Wedding Cash Bar Etiquette

The bulk of weddings serve alcohol, and it’s often assumed it’ll be free. If you’re serving alcohol but expecting guests to pay for their own drinks, that is your decision. For many brides and grooms, the bar tab takes up a notable portion of a wedding budget. If you’re on a tight budget, an open bar wedding might not be possible.

However, part of sticking to appropriate wedding etiquette and happy guests is managing expectations. There are different ways to handle things, and there can be a middle ground between providing guests with a limited selection of alcohol and having a ‘cash bar only.’

Let’s cover what you should do if you’re having a cash bar, and the pros and cons.

wine barrel.

What is a cash bar?

The term ‘Cash bar’ at a wedding is used to indicate that you are asking guests to pay for their own drinks during the night. Some cash bars at weddings literally only take cash, no credit card or debit cards, while others will take cards too.

The main point is that the guests pay for their drinks and not the hosts. This is becoming a more common choice in weddings and it is a viable option. However, if you are going down the cash bar route there are a few things to consider.

Cash bar at wedding etiquette 

You are perfectly within your rights to have a cash bar-only option at your wedding, but it isn’t the most ideal option. Your guests traveled to come to celebrate with you, sometimes from quite far. They bought a gift and outfit for the day. Rather than having purely a cash bar, it’s nice to provide some beer, red and white wine, juice, and soft drinks for them, even if it’s just at the beginning of the reception. You can provide temporary and limited bar service for a while. Afterward, and for any spirits (if serving), it can switch to a cash bar. 

The types of beer and wine served don’t have to be fancy, it’s more of a token to your guests. You could also supply a glass of a signature cocktail during cocktail hour, or other signature drinks, one per guest, before switching to a cash bar. A little something special for your guests to thank them for coming to celebrate with you.

Do I need to inform my guests?

Though strictly speaking you don’t have to warn guests that it’s a cash bar only but it’s good etiquette to give people fair warning. Especially as guests will be expecting a hosted bar. This is so they can be prepared by bringing their wallets and budgeting enough money for their night out.

If the bar at your venue only accepts cash, then it will be an especially good idea to let your guests know when you invite them so they can bring cash with them. 

Cash bar pros and cons

Pro – Having a cash bar as opposed to an open bar at your wedding will save money as you won’t have to foot the bar bill. The cost of food and alcohol at weddings is steep, so asking guests will help if you are on a limited budget.

Con – Some on the guest list will find a cash bar is in poor taste. One of the main aspects of hospitality is that when hosting someone, you provide them with food and drinks. A nice balance could be to provide a bottle or two of wine per table, or a glass of bubbles per guest for a champagne toast. You don’t have to provide a full bar. After that, once those drinks are finished the cash bar could open. 

Pro – The amount of alcohol wasted will be less if guests buy their own. With a full open bar, there is more chance of half-finished drinks being left as there is nothing stopping guests from getting more free drinks. It can be easy to forget who is footing the wedding bar tab when drinks are free! It can also ensure people don’t drink too much, leaving you having to deal with drunk guests at the end of the night. 

Con – A cash bar can disrupt the flow of the evening as people line up to purchase drinks, especially if you don’t have a limited cash bar and they’re buying drinks that take a lot of preparation to make.

glasses of champagne.

Cash bar wording on wedding invitations

Let your wedding guests know that it is a cash bar on your wedding invitations and wedding website. If you’ve decided to pop some text in a “Further Information” section of your invite, here are some different options you can use to communicate there’s a limit of some sort in place:

  • We can’t wait to celebrate with you! Unfortunately, we can’t host the bar so please bring cash or a credit card if wish to participate in beverages throughout the night
  • Some beer and wine will be provided for a portion of the evening. It will switch to a cash bar later on. If you wish to participate in beverages throughout the night, please bring a credit card or cash to enjoy the bar.
  • A set selection of beer, wine, and non-alcoholic beverages will be available under a bar tab. Alcoholic drinks outside of this range will be available at a cash bar.

Other options

  • A toonie bar. – This is when guests pay a small amount per drink, for example, $2. The hosts pay the remaining balance.
  • Drink tickets. – Provide guests with one or two printed drinks tickets that they can then redeem at the bar. This idea can be a little hard to manage and even a bit tacky. Guests can lose their tickets, or scrounge extra tickets from the number of guests that don’t drink. If you were thinking of providing a free drink or two this way, you may as well just pop two bottles of wine on each table.
  • A limited bar tab. – You can put a set amount of money on the bar tab at the beginning of the evening. Once this runs out, it can switch to a cash bar. This will put a set budget on how much alcohol the hosts are footing the bill for.

Have you been to a wedding where you’ve paid for your drinks?

If you’ve been to a wedding where you’ve had to buy your own drinks, how was it managed? Were you surprised, or did it say something on the wedding invitation?

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10 Comments

  1. I’m getting married on September 10,2022.My fiancé and I don’t drink at all.We decided to do Cash Bar.My siblings has a lot of opinions about it as they want me to do at least a Toonie Bar,I’m standing my ground as there’s already a lot of expenses.Plus,the venue is asking me to provide a liquour license,liability insurance,alcohol,mixes,ice,etc.They just don’t get it.We are providing wines per table for the toasts and after that its cash bar.Is that bad?

  2. We are having a NO Host – so they pay for their own meal and drinks; we will pay for one round of sparkling to toast the Bride and Groom and that’s it… no presents required other than their presence… We living together and are in our later 40s why get ourselves into debt?

  3. When my best friend got married it was an open bar. Meaning the bride and groom paid for the drinks until the night was through. This was roughly $6,000.
    I thought this was ridiculous. Some of the things I noticed that concerned me were distracted guests sitting their drinks down unfinished forgetting where the drinks were and going up and ordering another (wastefulness) also open bar meant there was always a few guests that drank way too much and I worried about them getting home. The last thing I would want at my wedding is for my guests to worry about other guests and how they will get home. That responsibility puts a damper on everyone’s good time. Lastly, my fiancée doesn’t drink. I rarely do. What about the bride and groom that aren’t big drinkers? I don’t feel the need to load my guests up on alcohol. I want them to have a good time but if that is what the reception is about then they are missing the point. We are having a cash bar. If you want to get drunk you’ll need to pay to do so. If you want to drink responsibly than purchasing 2 drinks shouldn’t be an issue.

  4. Its is a hard topic. Our venue doesnt do fixed budget so we had to make a choice. We will have water, wine, beer included for dinner but as soon as that is done and people go to the bar for drinks they will have to pay. I dont think its a problem. Funny how some people think its rude or tacky. I never expected everything to be free when I attented a wedding. Im there for the couple not the drinks!
    We will give certain people a bracelet of some kind so they dont have to pay all night. Like our parents, siblings, bridesmaids and groomsmen. If they get a few drinks for other people it will be fine but we dont want them to pay!
    Dont think this will even be noticed by most people so all good!

  5. Oh, a controversial topic, but a goodie! Weddings are expensive, so I can see why people would take this option. I’d definitely let people know. Good advice here.

    1. Yep I agree – it’s one of those awful parts of the budget where you can have no idea how much it’s going to cost you, so having a cash bar (or a fixed amount that you’ll pay) saves the couple some anxiety 🙂

  6. Most weddings I’ve been to have covered drinks. Some with a fixed tab which is fair enough and guests can pay once the tab ran out. Another I went to had subsidized drinks which I thought want a great idea.

    1. We had a fixed tab Sam. I forgot about that till the other night, hubby & were talking about how much alcohol we went through (2 kegs in an hour of beer!). After a fast start our guests slowed down. The bar tab run out about 10pm and being late, we said to keep it going, it only went another $300 or so after that.

  7. Very interesting to see some of the effects of some approaches. We personally went with a fixed budget and selectively top shelf for a few that didn’t drink wine and beer. Some very useful tips! Thanks!

    1. It’s a tricky topic as every set of guests is different huh 🙂 but yes little decisions can have big impacts (as you know in your line of work!)

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