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’m planning for August and like the idea of this. I’d like to have it at a campground in the mountains about 20 miles from the nearest town. I am planning on about 4o guests, about half of them drink. I worry about people drunk driving. If the ceremony is at 2 and we go till about 6, is it rude to not serve a real meal and then send everyone packing. Some will have to drive a couple hours home. I have no problem serving tons of snacks. My guy and I will stay in a cabin and there are cabins, RV spaces, and tents spots available and I’d like to encourage people to camp, and I will include info for rooms in the nearest town. For those that stay we can BBQ, but I don’t want to feed everyone. Does this sound feasible?

  2. We’re doing cake and ice cream, because those are two of my favorite foods EVAR and it sorta allows the guests to do have what they want. I mean, who doesn’t love a sundae bar??

  3. We did this and it was awesome. It was the perfect choice for our big church afternoon wedding; we didn’t want to leave out our church family but couldn’t afford dinner & dancing for 200!

  4. We are having just this kind of wedding! Our ceremony is at 2:30, then we’re having light refreshments (fruit, cheeses, little biscuit sandwiches) followed by cake and sparkling wine. A little iPod DJ music, and we’ll call it a party. I’m from a small town, where the cake and punch reception is still the norm, so I felt very little pressure to do a full meal.

  5. We’re doing a casual app thing with punch (alcohol) and pie 🙂 a tiny cake for us- it’s very similar to the wedding style my mom had in 1962 and since we’re marrying on their 50th anniversary it’s only fitting~

  6. This is how my folks did it back in the 50’s, and so did my three older sisters at their weddings…and so did I, over 20 yrs ago. Now that I’m planning a wedding for my second marriage, when I suggest the concept of a dessert only reception to people, they look at me as though I’m from another planet. I have had people say to me, ” Wouldn’t you feel bad if someone had to drive an hour to your wedding only to find that there’s no food ? ” Uhm, no not at all. Why am I obligated to feed them? Are they coming to my wedding just for a meal? I personally think that if people believe that they need to be feed an expensive meal at a reception, the true meaning of the day has been lost. But that’s just me. I think as long as your reception isn’t right around a meal time, it can be a good idea. I also think it might be a good idea to alert your guests of this on the RSVP card, or even the invitation. Something along the lines of, “Join us for a dessert reception.” Some people still might be surprised once they get to the reception site, but I think most people would understand what that means.

  7. THANK YOU! Thank you so much for this post! My FH told his mom and sister that we wanted to have a “cupcake and champagne” reception after our private vows for our immediate family, and they were horrified! “Oh, no! You can’t do that, you have to feed people a meal!” I thought it was a sweet, simple idea, and they dumped all over it. I feel vindicated now, yes, it is really a THING. I was doing it vintage-style all along!

    • This was me and my mom, who did not like the idea of having a ‘cake & champagne’ reception for my wedding officiant and maid of honor’s family. She said that it was ‘inappropriate’ and it made me feel like crap to not go along with her suggestion, and she still made me feel bad about it afterward when she said (very bitterly and in a pouty way) that she won’t be bringing food. I felt like I was almost being guilt-tripped.

      What annoyed me the most was how she had to go around and tell everyone that ‘no, there will be no reception after the wedding; just cake and champagne’ when the cake and champagne IS the reception (or think that it’s inappropriate to not feed guests after the wedding). My husband and his family were right all along that we really had a reception, and these things do exist and have existed for a while (I didn’t believe them, sadly enough and also told people that we didn’t have a reception).

      *sigh* if I only found out about this article sooner! I wish I could go back in time to correct everyone and educate them about this.

  8. This is what I want to do!!!!!!!!! I can’t seem to talk anybody else into it though. I’m a second-time bride and this is his first time. We are definitely paying for everything ourselves. I want to focus more on the honeymoon and the marriage…not the wedding. I’d be happy with a JP type of thing!!! Gah!!!!

  9. We are having a cake and punch wedding this weekend! 2 pm ceremony in the back yard, immediately followed by brownies, bars, cupcakes and merriment!

  10. I got all tickled reading this. For our wedding I wanted to go simple. We got married at a church, my husband knew the pastor, so he didn’t charge us a fee for his services or the church, after the ceremony he said we could have a quickie reception in the foyer adjoining the sanctuary. I think we had determined it was at 1 or 2pm just after church was over and everyone else was already gone. I had decided to do cake and punch. At the time my husband worked at a restaurant and they decided to provide us with food and drinks, so the bonus was even though Chick fil a is closed on Sundays, we had Chick fil a for our wedding, it was a perfect fit to go with our simple idea. We were only there for about 1 hr past the ceremony. Later in the day all of the family that came in from out of town gathered at a restaurant for a meal together. My big splurge was on our honeymoon to Cancun. Only regret was not having a photographer, there are photos from the day…. but not up to my standards. I did however film our wedding ceremony and reception. 🙂

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