There used to be a strong correlation between the formality of the wedding and the food, but no longer. You can have a black-tie wedding and serve soul food or red-sauce Italian favorites—though as a courtesy to guests, I wouldn’t offer messy food such as a whole lobster or crab (items generally served with a plastic bib) if they’ve been asked to dress in their best clothing. Whatever the menu, here are some ways to cut your costs.

  • Serve fewer courses.
  • Stay away from meat entrées, which are usually more expensive. No one is going to complain if you serve chicken instead.
  • If you love a particular ingredient but it’s pricey, ask the chef or caterer about a less expensive way to bring it to the table. Instead of rack of lamb, you could serve lamb stew or shepherd’s pie.
  • Skip the dessert buffet and stick to wedding cake.
  • Looking to save some money on the rehearsal dinner? Why not limit the guest list to the wedding party and immediate family and invite everyone else to join you for a selection of desserts? For a more raucous crowd, you might even follow the intimate dinner with an open call for drinks at a local pub. If you or the host really can’t afford to pick up the tab, just buy the first round; that way, you get to welcome everyone without getting stuck with a $5,000 bar tab the night before the wedding.

No Budget for Dinner?

If you know your food budget is really tight, consider these pared-down—but still elegant—alternatives to a dinner reception.

Cocktail reception

Heavy hors d’oeuvres and cocktails can go a long way. Try for a mix of tray-passed hors d’oeuvres and stations (anything from an antipasto display to sushi), which add excitement to the food component, especially if a chef in a white toque is making the preparation a performance. It’s a money saver because you’re not serving a full meal and the reception won’t last as long—two and a half to three hours is ideal. Dancing isn’t usually a big part of this type of reception. It’s a good fit for those who have a large guest list and can’t afford to serve everyone a full meal, for those who have chosen a space that won’t seat everyone comfortably, and for couples who have eloped or had a small destination wedding and then invited everyone to celebrate at a later date. Some older couples—whether it’s a first marriage or an encore marriage—also feel more comfortable with this format.

Breakfast/brunch

While it’s officially a meal, the food is significantly less expensive than dinner, and people drink less, which keeps the bar bill down. Morning ceremonies followed by a wedding breakfast are a long-standing tradition in England, though a rather elaborate lunch is typically served. It may be hard to entice people to dance early in the day, but if you bring in a great jazz band and have a receptive crowd, people will get up on their feet. You can serve a sit-down meal, but I prefer the variety and abundance of stations and a buffet for a brunch. Try an omelet station, a waffle station, a buffet with sausages and fresh fruit, and a build-your-own-bagel display. For beverages, champagne and juice cocktails such as mimosas or Bellinis are a natural, as is a Bloody Mary bar.

Afternoon tea

Hold an early-afternoon wedding followed by tea in a ballroom or lounge. Seat everyone at tables and offer a tea menu with individual pots of tea, giving guests a choice of loose-leaf black teas, green teas, white teas, and herbal teas. (You should also offer coffee to those who want it.) Champagne or another sparkling wine makes a lovely tea accompaniment. Put out tiered platters of finger sandwiches, biscuits with ham, scones, and petits fours. And, of course, you should make the wedding cake part of the tea service. You don’t need a full bar with an afternoon tea—wine and champagne should be sufficient. A jazz or classical quartet, pianist, or harpist would provide the right musical note.

Dessert reception

Start your wedding at 7 P.M. or later, and follow it with a dessert reception. Set up a buffet or stations with crepes, bananas Foster, an ice-cream sundae bar, and deep-fried beignets. Or offer ice cream pounded on a slab with the guest’s choice of candy, cookie crumbs, or other mixings. Serve miniature tortes, pies, cookies, and crème brûlée, so everyone can sample a variety. In addition to regular bar service, offer a coffee bar and, if your budget allows, after-dinner liqueurs. Music should get guests up and dancing.

Cakes and Sense

Big cakes make a statement, but they can be expensive. A few ideas for slicing your costs:

  • If you’re having 150 or more guests, order a cake for 25 fewer people than you expect.
  • Serve cupcakes or table cakes to avoid cake-cutting fees. Cupcakes work out to be $2 to $4 less per person. Since there’s no cake cutting involved, many reception venues won’t charge an extra fee.
  • Decorate cakes with fresh flowers instead of costly sugar-paste imitations.
  • Since much of the cost of a cake hinges on how much labor is involved in decorating it, order a simple frosted cake, then buy crystallized flowers online and go to town.

The Bar Tab

Not only is alcohol a hefty expense, it can also be a tough one to predict. Use these strategies to keep the bar bill in line without sacrificing graciousness.

Forgo a full bar

Instead, offer a soft bar with wine, beer, and soft drinks, which can cut your bill by 50 percent. If you have the budget, you can add either champagne or a signature cocktail to the menu.

Look for French sparkling wines from outside the Champagne region

The closer you can get to the Champagne region (Burgundy being one of the close regions—look for Crémant de Bourgogne) the more likely they are to share a similar style.

Serve sparkling wines from other countries

Prosecco and sparkling Moscato from Italy and cava from Spain are favorites for bargain-priced bubbly. Cava usually costs less than $10 a bottle at wine stores (Freixenet being the most common but far from the only option), while there are lovely Proseccos for $10 to $15.

  • Instruct waiters to refill wine glasses upon request instead of automatically topping them off.
  • Ask bartenders and the catering staff to open bottles only as needed. Some bartenders open every type of liquor bottle on the bar, meaning you’re committed to a bottle of tequila even if no one orders a single margarita. Some also preopen wine before the reception to speed up the service, but if they overestimate, you’re paying for unpoured wine.
  • Ask waiters to clear drinks only if they’re “complete,” meaning the glass has been drained or is clearly abandoned. When waiters whisk away glasses the minute a guest puts one down, it increases your bar consumption.
  • Schedule your wedding during the day. The earlier the wedding, the less alcohol people consume. Or schedule it on a weekday, when guests drink less than on weekends.
  • Mix sparkling wine into a champagne cocktail. A sugar cube, bitters, and lemon peel can turn a mediocre sparkling wine into an elegant sipper, or try other classics like kir royale (champagne with crème de cassis), Bellini (champagne and white peach puree), or mimosa (champagne with orange juice). You can, and should, buy a less expensive sparkling wine if you’re using it as a mixer. Stick with a brut, which is dry, when you’re going to add sweet ingredients.
  • Having an off-site wedding? See if the caterer will allow you to buy your own alcohol. (Many will.) You bypass the markup, paying only a setup fee and the hourly fees for bartenders; buy by the case to nab discounts of 10 percent to 15 percent, and shop around for a store that will allow you to return unopened bottles. Don’t forget that warehouse clubs often offer excellent prices on wine, champagne, and liquor.

At a typical wedding, figure that each guest—minus children, of course—will consume two cocktails and two and a half glasses of wine. Another approach is to allow one drink per guest per hour.

For a cocktail and hors d’oeuvres reception, which typically lasts two and a half to three hours, estimate four drinks per person—five if your crowd runs to heavier drinkers. Although there is more focus on drinking, it’s counteracted by the fact that the reception doesn’t last as long as a full dinner.

In terms of yield, you’ll get five glasses of wine from a 750-ml bottle, five and a half to eight glasses of champagne from a standard bottle, and eighteen to twenty cocktails from a one-liter bottle of liquor.