This is about money, but only in a tangential way. If you intend to get married and do not want to spend the current American average of $30,000 on your wedding, you need to do some careful planning. Cutting out all your expenses yet expecting your friends and relatives to spend lavishly on you is not a plan. If you don’t want to order a $500 wedding cake, that’s fine, but you still have to provide refreshments for all your guests and no, that does not mean a cash bar. A wedding reception is a party. The ones throwing the party have an obligation to to entertain their guests. Making it clear in advance what the parameters of your hospitality will be is a kindness to all you invite.
And please, invite out-of-town guests only if you intend to be a good host to those guests. If you don’t want to speak to Cousin Laura from Topeka, don’t invite her, and don’t solicit her in any way for a wedding present, either. If you do invite her, you need to make sure she has a lovely time at your wedding.
Yes, I get that you are young, you are urban, and you’d really like to just have a big party with all your same-age friends. You’re okay with distant and elderly relatives showing up that your mother thinks ought to be invited, but you don’t want to spend your time with them. Here’s how to satisfy everyone:
1. Ask yourself if Cousin Laura from Topeka will be comfortable at that funky little bar down the street where you’d like to hold the reception. No? Then either do not invite Cousin Laura, or don’t hold the formal reception at a bar. Hold a wedding pre-party for your close young urban buddies at the bar, and find a formal wedding venue for the actual reception, one where older people and very young people who cannot legally enter a bar will be comfortable.
You cannot reasonably invite an out-of-town guest to only one part of the wedding festivities, by the way. If you invite Cousin Laura to the wedding ceremony, you must invite her to the reception, too. If there is a general party before or after, she should be invited to that. She just spent $1,000 on airfare, hotel, and clothes to come see you get married. You must show some class by making sure she gets her fair share of the wedding entertainment.
2. Find a reception venue that will allow you lots of freedom. You don’t want to pay a fee per guest, because then you can’t invite little Susie, somebody’s five-year-old, even though little kids are hilarious fun at receptions. You don’t want to have to triage guests: “Is Joe worth $150? Do I like Rosie enough to pay $100 to entertain her for four hours?” Venues that allow freedom do exist, but it takes work to find them. Here’s a hint: a suburban home usually has a pleasant back yard and it is cheap to rent a tent.
3. Arrange reliable transportation for all out-of-town guests throughout the festivities. This means someone picks them up at the airport, drives them to the relative they’re bunking with or the hotel they’re staying at, and drives them to all the wedding events. It would be a kindness to arrange a free place for out-of-town guests to stay, but it’s not necessary. It’s essential that you arrange transportation in case they are too old to drive or would be lost trying to drive in your city.
4. Buy food, and lots of it. At all weddings, the guests descend on the food like locusts. The trick is to not pay a per-plate fee to a caterer or use table service. Instead, arrange for platters, large containers, etc. at a buffet. You’ll still have to pay someone to set up the food and keep it coming, but that costs far less than waiter service, and there is less wasted food. Think simple but bountiful when it comes to food. You’ve seen or participated in elaborate tasting rituals and considered very elaborate foods, but the truth is most guests would prefer food they recognize. Wedding guests are perfectly happy to eat quite ordinary food if there’s plenty of it. Your local grocery chain's bakery can turn out a creditable wedding cake that will please most cake-eaters.
You also need to remember to arrange meals for out-of-town guests or give them a program in advance so they know when food is available as part of the wedding and when they are on their own. Remember that when you hold a party—and that’s what a wedding is—you are responsible for offering refreshments to your guests. BYOB does not work at a wedding.
5. Provide seating. At the ceremony, make sure there are enough chairs for everyone. For the reception, rent or borrow enough chairs and tables for most if not all of your guests. Don’t worry about decorating the tables or creating seating arrangements. It’s enough to have a place to casually sit down to eat. Ideally, at a party people get up and mingle, or get up and dance.
6. Get some music. It’s an event, and it deserves music. It only costs a couple hundred dollars to hire an organist who can play conventional wedding tunes before, during, and after a church ceremony, because wedding ceremonies themselves are short. It costs nothing to get a friend to bring a boom box to the party venue, or to get a knowledgeable friend to bring a more elaborate system. Have it tested in advance, of course. Bottom line, you do not have to hire an expensive DJ who will play inappropriate music too loud for your guests to talk. You do not have to provide a dance floor. People who want to dance will dance anywhere, as long as you provide music.
7. Speak to every guest you invited. Yes, you’d prefer to hang with your friends, but you must greet Cousin Laura and thank her for coming all this way, and extend your hope that she’s enjoying herself, plus introduce her to your new relatives. This is part of being a good host or hostess, especially when a friend or relative travels a long distance to your wedding. It’s your job to show hospitality to your guests.
8. Provide much more food and drink than you think any reasonable crowd will consume. (Have I said this before? Yes? That’s because food and drink are a key part of any good party.) If you don’t want to pay for alcohol, provide some other liquid refreshments, and plenty of them.
Finally, try not to be too selfish. Sure, it’s “your special day,” but the truth is it’s your family’s special event, and you are putting your friends and relatives to significant expense and often inconvenience to be there for you. So be kind, be present, smile at everyone, dance with the little kids, and have a good time.