, and do a little bit of talking. However, we had some friends who had gotten married a few years prior and had a friend that was a DJ. Because of the connection and referral, he was willing to do it for $1,200 and a few drinks. The guy did an amazing job and just because my wife asked around for good DJs, we saved a ton of money.

I will also make a note that I have been to more and more weddings where there isn’t even a DJ. More of someone running an iPod with a nice speaker system. You do want to make sure that you have someone to keep things moving and announce dinner, certain dances, and stuff like that. But to say you need a full-out DJ is probably a bit of a stretch.

Another item where we thought outside the box when planning a wedding reception on a budget was with pictures. We had a photographer who did a great job at the ceremony, and she was at the reception for a short while. But we did a hashtag on social media and really pushed our friends to take a ton of pictures and use the hashtag.

I will admit, you aren’t getting professional photos, so I wouldn’t recommend this in place of a photographer, but we saved over $1,000 by sending her home at 7:30 vs. staying until midnight and shooting the entire time.

You may only get one good photo for every five on the hashtag, but I will tell you there were so many pictures taken and so many memories we received via photos on the hashtag. Instead of one photographer, put the job in the hands of everyone attending.

Don’t be Afraid to Ask for Help

I’ll be brief on this last subject, as I have already covered it a few times in the points above. If you are really looking to cut some costs when it comes to a wedding reception, you must ask for help. Family members and friends doing some of the labor are where you can shave the most dollars when planning.

We had roughly 20 different family members help throughout the wedding day with different types of tasks — from picking up the flowers, setting up the food, making sure people parked in the right spot, setting up the reception, and many other items. No job was extremely difficult, but it was very helpful for us and our budget on such an important day.

As I have also stated, my recommendation for your wedding reception is not to go cheap. It’s an extremely important day and it’s a lot of fun to celebrate with all your friends and family that have likely been with you through the entire process. But a wedding and wedding reception can also turn into a huge cost if you aren’t careful.

The tips and tricks above are not items that will leave your guests feeling like they missed out or have you full of regret that you didn’t have a great reception, but more about ways to control costs in a very expensive situation.

Remember, these costs are going to vary depending on where you live. I currently live in a bigger city and understand that costs may vary. But that shouldn’t change your strategy when planning a wedding reception on a budget. Stay diligent, do your planning, and set realistic expectations. If you do all those things, you can have a beautiful reception and save some money all at the same time.

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