The end of the open wedding bar: why we shouldn't expect a night of free drinks

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Hayley Spencer
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Whatever a couples’ reasons for tying the knot, there’s one thing they can all agree on: weddings are expensive. Whether it’s a blowout Pinterest-worthy ceremony or a low-key day with minimal frills, there are always unforeseen costs involved. As a result couples are increasingly finding ways to cut costs or cut back last minute. And according to a 2017 report by, a free bar is one of the things that’s first to be axed.

The survey of 4,000 recently married couples in the UK found that just 21% of couples now lay on free alcohol for their guests, while 65% have a paid bar, meaning guests purchase their own drinks. And it makes sense given that the study estimates that the average wedding now costs £26,989, with £4,747 being spent on catering costs – an amount which could sky-rocket with additional costs for free-flowing alcohol.

Compared to previous generations, couples have endless options about where and how to host a wedding, meaning they are faced with hard decisions about what outlays to prioritise. And according to founder Hamish Shephard it means that alcohol is an easy sacrifice as it’s one of the few cuts which can be made last minute, without changing the image of the day.

“Couples can wait until the absolute last minute – even the night before the wedding – to decide whether to pay for drinks or not,” he explains. “So many couples overspend on their budget that when it comes to shelling out an extra three or four thousand pounds for drinks, it can make more sense to let guests buy their own. It won’t affect their enjoyment of the day and each individual will be spending a fairly small amount.”

Natasha, a bride-to-be planning a wedding in London, agrees. “I think it’s fair to offer a drink for the toast and over dinner, and in an an ideal world I would love to be able to pay for my guests to have free drinks all day, but weddings are so so expensive that it's really difficult to do.”

However, etiquette is a huge factor in wedding organisation, and many couples feel a free bar is a necessary show of their hospitality. So, when a budget applies it can mean cutting costs elsewhere. The study highlights that 29% of couples don’t use printed stationery, while 49% host their wedding on days other than a Saturday to save money. Both of which are initiatives used by Anita, a 30-year-old Auditor who is getting married in September.

“My partner and I really wanted to be able to have a party atmosphere at our wedding, which meant we never considered making guests pay for drinks – it didn’t seem like the norm. But we’re on a tight budget, so we’re having the ceremony and reception on a Friday to cut venue hire prices. We also sent e-invites to guests and only printed expensive embossed ones for close family and our wedding parties.”’s contributing editor, Anna, also found an easy way to re-settle her budget in order to accommodate money for drinks. “When planning our wedding budget, it turned out that 10 minutes of fireworks would have cost the same as free drinks for four hours.” However, she says a non-paid for bar isn’t something she or fellow guests should begrudge. “Everyone’s circumstances are different and think it seems massively entitled to whine that you expect ‘all you can drink’ for 12 hours,” she says.

Fellow Stylist editor Amy, who married in 2012 in West Yorkshire, agrees that it’s a matter of prioritising what works for you and your guests, which for her meant eschewing traditional venues in favour of a relaxed atmosphere in an informal setting to offer an open bar. “It was in a marquee, so there were no ridiculous corkage charges, and it was basically serve yourself, so there were no staff to pay,” she explains.

“But if you want a traditional wedding in a formal venue, you will be paying through the nose for food and drink and it’s no wonder most couples can’t stretch to anything else after that,” she adds.

Of course, the expense of weddings can work both ways – the average cost of attending a wedding in 2017 is £432. So whether a bar is paid for could be a deciding factor on guest’s choice to attend, and their mood once they’re there. But for many Millennials it’s clear an empathy with their friend’s circumstances ensures there’s no awkwardness involved in paying for drinks. Nikki, a media executive, explains: “At all but one of the seven friends’ weddings I’ve been to, I’ve paid for drinks beyond those served during the meal which I’ve had no problem with. These friends were all in their twenties and not earning huge salaries, so I wouldn’t expect them to be able to foot the bill for a huge bar tab. And in any case, I wouldn’t ordinarily expect a friend to pay for my drinks on a night out so why would it be any different at a wedding?”

Being offered free drinks all day is a huge perk for guests, but it’s definitely not a given in such an austere climate, and therefore should be seen as the couple’s prerogative. There are plenty of other ways for couples to show their hospitality to guests beyond alcohol, which better reflect their personalities and values. Offering friends and family the chance to share in their big day should be special enough for most guests.

Images: iStock