Can You Have a Cash Bar at a Wedding Reception?

Choose a signature drink for a cheaper bar bill.

When many couples start planning their wedding budget and are surprised or dismayed at the cost of the reception, they may ask can you have a cash bar at a wedding reception? The answer is a simple one, but the solutions for a more economical wedding can be more complicated.

What Is a Cash Bar?

A cash bar, also called a no-host bar, is one where guests must pay for their own drinks. While some couples may opt to furnish free water and soft drinks at their reception, if guests must pay for any available libations, it is technically a cash bar. While it is a growing trend for couples to consider cash bars for their wedding receptions, many guests may think the practice is cheap or tacky. It can also be inconvenient for guests who were not expecting a bar bill and may not have brought along cash to the wedding reception and will not be able to purchase drinks from the bar.

In contrast, an open bar is one where guests may order drinks for free. There are many ways couples can arrange an open bar without breaking the bank, allowing them to offer suitable drinks to their guests without drowning their wedding budget.

So, Can You Have a Cash Bar at a Wedding Reception?

While the ultimate decision of whether or not to have a cash bar is up to the couple, proper etiquette says that no, a cash bar is not appropriate for a wedding. When a couple invites people to share their special day, those people are guests and should not be obligated to pay for any part of the festivities. After all, a couple would not expect the guests to pay for the meal, and drinks should be considered part of that expense.

Cash Bar Alternatives

If your wedding budget simply cannot accommodate a full open bar, there are many alternatives to asking your guests to foot the bill. Popular and appropriate options include:

  • Non-Alcoholic Weddings: It is not necessary to serve alcohol at a wedding and most guests will easily understand if a couple chooses to have a non-alcoholic event. Soft drinks, juice, coffee, water, and other beverages can still be served and will be far less expensive.
  • Limited Selection: A couple may choose to have a limited bar instead of a full open bar. To do this, the couple chooses which drinks will be available according to what their budget can manage. A simple list, printed in an elegant wedding font, can let guests know what drinks are available. Beer, wine, and one or two simple cocktails are the most common choices.
  • Signature Drinks: If a couple wants a more memorable bar at their wedding, they can choose one elaborate signature drink that will be served instead of a wider array of cocktails. This limits the amount of ingredients that must be purchased, therefore making the budget more manageable. Choosing a themed drink to coordinate with the wedding, such as a tropical drink for a beach wedding, is a great way to make the most of this option.
  • Limited Time: If a couple cannot afford a full open bar for the duration of their reception, they can consider limiting the time the bar is available. The most common way to do this is by offering an open bar cocktail hour between the wedding ceremony and the reception, but drinks cannot be ordered once dinner is served. This also helps control any overindulgence.
  • Toasts Only: Some couples opt to serve alcohol only for the wedding toasts. Usually this is champagne, but other drinks may also be offered.
Cash bars are never appropriate.
  • Limited Budget: Depending on the arrangements a couple can make with their reception venue, they may be able to impose a bar budget on an open bar. To do this, the couple would plan to prepay the amount they are comfortable spending on a bar tab, and allowing guests to access an open bar until that prepaid amount is exhausted. At that time, the bar closes. If that amount is not reached, the venue would typically offer a refund of the unused budget.
  • Drink Coupons: Another way to limit access to an open bar and to control a wedding's alcohol budget is to enclose drink coupons with each guest's wedding invitation. Guests can then exchange those coupons (usually 2-3 per guest) for drinks of their choice, but they will be required to purchase any additional drinks they desire. For most guests, the coupons are sufficient for an evening's libations and this is a recognized and acceptable compromise between having an open bar and a cash bar.
  • Bar Alternatives: Instead of an open alcoholic bar, couples may choose a more unique, themed beverage bar instead. Wedding coffee bars are popular, as are cocoa and smoothie bars. Not only are these drinks less expensive than an open alcoholic bar, but they are also more unique and memorable.

Can you have a cash bar at a wedding reception? In short, wedding etiquette says no, but couples should always take their own preferences and the expectations of their guests into account. In some areas and for some families, a cash bar is common, while for others it would appear tacky and impolite. Fortunately, there are many more affordable alternatives couples can choose from to avoid a cash bar without forgoing suitable wedding drinks and a fun time for all guests.

Can You Have a Cash Bar at a Wedding Reception?