Event Planning on a Budget – Part Three: What’s for Dinner?

March 19th, 2009
Dinner is served! Photo by Carasco Photography.

Dinner is served! Photo by Carasco Photography.

After the location, food is probably your largest event cost. And many caterers will try to make sure that you spend at least half of your total budget on food. It doesn’t have to be that way, though. There are many ways you can keep your food and drink costs under control and still have a festive and hospitable event.  We’ll look at food here and look at beverages in a future post.

Consider Day and Time

The easiest way to control costs is to consider time of day. Breakfast, brunch, and lunch are generally less expensive meals than dinner. I believe that this is as much a matter of social convention as of intrinsic cost, but you can still take advantage of it. A late morning or early afternoon wedding can be followed by lunch. An anniversary celebration can be a brunch party. For the early risers among us, breakfast celebrations are unusual and offer great menu options.

Depending on your event, you might also choose not to serve a meal, but to limit your food service to snacks. Be careful, though: Many caterers will give you the same price for heavy hors d’oeuvres as for a full meal. A traditional morning wedding used to be followed by punch and cake. You can use or elaborate on this tradition to have a nice, inexpensive party.

Choose Your Caterer Carefully

Quality food from an excellent chef.

Quality food from an excellent chef. Photo courtesy of Artisan Events, Inc.

This leads me to my second easy way to control food costs, and that is your choice of caterer. In Chicago, there are the big downtown caterers and then there are the smaller outfits. The big ones are on the preferred vendor list of every venue in the city. Fortunately, some of the smaller ones have made it onto the lists of various venues, as well. If you can’t figure out with a little internet research which caterer falls into which category, ask an event professional. Personally, I have dealt with enough of each kind of caterer to know one from the other. The smaller caterers are more likely to be willing to work within your budget. They are also likely to have personal service and high quality food. As with any vendor, of course, check their references first and taste their food before you sign a contract and hand over a down payment.

Know Your Budget

One more very important thing you can do to control your costs is to have a fairly firm budget number in mind before you talk to a caterer. Every client I have ever told this to says, “But I don’t know what it costs.” That’s the secret: You tell the caterer how much you want to spend and it is up to them to come up with a menu within your budget. Don’t expect caviar on a frugal budget, of course, and do discuss your target budget number with any potential caterer. A good one will be able to tell you if what you are asking for is even reasonable. If you don’t go in with a budget number, they will start at the high end. You can make adjustments as you go along, of course, but it is easiest to start with your budget amount.

One way to think about your catering budget is to break it down into two (or three parts). First, consider how much per person you want to spend on food alone. Compare your per person price to what you might pay in a restaurant. At a highest-end restaurant, you could easily spend $100 per person for dinner, or more. But at a high quality neighborhood restaurant, you can get away with $40 per person. Of course, the prices at a restaurant also include a different kind of overhead from the caterer, but this gives you a way to start thinking about the costs.

Beautiful dessert.  Photo courtesy of Artisan Events.

Beautiful dessert. Photo courtesy of Artisan Events, Inc.

The second part of your catering budget is service–what you are paying for the chef, servers, and other kitchen workers. The most up-front caterers charge service per server per hour, and they will break this number down on your estimate. A less scrupulous practice is to charge service at a flat cost per guest. This method does not reflect the caterer’s actual expenses and may end up costing you more. A third method is to charge service as a percentage of food costs.  If a caterer charges a flat rate per guest, consider looking elsewhere.

If you want to cut down on service costs, you might consider buffet service, which requires fewer people to give smooth service. On the other hand, caterers generally must provide more food for a buffet than for plated service, which might offset the savings provided by fewer servers. Talk to your caterer if buffet is an option for you and see if a buffet will offer you savings. It depends on a lot of factors: price of labor, price of food, number of guests, etc. A conscientious caterer can give you a comparison of the prices.

The third part of any estimate you receive may be rental charges, depending on your venue and your caterer. These charges should show up separately from food and service on your catering estimate. Caterers with large staffs will sometimes break out the rental list with prices so you can see what they expect you to pay. Most caterers will not do this, however, and if you want to compare the details, you may need either a rental catalogue and an Excel spreadsheet or the help of a professional. I have actually broken down rental costs for a client and compared them to the prices I would expect to pay to help her to see the true costs of the proposal. Rentals can be a substantial sum of money, so don’t overlook the necessity if you are at a venue that doesn’t supply everything you need. There are ways to control cost here, too, although not as many. You can rent flat linens, instead of glossy, and you can rent the least expensive china, silverware, and glassware. You can also shop around among rental houses for good prices. Be aware, however, that there are rental companies that offer good prices but substandard service. Get recommendations or references for rentals so you are not stuck with poor service.

Always start with your food budget number before you begin your shopping. You may have to revise this number as you get a feel for realistic costs, but don’t believe anyone who tells you that you can’t feed a crowd for less than $100 per person in food costs. If you are creative and are working with a flexible caterer, you can have a celebration to remember without breaking the bank.

Becoming The Grown-Up (Part One)

March 14th, 2009
Beaming bride and her proud papa. Photo by Magical Moments Photography.

Beaming bride and her proud papa. Photo by Magical Moments Photography.

A wedding is a time of many transitions. One of them that you might not expect is the transition from being perceived as a youngster to being perceived as one of the grown-ups. You may find this change most perceptible from your own parents. For all you may have lived on your own and paid your way for years, your parents–bless their hearts–still think of you as their little girl or boy. But when you get married, you join the ranks of the adults.

This circumstance can sometimes make wedding planning challenging, but that also means that planning your wedding is a good time to practice your adult skills.

This post will talk about dealing with your parents.  Future posts will be about your fiance and your wedding party.

If your parents are paying for any part of your wedding, sit down and talk to them before you begin planning. Remember that, while you may never be your parents’ equal, you are dealing with them now as one adult to another. This may take some practice, so don’t be surprised if you can’t change your behavior all at once. Talk to them about who gets to make the decisions about the wedding. If they insist that they get to make the decisions because they are paying, think about what that means for you. It might be necessary for you to decline the offer of payment if it is important to make plans that are different from theirs. It is more likely, though, that you can explain to them what you would like to do and ask them to help you to have the wedding you want. Some parents will be satisfied as long as certain things go their way. Others will want to take charge of a certain element. One way to make everyone happy is to give your parent or parents complete control over something you don’t care about much but that will make them happy. Be reasonable, and they will probably make an effort to do the same. If your ideas are very different from theirs, remind them gently but firmly that this wedding is for you and your fiancé. You want to honor them, as well, of course, but the wedding is for you. Demonstrate to them that you are an adult and capable of making good decisions by your behavior toward them so that they can trust your choices, even if they disagree.

There are a lot of things to think about as you get married, but none is more important than the people you care about.   Your parents are important people and this is a good time to strengthen your relationship with them.

Event Planning on a Budget – Part Two: Location, Location, Location

March 6th, 2009

When you are planning an event, one of your largest expenses will be the location. But there are lots of ways to have a beautiful event without spending half your budget on the venue. There are plenty of high-profile, downtown locations where you could drop five to ten thousand dollars just to walk in the door. You can take a look at those to get ideas, but then keep looking.

At the front door of The Grove in Glenview. Photo by MWD Photography.

At the front door of The Grove in Glenview. Photo by MWD Photography.

My favorite place to start looking for inexpensive party locations is the local park district. And I don’t mean you should be stuck at the fieldhouse in the local park. Park districts often take over historical houses or other structures and rent them out to make a little extra money. In Chicago, there is the Berger Park Mansion or Promontory Point. Glenview has The Grove. In Wilmette, there is a very cute party room at Gillson Park. Sometimes you can get an even better deal if you live in the town where the park is located, or if you know someone who lives there who would be willing to co-sign the contract to get the in-town rate.

In the suburbs, there are also women’s clubs and community houses, especially in the older suburbs. Some of these are not cheap, but sometimes you can get a good deal. The women’s clubs often provide tables, chairs, white linens, china and silver. The style of the china might not be what you would choose, but having those items included in the rental saves you a bundle on renting them.

Another option is to go outside the city. If you are willing to move your event from Chicago to southern Wisconsin, there are halls available at a reasonable rate. There are also some venues in the distant suburbs that offer good deals.

If you want to stay in the city but have limited funds, try restaurants with party rooms. These rooms are often available at no charge. The restaurants make their money on the food and drink. Some restaurants can handle decorations, audio/visual equipment, and other special requests. Not all restaurants are suitable for a large wedding, but there are some that can even handle a complex event such as that.

Also, smaller museums, art galleries, and other arts organizations sometimes rent their spaces at reasonable rates. They do not always advertise widely, so you will have to do some research to find them–or ask a professional for advice.

And don’t overlook institutions you have a relationship with. Your church or synagogue, a cultural institution where you have a membership, or the arts organization you support may be able to offer you space at a reasonable price.  Also, to save money, consider planning your event for an off day.  Sundays are often less expensive than Saturdays, and if you can have your party on a weekday, you can often get a real bargain.

If you have no budget, of course you can always ask friends or family with a nice home to help you by letting you have your party at their home. This option depends entirely on your connections. But even if you don’t have friends with huge houses, you can still have a party or wedding for a reasonable price if you look a little beyond the easy choices. There are very nice locations within your reach.