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. i love the timeline in this entry. FH and i are doing a sandwich bar for our reception. It’s lunch, so people aren’t expecting a huge elaborate meal, laying out all the different breads and sandwich ingredients means accommodating special diets is a cinch, and it’s still nice and filling so people won’t go hungry. my only concern was making the day flow smoothly since we aren’t following a typical evening timeline.

    • SANDWICH BAR. YES!!! I find at most guests really get into things like food bars. They like to make their own & be creative. I know as a vegetarian, I totally appreciate being able to pick & choose what I want to nosh on. I would LOVE to see how it all goes down in photos! FUN!!!!!

  2. I laughed at the first paragraph in this article because food was one of the top three priorities for us and we ended up spending about half of our (very small!) budget to feed our guests a fancyish three-course meal. We cut out a lot of supposedly mandatory things but the food was worth it. That being said, the cake and punch concept sounds awesome!

    • Actually, a lot of my couples have food on their priority list! I think only if it’s really bad & you only have pretzels, it might be something your guests remember not so positively. But it all comes down to what YOU want & seeing at it was worth it makes it all the more wonderful!!!
      ; )

  3. I may just send this over to my mom – it’ll make her super happy. She’s always been a little bemused by modern wedding standards. My parents go married in a tiny church with a cake and punch reception at my mother’s parents’ house afterwards. My mother and her sisters all wore dresses made by my grandmother. My dad wore an awesome light blue suit. And quite frankly, if I ever decide to get hitched, I think something low key is the way I’ll go too. Maybe without the light blue suit though.

  4. We got married last Friday (WOOP WOOP!!) and did exactly this. We had the ceremony at 2-2:30pm, photos from 2:30-3, afternoon tea from 3-4 then dancing from 4-5. We then spent the night in a lighthouse and got pizza delivered! Our invites said “ceremony followed by cupcakes and Foxton Fizz” (locally made soda pop). Several people commented on how nice it was to do something ‘different’ and no one seemed to miss the booze…

    • You’re in Wellington goldfish?? I so want Foxton Fizz at our wedding!!

      Where did you get married? (Sorry for all the questions, rare to see a Kiwi wedding).

      We’re getting married in Wellington in April, and tossing up an afternoon tea wedding. Just worried about what to do afterwards, as 99% of people are travelling to Wellington for the wedding. Tricky.

      • Hi Sarina! Yup I’m in Wellington – we got married in the Breaker Bay Community Hall. Please feel free to get hold of via the tribe if you have any vendor/local advice questions 🙂

        If it’s any help, we had an informal BBQ the day after the wedding at our house – it gave us more of a chance to hang out with guests from out of town.

        • This is weird, but I too am from Wellington! Clearly there is a cake and punch revolution going on in the antipodes 🙂

      • Another Wellington/just moved to the Wairarapa couple here. =) We were meant to spend a night at ‘The Keep’ as an engagement present from my future inlaws, but due to a change in circumstances ended up having the money that would have gone towards that go to a moving truck.
        We have decided on a afternoon wedding with a country fair theme and will have snacks all afternoon to accompany the games/activities (think a ‘bake sale’ table with mismatched plates) and we will have a bbq dinner at around 5pm, then those that don’t want to drive the hill at night can head back to town early (My almost inlaws have a Wairarapa lifestyle block with a lake, perfect for the summer backyard wedding) and those that want to stay late with us can.

    • YAY Goldfish! I think it’s also fun to incorporate something local or something that your guests are introduced to. Love it!

  5. I would love to go to a cake and punch wedding! There’s something about it that sounds so fabulously retro, and it’s simple, sweet, and just…awesome. Also, the idea of having some guests bake pies is kind of fabulous!

  6. I went to a bunch of cake & punch wedding receptions as a kid in the Southern U.S. Literally served cake & punch, usually in the church social hall. This was just in the ’70 & ’80s, so it’s not like it was *that* retro 🙂

    • Gird your loins: the majority of Offbeat Bride’s readers were born in the mid-’80s, so it’s totally retro to them. 😉

      *gets out cane and waves it around*

      • I would certainly ‘gird’ if I didn’t need to google the meaning (just how old are you Ariel?)! As it is, I fell off my office chair whilst throwing up my hands in horror that the 80s are retro, and I am apparently an antique 🙂

      • I was born in ’85 but am from the rural southeast, so all the weddings I went to growing up were cake and punch church weddings. That’s the 90’s~not retro at all to me! The first time I had a dinner at a wedding was in 2000 or 2001, and I remember being very pleasantly surprised at my prime rib. My mother explained it by saying the bride had some restaurant connection and could get food cheap! So I still thought it was a total (delicious) fluke until probably college haha.

  7. A word to the wise: if you are having a 2pm wedding with cake/punch and maybe some nuts and mints afterwards, MAKE SURE THE WEDDING PARTY EATS BEFORE THE PREPARATION MADNESS BEGINS! I thought I would die at my best friend’s wedding when I had pancakes at 8am and then nothing until 3pm when I had cake and then 8:00pm when the church was undecorated and cleaned up, and one of the wedding guests and I went to Denny’s.

    Planned properly, I think an event like this could be budget friendly and super fun!

    • Very good point! Ordering boxed lunches to be delivered is also wise. Those things usually come with a sammich, chips, salad, cookie & fruit & water, so there’s plenty to graze on if need be! ; )

  8. i just think it’s important, ESPECIALLY if your wedding is in the evening, to let guests know if there isn’t going to be a full meal. “light refreshments” is totally a good way to clue people in.

    i drove 5 hours for a wedding, when i was a broke college student crashing at a friend’s house that night, and was sad and hungry that there was only cake and punch and mints and nuts.

    • COMPLETELY agree with you. I encourage all of my couples to always give a phrase about what food is going to be served so expectations are totally set!

  9. We had a wedding breakfast for the select few who came to our actual ceremony, but for our open house style reception in the evening, we had a hot chocolate bar (flavor syrups, mints, etc.) and cookies. It was just right for us and really cheap because we found $3/dozen cookies at Costco, and since our wedding was a week before Christmas they were even decorated in our colors – red and green!

  10. I know this is the perfect thing to do in the afternoon, but what about an after-dinnertime wedding? Our venue is a museum so we aren’t allowed to start until after they’re closed (6pm). If we wait until 7:30 for the (extremely brief) ceremony, we would be starting the reception around 8… would that be a reasonable time for “cake and punch”?

    • I think if your wedding is at 7:30 you could call that after dinner. So as long as it is clear that you are only doing dessert you should be fine.

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