Creative Wedding Reception Ideas

Today we’re going to explore 3 creative wedding reception ideas that are guaranteed to keep your wedding plans SIMPLE and AFFORDABLE.  I also have a ton of your great wedding planning questions to share in the second half of the show.

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Let’s explore 3 fun wedding reception formats that are not your average wedding.  These wedding ideas are perfect for you if you’re in the early stages of getting your plans lined up, and you’re looking for ways to keep things simple and affordable.


If I were to go out in the streets of San Diego, Chicago or Boston and take a poll for what people’s expectations of a wedding are, I would likely get a resoundingly similar response – some sort of ceremony, followed by some sort of food, and maybe some entertainment.

Sounds about right, right?  This is basically the wedding format that we’re used to in western culture – ceremony, dinner and dancing. 

That’s a perfectly awesome wedding, but there are some downfalls to hosting hundreds of your closest family and friends for dinner, bottomless drinks, and dancing in a large, well decorated and romantically lit space.


Problem #1 – and please, join me in nodding your head as I list these – planning a “traditional” wedding is EXPENSIVE.  

At $100+ per person, you’re potentially looking at a budget that exceeds the price of a HOUSE in some parts of the country.

Problem #2, TIME and EFFORT.  You’re probably not a wedding planner (although I know we have some who tune in regularly, so you can ignore this point if that’s you). Most of us …

  • aren’t skilled at negotiations,
  • don’t have a wedding vendor list of buddies who you’ve worked with for years,
  • the skill of intuitively knowing the right decisions for 100 different tiny details,
  • or the TIME to figure out all this stuff along with work, school, and LIFE.

And lastly, I know a lot of us are itching to do things differently. 

Problem #3 is simply – traditional wedding, been there, done that with dinner-and-dancing.  You’re looking to add a little flair to your wedding day. 

Maybe it’s your second marriage and you’re looking to scale things back a bit.  Maybe you’ve been dating forever, in your hearts you’ve been married for years, and you want to make it official with a low-key celebration that includes your loved ones but doesn’t require a million dollars and months of tearing your hair out over wedding plans.

I hear you.  Let’s look at some ways to do it differently!



Let’s kick things off with a totally offbeat wedding format that one of my closest friends from grade school pulled off – she surprised everyone with a “pop up” wedding.

What on earth is a pop up wedding, you ask?  

You’ve heard of “pop up” restaurants, where a chef makes a surprise announcement for a dinner service at a random location, and tickets sell out IMMEDIATELY.  There’s a really fun element of surprise, and a ton of anticipation – what will be served?  Where will it be?  Who will be there???

This couple who did the “pop up” wedding had been dating for years, have both been married before, and have a daughter together.  They simply didn’t want the ALL THE STUFF that comes with planning a big wedding.  The expense, the time, the buildup … the most important thing was to get married, and celebrate.  Period.

We’re going with the element of surprise here, so there’s not a ton of buildup.  There’s not months or years of planning.  There’s not a wedding party of bridesmaids & groomsmen, and no pre-wedding events to plan. 


My favorite highlight of celebrating this way is that it’s really casual.  You can treat it more like a get together with friends than a wedding, which is really appealing to some of us!  Ask you guests in your surprise, last minute invitation to bring an appetizer or drink to share, and provide simple catered BBQ or street tacos. 

Another benefit, there are no fancy invitations!  You can send an email or even text people with the what, where & when. 

A sample text message invite could say:

“Surprise – we’re tying the knot!  Please join us on Saturday Oct 11th at 3:00 for a short ceremony, followed by a backyard BBQ party.  Bring your own drinks and a snack to share, no gifts please, and we can’t wait to see you there!”

Next wonderful benefit is that it’s AFFORDABLE.  I’m serious – ask your guests to come with a dish to share and to bring their own booze.  All you need to plan is a welcoming space to hang out, and maybe some simple, tasty food. 

You get together with friends and family ALL THE TIME where everyone brings something to share, why not for your wedding celebration?

This way of celebrating is SIMPLE.  Your “pop up” wedding can take place at a public park, in someone’s yard, or at a local community center, beach, lake.  Don’t decorate beyond what you would do for a birthday party. 

The focus on getting together with everyone and simply having a good time is the point.

And to wrap up what I’m calling the “POP UP” wedding –

This is also a wonderful way to celebrate if you’re having a bigger, more traditional wedding but also need to celebrate a second with another group of family & friends who are far away and can’t make it to the main event.



Let’s move on to another simplified wedding celebration that I love – a courthouse ceremony, followed by cupcakes & coffee bar. 

Now of course you could replace cupcakes & coffee with omelettes and mimosas, or cocktails and app’s, whatever your taste.  The bottom line here?  You don’t need a church and giant expensive dress and tuxedos, with limousines & flowers. 

It’s perfectly fine to keep things SIMPLE.  A meaningful ceremony at the local courthouse, followed up with a simple celebration (that doesn’t even need to include a main meal) is just the ticket.

courthouse wedding


A celebration at the courthouse is really affordable.  There’s no ceremony venue to pay for.  By cutting the main meal and potentially alcohol, you’re gonna save a ton of money.

It’s also simple.  Coffee and desserts could take place after the ceremony in a cute cafe, at a park, or at someone’s home.  Keep decorations minimal, and don’t worry about any added entertainment – just let your guests mingle at chat afterwards for a couple hours.

Maybe now you’re thinking the benefits of a backyard BBQ or the courthouse & cupcakes sound pretty damn nice … but you’re not quite ready to give up some of those more traditional wedding elements.  I can totally relate.


For me, the biggest downside to either of these really casual formats is that this sounds like a normal BBQ with friends, or doughnuts after church.  Maybe you’re thinking, “yeah, we’re looking to save money and keep things simple, but we want to make it a little more special than BYOB and burgers, or coffee and doughnuts.”

I totally agree that you might want something a little more.  I LOVE the idea of having your ceremony, hosting a totally casual reception for everyone to participate in, and then doing a more upscale, fancy celebration with your very closest friends and immediate family.  

Here’s where you can have a fancy meal at a nice restaurant, with top shelf drinks and your favorite food.  Maybe you can’t afford to host 150 people at your favorite steakhouse or tapas restaurant, but doing it for 25 people with a fixed menu is totally manageable.

Before we go too far down that path, press pause on that thought – first let’s explore one more creative wedding celebration idea.



I LOVE the trend of hosting cocktails & appetizers, and cutting out the main meal.

Let’s get over weddings needing to be over-the-top, all night affairs with a fancy sit down dinner.

Hosting cocktails and small plates is a really affordable way to entertain your guests, and is a great option if you’re going for quality over quantity!

It’s also perfect if you’re hosting a LOT of guests and trying to keep things simple and inexpensive.


Make sure it’s clear on the invitation that you’re hosting a “cocktail reception”.  For example, your invitations can read “Ceremony at 3:00 with cocktail reception to follow”.  Then use word of mouth to clarify to guests that there will not be a seated dinner or dancing (because yes, people will ask!)

You can even be more specific than that on your invitation:

Ceremony at 3:00 / Cocktail Reception 4:00 – 6:00

The end time makes it very clear that people will be dismissed for the dinner hour.


First, do your homework.  Get lots of quotes from restaurants, event spaces and caterer.  Fully understand your options in terms of food and drink selection.  Get a range for the total price per guest.

It’s really difficult for me to give a specific dollar amount, because a cocktail reception in St Louis is going to be completely different than Seattle or New York City.  This is why it’s so important to make lots of phone calls, and talk to a range of different restaurants and event spaces.

In the most general terms, you can expect to save anywhere from 50 – 90% hosting a cocktail style reception versus a sit down, plated meal.

I would highly recommend looking into restaurant settings.  With a restaurant, the ambiance will be built in and done for you.  Booking a blank event space and bringing in tables, chairs, a caterer, bartenders, and decoration is going to be much more expensive.

And back to the start & end time on your invitation – that doesn’t mean YOUR night has to end!  This is where we come back to our conversation from earlier.  Consider doing a really nice, seated meal after the cocktail reception with your closest family and wedding party for a more intimate (and much more affordable) setting.

I hope this conversation got your creative wheels spinning, and thinking of allllllll the fun ways that you can simplify and scale back from hosting an overwhelming, giant traditional wedding.  By all means – mix & match the ideas from today’s show to craft an event that feels perfectly suited to you & your partner!


Open bar vs timed vs cash – what are your thoughts?

Go with your budget.  I know there are people out there who adamantly think a cash bar at a wedding is tacky.  My response to that is:

1.) I would NEVER have a problem buying drinks, I do it all the time.  {LOL}

2.) Not as tacky as assuming a $10,000 credit card bill so your 200 closest family and friends can drink Bud Light and shots of Fire Ball all night. 

Bottom line – if you can afford it, and it’s important to you, then by all means.  Host the bar.  If you’re in doubt?  If anything is tacky, it’s post-wedding debt.

Let’s definitely talk more about ways to reduce your reception bar tab in a future episode, I want to keep it brief today so we can get to some more questions!

What’s your take on junior bridesmaids & groomsmen?  I like the idea, finance doesn’t.

I can 100% see benefits to both.  You have special people like cousins, nieces & nephews, or younger siblings you want to honor.  Your fiancé might see it as overkill, a distraction, or both.  Get together and talk about it, and come to a compromise.

When do I need to order my dress from an online retailer / off-the rack style?

Look at their production & shipping times.  It might take a week, it might take 6 weeks.  Once you know that portion of the timing, I’d allow at least 3-4 months (if possible) for alterations.

With online dress shopping, you’ll need to choose a tailor to work with.  Do your research and specifically ask how long it will take them to alter.  Also important to ask, how many fittings do they recommend based on the dress?  

Bottom line – a lot of the specifics will depend on the production time from the retailer, the complexity of the design, and the turnaround time of the tailor you select to work with.

How can we save money when our venue has preferred caterers?

creative wedding reception ideas
Price compare between your options with phone calls.  Ask for sample menus, price lists, etc.

Price compare between your options with phone calls.  Ask for sample menus, price lists, etc.

Next, you’ll want to schedule a consultation or informational meeting and specifically ask what their most affordable options will be.  Given your wedding date, what foods will be in season / potentially more affordable?

If you’re open to pasta and / or vegetarian options, that’s always helpful.

Ask for quotes on different service options.  For example, food stations / self-serve buffet, vs a plated meal.

And lastly, if you get a quote that feels high?  Simply ask: what can we cut out and/or substitute to bring this bill down by $xxxx?

Recently engaged, Yay!  What’s the typical budget one sets for around 150 guests?

Today’s show was perfect for you!  We explored three casual wedding options, which can be done for just a few dollars per guest, depending on the specific arrangements. 

Here’s my top advice on setting your wedding budget.  Sit down with your fiancé and determine how much you have to work with.  Then, stick to it.  Very simple, I know.

You might need to sacrifice, make swaps and saves here and there, but your wedding will be meaningful and beautiful if you stick to your top priorities.  Welcome to the podcast, and thanks for a great question!

For anyone else who’s a new listener, just a quick reminder that there are over 60 free episodes available wherever you listen to your podcasts!  Simply scroll back through the list, and you can find shows dating all the way back to the beginning of last year. 

If you have any questions about finding the old episodes on a specific platform, don’t be shy – send me a note and I’d love to help!

Thank you so much for spending this time with me and inviting me to be a part of your wedding plans! It’s a HUGE honor during such a special time in your life, and my heart is so grateful for your support of the Wedding Planning Podcast! 

Have a great week, a great weekend, and I’ll talk to you next week! 

xo Karawedding planning podcast

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