Affording catering for small budget weddings: It’s a problem

Food is a problem for low budget weddings.

Let’s say you have $2500 to spend on your wedding. Let’s say you have 75 guests – not a modest amount, not a crowd. The first thing is, with this many people, your wedding will take quite a few hours. In order to host 75 people without snubbing any of them, you’re probably looking at at least 8 hours of wedding. And because there is no 8 hour stretch of wakefulness that doesn’t involve at least one meal, you’re going to have to give them, at a minimum, one meal’s worth of food. And because this is a celebration, odds are very high that you want to give them some booze too.

So there is no getting out of doing a lot of food, unless you have a really low number of guests. If you had say 35 guests or less, you could get away with just having them for a few hours, and if that’s not during a meal time, you can all just eat some cake and call it done.

But back to the 75 scenario, because I think it’s a good benchmark of wedding averageness. If you put $2500 into my favourite toy, the wedding budget calculator, and uncheck a bunch of stuff, because this is a budget wedding, and we don’t have room for a day-of coordinator, the result is a suggested breakdown that goes like this:

Celebrant: 52
Flowers: 330
Other decoration: 108
Drinks: 289
Food: 722
Bride’s dress: 309
Attendants gifts: 62
Groom’s outfit: 52
Photography: 505
Invitations: 72

This is assuming you somehow have a free venue to host 75 people (you probably don’t), you forgo cake or use it as the dessert for your meal, you don’t buy special shoes, etc etc. There is $722 for food here, and $289 for drinks. That’s $9.63 and $3.85 per person, for food and drinks and respectively. I don’t even need to write a punchline here.

Or let’s say you have 75 guests and $2500, and the couple wears clothes they already own, and they DIY decorations for free, and they email their invitations, and don’t have a photographer, and they get rid of all expenses except food and drink. $2500/75 = $33.33 per person, for a meal and drinks. Which maybe is just enough, if you self-cater, and are very shrewd about your drink offerings.

But this is a wedding. You want to make it meaningful, by having some of the common trappings of weddings, which is going to cost you at least a little bit of money.

The $2500 figure is based on being half of what the median income wedding-haver can afford by saving 10% of their post-tax income for a year. But it’s just not all that possible to have an average size wedding on that amount. Some variable is going to have to give.

Have a smaller wedding? People shouldn’t have to miss out on celebrating with a reasonable number of guests just because they have a small budget.
Save a greater portion of your income? But if your income is low, that’s hard to do.
Have a longer engagement, so you can save for a longer time? Maybe. But 12 months is already a long time to be saving for a consumable.

Maybe this post is just about grumbling a little about the cost of living in NZ. If we had higher wages or cheaper food, this wouldn’t be an issue!

The only solutions I can think of are: 1) Parents help fund the wedding, or 2) Make the wedding a bring-and-share event where guests each contribute ‘a plate of eats’, as they always used to be called in my childhood (do people still say that? A plate of eats? Sounds so old fashioned now).

I’m sure Miss Manners would be aghast at the idea of asking guests to contribute to the wedding like this. I mean, she’s already made herself very clear on the issue of cash bars. And I see her point: getting a wedding invitation would be more like a demand than getting invited to something. You can’t demand gifts. The only way a community chipping in could work, as far as I can see, is if the guests spontaneously self-organise a kind of surprise wedding reception. (And yet, we do see potluck weddings on blogs fairly often. How did these couples break that to the guests?)

So we’re left with parents contributing. I’m becoming more and more ok with that idea.


20 responses to “Affording catering for small budget weddings: It’s a problem

  1. Wedding contributions are actually much more memorable than presents. We were approached by family and friends regarding contributions to the wedding and they are the only presents we remember very fondly. My brother and sister did the prof photographer, my hubby’s best man/best friend bought the cake, my best friend bought me the wedding shoes and my in-laws contributed towards the reception. Unfortunately, whatever gifts we received, we absolutely cannot remember after 9 years.

  2. We had the problem of choosing between raising our budget or slashing our guest list and decided to keep the guest list but compromise on the food. I think potluck weddings are a great idea if everyone’s local, but I’d be a bit annoyed if I had to travel half the country with a “plate of eats!” So that idea was out for us.

    • Natasha, I can’t remember if you have specified how much you’re spending on food/or what your plan was? Because yeah, England is an expensive place.

      • Too much is the answer.

        We’re catering a tea party at lunch ourselves, then having a hog roast. Our venue already had a contract with a certain caterers, so we were pretty stuck with them for the evening meal.Having said that, the wonderful venue staff negotiated them down from their £34pp set meal to £12.50 each for the hog roast. The main thing, though, is that we’re getting stung £10/bottle corkage, which is not fun at all. Still, I don’t think we could have got it cheaper without compromising quite a lot on what we wanted, so hey.

  3. We’re self catering our wedding mostly for budgetary reasons, but also because we like the community aspect of it. It probably has to do with the fact that our guest list only includes our closest friends and family, but so far everyone (with a couple of notable exceptions, of course) has been willing to help us on everything they can.
    I don’t know how people with potluck weddings broke it to the guests, but I’m guessing those types of weddings are also only for the nearest and dearest, so it’s definitely easier. Also, when we told people we’d be self catering our friends all offered their help with setting up/cooking/whatever we need, really. So maybe they started out thinking of self catering but when word got around everyone decided to chip in?

    • That’s awesome, and I’m sure your wedding day will be all the better for it with everyone pulling together for a cause 🙂 You’re right, maybe that is how the potluck weddings happen.

  4. When I started planning my wedding, I was shocked by how much having a simple meal catered costs. Most places I got quotes from were $20+ per person for a buffet with a plain chicken dish (I don’t even like chicken), a salad, and bread. Even looking past the fact that that’s not much of a meal and leaves next to nothing for the vegetarians, that price even include non-alcoholic drinks.

    We considered doing a pot luck because my mom’s side of the family is pretty big and they’re all close, so we couldn’t cut down the guest list too much. We decided against it because 1) my fiance’s family all live out of state, so it wouldn’t be fair to them and 2) my grandmother would have had a heart attack over it. In the end we decided to go with catering through my aunt, who’s starting her own catering business anyway. She’s not doing it for free, but she’s giving us the “family discount.”

    • Ariella, I was thinking of you while writing this post, and wondering how the hell you guys were managing it. Thank god for your aunt 🙂 So effectively, it *is* your family helping out, which is basically the same thing that Silvia and Ainhoa said. And of course my family is helping me too. At the end of the day it really is the only option if you don’t have much disposable money.

  5. Warning, this involves specific details that may only be helpful to someone in the trenches of figuring out food:

    One thing that really surprised us with catering wasn’t the cost of the food (we were able to find something very affordable for the price for amazing food–I just checked and it was less than $20/person including two veggies, salad, steak, fish, and veggie kabobs, rice all served family-style), but all the other costs of using a caterer. Where we had our local wedding, labor is a big costs as the minimum wage is $10 USD so we were billed between $26-31/hour per staff. We also ended up having to get a fire permit ($400) from the city that they took care of (inspection was 1 hour before the wedding–not something I wanted to personally deal with), renting chairs, plates, and silverware ($$, especially with delivery/pick up fees), and then paying 26.5% on the total for administrative fee (18%) and sales tax (8.5%). We bought all the wine and beer ourselves (Bevmo 2 for 1, Costco beer from local breweries), made our cake and cupcakes with our families, and my brother caught part of appetizers (and my parents smoked the salmon and brought it with them) and we had a restaurant deliver some other ones. It was a A LOT work for us and our families, and we still paid quite a bit for catering that my parents very generously helped out on. But we had at least 125 guests, as well as some vendors, and we were very frugal in all other categories. When you add everything up, places that initially give you sticker shock, such a restaurants, may actually be cheaper.

    For our international wedding, we had it at my in-law’s restaurant so we were gifted food, staff, and supplies, and we provided copious amounts of booze. Had we paid market rate, it would have still been much cheaper because the cost of labor, food, and going through one vendor for everything. I don’t know how things compare on the McDonald’s index (Pollo compero vs. gourmet foodtruck burger?), but it is so interesting comparing the costs of weddings in different places.

    Summary: Serving many people food requires a lot of effort, and even with family labor contributions, we still spent a chunk of change while spending way less than the going rate. Try to compare apples to apples without tearing out all your hair and if you have people who will help, treat them so nicely and sing tales of their bravery because it is so generous in time and love.

    • Thanks Erin. Wow, that is a lot. I’m lucking out because all the equipment stuff is included in the per person catering price (provided I meet a given minimum number of guests), so I don’t have to worry about all these extras. But really, to get that price we have to be staying at the resort, we have to get to the resort, etc., so again the true cost is much more.

      I guess in general a more helpful way to look at it, from a budgetry standpoint, is that the location and catering costs are never independent of each other. Maybe they should be on the same budget line, as far as decision making goes.

      • Yes, calculate food, labor, rentals, and location as one item! It’s so hard when you are first getting started because if all-inclusive venue charges $XXXX while other venues only charge $XXX to rent the spot, it is so easy to convince yourself you can save so much money by going with renting the location only. By buying things piecemeal, you will have more flexibility and perhaps a higher quality per dollar spent ratio than going with an one-stop shop option, but you will probably spend more money than you initially estimated since you don’t have bulk or bundled purchasing power.

        Also, it helps to have previous event planning experience in your local area (my rant on assigning women to plan the work holiday parties will be saved for another time!) so you have sense of what things cost for large parties. My partner was adamant that we could get catering at our Park wedding location for the same price as a meal in a restaurant, and he didn’t understand when I explained all the reasons it was more expensive. This is why we didn’t lock down a caterer until two weeks before our event–Not recommended for your sanity!

  6. I love the idea of everyone bringing something. Mum was telling me yesterday that she heard of a wedding where everyone made their famous/most loved dish as part of the wedding gift and they all put so much love and effort into it and had a huge feast. The other thing I was thinking, and this isn’t for everyone, maybe not even me, is to have a kind of food theme with a reletavily cheap cuisine. Like ‘build your own pizza’ or gourmet tacos. Something fun, not too pricy and guests assemble the meal themselves, cutting down on catering costs and keeping portion sizes realistic (some will eat more than others).

    • I like it. Though of course with guests bringing their best dish (I would make a mountain of crepes), there’s still the problem of traveling guests. I really like the make your own taco idea. Not too fussy, everyone will be happy with what they get.

  7. Put a donate now button on your site. I’ll contribute 😉
    Seriously, depending on your family, their customs and expectations, as well as your ability to manage those expectations, I think a pot luck is awesome. Another avenue to consider: incorporate low-cost traditional foods into your wedding. I’ve seen gourmet thin crust pizza weddings and I served 100 people traditional southern BBQ in North Carolina for $600. I got beer and wine at a discount shop for $300 for a total of $9 per person, which is cheaper than going to a restaurant. I can’t remember how much I paid for table setting rentals–likely around $2-3 per person–so yes, your $13/person is a nice low number.

    Of course I was that lucky girl who scored a free venue and tables and chairs.

    I’ve always liked your thought of waiting and saving more, but if the invitations are out you need a solution fast. When I’m in a jam, I go out and sell websites. Do you have any skills like that?

    To hell with it Lindsey put up a donate button write a post asking X number of people for X dollars and let your friends help 🙂 Dana from Brike Ass bride did this and raised 10K for eye surgery.

    • Christie, just to clarify, my catering is all sorted and within my budget (I talked about back in my “adventures in venue booking” posts), so I’m having no trouble. But I am totally touched and a grateful that you would donate. *blog hugs*

      Man, when people tell me how low they were able to go, I’m kind of amazed. I really do think NZ just has a higher cost of living, grumble grumble grumble. Then again, I’ve never actually gotten catering quotes from there, but anything under $20 per person for a full blown meal pretty much blows my mind. Let’s not even mention the cost o freaking drinks.

  8. Pingback: How to pay for everything else that isn’t the wedding | Frugal Wedding

  9. Thanks a lot author. I learned a lot just reading your article. I am excited to share this to my friends.

  10. I Believes this post was going to give tips of how to afford a wedding catering. ~.~ ou sound so negative. !! 😦 and yes I will have a wedding cheap.

  11. I think a large part of the feasibility of potluck weddings is the local culture. My wedding is definitely going to be potluck, and I’m not worried about how to break it to the guests, because it’s fairly common in my area (or at least it is in the circles that I run in). Doing a potluck was one of the few things I’ve known I wanted since long before wedding planning had any immediate relevance to my life, simply because the potluck weddings I’ve attended have been some of my favorites and I really like the atmosphere that goes along with them (though now that I’m starting to have to consider wedding budgeting, I’m certainly glad not to have to worry about catering).

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