There’s no way around it: weddings are an investment. Whether you’re planning a DIY backyard affair or a full-on ballroom blowout, pulling off a celebration this momentous requires a not-insignificant amount of money—and food and drink are often the biggest part of the budget. While a cash bar might seem like an easy way to cut costs in this department, it can come with its own set of headaches. Thankfully, there’s plenty of other ways to save.
What Is a Cash Bar?
When you host a wedding with a cash bar, you’re asking your guests to pay for their own drinks throughout the night, whether that’s with credit cards or paper bills. The point is that you, the host, are not covering the cost.
Here’s everything you need to know about having a cash bar at your wedding before you decide to take the plunge.
What Are the Pros of Having a Cash Bar?
Will a cash bar save you money? Technically, yes. But if you’re thinking about going this route so you can spend elsewhere, you’ll likely do more harm than good. “Guests aren’t going to remember over-the-top flowers if they’re pulling out their wallet,” says event planner Laura Ritchie. “What they’re going to remember is taking out their credit card.”
Meet the Expert
Laura Ritchie is the founder and lead planner of Washington, D.C. event design firm Grit & Grace.
What Are the Cons?
The biggest con of a cash bar pretty much speaks for itself: it goes against the core tenets of hospitality. “If you’re inviting someone to something, you should be prepared to host them,” says Ritchie. “If you don’t have means to host properly, don’t try to piecemeal it together. Your guests bought a gift and took time out of their year to celebrate with you. The least they should be able to do is get a few glasses of wine.”
Beyond that, cash bars can also interrupt the flow of an evening. “If bartenders are mixing drinks and running cards, there will be lines just like there are at a club,” Ritchie adds. “It holds up service.”
When Is It Okay To Have a Cash Bar?
This is a do-or-die kind of situation. If it’s between having a cash bar or no bar at all, go with the cash bar. “If you’re asking people to stay until midnight and they have no liquor, they might be heading out the door sooner than you wish,” warns Ritchie. “It’s better to have alcohol or beverages in general than to not.”
Cash bars work best at venues that are already set up with in-house electronic sales systems and processes for handling multiple customer transactions, like restaurants and country clubs. They are much more difficult to coordinate when working with an off-premise caterer.
How Do I Give Guests the Heads Up?
Include the info on the details card of your wedding invitation suite, and again on your wedding website. Come wedding weekend, hotel welcome bags and door tags are another opportunity for a reminder, and your wedding party can also spread the word. If you’re providing transportation from a hotel, ask a few friends or family members to remind guests to stop at the lobby ATM before they hop on the shuttle.
When it comes to phrasing, aim for simple, straight-forward, and gracious. A few suggestions from Ritchie:
- We’re so excited to host you for dinner! Unfortunately, we can’t host the bar, so please feel free to bring cash or a credit card for alcoholic beverages.
- If you wish to participate in beverages throughout the night, please bring a credit card or cash to enjoy the bar.
- Unfortunately, we can’t host the bar, but please know they will accept cash or credit cards.
What About Tips for the Bartenders?
“If you have a caterer, [your bartenders] are paid hourly to be there regardless of it being a cash bar, just like every other staffer,” explains Ritchie. Their tips should be covered by you in any gratuity you pass on to your caterer as a whole.
If guests wish to tip, that’s their choice—and it shouldn’t be one they feel pressured into. “Tip jars on the bar are always a no,” Ritchie adds, because they suggest gratuity is expected instead of optional.
How Can I Cut Costs on Alcohol Without Going the Cash Bar Route?
There are plenty of ways to save without passing the expense on to your guests. “Close the bar during dinner and just do wine service, or close the bar 30 minutes before the end of the night,” suggests Ritchie. “You can also avoid liquor altogether and serve only beer and wine.”
Another option: reframe the wedding entirely. “Try a welcome-style reception in the late afternoon, when a bar won’t be as expected,” suggests Ritchie. “Put out fun sodas or La Croix, then let people leave and go out to dinner on their own dime.”