Almost every guest—no matter whom—expect to enjoy lots of amazing food and drink at your wedding. Consequently, you can anticipate spending about 50 percent of your wedding budget on catering, so it’s crucial that you know where you’re spending your money and what you can do to save more. Here are the main factors that will have the most impact on the amount of your catering bill.
1. Your Guest Count
Aside from your food decisions, there is no other choice that affects your catering budget more than your guest count.
Be sure you understand your caterer’s policy for changes and guarantees from the start. Most brides will overestimate their guest counts, as you will inevitably have guests who say they will be there and then not show up as well as the couple who say they won’t be there only to arrive unexpectedly. Just be conscious of your guest count—your decision could possibly save you a lot of money.
If you need a little help in this area, ask your bridesmaids to call guests who have yet to RSVP. Feel free to blame the caterer by telling guests that you need to know as soon as possible if they will be in attendance so you can provide an accurate head count.
2. Serving Style
In many cases, a sit–down meal could be more costly than a buffet, since a sit–down meal requires additional staff to prepare food and serve it. Caterers charge a fee per staffer, and each table typically needs one or two servers managing it. The fewer servers needed, the less money you will need to spend.
However, having a buffet doesn’t exactly mean you’ll save money. Buffet meals require linens, serving pieces, and a lot more food (because people tend to eat more food when they serve themselves). Plus, you’ll still need to pay staff to man the buffet, and waiters to serve water and wine to the tables.
Since there isn’t always a significant difference in price, your decision should come down to the wedding style you desire. For a more formal experience, a sit-down dinner might be best, while the buffet style is more casual and relaxed. If you want to combine the formality of a sit-down dinner with a lower budget, go for a family-style dinner where guests can serve themselves from platters while seated at tables.
3. Your Venue's Kitchen Situation
If you’re tying the knot in a rural location (e.g., a vineyard, ranch, or farm), expect subpar kitchen facilities or none at all. The less your venue has by way of ovens, prep stations, and equipment, the more it will cost to bring in these items.
In such situations, you’ll need a “satellite kitchen” which can include tents, generators, and a water supply. These equipment rentals can cost equal to or more than your entire location in rental fees.
The same goes for a private residence wedding, which may also be a huge financial undertaking since the kitchens in most homes are not designed to accommodate large events.
4. Cocktail Hour
A cocktail hour can take up a huge portion of the budget. If you want an extravagant cocktail hour with various food stations, gourmet chefs, tons of hors d’oeuvres, and endless top-shelf liquor; the cost of food, setup, and servers for even just one hour can totally exceed your budget.
To create the most cost–effective cocktail hour, consider having a few passed hors d’oeuvres along with some unmanned food stations that feature less expensive foods. For example, if mini crab cakes are left out on a station, guests may snatch 6 or 7 mini crab cakes, but they’ll take only two or three if it’s passed.
If you choose passed hors d’oeuvres, you may need several additional servers. The more passed hors d’oeuvres, the more servers you will need to carry the trays and to clean up food debris.
Our suggestion is to have just 3-4 types of passed hors d’oeuvres, and budget for about one or two pieces per guest. This gives guests a nice variety, but doesn’t require you to hire too many additional servers.
5. Serving Alcohol
If you’re interested in unlimited drinks, you may be charged a fee “per hour, per person,” which is a great option for a drinking crowd since you will know the total cost upfront.
On the other hand, you could be charged “by drink,” which is a less predictable option but preferable if you’re not dealing with a crowd of drinkers. You may incur extra expenses by hiring additional licensed bartenders or renting glasses and bar accoutrements. In this case, additional expenses could add 20 to 25 percent to your entire catering bill.
Alcohol is the easiest expense to lose control of in the wedding budget, but you can balance that idea with the fact that there is no other wedding element a guest will complain about more if denied.
To balance out affordability and unsatisfied protests, serve wine and beer along with a signature cocktail instead of a full bar. If you have a VIP guest who only likes one kind of liquor, have a bottle available for that person.
6. The Bar
Many people spend a ton of money on the bar for their wedding reception–sometimes two or three times the amount they spend on food. To save money, some venues will allow you to purchase and serve your own alcohol. Just make sure you have a licensed and insured bartender!
If you are overwhelmed by the idea of providing your own alcohol, set ups, cups, ice, etc., you may be able to serve drinks through your caterer, which will still cost less than if you purchased drinks directly from the venue.
Also, your caterer will probably serve any kind of beverages you supply, so think about bringing non-alcoholic beverages such as sodas and bottled water along with your alcoholic drinks.
7. Ordering Food
The reason guests are asked to select a dinner option (“chicken” or “fish”) on their RSVP card is because costs get jacked up when guests order at the wedding. Theoretically, the caterer would have to prepare enough of each entrée to guarantee that all guests get their first choice. This would increase your food costs and is potentially very wasteful.
The other option is to serve everyone the same entrée, like a duet plate of filet mignon and grilled lobster, so that ordering is not an issue.