Wedding Planning | Open Bar vs. Cash Bar

The choice to serve alcohol or not at your wedding is one of those factors that can often times create a great deal of discussion amongst everyone involved in the planning process. Everybody has an opinion, and sometimes the solutions can become an arguable point. Now, why does the discussion about alcohol become such a heated topic? Because there are a number of options, where cost is probably one of the biggest concerns. We’re going to dive right in, sharing some pros and cons along with a few tips you should consider when choosing to serve alcohol at your wedding or not.

Moet champagne, champagne bottle display

Photo by Adam Barnes via Southern Weddings

{Open Bar} An open bar is probably one of the more popular choices when planning your cocktail hour (usually a time when the bride and groom are taking portraits) and your reception.

Pros:

  • Easy for your guests. No worries for them if they didn’t bring enough cash with them.
  • Guests have many choices and varieties of drinks (both alcoholic and non), especially when the wedding is held at an established venue such as a restaurant or banquet house that is well stocked.
  • An open “bar” is more conducive to guests getting their own drinks rather than waiting for staff to wait on them.

Cons:

  • Possibility of overindulgence by a small group of your guests. Only you can be the best judge of your family and friends.
  • Expense. Having an open bar can be a budget buster and that is why many opt out.
  • Depending on your guest list, an open bar can be a distraction from other events at your wedding reception. I have been to weddings where some guests were more interested in “hanging out” at the bar because the drinks were free, than watching the cake cutting, first dance or bouquet toss

bellini bar, fancy brunch wedding reception

Photo by Anne Marie Photography via Style Me Pretty

{Cash Bar} A cash bar is when your guests will be expected to pay for all of their alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages with the exception of a champagne toast at dinner.

Pros:

  • Easy on your budget.
  • Usually, lesser chance for overindulgence by your guests.

Cons:

  • Your guests may feel a little disgruntled especially if the drinks turn out to be very expensive. The price will depend on whether your wedding reception is held at the local Moose Club, where beer is $2.00 a bottle, or at the Four Seasons, where it might be $7.00 a bottle. The bigger the price tag for your guests, usually the less they will drink. It might even chase them out of your reception sooner; like right after the meal. Kind of sad, right?

chilled champagne glasses, champagne toast

Photo by Hazelnut Photography via Style Me Pretty

{Limited Bar – Open or Cash} A limited bar is just that. Limited. Choices include one or two different beers (regular and lite), red and/or white wines, even limitations of soda – Coke, ginger ale and/or club soda. No hard liquor but a signature drink – both alcoholic and non-alcoholic may also be available. You may offer a champagne toast with dinner, which is a nice touch when having a limited bar.

Pros:

  • A limited bar can save everyone money, whether open or even cash.
  • Most guests are satisfied with options of beer or wine.
  • It’s a happy medium for everyone.

Cons:

  • Choices for guests are limited. Maybe they don’t like beer or wine. Then they are left with only soda (maybe not even one that they like) or water.

rustic limited bar sign, Izze sparkling juice drinks served in vintage rustic coca cola crate

Photo by Anna Page Photography via Style Me Pretty | Photo by The Nichols via Style Me Pretty

{Non-Alcoholic} The decision to serve no alcohol can be a very personal choice. It may be based on religion or other personal circumstances. Either way, family and friends who know and love you will understand and respect your decision. Katelyn James, a popular wedding photographer in Virginia who’s personal wedding we featured in January, did not serve alcohol at her wedding. She observed, that while no alcohol was served, everyone had the best time ever!  Don’t believe me? Then watch her awesome wedding video, starting at 4:13. Evidence that alcohol does not a party make, because when all is said and done, it is your day, a celebration of your love and marriage. :)

A couple of other things to think about when considering the types of refreshment to serve at your wedding. When having an open bar, to save money, you can place a dollar limit of your choice. We did that at our wedding. When we were close to the limit, the head bartender came to us and let us know. As we were very close to the end of the evening, we opted to keep the tab open, resulting in only an additional $30 to our original budget. If you do reach your limit, you can then convert to a cash bar, however, it may create a bit of awkwardness for your guests.

non-alcoholic beverage decanters, signature drinks, drinks bar

Photo by Dan Cutrona via Inspired By This

If you’re having a backyard bash, there are other options that you have available. If you have a caterer, check with them if they will be providing the liquor and what their pricing will be. Since you are hosting, a better option might be to purchase your own liquor and save a bunch of money if you are able to take advantage of a discount liquor store. Be sure to advise the caterer or hired bartender to not open all the bottles or get the labels wet on the unopened ones. This way you can easily return items that were unused and save some money.

One last tip, when working with your venue or caterer, ask if there is a package/fixed price for the bar or if you could pay on a consumption basis. Guests sometimes will surprise you and not drink as much as you originally might have thought or planned. You can save a fair amount, especially on those guests that will nurse a drink all night long.

signature cocktails in mason jars, bride and groom toast

Photo by Adam Barnes via Southern Weddings

Now, if all this has your mind a totally jumbled mess, then my last recommendation… hire a wedding planner, tell them your budgetary needs and wants, and let them handle it! :)

You can see why this topic could cause some angst with so many (maybe too many) options. Who knew, right? Anybody else feel this way? How will you or did you handle serving alcohol at your wedding? Let us know in the comments below! xoxo

Comments

  1. says

    Such GREAT advice!! Definitely a must-read for anyone debating what to do on their bar. Personally, I like limited, open bars or putting a cap on it with the option to go higher with the bride/groom’s approval and recommend them most to my clients with more limited (and/or smarter) budgets.

    • AlexandraAlexandra says

      Thank you so much, Danielle!! (And for sharing today’s post too :)) You always have such brilliant feedback for both your brides and us and we love you for that!! xoxoxo

  2. says

    great post! we didn’t serve alcohol at our wedding and everyone had a BLAST!! and we saved a TONNNN of money. we did let guests know in advance on our wedding website that we wouldn’t be serving it just to give people a heads up – and everyone came and had a GREAT time!!

    • AlexandraAlexandra says

      That is SO awesome to hear!! I’m actually hearing more and more that people aren’t serving alcohol at their wedding, saving money, and reporting that everyone had a great time! I rather like the idea. Much better than dealing with anyone who had a few too many at the bar. I like the added bit of advice to include that bit of info on your wedding website. Great idea! Thanks, Molly! xoxoxo

  3. Meg says

    As an event planner at a restaurant. I disagree with the above statement about a limited bar being cheaper. Depending on the wines that you select to serve they can be often be MORE than cocktails.

    I find it nicer to offer your guests whatever they prefer to drink. If someone is there with the intentions of getting drunk, they will do it with whatever alcohol you make available.

  4. Jessie Rose says

    The three past weddings I have attended in the last couple of years were “dry” wedding and to be honest it really made the wedding insanely boring. You could even tell a lot of the guest were truly disappointed and left early. You invite guest to have a good time, let go, and celebrate with you. People expect drinks. No need to be stingy. There are plenty of other places to cut costs. Keep the booooooooooooze flowing, please!

    • AlexandraAlexandra says

      Another fair point. Thanks for the input, Jessie. I think it all boils down to personal preference and personal budget. Everyone is going to do what’s right for them. The day is first and foremost about the bride and groom, their love, their marriage, their wedding day, but you also want to have happy guests. Which is where preference and budget come in. Everyone is going to have a different take or opinion and a different budget to work with and will do what is right for them.

    • Henry says

      No need to be stingy? It’s easy for you to say since you aren’t the one paying. If a wedding is only exciting with alcohol, perhaps you are missing the point of a wedding: it’s not a celebration of you but of the couple. It’s their choice to not serve alcohol, and your choice to go for free drinks.

  5. Joanne Petroski says

    To me it is highly inappropriate to see the word “guest” and “cash bar” used together. Do you have guests come to your home and make them pay for any part of the meal you’re serving like an expensive dessert or beverage? So why would you invite people to your wedding which is basically a huge party thrown to honor your wedding and expect them to pay for certain beverages of their choice? Most guest have already spent a good deal on the gift or cash in the card , perhaps attended the bridal shower as well where the gifts tend to be costly as registered by the happy couple. So treat your guests properly and offer the a drink. If you can’t afford an open bar, offer what you can be it wine and beer but NEVER insult them by asking yours guests to pay for their own drinks. TACKY and classless.

    • AlexandraAlexandra says

      All great points, which is why we wrote the post, to share the pros and cons of all options available to brides and grooms. The unfortunate thing is that you can usually please at least one, but never all. It’s definitely a sticky situation and a tough decision, one I don’t envy from who has to make it. I think my favorite is for the couple to offer two choices of both wine (red and white) and an option (or two) of beer, plus a champagne toast, maybe even a signature cocktail. Anything different the guests can pay for at the bar themselves. Custom wine and beer labels would be a lovely, fun touch as well :)

  6. Ray says

    What we have decided to do is have an open bar, but limited to the amount of drinks we stocked in the bar. There is only so much beer and so much wine to go around. The toasts will be champaigne and the bar will be beer wine water and soda. As an added feature, we have booked two vans and our bartenders, two of them, are going to double as drivers. They will get our out of town guess to the venue and they will return our guests local and out of town back to their end destination for approximately half the price of a cab ride. This is intended to get everyone home safely while we have a good time celebrating our big day.

  7. AlexandraAlexandra says

    That’s something I never would have thought of. I love it!! Bravo for being so creative and for looking after your guests as well!! And thank you so much for sharing!! xo

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