First Round’s On Whom?

After sitting through a wedding ceremony, many guests show up to the reception looking forward to kicking off the night with a drink. The question is, who should be paying?

Traditional wedding etiquette has always frowned upon the cash bar. And Jenna Fisher, director and lead planner of Cocktails and Details, understands that line of reasoning; she believes that, ideally, you should treat wedding guests as you would any guest in your home. “If you were to invite someone over to your house for a dinner party, would you pour them a glass of wine and tell them they owe you five dollars?”

Fisher understands, though, that many factors enter into the wedding-liquor equation – the cost for the couple often being at the top of the list. Just how many dollars can those guests drink away? For an admittedly large wedding (at least 700 people), Julianne Cragg, owner and director of wedding planning company, A Modern Proposal Event Planning, has seen an open bar bill totalling “well over $30,000.”

So, while an open bar for an intimate wedding of 30 guests won’t break the bank, cocktails for everyone you know and all their plus ones can add up quickly. A budget conscious bride and groom who go the cash-bar route don’t need to worry about factoring those expensive cocktails into their budget. They also don’t need to waste time debating what libations their guests may prefer.

They do, however, need to ensure that all guests are fully aware of the bar situation prior to arriving at the reception. “Make sure it’s included in the invitation so people know what to expect,” Fisher advises. Guests may not be thrilled about paying for drinks, particularly if they’ve spent money on gifts and accommodations to attend the wedding. But, according to  Cragg, she’s only heard complaints when guests showed up unaware of the situation and ATMs were not available.

If, in the end, the cash bar wins out, the couple still has options for keeping the price tag within a reasonable range. Couples who are worried about any hard-partying guests getting out of hand can implement anti-binging measures such as Fisher’s suggestion of a no-shot rule. Additionally, couples may want to evaluate the size of their guest lists lest they receive unwelcome surprises when the bills come.

If the decision seems too difficult, couples should take note that a full open bar and a strictly cash bar represent polar opposite sides of a spectrum. Compromise is possible. Many wedding planners suggest couples on a limited budget provide guests with a few free drinks by giving tickets or having an open bar during cocktail hour, then letting guests purchase drinks out-of-pocket from that point on. Providing guests with signature drinks customized to reflect the wedding decor or the couple’s preferences are also a popular option.

When it comes down to it, guests at a wedding are there to celebrate the happy couple and will likely be satisfied with any bar they encounter.

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