My Friends Like to Drink. How Do I Avoid Going Broke with an Open Bar?

Jen with Prosecco. Photo by  Betty Clicker Photography

Jen with Prosecco. Photo by Betty Clicker Photography

At my wedding, I thought an open bar seemed like a great idea. Why wouldn’t I want to encourage all of my friends and family to eat, drink, and have an awesome time at my wedding? Then we got the bill. Somehow my 80–90 guests, 15–20 of whom weren’t drinking, managed to down two kegs of beer and 72 bottles of wine, not to mention that all the groomsmen were drinking from pocket flasks the whole night. The reception budget I was so proud of flew right out the window.

Looking back, there were a number of guidelines I wish I had established with my guests and the venue waitstaff before the reception to ensure that my wedding budget didn’t go straight down the drain.

Here are 5 guidelines to consider to save money on your wedding reception open bar.

1. Set a Drink Budget Cap

Talk with your venue manager or bartender ahead of time to see if it is possible to set a budget cap on drinks for the evening. Do the math and calculate what it would cost for each guest to have 2–3 drinks, and then set the cap accordingly. There will certainly be guests that have more than their allotted number of drinks, but there will also be guests that don’t drink at all or only have a single drink for toasts. The cap is likely to go into effect later in the evening and will hopefully keep some guests from getting sloppy drunk.

Heather Clarke, event coordinator for the Richmond, Virginia based wedding planning group The Hive Wedding Collective, also suggests another great alternative. “You can avoid surprises post-wedding and purchase a bar package instead of opting for a consumption bar.” Not all venues will offer this, but be sure to ask, as it can end up saving you quite a bit in the long run.

2. Ask a Friend to Keep an Eye on the Heavy Partiers

There will always be that friend that shows up with the expressed intent to drink and party. I had a few. (Hell, I was one.) One such friend even came dressed with a t-shirt under his suit that read “It’s Motherfucking Booze Time,” which he revealed like clockwork at 10PM. Ask a trusted sober friend or member of the wedding party to keep an eye on certain guests who might be getting a little too drunk and have a plan in place for how to cut them off without causing too much conflict.

Don’t rely on your wedding planner to take on this role, however. As Heather notes, “Not only is it not our job, it puts us in an uncomfortable and confrontational position. Often, we do end up needing to cut off guests who have been over served and it never goes well. I've been called a bitch and been told ‘fuck you during these moments. If you have a friend who you know well enough to invite to your wedding you should take a moment prior to the event to address any foreseeable drinking issues with them in private. Your family is going to be there, so I get wanting your guests to behave, but don't make it your wedding planner’s job to police guests who are actual strangers to them.”

If you don’t feel like you have a friend you can ask this of, Heather also suggests reaching out to the catering manager. “If you have blanket concerns there is nothing wrong with making those known to your catering manager and let them know that you're aware that their ABC license is at risk and they are welcome to cut off guests who appear over served.”

3. Only Offer Refills at the Bar

If you are having a seated dinner at your reception, it may seem like offering drink service at the guest tables is the polite and proper thing to do. Unfortunately, it’s a huge factor in increasing your total alcohol bill. If someone is coming around with a bottle of wine and asking if your guests want a glass or a refill, most guests will say “Yes,” even if they aren’t planning to drink more. Beyond filling glasses for an initial round of toasts, ask your wait staff to suspend all table alcohol service and only offer refills to guests who come up to the bar. A guest who has to make the effort of walking to the bar and possibly waiting in line is going to have to rethink whether or not they want that next glass of booze.

4. Set Personal Drinking Boundaries for You and Your Partner

The wait staff at my wedding reception were constantly on top of making sure I always had a full glass of prosecco in my hand. While this seemed so nice and pampering at the time, once the damage was done and I was vomiting in the Jacuzzi tub of our hotel suite on my wedding night, I was able to look back and realize that this was not so great. I was so caught up in talking to all of my guests, I lost track of how many drinks I had had pretty early on in the evening. I would set down my drink to hug a family member, and before I knew it another new full glass of prosecco would end up in my hand. Looking back, I wish I had spoken with the venue manager to let them know that I didn’t need constant drink refills and service. I might have been the bride, but I could still walk up to the bar and order a drink like everyone else.

5. Stick to Beer and Wine

Hard liquor drinks add up fast, and if you have a full bar of options at your disposal, it can be hard to control who is ordering top shelf liquors versus bottom shelf ones. Take this variability out of the equation altogether by sticking only to beer and wine beverage options. Your guests won’t get drunk as quickly and you can save some serious cash in the process.

Photo by Tiffany Josephs Photography


Jen Siomacco is the CEO and Creative Director of Catalyst Wedding Co. She works to mesh together her love of feminism, love stories, equality and design into the layout and brand of Catalyst while she sits on her couch and snuggles up with her SUPER lazy cats.