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Cheap Ways to Tie the KnotCheap Ways to Tie the Knot
(Relevant Books, 2006)

Cheap Ways to Have a Fabulous Reception

By Cara Davis
From Cheap Ways to Tie the Knot

CBN.comSince half of your entire wedding costs will be dropped on the reception, it pays to plan carefully.


It’s a largely held belief that wedding guests come to see two things: the bride and the wedding cake. No matter what type of reception you choose to have or how much you plan to spend, don’t scrimp on the cake. Your guests will be disappointed. While you don’t have to spend a lot to have a nice cake, just make sure your reception creates an atmosphere for the cake to be celebrated along with the newlyweds.

Bring a photo of a cake you like to a grocery store and have the bakery recreate it for a fraction of the cost of a local bakery. Or order three smooth frosted white cakes of different sizes. Have the bakers pipe colored icing around the bottom edge of the cakes, but other than that, leave them bare.

Ask a friend take the cakes to the reception site and arrange them with the biggest one resting on the table, the middle one propped up on upside-down wine glasses directly behind it, and the smallest cake on a taller tier made out of an upside-down vase. Have your friend decorate the tops of each cake with cut flowers that match your bouquet.

It’s a big trend these days to order a small decorated cake from a bakery to display on the cake table while sheet cakes are cut behind the scenes and served alongside your decorated one. Some even display a fake cake. As tempting as this is, stick with tradition and have a real cake. There really is no substitute. Go ahead and have some fake layers, but let part of that cake be real. Keep the magic and have it cut in front of your guests (but avoid slicing fees from caterers that can run $3 a slice—have a friend who knows what she’s doing cut it for free).


Save money by offering a buffet instead of a sit-down meal at your reception.

When arranging the food on the buffet table, put the most expensive items (meat) at the end of the line and place the less expensive items (finger foods, fruit, salads, etc.) at the start. Your guests will fill their plates with the less expensive items and won’t have space to take many of the high-dollar items. Go with chicken or fish instead of beef.
To save even more money, think ethnic. Asian menus are increasingly popular and less expensive because they have more vegetables than meat. Additionally, Italian or Mexican cuisine are similarly inexpensive and will be crowd favorites.


The easiest way to save money at your reception is to not serve alcohol. If you do want to serve alcohol, check with your site representative if you’re having it at the church to see if it’s allowed.


Silver or crystal punch bowls are still a popular item for weddings and can be rented for probably less than you think. Same with napkins, serving ware, silverware, and china. If you don’t want to rent, ask to borrow glass or plastic punch and serving bowls and surround them with flowers.


Just as you focused your decorations in three central areas for your ceremony (the entrance/guest book, the aisle, the altar/platform), do the same for your reception. If you have your reception in a church hall, chances are it will feel like a cafeteria. You will have some work to do to create the mood for your reception. Focus on the ceiling, gift table, serving tables, and guest tables.

Look Up!

Don’t overlook places to get creative and set the mood at a low price. The first thing you need to do is figure out how to dim the lighting. Darkness hides a thousand flaws. Hanging decorations from the ceiling will continue to set the mood.

Hanging topiaries: Cover five- or ten-inch foam balls with hot glue and add your choice of flower heads and ribbon. Hang them from ribbons or fishing line at varied heights over tables or the entire reception area.

Snowflakes: Use shiny white paper to create paper snowflakes in various sizes. Hang each one from a piece of fishing line in a staggering pattern over tables or the entire reception area. Place electric fans in all corners of the room and direct them toward the ceiling. I used this snowflake technique with spray-painted gold, dried leaves for my fall reception. The church staff volunteered to take them down if we let them keep them up through the fall. It saved us labor time and created a fun feel for the fellowship hall all season long. You can also do the same with large Christmas ornaments. Hang them from the ceiling in a staggered pattern over the tables with ribbon or fishing line. Tie a bow at the top of each ornament.

Tulle Time: Swag fifty-four-inch-wide white or off-white tulle from the corners of the room to the center. Rest white lights on top of the tulle for a romantic evening setting. Use long strands of green ivy for daytime weddings.

Gift Table

Position your gift table by the entrance to the reception. Place large flowering plants in front. If your church doesn’t have an ample supply of plants and trees, transfer the plants, trees, or arrangements you used in the ceremony to the reception hall. It’s far cheaper than buying or renting additional ones.

Have your guest book attendant mind the gift table as well, welcoming guests to the reception and stacking the gifts with dramatic flare. The only decoration you’ll need for the gift table is a decorated box or basket for collecting cards.

The gift table doesn’t have to be a table at all—consider a large upholstered chair with trees or large plants cozied up next to it.

Serving Tables

The simplest way to add dramatic flair to your serving tables is to create depth and dimension by elevating your serving platters at different heights. Use bricks, books, shoeboxes, hatboxes—anything sturdy enough you can find. Drape your table linen over the boxes and swag garland and greenery, tulle, white lights, or ribbon between the items on the table.

Consider framing the table with trees or large plants behind or on either side. Add white lights for an evening wedding.

Candles go a long way to create the mood and serve as decorations throughout your reception. Check with your church representative to make sure the use of candles is accepted.

Make sure your buffet tables are skirted to the floor. Renting table linens will look better than cheap, vinyl tablecloths you can buy from a party store. Check if your church already has linens you can use.

Small topiaries will add height and drama to your serving and guest tables if you can create them or rent them for an affordable price. Get plain ones and embellish them with flowers, fruits, ivy, or ribbons that match your theme.

Other Ways to Dress Up the Reception Site

  • Rent or borrow large rugs to add warmth to the room.
  • Circle the base of the cake with shimmering chiffon fabric in white or gold.
  • Dress up serving ware with ribbons, flowers, or beads.
  • Rent a fountain to add an expensive look to the drink table.

Guest Tables

If you’re not renting or borrowing table linens, cover tables with white or colored butcher paper, then lay inexpensive curtain lace over the top.


Have your bridesmaids place their bouquets in vases of water on the reception tables after the wedding. On the leftover tables, create inexpensive centerpieces:

  • Purchase flat mirrors from a wholesale decorating store like Old Time Pottery. Arrange four to five pillar candles of varying sizes on top and sprinkle rose petals for striking centerpieces.
  • Wide shallow bowls filled with potpourri or water and several floating blooms are another way to create a casual yet elegant centerpiece.
  • For a casual daytime wedding, place flowering plants in terracotta pots in the center of each table or fill empty pots with green moss and a variety of white or off-white pillar candles. Place a handful of flower blooms around the base of the candles.
  • Place inexpensive fresh fruit like lemons and limes in a large glass bowl or pillar. Sprinkle flower blooms at the base.
  • Spray-paint small wicker baskets from a local craft store to match your wedding colors. Fill with raffia or dried moss and top with ribbon, beads, flowers, or wedding favors.
  • Wrap or decorate empty boxes of varying sizes in wedding wrapping paper (plain white will work) and ribbon. Stack or place next to each other. Swag garland and faux pearls between the gifts. For a Christmas wedding, wrap with gold or silver (holiday looking paper) and swag garland between the gifts.


Hook up a CD player or iPod to the sound system and pump out tunes that fit your reception’s mood, whether it be big band, classical, or soulful. Make sure the level of the music doesn’t drown out conversation.


Guests just don’t appreciate or care about wedding favors much these days. Probably because the wedding favors couples can afford to buy are cheesy or useless. Try to use wedding favors that will work into the design of your reception tables to get double use out of them.
Here are some ideas for simple, elegant wedding favors:

  • Wrap Jordan Almonds, candy-coated chocolate, jellybeans, hard candies, or mints in tulle circles. (Get a friend to help make these.) Scatter them across your tables. For a simpler favor, sprinkle Hershey’s Kisses on the tables instead.
  • Picture frame place card holders (if you need them) can double as favors. Try to buy in bulk to reduce costs.
  • Buy white Chinese takeout boxes in bulk from a restaurant supply store. Fill them with inexpensive candy (bought at bulk) and tie the box with a strip of tulle.
  • Buy packs of adhesive paper for printers at an office supply store. Print a photo of you and your fiancé with the wedding date, sixteen-up to a page, and place the adhesive side on a sheet of thin magnet. Cut the magnets to size and place on reception tables.


To ensure your wedding has a personalized touch, add some extras that will keep your guests entertained.

  • Create a collage or picture board of the two of you separately, together, and with family and friends. Post funny or sentimental captions to describe the photos. (Or consider placing photos underneath glass plates if you have place settings at each table.)
  • If you have access to a projector and screen (or blank wall), create a slide show of photos for a night of nostalgia.


Here are some tips to make the sendoff as memorable as the day itself:

  • If you rent a limo, call your local funeral home for the best rates.
  • Buy a bag of rose petals from your local florist for about $5 and have your attendants pass them out to your guests to toss instead of birdseed (or bubbles to blow in the daytime).
  • Pick up sparklers after the fourth of July for a beautiful evening sendoff that will look fantastic in your photos, whatever the month.

Adapted from Cheap Ways to Tie the Knot: How to Plan a Church Wedding for Less Than $5,000 (RELEVANT Books) by Cara Davis. Used with permission.

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