Go old-school to save money with a “cake & punch” reception

Guest post by Kelli Bielema

We've been getting a lot of questions about how to cut back on reception costs, and here's a retro low-budget wedding trend that needs to come back: CAKE & PUNCH!


The question a wedding planner gets asked the most from couples is something along the lines of “how can we do this whole thing for less money?” And I usually return with another question which is something akin to “what are the top three things you want out of your wedding day memories?” Never at the top of this list is “we want to spend lots of money to impress people on our really good taste in choosing entrees and votives!” Almost always numero uno is “We want to share our day with our friends and family and have a really kick ass time.” And if you think you can only do that from 6pm on, well, that's just nutters!

Once upon a time (okay, mostly in the '40s and '50s, before weddings became huge social events) weddings were typically held in a church with a cake and punch reception directly followed in the basement. So, the idea of a $20,000 affair has been brought to you courtesy of the wedding industry!

So, let's talk about this concept of a cake reception and how it can save you a ton of money.

Don't fuck this up cake topper by CakeWords

Cake & Punch: doesn't necessarily mean cake or punch

Really, the concept of a Cake & Punch reception is this: instead of serving your guests a full sit down meal or even a buffet, you provide light snacks and dessert with a few beverages. Historically, that meant cake and punch… but things have changed.

First, let's talk about the idea of “punch.” Good gravy, I am not suggesting you have to throw a dry wedding (unless you want one, in which case DO IT, I SAY!). Nothing goes better with cake than, um, just about any alcoholic beverage: Prosecco, White Russians, Irish Coffee, and for crying out loud, there is cake-flavored vodka, people! And if Aunt Sally is just crying to participate in wedding day activities, tell her to whip up one of these booze cakes and wash it down with a latte (rent a percolator or hire a coffee cart).

Second, cake doesn't have to mean CAKE, of course. You can do this donut thingy from Shelley and Wayne's wedding or a whole bunch of different cookies and brownies. And if you do cake, there are certainly five million options out there. Spend your cash on a pretty cutting cake if you want a picture, and then get a sheet cake to serve your peeps. I have had plenty of grody wedding desserts, but if you want the most bang for your buck, Costco does some REALLY GOOD SHIT in their bakery. Plus, you know one cake will serve at least 750 cousins.

And can we talk pie? One of my couples this past summer had the best idea. They gave about 12 wedding guests two pie tins each and said, “Here. Make two pies for our reception. That is all the gift we need.” It cost them the price of two Pyrex pie dishes times 12. And at the party, the bride and groom welcomed guests to the dessert table and topped their slices with whipped cream. It gave the couple an opportunity to say hello to everyone, much like a receiving line. This was likely one of the most well-attended dessert tables I had ever seen! And I still need to get at least three of the pie recipes.

Monica & Phil57

Logistics & Scheduling

Some other logistics to consider when considering a cake and punch reception is time of day and season. Naturally, weekdays before 6pm in the winter will get you discounts on venues. You know what it will also get you? Attendees! Okay, given that the weather isn't craptastic, you will have fewer people going on family vacations, kids are still in school, and you have fewer competition with other couples who are getting married during the other busy months. There should be NO EXCUSE for missing your 2pm party!

So, what would all of this look like in money and time? Consider below for about 100 guests, with Seattle-area rates. Costs don't include your venue, clothes, decor, or cab fare for drunkies (but really, most people aren't going to get totally hosed on a Thursday afternoon, which also saves you several bones as well!).

2:00pm: Ceremony!

2:30pm: Bites and music playing

  • Passed desserts (petit fours, small Mexican wedding cookies in little baking cups), or put them in stations. If these are purchased, you could spend up to $300 for quality items from a bakery.
  • Coffee (with booze mixers like Irish Crème). If you rent a percolator, get some decent coffee, creamer, stir sticks, et al., plus booze to spike coffee, probably all for around $300. If you want to rent cups, figure another 75 cents per cup/saucer set. Otherwise, get compostable paper cups for around $30 for 200.
  • Wine/sparkling wine station. Consider your crowd and their preferences for any wine/booze situation. You can almost always return unused bottles (so long as they have not been chilled in ice and suffered condensation on the label). For 100 people, I would suggest three cases of various wines so there's a red, a white, and a sparkling. Go heavy on the sparkling. It's lighter and more folks will indulge. You could also add a juice mixer, like pomegranate, that will cut back alcohol expense. $10-ish bottles of wine = around $360. Rented glassware around 50 cents per stem. Plastic compostable cups around $5 per 50 (get around 300+).
  • Sodas/Water. Just get a few varieties including fizzy water. $50
  • Punch. Yeah, you can make punch. Get a big ol' Thermos (the kind like football players throw on each other at the end of winning games) and fill ‘er up. Have some on reserve. Mix vodka with just about any few juice concentrates (pineapple, orange, mango) and some Sprite, and you're done. All of those ingredients (if you use the cheap stuff) will run you around $50.
  • You'll need to rent or purchase glassware (see wine recommendations).

3:30pm: Cake cutting (if you wanna)
(This includes other traditional wedding elements or anything requiring people to “do stuff.”)

  • Serve cake to guests (Consider plate and utensil rental costs = 60 cents per plate, 40 cents per fork)
  • A small cutting cake will serve about 10 people, usually. Nobody ever wants a restaurant-sized slice. (I'm looking at you, Claim Jumper!)
  • Fancy cakes will typically cost you around $500 to start, then another $150 or so for additional sheet cakes.

3:45pm: Dancing!
iPod DJ, anyone?

6:00 pm: Party's over
Or order pizza if your venue allows it! And, you can always take the gang to a second location where you aren't footing the bill.

princess bride cake

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Comments on Go old-school to save money with a “cake & punch” reception

  1. My grandparents and parents did this, so I did it too! We had an “afternoon tea party” with a 1:30 pm wedding and a 2:15 tea party reception with drinks, tea sandwiches, cookies, fruit and veggie platters and such and then for “cake cutting” we had cupcakes. It was great and inexpensive.

    • Anka, got any pictures? Wanna share your full menu? We’d love to see!

      • We did basically this exact same thing: church basement and all. If I ever get around to doing anything with my wedding photos, I’ll submit ’em. I was worried that people were going to be bored, but everyone had a nice time and got out the door in time to have some fun in the sun. We got married at 2 and we were home by 5pm.

  2. Weddings are awesome! I’ve been to weddings as small as fifteen people to two hundred, big money, no money, each one has been special, maybe even the ones with less money tend to be more original.

    One wedding was held in a warehouse church, they served coffee and frozen yogurt. The bride tried on a bridesmaid dress and ordered it in ivory! She was not playing around. The photographer (me) was their biggest expense and I’m budget too! They loved their wedding!

    Another great budget idea is get married early, have brunch, mimosa and bloody marys!

      • Argh, last night I made a last-ditch effort to convince my fiance to have a brunch wedding instead of a Saturday night affair and he was open to it but skeptical (he’s of the “we owe them a big meal” belief since most of them are traveling). But looking at those pictures and reading these comments, I’m sort of wanting to keep the discussion going.

        Maybe a compromise: a breakfast for dinner wedding?

        • We do this tea party too. For the out of town guest, we treat them on rehearsal dinner (nice full meal with booze) together with bridal party.

        • We have this too. My fiance’s idea is to treat out of town guests on rehearsal dinner together with bridal party (nice full meal with booze). Maybe this will help you.

        • Or….heavy apps is a good way to go in lieu of a meal. I had a couple this summer who did just that & the caterers brought food out ALL NIGHT LONG (cue Lionel Richie). People were satisfied (and we had food leftover, even!) and eating while drinking slows down on people getting too sloshed!

  3. My favorite wedding as a kid was a BYO-Burger the groom rented a big grill and we all brought stuff to put on it. My dad and a groomsman kept things from burning and a boom box kept us grovin’

  4. We had breakfast at our wedding! Since we got married at a bed and breakfast (And breakfast is my favorite meal to have anytime of the day) I thought it would be super easy and cute. It was, after we convinced the vendor to go for it. He swore people would not want breakfast twice in one day. So wrong. It was definitely a cheaper option but I felt good about still giving my guests a full meal since quite a few of them had 2-3 hour drives.

  5. Love this! This is exactly what we are doing for our wedding and I like seeing articles about simpler weddings.

  6. I would love to go to a wedding with any of the above!! My grandparents had a cake and punch reception in a backyard, and the first thing my grandmother said to me when I got engaged was, “Well, just don’t do anything too elaborate!”.

  7. This is what I am planning for my wedding in November 2013!!!! My only conundrum is how to word the invites…. I can’t say ‘cake and punch’ if there won’t be any of either… help?

      • AHA! Thank you… I just needed something that people would understand to mean ‘food and drink, but not a meal’. I have been describing it as ‘Cake and Canapes’, ‘Cake and Punch’, ‘Heavy Afternoon Tea’…. for some reason was struggling to come up with a succinct wording 🙂

      • We went with “snacks and merriment” because we didn’t have booze or dancing. Also, timing is important. No one expects a full meal at 2:30, but if you plan your reception at lunchtime…people will expect lunch.

    • You can also call it a Dessert Reception. That implies yummy sweets without attaching you to cake and punch.

  8. This post helped me zero in on just what I really wanted, and linking it to my FH was all it took for us to have a major thing checked off our decision list.

  9. Thank you for the validation that this is still a good option. There is nothing wrong with a simple reception. Guests are not “owed” a full meal.

    • It comes down to a matter of priorities: if you only have $X, you can feed maybe 25 people a full meal… or you can do light refreshments for 100. Do you want more people/less food, or more food/less people?

      Used to be, Cake & Punch was the “acceptable” way to deal with a large guestlist and a small budget. Of course now there are all sorts of ways (have it in the backyard! Do a potluck! Have a cash bar! Whatever!), but I think it’s good to remember that you can still have a big guestlist with a low-budget wedding…. just feed ’em less! 🙂

    • TOTALLY, Karen. I tell couples this a lot…like, A LOT. And I concur Ariel’s statements…..any way you want to celebrate, your guests will enjoy…even if you need to explain some crap to them! ; )

      • I know this is an older post but Ive been struggling with this. Is not the need to ‘explain some crap’ key? A few of us had attended a wedding we had to leave at 8am for to drive to a lovely beach in time for a noon wedding. Then no food! No one had eaten in the morning. We expected SOMEthing. Then we were told it was time to cut the cake. Huh? Its 2pm. Sluggish and starving. We were also only offered punch or water. The bride asked us why we werent dancing. Hmm. I was appalled. But it wasnt just me. After having a bite of cake for bkfst/lunch we decided when we were informed it was over to go to Burger King. So okay. If they cant afford to feed us fine. Though we did receive fancy Godiva favors to leave with. But shouldnt they have needed to inform us so we would be prepared?

  10. Cake and punch is cool, but here’s the reason I think it doesn’t work for many, many weddings nowadays:

    Nowadays guests are traveling. Whereas in the past (1950’s and prior, let’s say) it was much more common for people to live close to where they had grown up, get married in the church they might have been a member of, surrounded by local family friends. Many couples met in the same hometown even, so it was even closer for all parties attending. Nowadays, not so much.

    Let’s say that in an average wedding 60% of your guests are from out of town (college friends, extended family. his or her family.) Could you imagine just inviting them for a few hours of afternoon fun, and then turning them out to go and fend for themselves for dinner and return to their hotel rooms?

    I guess I feel strongly about this because 99% of my friends and family are going to travel long distances for my wedding. We all live so far apart. There’s no “hometown”. So a meal is the least I can do to feed the people who left their homes for a weekend and schlepped all the way to be at this wedding. Right?

    If travel were not a factor, then I think cake and punch sounds lovely.

    • I worry about this too, I’m not engaged but I know we’re going to want to save money. Our situation is similar, only about five family members are nearby.

      Are traveling guests owed a meal or a “big” event?

      • We had about 100 people, total, at our wedding. About 25 of them were from out of town (primarily my husband’s family, or his close friends). We had our cake n’ punch reception, and we made it really clear on the invitations.

        We did want a little more time to see his family/friends (and for them to meet me…how much personal time to you really get with the bride and groom at the wedding anyway), so we hosted a sit-down rehearsal dinner the night before, and invited our families and “honorary attendants”. It still ended up cheaper than a huge reception, we got nice time with our out-of-townies, we didn’t gab about it to everyone who wasn’t invited, and in the end, our out-of-town guests loved that they got to be tourists together in downtown Seattle for the night. It was a win-win.

        Ultimately, your guests are grown-ass people*, “your wedding is not an imposition”, and as long as you don’t schedule your wedding over a meal and not feed them or promise them a meal and not come through, they’ll be able to have a great time. They are there for you.

        One of my husband’s friends flew in the day before the wedding, went straight to the venue, eagerly helped us set up, did a lot of heavy lifting, was a huge help during our totally DIY reception, and thanked us hearily that he got to be involved on our big day.

        Your people, they love you. And if they don’t and they are only there for the meal, then it’s their loss.

        • how did you word it on your invitations that you were doing a cake and punch reception only and did u do it right there at the church?

    • I think it’s about letting your guests decide. As long as your invitation is clear that you’re only doing “light refreshments,” ultimately it’s up to each guest to decide whether they want to travel for that.

      I know for me, there are some couple-friends I’d be willing to travel around the world to see get married, even if they were just serving sprite & potato chips. Lydia asks a great question:

      Are traveling guests owed a meal or a “big” event?

      Speaking for myself as a guest, I’m not traveling for the food. I’m traveling to support a couple I love. But that’s going to depend on the guest, and I think it’s fine to trust guests to make their own decisions about that. I suppose an exception might be if you have international family? But in that case, your priority might be on having a very small intimate wedding, and really treating-out your international guests. Again: totally different situation and set of priorities, which doesn’t change the fact that Cake & Punch can be a great option for folks in different situations.

      That said, like all advice on Offbeat Bride, whether it’s relevant for you is going to depend on both your situation and your priorities.

    • i get this. i’m working with a large guest lists, guests with large appetites, and a small budget. my solution was to have a sandwich bar. people can put together big hearty meals, every diet is covered, and it doesn’t cost too much.

      • You should only invite the ppl who wile be there for you through out the marriage and who u are very close to I only have 5 ppl on my side comming to my wedding and 19 on his they are family oriantated but close no uncle or aunts just brothers and sisters mothers and fathers children

    • We had all traveling guests but kept everything low budget (had it in the backyard, etc.). In my mind, a wedding is about people coming to support your union, not attend a party. Of course I still wanted us to have a great party–and turns out that is totally possible on a small budget! 🙂 With mindful planning, you can have all the ingredients you need for a fun and meaningful time while skimping on any and all of the “must haves.” And just to raise point that I haven’t seen yet, which was part of my rationale for a simple, old-school wedding: The wedding is kind of a fundraiser. By this, I mean that in many traditions, people give you wedding gifts to help you start your married life/new household. It seems messed up for the wedding to cost so much that each guest that gives a gift is kind of just paying for their plate, or worst case scenario, you start off your married life in debt. I think if people thought about it, they certainly wouldn’t want you to spend just for their sake. You catering 100 people dinner, vs them buying their own pizza that night (like every night)? The cost difference is so vast. We ended up being able to serve a meal for a good price (especially since friends gifted dessert AND the beer), but I totally support cake and punch even for traveling guests.

    • My compromise for this is to have a small lunch or dinner before the ceremony with my out-of-town guests. We’re having a late ceremony, 7:30 0r so, followed by a booze n dessert reception. Most of our folks are local, but some are traveling from quite a ways, so this is our way of saying ‘thank you’ to a dozen or so people, instead of trying to find money in the budget to cater a meal for 100.

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