Many couples aren’t very experienced with event budgeting and don’t know how to estimate what locations, products and services will ultimately cost. If you’re not sure what you can realistically afford, we recommend talking to a professional event planner or wedding consultant early in the planning stages. You don’t have to make a big financial or time commitment to use a professional; many will assist you on an hourly basis for a nuts-and-bolts session to determine priorities and to assign costs to items on your wish list.
Part of being realistic involves some simple arithmetic. Catering costs, for example, are usually calculated on a per-person basis. The couple who has $10,000 and wants to invite 250 guests should know that $40 per guest actually won’t go very far. Tax and gratuity combined usually consume 23–33% of the food and beverage budget. If you subtract 30% from $40, you have $28 left. If you also serve alcohol at $10/person, you’re down to $18/person for food. That’s usually not enough for appetizers and a seated meal, let alone location rental fees, entertainment, flowers, printed invitations, photography, etc.
Before you make any major decisions or commit any of your funds for specific items, take a serious look at your total budget, make sure it can cover all your anticipated expenses, and leave a little cushion for last-minute items. If your budget doesn’t cover everything, it’s time for some hard decisions. If you have a very large guest list and a small pocketbook, you may need to shorten the list or cut back on some of the amenities you want to include. No matter who foots the bill, be advised that doing the homework here really counts. Pin down your costs at the beginning of the planning stage and get all estimates in writing.
If you’re planning far in advance, anticipate price increases by the time you contract with a venue. Once you’re definite about your location, lock in your fees in a contract, protecting yourself from possible rate increases later. Make sure you ask about every service provided and are clear about all of the extras that can really add up. Facilities may charge you for tables, chairs, linens, plateware and silverware, glassware and additional hours. Don’t be surprised to see tax and service charges in fixed amounts applied to the total bill if the facility provides restaurant or catering services. Although it may seem redundant to include the phrase “tax and service charges are additional” in each entry, we find that most people forget (or just don’t want to accept the painful reality) that 23%–33% will be applied to the food and beverage total.
Sometimes a deposit is nonrefundable—a fact you’ll definitely want to know if the deposit is a large percentage of the total bill. And even if it’s refundable, you still need to read the cancellation policy thoroughly. Also make sure you understand the policies that will ensure you get your cleaning and security deposit returned in full and again, get everything in writing.
Carefully plan your menu with the caterer, event consultant or chef. Depending on the style of service and the type of food being served, the total food bill can vary dramatically—even if you’re getting quotes from the same caterer. If, for example, you’re having a multi-course seated meal, expect it to be the most expensive part of your event.
Alcohol is expensive, too, and you may be restricted in what you can serve and who can serve it. A facility may not allow you to bring your own alcoholic beverages, and if it does it may limit you to wine or champagne. Many places discourage you from bringing your own (BYO) by charging an exorbitant corkage fee to remove the cork and pour. Other places have limited permits that don’t allow them to serve alcohol or restrict them from serving certain kinds; some will let you or the caterer serve alcohol, others require someone with a license. Make sure you know what’s allowed. Decide what your budget is for alcohol and determine what types you’re able to provide. And keep in mind that the catering fees you are quoted rarely include the cost of alcohol. If you provide the alcohol, make sure you keep your purchase receipts so you can return any unopened bottles.
So how much will your event cost? Hopefully not more than you can afford! There are a lot of variables involved in coming up with an estimated total for your event. Just make sure you’ve included them all in your calculations and read all the fine print before you sign any contract.
Food and alcohol account for the greatest portion of an event’s budget; consequently, food and beverage selections are a big deal. Given the amount of money you will spend on this category alone, you should be concerned about the type, quantity and quality of what you eat and drink. If in-house catering is provided, we suggest you sample different menu options prior to paying a facility deposit. If you’d like to see how a facility handles food setup and presentation, ask the caterer to arrange a visit to someone else’s party about a half hour before it starts. It’s wise to taste wines and beers in advance, and be very specific about hard alcohol selections.
This may come as a surprise, but not all services and event equipment are covered in the rental fee, and some facilities hide the true cost of renting their space by having a low rental fee. It’s possible to get nickeled and dimed for all the extras: tables, chairs, linens, dance floor, cake cutting, valet service and so forth. You can also end up paying more than you expected for security and cleanup. All these additional charges can really add up, so save yourself a big headache by understanding exactly what’s included in the rental fee and what’s not before you sign any contract.