Sandra is a 29-year-old London-based designer and has been to 12 weddings in the past two-and-a-half years. At every single one she’s been expected to pay for her own drinks.
This isn’t a quirk of her friendship group. According to a survey by wedding planning app Bridebook, only 21% of couples offer an open bar at their wedding, but for people outside of Sandra’s demographic, this is an odd phenomenon. Marisa is 39 and her job as a business consultant has meant she’s lived in Paris, Vancouver, Lithuania and southern Spain over the last eight years. “I’ve been to many weddings in many countries I’ve lived in and of course everything is paid for. In France, it would seem crazy to have to pay for your own drinks at a wedding. Very vulgar,” she said.
Geraldine, who got married at 22 in the early 1990s near Guilford, also felt that paying for her guests’ food and drink was non-negotiable. “When I got married it was either a church or a registry office, followed by a reception at a hotel. Weddings were very formulaic — there was little room for individuality. We were given a price by the venue and we didn’t consider making any changes, really. Every other wedding at the time was pretty similar.”
But now people getting married have endless choices when it comes to their wedding, and couples are increasingly using it as a way to express their creativity. The Bridebook survey also showed that 1 in 5 weddings in 2016 had a dedicated hashtag to use on social media when sharing photos and videos. Founder Hamish Shephard thinks this is an important factor in couples’ priorities, as they are a lot more image conscious than previous generations.
He said: “Couples can wait until the absolute last minute — even the night before the wedding — to decide whether to pay for drinks or not. 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.”
Joe Blackman has been a wedding planner for ten years, and is the founder of events company Collection26. He agrees with this suggestion. “For most couples, it becomes a choice between paying for their guests’ drinks but maybe sacrificing on something else like flowers or the dream venue, and they’re already spending so much money on their guests that it’s hard to justify another huge expense like that.”
While weddings are becoming increasingly expensive and often unattainable to young couples, the cost of being a wedding guest has also skyrocketed. Sandra, the designer who’s attended twelve of them, explains: “For most weddings there’s a hen do which is either abroad or in another part of the country, so I pay for travel, accommodation and all the activities which have been chosen. Most weddings aren’t in London either, so you’re looking at train journeys and at least one night in a hotel. Then there’s the taxis to and from the venue, the outfits — you can’t really wear the same dress more than once, at least not within the same friendship group — and of course a wedding gift and drinks on the day.” Sandra said being a bridesmaid, which she has been twice, can increase the cost even further, and estimates she’s spent at least £5,000 on attending all these weddings, which — ironically — is money she could have put towards a free bar at her own wedding, which she’s currently planning. But she thinks paying for drinks is a perfectly reasonable way for her to contribute to the cost of the weddings she attends, regardless of how extravagant they are.
“I’d be shocked if I went to a wedding where I didn’t have to buy my own drinks. It would be nice of course, but also slightly uncomfortable for me. Sort of like when you go out for dinner and your friend pays while you’re not looking — why couldn’t we just split the bill?” she said. “Alcohol is expensive and my friends drink quite a lot. We don’t expect people to pay for that, even at weddings. They give us a couple of drinks and a nice meal, and I think that’s fair enough. Buying more drinks is my choice”
Abi got married in Wales last year aged 26. While she was certainly conscious of the expense to her guests, she and her now-husband made the choice to not offer a free bar all night. “We had a relatively small budget of around £6,000 and we wanted to make sure we could save wherever possible,” she said. “We actually found a Groupon deal for our venue. We didn’t have flowers, which can be so expensive, and instead filled vases up with pick’n’mix for table centrepieces. We provided a meal and a couple of drinks for each guest but anything more would have been impossible,” said Abi. They didn’t ask for gifts and made sure that accommodation in the area and transport to the wedding was affordable, so that their guests had a nice day without worrying about the cost.
Young people getting married in the UK are increasingly eschewing tradition in favour of more unique, original, and yes, Instagram-worthy weddings, but this comes at a cost. With everyone in the same boat, it seems letting people pay their way when it comes to drinks is not just socially acceptable, but even preferable to many guests, who would rather shell out for a few glasses of wine than have to come up with appropriate gifts and worry about repaying the favour when their turn comes around.