A Lavish Wedding Reception, for Less

Couples reveal clever ways to have a stylish party and get plenty of bang for your buck.

Buffet Dinner

THE COUPLE: Heather Hogan and Patrick Schlehuber
LOCATION: The Powerhouse Community Center, Del Mar, CA

The Strategy: "We're accustomed to sit-down dinner receptions at family weddings, so even though we were on a budget, it was important to us that we find a way to provide that for our guests," says Heather. "We chose the location in large part because the management allowed us to bring in our own food and serve it buffet style. That way, our guests could still sit down and enjoy their dinner, but we were spared the expense of a waiter-served meal."

Money-saving moves: "The smartest thing we did was order our food from a local Mexican restaurant. We paid about $12 to $15 per person as compared with the $40 to $50 per person it would have cost us had we hired a professional caterer. We brought in some food ourselves, as well. We purchased fresh-baked corn bread from a bakery and bought sour cream, salsa, guacamole and cheese from a local supermarket. We arranged to have all those ingredients mixed with shredded chicken from the restaurant and served in martini glasses we'd purchased for $1 apiece from a local retailer.

We also saved a lot by choosing a location that let us bring in our own alcohol. Many other sites insisted on a flat, per-person rate for an "open bar," or wanted to charge us a $15 "corkage fee" to open any bottle we brought in. At The Powerhouse, we simply hired our own licensed bartender, and bought all the alcohol at a warehouse superstore. There was no corkage fee, and what alcohol we didn't use, we returned."

Biggest splurge: "We paid a lot for our site. We probably could have found a less expensive place, but this one had all the elements we were looking for. Patrick grew up in San Diego and loves the ocean, so having a reception by the water was important to him. The Powerhouse, a former power plant that was refurbished as a community center, overlooks the ocean. It was our dream location."

Best money-saving tips: "Consider hiring a day-of-the-wedding coordinator. You might think hiring a pro is a major splurge, but ours was a huge cost-saver for us. Because our site charged by the hour, time was money, and having an extra set of hands really paid off. Our coordinator picked up the food from the restaurant and set up the whole buffet station while we and our guests were at the church for the ceremony. Had Patrick and I needed to set it up ourselves before the ceremony, we'd have had to pay the venue for at least three or four additional hours.

Also, I suggest that couples buy wholesale, if possible. For example, rather than working with a florist, my husband's sister and brother bought all our flowers at the Los Angeles International Flower Market the day before the wedding. A friend created table centerpieces as a gift. My bridesmaids tied their own bouquets, and helped me to make mine and the boutonnieres. We had a big wedding party—31 people—so this was a huge savings. And my bouquet of four dozen roses cost only $30 instead of $400, which is what other brides I knew were paying for theirs. The flowers turned out so great, our photographer said we should pursue it as a side career!"