You don't need to spend your entire wedding budget to serve your guests a delicious meal—here's how to save on catering, according to the experts.
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Food can be a big part of a wedding, and every couple wants to make a lasting impression on their guests and make sure everyone is well-fed (I mean, people still talk about the food at my parents' wedding almost 30 years ago). But between the rehearsal dinner, cocktail hour, reception, and cake, food also makes up a large part of the wedding budget.

"When putting together a budget, you should estimate that about 50 percent of your overall spending will go toward catering costs," says Tonya Hoopes, owner and lead planner at Hoopes Events in Utah. If you're trying to save as much as possible while still planning the wedding of your dreams, there are ways to cut back on catering costs—you just have to be realistic with your budget and goals, and be willing to get a little creative with your menu.

There's no reason to be spending more than you should on food, leaving less for other big items in the budget that are equally important, like your wedding photographer. Here are expert tips on how you can save money on wedding catering without compromising on quality.

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1 Skip the buffet—stick to plated meals instead.

Offering a buffet for your guests instead of the traditional plated dinner might seem like it's saving you money at first because you're cutting down on serving fees, but think again.

"One popular, yet skewed, school of thought is that a buffet is always less expensive than a plated meal," says Jennifer Prince, editor of wedding planning site Hill City Bride. Prince says that with a buffet, caterers need to account for people getting seconds and thirds.

"A plated meal with its controlled servings can end up being less expensive (yet feel more luxe) than an ambiguous amount of food," explains Prince. However, since a served meal requires more staff than a buffet, the cost may even out. Still, it's worth looking at both options depending on your vendors to see which option would save you the most money. 

2 Consider catering from a restaurant or corporate caterer.

"For smaller weddings, restaurants make a great choice for good food at a more affordable cost," says Devony Wilmot, a bride who planned her dream wedding at a Texas Hill Country estate on a budget. 

If you have a smaller guest list, Wilmot suggests looking for a restaurant with a private dining room for hosting the reception. "To further lower costs, ask the restaurant if you can order several entrees off the regular menu rather than using the catering menu," says Wilmot. 

You could also look into catering from a corporate catering service rather than one that only specializes in weddings. For her 150-person wedding, Wilmot chose a caterer who owns a cafeteria in a government building. "Her focus was on corporate catering and therefore her rates were much lower than wedding catering rates," says Wilmot.

3 Cut down on alcohol costs—buy your own alcohol, and return unopened bottles.

While a staple at most weddings, booze can easily cost you thousands of dollars. According to The Knot, a full open bar with premium liquor can cost an average of $4,147. 

One option to save is to choose a venue that allows you to buy your own alcohol and hire a professional bartender.

"We purchased our hard liquor at a store that allowed you to return unopened alcohol after the wedding," says Wilmot. They also bought wine from Trader Joe's, which also allows you to return unopened bottles of alcohol. "We returned more than $400 of alcohol after the wedding," says Wilmot. 

Luxury event planner Tara Fay suggests having a selection of drinks that will cover most guests instead of an open bar to save money. "If there's a particular spirit the couple loves, stocking that one beverage of choice also offers an upgrade from a limited bar," says Fay.

4 Get creative with your menu—it doesn't have to be a three-course meal.

Get creative with your menu, and keep it simple. "The pandemic has really changed stuffy wedding etiquette when it comes to catering requirements," says Anastasia Stevenson, a wedding planner in Georgia.

"This allows for creative menus that can save couples a lot of money in their budget for other things," says Stevenson.

"Couples are choosing breakfast menu items, grazing boards, and other displays, as well as only passed hors d'oeuvres during their reception and bypassing the staid and costly full three- to six-course meal options or grandiose eight-station overkill at their events," she explains. Keeping the menus simple allows for less waste—for food and your money. "Simpler, fresh fare is all the rage," adds Stevenson.

While you might opt for a plated dinner, have guests serve themselves at dessert or self-serve stations at cocktail hour. Southern California wedding planner Melanie Levin of Luck Eleven Events says this is one way to cut down on the service charges that come with catering. "When my couples look at catering pricing, they are often taken by surprise when the estimate comes back and the service charges are sometimes higher than the food itself," says Levin. 

Related: Wedding Menu Ideas for Every Type of Reception

5 Reconsider your guest list.

One of the biggest ways to save on catering costs for your wedding is to cut down the guest list. With people sticking to smaller weddings because of the pandemic, this might not be the hardest thing to do—and you stand to save a lot of money.

"Since catering costs are calculated based on the number of guests attending your event, truly, the best way to keep spending in check here is to reassess your invite list," says Hoopes. She says that while you can choose meal options that are less expensive or have a limited bar, "the easiest way to stay within your catering budget is to be sure your guest list is in line with the amount you're looking to spend."

6 Be upfront about your budget with caterers.

Be honest with your caterers about how much you are looking to spend on food for your wedding. "Most can work within your financial range to provide what you need," says Prince. "They may be able to make some ingredient substitutions that are less costly— say marinated, grilled chicken over chicken cordon bleu—or figure out a way to make swaps that your guests won't notice," she adds.

Prince says it is the best advice she can give to couples. It doesn't hurt to negotiate with your vendors, be realistic about your budget and see if there are any compromises that can be made on both sides to bring your vision to life.