To say weddings are expensive would be an understatement, but there are lots of ways that you can save money by opting for a more DIY affair. One such way is to forego a catered meal and instead ask your guests to bring a dish to your wedding instead of a gift. Potluck weddings can be lots of fun, and can give all of your guests a way to feel involved, but they can also be a lot of work.
Not sure whether a potluck wedding is really the right fit for you and your partner? We asked the members of our vendor directory to share their thoughts.
Potluck Weddings Can Save You a Lot of Money and Build a Sense of Community
Obviously, many couples who opt to have a potluck wedding are enticed by the prospect of saving money and sticking to a budget. The average cost of catering can vary greatly depending on your location, but can start at about $30 per person and can easily hit $100-150 a person if you’re in a more expensive market. Cutting those costs from your budget can have a massive impact.
It’s important to remember you aren’t going to make all the food yourself, so it’s crucial to have a strong community if this is the path you want to follow. For some people, their community might already be used to this type of event.
“Quakers have potluck everything!” says Washington, D.C. wedding photographer Jennifer Domenick of Love Life Images. “My friend had a potluck wedding. I was unable to attend because I was photographing a wedding that same day, but she did ask me to be in charge of the rehearsal dinner. We made the main dish, set up the tables and dinnerware, and the family added their own dishes. My boys were the waiters and helped with the whole meal, which was a really terrific experience for them. It felt very personal, casual, and full of love.”
If this style of community event seems like just another weekend cookout to you, then a potluck wedding might be a perfect fit. When done with the right group of guests — and well organized — it can feel like a totally laid back party.
“I photographed a potluck wedding a long time ago,” says St. Louis photographer Raquita Henderson of Pinxit Photo. “It was fun and relaxed. The couple didn't have any hard core wants or needs, and it was like a family holiday someone just happened to get married at.”
We love to hear stories of when a potluck wedding strikes the perfect balance of community and resourcefulness, but we also know not all couples have a large family or community they can call on for help. For those couples, a potluck wedding can seem daunting.
Be Warned, It’s a Lot of Work
If you don’t have a team of family members and friends ready to jump on the task of making your potluck wedding happen, you might want to consider hiring a wedding coordinator to help with the work.
“Doing the whole meal would be a huge undertaking with lots of logistics that I wouldn't recommend doing without a professional coordinator and ideally hiring a couple event staff folks to manage service and cleanup,” says St. Louis wedding planner Cindy Savage of Aisle Less Traveled.
If you’re looking to save money, the cost of hiring a wedding coordinator might seem counter intuitive, but honestly, hiring a coordinator can help you save even more. They can usually help you find affordable service staff, help you get the best rates on rentals, and will help take on the task of coordinating who is bringing what dish. It is possible to do it all yourself, but you might find you’re exhausted and unable to fully enjoy your wedding day.
“My own wedding was a potluck!” says Philadelphia photographer Amanda Swiger of Swiger Photography “I made a bunch of food the night before that we heated up the next day, and we asked guests to bring a favorite dish or drink to share. It worked out just fine, but it was a LOT of work and you have to have friends and family who get it. Our whole wedding was less than $1,000, so our guests understood that we were trying to make something work with not a lot of resources, but because we DIY-ed everything, it came at the expense of me not really ever getting to enjoy the day or feel like a bride or just be present. I was worried about EVERYTHING.”
As always, it’s important to weigh the cost savings of going the DIY route with the cost of your own mental health. Again, this is why potluck weddings really require you have designated people who are excited and ready to help out.
Designate Helpers and Set Expectations Prior to the Wedding
“Looking back,” says Amanda, “I think it would have been a lot better if I would have put certain people in charge of things for the day-of so I could just forget all of it.”
This is a good rule for just about anything regarding your wedding day. It can be incredibly stressful to try to balance tasks and your own emotions all at the same time.
“My advice is to make sure roles are clear so that you can relax on your wedding day,” says New York City wedding planner Justine Broughal of Together Events. “Years ago, a friend of mine asked me to help with food setup on her wedding day (a lot of it was cooked by parents and volunteers or bought at Costco). I was happy to help, but I was surprised when I showed up to find out that I was IN CHARGE of all the food setup throughout the wedding day. I missed most of the ceremony and reception because I was frantically trying to set everything up, get the cake cut, and figure out what was going on. The couple had custom monogrammed napkins they never told me about, and those ended up going to waste. All of the friends who volunteered to help were exhausted by the end of the day, and it left me vowing to NEVER do this to my friends and family. That’s not to say a potluck wedding is no-no, just make sure you’re communicating clearly what you’re asking of friends and family and that you’re making sure someone’s there to manage the kitchen on the day of.”
Again, this is why we feel so strongly that you should take on the extra cost of hiring a wedding coordinator, because in DIY situations it can be easy to suddenly turn your friends and family into your coordinator. By hiring a skilled coordinator, you can have the budget DIY potluck wedding of your dreams while still allowing your friends and family to fully enjoy and celebrate the day with you.
Get Comfortable with Losing Control Over the Meal
Whether or not you choose to hire a coordinator to help with your potluck wedding, you need to be prepared to take your hands off the wheel if you’re asking your friends and family for help in preparing a potluck meal.
“I'd say potluck weddings work for people that are a combo of the following characteristics: they super-trust their own people, are good at generalized planning in advance, and great at relinquishing control,” says Missoula, Montana wedding photographer Meera Mohan-Graham. “A challenge is that good planners are NOT always good at relinquishing control. Potlucks sound great and they can be warm, inclusive, community-driven, home-like experiences, but if someone REALLY doesn't like unexpected factors (like a relative making a soup that they claimed was a casserole) or doesn't fully consider what the experience will be like day-of they can instead experience it as chaotic, stressful, frustrating, and worrisome. I think couples need to really think that through for themselves in a realistic way.”
Don’t Forget About Food Safety and Dietary Restrictions!
There are some things, however, that you DO NOT want to lose control over, and food safety and ensuring your guests have food they can actually enjoy is a major concern with potlucks.
“My family has done potluck weddings before, and they have worked out wonderfully, but there are a few potential safety issues to keep in mind,” says Buffalo, New York wedding photographer Jacqueline Connor. “Food must be kept at the correct temperatures, so it’s a good idea to have meat catered and have the sides be potluck. Have guests provide ingredient lists as food allergies are important to note.”
Food poisoning is the LAST thing you want to worry about on your wedding day. “Definitely put someone else in charge of coordinating it, preferably someone with food experience,” says Jacqueline. “You don’t want to be worrying about all of that on your wedding day.”
Consider Going Potluck with Only the Desserts
Remember, potluck weddings are not an all-or-nothing situation. You can choose to potluck certain areas of your wedding while catering others. Or, if you are opting to not have a full meal and instead want to stick to only appetizers and a cake, a potluck dessert bar can be a huge success!
“I've done weddings with potluck desserts which were awesome!” says Cindy. “Every table got their own cake or dessert, and then the couple went around and cut each one. There were lots of different dessert options and guests were trading slices between tables. It added an interesting twist on the couple’s table visits.”
I know if I were attending this wedding, I would have a hard time not going to each table to try a slice of every cake!
“I had a couple who had a potluck cake situation, and it was AWESOME,” says California wedding photographer Melissa Ryan of Marble Rye Photography. “There was so much love and personality on that table! And it feels like a do-able ask, right? Usually, everyone has a few friends who LOVE to bake!”
No matter how you decide to execute your DIY potluck wedding, we hope these tips will allow you to save money and connect with your community while fulling enjoying your day.
Jen Siomacco is the CEO and Editor-in-Chief of Catalyst Wedding Co. She works to mesh together her love of feminism, love stories, accessibility, equality, and design into the Catalyst brand. When she’s not traveling the country working to make the wedding industry a more inclusive place, she’s writing on her couch and snuggled up with her husband and SUPER lazy cats.
Photo by Tiffany Josephs Photography