This is the fourth installment of our Wedding on a Budget series. Last week we talked about choosing a venue and sending out the invitations. This week we’re talking about planning the reception.

Remember that $20,000 figure I gave you on week 1? The bulk of that money is understandably spent on the reception. Buying food and wine for 200 people starts to add up pretty quickly. So the first tip to keeping within a $2000 budget is to keep the guest list small. Stephanie Pedersen, author of The Keep it Simple Guide to Planning a Wedding, agrees. She argues that smaller is better. Fewer guests mean fewer costs. But how do you whittle down your list?

“The easiest way to whittle your guest list is to remove everyone you haven’t spoken to in a year. If it’s still too large, take away someone you haven’t spoken to in three months. It doesn’t matter if your college sorority sister invited you to her wedding 10 years ago. If you haven’t spoken to her in two years, then she’ll probably be just as relieved at not having to get herself to your wedding as you are at being able to eliminate one more name from your list. The same goes for relatives, too . . . Yes, it’s ruthless, but you have to start somewhere.”

If you and your partner decide that there’s no way you can exclude your Great Aunt Tilly or your graduate school cohort from your wedding, one option is to hold your wedding in the morning so that you have a lunchtime reception. Sara Whitman, a blogger from Massachusetts, and her partner Jeanine did exactly that.

Sara and Jeanine’s story is unique because they share the responsibility of raising their three sons with a gay couple they know named Walter and Allan. When the Massachusetts Supreme Court legalized same sex marriage in 2004, the four of them decided to hold a joint wedding so they could both save money as well as celebrate their joint commitment to raising their sons.

We ended up with a budget of 30K, for 200 guests with an open bar, dancing, and fabulous food. I thought I was going to lose my mind when Jeanine ordered 200 tiny personalized M&M containers with our names on it. We were edging up to our budget line and I had not bought the wine for the reception yet. Overall, we did things we could to lower cost. Walter is a landscape designer so we got all our flowers at wholesale. Of course, we were in the church kitchen (the reception was in the church hall) the day before putting them together, but we did have gorgeous flowers and would never have been able to afford them otherwise.

We had the ceremony at 11am. Our reception went from 12 to 3, so the open bar wasn’t that expensive – people don’t drink as much during the day. We didn’t have dinner, we had lunch. So a few things along the line helped keep the costs for so many people down.

Remember Erin and Gayle who spent a total of $800 on their commitment ceremony. Erin is a graduate student and Gayle is a high school science teacher, so they’ve got a really limited budget. It sounds incredible that they could pull off their commitment ceremony for under $1000, but here’s how they were able to do it.

We originally thought the ceremony would have 30 people, but we ended up with 80. Our eventual expenditures were something like this:

$70 Invitations
Designed by us and printed on handmade paper from Paper Paper Paper.

$40 Decorations
Our colors for the ceremony were white, green, and purple. For the most part we intentionally avoided “wedding” stuff from party stores. The decorations mostly consisted of streamers, ribbons, and a few favors/party items like disposable cameras and bubbles.

$35 Utensils, Cups, Plates, etc.
Aside from the utensils, which we got at the regular store, most of this came from the party store, too. We even got cheesy recyclable champagne flutes with a detachable base for the toast.

$80 Scrapbook-Making Materials

$95 Chairs
One of our friends called around to find the cheapest white chairs she could find for the ceremony. We had 50 and delivery was included.

$200 Beverages
We got juices and bottled water from Costco, but the most expensive thing was the champagne.

Our friends and family helped with everything else for the ceremony, which was a potluck. Quaker ceremonies are usually potlucks because it symbolizes being part of a community through sharing food together.

In order to stay within a $2000 budget, my partner Shannon and I took a note from Erin and Gayle. We opted for a backyard BBQ and decided to take a potluck approach to the reception. On our invitations we told our friends we’d provide the booze and grill accouterments if they would bring a side dish or a dessert to share in lieu of gifts. Our reception is May 2nd, so we haven’t purchased the food yet. But we’re planning to spend $500 on food and alcohol, which is a totally realistic number if we get everything at the Costco. Remember Brownyn and Toni’s backyard wedding? They got their food and wedding cake catered from their neighborhood grocery store. Total cost? $600, including delivery charges.

Alcohol can be another big ticket item, especially if you hold your reception at night. Tess Ayers and Paul Brown, authors of The Essential Guide to Lesbian and Gay Weddings, recommend serving guests champagne or wine as they arrive at the party so that they’re less likely to request hard alcohol (which is more expensive). Switch to a cheaper type of wine later in the evening and your guests will hardly notice after they’ve already had a glass or two of the good stuff.

Flowers are another big expense. Holding your event outside has the added benefit of free greenery courtesy of Mother Nature. You can use silk flowers to keep the cost of floral decorations to a minimum. And if you’re lucky enough to know a florist or landscaper like Sara was, perhaps they can assist you in getting your flowers at wholesale. If nothing else, you could get your flowers at the Costco if you’re not too particular about the selection of colors.

But what about a music? Bronwyn and Toni had some friends with a garage band who donated their talents to their event. And although Greta and Ingrid from the Bay Area did hire a polka band for the first part of their reception, they simply opted to put their iPod on shuffle for the rest of the evening. If you don’t have a friend who’s an aspiring DJ, this can be a very good option.

The final expense for a reception you need to consider is table and chair rental. If you’re hosting a small event you might be able to cobble together enough furniture from friends and family to pull off your event. But honestly, who needs the hassle? This is one area where you should probably gird up your loins and put on your best negotiation face. Do a price comparison of several different party rental vendors in your area to find out who has the best prices. And don’t forget to ask what they charge for delivery. When negotiating your contracts, Ayers and Brown recommend these tips:

1. Get everything in writing, including when something will be delivered, when it will be picked up, and if the delivery includes set up and take down. If a vendor promises you something but doesn’t put it in writing, you can’t count on them to honor their word.

2. Pay all of your deposits with a credit card. That way if there’s a dispute you’re in a better position of getting your money refunded.

3. Be sure to ask about cancellation policies. It’s probably not the most romantic thing to be thinking about as you’re planning your wedding, but cancellations happen all the time for a plethora of reasons. Make sure you’re not left with a bill for an event that didn’t happen because you were unclear of the vendor’s cancellation policies on the front end.

I hope your reception is as enjoyable as you want it to be. And just remember, if you and your partner start to get a little tense with each other during the planning stages of your wedding, it’s totally normal. My friend Sylvia reminded me that, “wedding planning brings out the best and worst in couples. You’re bound to argue about things during the planning stages. But it happens to everyone.”

What was your wedding reception like? Was it the gala event of the season, or did you do things on a smaller scale? We’d love to hear your story.