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Wedding feasts on the cheap

A national survey says catering costs $61 per person. But there are ways to feed your guests for less.

By Donna_Freedman Apr 9, 2012 3:35PM
Image: Wedding ring (© Jamie Grill/Photolibrary/Photolibrary)The average wedding cake costs $540, according to  Apparently a lot of couples haven't heard of fake cake -- layers of decorated foam set atop a single layer of real cake.

Bride and groom cut into the bottom layer, smile for the photos and share a bite. Then the impostor pastry gets wheeled into the kitchen, where sheet cakes are waiting to be sliced and sent back out.

"No one will ever know or care, as long as it's good," says event planner Jan McBee of La Fete in Atlanta.

The survey also suggests a $61-per-head catering cost plus another $1,127 for the rehearsal dinner. Assuming 50 guests, that might mean as much as $4,667 for eats. (Post continues after video.)
Or not. Read on for tips from professional planners and folks who married on realistic budgets.

Feeding the crowd

A rehearsal dinner at home is charming, but it means more work at a hectic time. Why not keep it simple? Order meat and cheese trays and several salads from the supermarket or the corner deli or a few entrees from your favorite local restaurant.

Steer clear of alcohol at this dinner -- big day tomorrow, remember? -- in favor of iced tea and soft drinks.

Sara Morgan of the bridal site Tailored suggests "fun appetizers" instead of a full dinner. "Get the basic fun goods like fries, Tater Tots, corn dogs, chicken fingers, popcorn, etc.," and serve them in paper cones or old-fashioned popcorn tubs bought from craft stores.

If you head for a restaurant, ask about special deals on family-style dining, i.e., several entrees passed around the table.

Reception timing

A late-morning wedding followed by brunch saves money in several ways:
  • French toast, waffles, omelets and fruit are cheaper than roast beef and salmon.
  • You can serve mimosas or wine spritzers instead of having a full bar.
  • People are less likely to overdo the alcohol at that time of day.

Shannon Hoffman's daughter had an afternoon wedding and a "picnic" theme for her reception. Baskets bought at thrift stores were filled with sandwiches, baguettes, Mason jars of coleslaw and potato salad, cheese and fruit.

"It was like opening a Christmas present, (with guests) oohing and aahing over each item as it was pulled out of the basket," says Hoffman, an Ohio resident.

Sandwiches worked well for my own daughter's afternoon wedding. Abby bought sliced meats and cheeses, rolls, crackers, salads, vegetables and fruit from Sam’s Club. The food was not only a hit, it was free -- paid for with gift cards that she, her fiancé and I earned from an online rewards program.

And if you're on a supertight budget? Just serve cake and punch.

Raising a glass

You can limit alcohol without seeming to limit it by offering wine and beer and "a stylish signature drink," says Linda Ferone, the director of catering for the DoubleTree by Hilton Tarrytown in Westchester, N.Y.

Another option: Make the wine, beer and signature drink free but provide a no-host bar for those who prefer bourbon or boilermakers.

Warehouse clubs tend to have the best prices for wine and beer. Or get "three-buck Chuck" from Trader Joe's and put personalized labels ("John and Mary's Wedding") on the bottles.

"When people start drinking, they do not normally spend time critiquing the free beverages," notes Emily McCollin, of Occasions by Emily in Charlotte, NC.

Several planners suggested skipping the champagne toast. Guests can raise whatever they're  currently drinking. If you want bubbles, try sparkling cider -- it's inexpensive and can be safely imbibed by all ages.

Let them eat cake

Wedding magazines and Food Network programming have turned cake into a fetish. It isn't necessary to spend hundreds of dollars, though.

Marjorie Asturias ordered a cake from Whole Foods. "Not only was it absolutely delish, it cost less than $50," says Asturias, who lives in the Dallas area. Other high-end grocers might be able to provide the cake of your dreams within the budget of your reality.

A reader posting as "L. Duttinger" said her daughter bought five small cakes from Wal-Mart and displayed them on a swinging circle rack. "The display was elegant and beautiful," and cost only $68.

Wedding cupcakes are a hot trend right now. Or how about cheesecake, baklava or any other sweet you like?

Readers: Have any tips to share on how to create a memorable wedding spread without breaking the bank?

More on MSN Money:

Apr 13, 2012 4:04AM
Thanks for the great article. I was thinking about doing a "make-up" reception for our 5 years anniversary next year, but want to do so on a budget.  Your idea for the free food, got me thinking. If I save all of my rewards and points for a year, I can get a lot for free!
May 11, 2012 7:03PM

When we got married 5 years ago  ($5k for the whole kit and caboodle), we did a LOT ourselves. I made the invitations (scored cardstock for $0.25 per package of 50 sheets at a fire sale) and we used postcards for responses to save on postage. We made CDs for our favors. We had an early wedding with a luncheon reception for half the cost of a sit-down dinner after 5pm. But the best part was the cake - we aren't huge cake fans, so we worked with our florist (the local grocery store) and created centerpieces for the tables with removable flower displays and CHEESECAKES. The bakery pre-cut them and at dessert the servers removed the flowers, placed the cheesecakes on the table and brought out sauces for topping (free, since they didn't have to do any cake cutting!) People still talk about it - and for 10 tables it cost me $150 total!

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Donna Freedman's Frugal Nation blog is for readers who want to live cheaply -- whether due to necessity or a lifestyle choice. It explores living sustainably and making life more meaningful at the same time.


Donna Freedman

Donna Freedman, a writer based in Anchorage, Alaska, writes the Frugal Nation blog for MSN Money. She won regional and national prizes during an 18-year newspaper career and earned a college degree in midlife without taking out student loans. Donna also writes about the frugal life for her own site, Surviving and Thriving.