Are Cash Bars at Weddings a Big No-No?

Dumitru Zaharia /

Wedding bells are in the air, because you just got engaged. Now that you’ve locked down your special someone, you’re ready to start planning a wedding. You’re beyond excited about saying your vows in front of family and friends, but a bit nervous about the expenses associated with a wedding — especially the bar bill.

This certainly isn’t an invalid concern, as the national average cost of a wedding reception in 2021 is approximately $22,500, according to The Knot Real Weddings Study. While the average 2021 wedding bar tab wasn’t revealed in that particular study, a similar one from the previous year found that couples spent an average of $2,300 on alcohol at their reception in 2020.

Clearly, alcohol takes up a notable portion of a wedding budget. However, if hosting a dry wedding isn’t an option, you might be thinking about doing a cash bar — but hold that thought.

Should You Avoid Cash Bars?

JoAnn Moore, a Master Wedding Planner in the Colorado, Northern and Central California and Lake Tahoe areas, said having a cash bar at a wedding is a major don’t.

“Asking a wedding guest to pay for their own drinks at a wedding is indeed poor taste and poor etiquette,” she said. “The wedding guest is to always be treated as a guest. When you invite someone to your home as a guest, you don’t expect them to pay for any portion of the evening — the same for a wedding.”

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Moore added that allowing bartenders to put tip jars out is a tacky move.

“The bartenders are paid well, and the tips are included in their contract or that of the venue,” she said.

Keep the Alcohol Bill Low

If you’re concerned about footing the tab for a full bar, Moore said there are ways to cut costs.

“I recommend a more limited bar,” she said. “Perhaps having a couple of varieties of beer, a red and white wine selection and a signature drink or two [that are] special to the couple.”

Moore said there’s no need to go overboard with alcohol, as you should only feel obliged to provide the amount and level you’re comfortable with and can afford. She recommended setting a cap on the alcohol bill and having the bartender give status updates to the parents or couple at certain times of the evening. Additionally, she said providing creative alternatives to alcohol can also curb guests’ drinking.

“Have coffee offered as soon as the cake is cut and going to be served,” she said. “The smell of coffee slows down the consumption of alcohol.”

After the reception ends, it’s common to keep the celebration going with an after-party. If this is something you’re interested in, Moore recommended providing a location — i.e., a nearby club or relative’s home — but making it clear the party is non-hosted.

“The non-hosted indicates drinks are not provided,” she said. “If there is room in a couple’s budget, they can offer a platter of appetizers such as nachos or sliders at the after-party.”

If You Decide on a Cash Bar

Maryanne Parker, an etiquette expert, agreed that guests shouldn’t have to pay their own bar tab at a wedding reception. However, if you’re set on taking this route, you need to gracefully warn people in advance that you won’t be covering the cost of their alcoholic drinks.

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“Just be honest and upfront,” she said. “Also, establish easy access to payments. Should they have their credit cards ready? Should they bring cash only? Everything must be upfront and easy to understand, because no one likes to be inconvenienced.”

Even if you do opt for a cash bar, Parker said you should still have at least two bottles of wine — free of charge — at each table. If your wedding budget can’t handle even this, she suggested waiting to host your special day until another time.

You want your wedding to be unforgettable because your guests had a great time — not due to the cash bar they were shocked to find at the reception. Don’t feel guilty if you have to limit the amount, type or brands of alcohol served, but do try to cover the costs of all your guests’ drinks — or at least some of them — as anything less is a major faux paus.

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