Since the amount you pay for your wedding venue, including food and drinks for your guests, typically consumes nearly half of your wedding budget, it makes sense to try to find ways to lower this cost. Cutting it back by just 10% could free up enough money to pay for your entire wedding dress, while a 20% discount could cover the fees of a great photographer. Getting a big discount on your venue might be as simple as shifting your date a single day, or your time by a few hours. Similar big savings could come from cutting down on food options or DIY-ing an element of the reception. Read on for ways to spend much less than the average five-figured sum for your wedding venue and catering.
- Plan Your Party for an Off-Peak Time
- Offer Fewer Food and Beverage Choices
- Pick an Unusual Place for Your Wedding
- DIY Some Elements of Your Wedding Reception
Many venues, even indoor ones, have seasonal pricing. This is mainly due to supply and demand. During the most popular wedding months, couples are competing for space; but during off-months, no one’s clamoring to book so the venue owners drop the prices to lure you in, as shown in the table below.
|Venue||City||Peak Saturday||Off-Peak Saturday|
|Golf Club||Pleasanton, CA||$1,500||$750|
|Historic Building||Seattle, WA||$1,750||$1,500|
|Event Center||Austin, TX||$6,400||$5,400|
|Country Club||New Orleans, LA||$82/per person||$70/per person|
Off-peak pricing might be a couple hundred or a couple thousand dollars less than peak pricing. It's usually at least 15% lower, but can be as much as 50% or more based on the locations we surveyed.
What counts as peak and off-peak may vary from place to place, and is sometimes related to the weather in places that experience extremes of heat and cold. For example, in Miami, peak wedding season for wedding venues is from November to March, while in colder parts of the country, it’s exactly the opposite.
On the whole, however, more than 80% of weddings in the U.S. occur between April and October. So if you want to pay less for yours, consider the deep winter months for your date. You can also think about other kinds of unloved dates. Most couples will avoid holidays like Christmas, Thanksgiving, Easter, or other religious holidays, so you might get a lower price by booking a venue on surrounding days—for example, the weekend after Christmas.
Another way to spend less on your venue (and often other vendors as well): avoid Saturday night completely. Book a Friday, a Sunday, Monday through Thursday, or even a weekend brunch. The chart below shows how prices vary by day and time for a June event.
Here too, you could save anywhere between a few hundred dollars to a thousand or more by picking an off-peak day. For example, switching from a Saturday evening reception to a Thursday evening reception would save bridal couples roughly 20% to 33% on the cost of the wedding venue. A move from Saturday evening to Friday evening largely resulted in savings too, ranging from 5% to 25%.
A venue that can hold more than one event per day is often willing to steeply discount the one at the less-common time, like a Saturday brunch at a historic building in Seattle. The venue was willing to discount brunch by $1,000 to $750 compared to an evening wedding, which is about a 57% savings. In other cases, such as going with a campus's hotel ballroom in Amherst, we found that moving a reception several hours earlier to a brunch saved our wedding couple 25% ($750 compared to $1,000 originally). However, many venues only schedule one event per day, so timing won't matter as much and you'll pay the same amount whether it starts at 11 am or 6 pm.
Since you’ll probably want to serve food and drink that’s appropriate for the time of your wedding, you could also save on catering costs if you held a morning ceremony, followed by a champagne brunch, or even an afternoon affair limited to heavy appetizers.
Food is usually the biggest cost for a venue. Not surprising, just consider your grocery bill, then imagine feeding 150 people all at once. Still, there are ways to knock down this expense. Don’t be afraid to negotiate with your caterer (and with all your wedding vendors) to find out how you might lower their bill. Consider the following examples from real wedding venues in different cities.
|3 Butlered Appetizers||Included with Dinner||Included with Dinner|
|4 Addl Butlered||N/A||$1,680|
|Total Number of Appetizers||3||10|
|Addl Cost (before taxes and fees)||$0||$2,245|
For food and drink, you’ll generally pay less overall if you offer your guests fewer choices, due to economies of scale. You’ll see this reflected in different wedding packages offered by venues, as shown in the examples above for appetizers for a cocktail hour and below for a buffet dinner. It would also come into play if you provided the food and drinks yourself.
|DINNER Type||Buffet 1||Buffet 2|
|Basic Drinks Package||Included||Included|
|Cost Per Person||$65.00||$54.00|
|Cost for 140 Guests (before taxes and fees)||$9,100||$7,560|
Keeping things simpler will be more manageable both financially and in terms of coordinating all the details. For this example venue, paring back a few choices for appetizers, salads and the main course resulted in lowering expenses by about $1,540 or 17% versus the initial menu for an equally sumptuous spread. You don’t necessarily need to get carried away with 10 appetizers, and every kind of liquor at the bar. Stick to five finger foods, and beer, wine and a signature cocktail. Offer two choices for entrees (most caterers will provide a silent vegetarian) and two sides. It’s reasonable to assume your guests will not need extra desserts, or a chocolate-covered strawberry alongside their slice of wedding cake.
If you need to source the food for your venue, besides the recommended caterers (they’ll have experience at the space, but you might have to pay a lot for it) check out local restaurants you love to see if they might be able to feed your guests. Tacos from everyone’s favorite Mexican place, or pasta and salad from the best mom-and-pop Italian place in town could be a huge hit, and cost a lot less than an event caterer. Even cheaper, though perhaps riskier, you could rope in the cooks in your life, and have them produce a homemade meal for all.
If you're deciding between a plated dinner and a buffet, you might be surprised which will save you money. The following table compares the cost (before taxes and service fees) of a buffet vs. a 20-course plated meal for 140 guests, at various venues in the Detroit area.
|Venue Type in Detroit, MI||Buffet||2-Course Plated||% Difference|
The buffet will cost you more at most venues, the same at a few, and less at a few. People often think buffets will always cost less, because you don't need as many servers. However, you still need people to man the stations, as well as servers to circulate filling waters and clearing plates. Also, what you save on servers you might make up for in extra food costs, since people tend to eat more from buffets. Caterers overprepare quantities to ensure your linebacker cousin can get his fill of mashed potatoes and there will be some left for the rest of the guests.
If you offer three or four courses, a plated dinner may become become more expensive than a buffet. Of course, your choice of food matters too, no matter how you serve it.
A venue that holds a lot of weddings—so that they are a major part of its business model—might have painfully-high wedding prices. We’re talking about hotels, historic buildings and private clubs. Watch out for those special wedding packages. We’ve seen food and drink minimums as high as $50,000! Consider venues that have another reason for being which are open to hosting occasional weddings on the side, such as museums, breweries, restaurants or gardens. Some might charge a lot to let you use their space, while others will rent it to you for a song.
Community buildings and space held by non-profits (including churches) are a good bet for a good deal. Public property is also worth exploring. If you live near a beach or a lake or a park, you might be able to get a permit to have your wedding there. Cheapest of all, have a backyard wedding. If you don't have your own backyeard, hit up family members or friends with adequate space.
Before you jump at a low-fee venue though, make sure you consider all the infrastructure you’ll have to provide. At a totally bare-bones place, or even a backyard affair with lots of attendees, you might need to rent equipment as basic as bathrooms. You might also need to rent a tent, tables and chairs and buy tablecloths, napkins, dishes, glasses and silverware. You’ll need to pay for a caterer and supply the alcohol and hire a bartender. Add up all these costs before you make your decision about your venue, so you get the best value for your funds.
Another advantage of avoiding an all-inclusive venue is that you can pluck off one or two elements to DIY and potentially save a considerable amount of money. The table below shows the cost savings of a DIY bar for 140 moderate-drinking guests, compared to paying for each drink individually, at country club prices.
|Cost of Self-Provided Drinks||Cost for Drinks Provided by Venue|
|Cost Per Guest||Total Cost||Cost Per Guest||Total Cost|
|Liquor (+ mixers)||$1.75||$245||$9.00||$1,260|
|Per glass rental||$0.60||$168||included||included|
|Service charge (taxable)||$0||$602|
A DIY bar is not always an option. Many venues require that you purchase their products at their prices—and even have hefty minimums. But as you can see in the table above, you can get the exact same quality and quantity of alcohol for about 27% of the cost if you source it yourself.
This bar would be even cheaper if you brewed your own beer, or bought boxed wine and distilled it into pretty flip-top bottles. Skip liquor altogether and you won’t even need a bartender.
If your venue doesn't have tables, chairs and other guest necessities, you will need to rent or buy them yourselves. Renting makes the most sense for tables and chairs, but do some price research before you shell out for the temporary use of smaller items, including tablecloths, floral centerpieces, and tableware. It could be cheaper to actually purchase these used from eBay or Craigslist, or new from Costco or Michaels or websites devoted to linens. After your wedding, you can resell them yourself on eBay or Craigslist and often recoup much of the cost.
DIY tasks do take time and energy so rather than taking on too much yourself, consider asking friends with relevant talents to complete some of them. Could your artsy college roommate/maid of honor put the centerpieces together? Could your flour-coated aunt bake your cake? Could you hire some neighborhood teenagers to clear tables after dinner?
Of course, it’s your wedding. You should absolutely have the elements that matter most to you. But the ones that don’t matter so much? Let them go. And save that money for your honeymoon, a down payment, or your child’s education.