Throw My Wedding

Dear Helena,

Recently I was invited to a wedding where all the groom and bride’s closest friends had been asked to help with some part of the reception. I was asked to help set up the bar. When I asked what the budget was, they said $200. I was aghast, and told them that this might be a little low. They said, “Well, we don’t drink.” And I said, “Your friends do, though.”

I ended up supplementing the bar with my own money so they’d have a decent spread. And it turned out that the other guests who were asked to help with food, decorations, and so on did the same thing. I know a couple people made an emergency run to Trader Joe’s for cheeses etc., so there would not just be one thing to eat.

My question is twofold: Is it OK to ask your friends to help you throw your own wedding reception? (They’ll feel like total jerks if they say no.) And how much is too much to expect people to do? —Until Death Do Us Part

Dear Until Death Do Us Part,

It is fine to ask friends to help with a wedding reception, but with two caveats: It shouldn’t be an implicit request for subsidy; and it should only be help, not complete delegation.

On the first score, it’s simply not OK to ask for or accept financial assistance. True, it is now common practice for couples to set up a fund for guests to contribute to their honeymoon … but that’s an opportunity to pool funds for a gift. In this case, the happy couple is probably expecting a toaster or set of hand towels as well as help.

You should throw a party that’s within your means. Alan Fields, coauthor of Bridal Bargains, points out: “In the 1950s or ’60s, the typical reception was wedding cake and fruit punch in the church hall. ... It’s only in the past 20 years that weddings have become so elaborate.”

Cake and punch might not be worthy of a magazine spread, but they’re adequate refreshment (provided the punch has vodka in it, of course). Fields advises cutting costs by buying the booze at a wholesale club such as Sam’s or Costco (that is, if the reception facility allows you to bring your own). And don’t offer mixed drinks. “Having beer, wine, and champagne costs 40 percent less than a full open bar,” says Fields. You can get an inexpensive wedding cake for as little as $2 a slice.

On the second point, it’s OK to ask for nonfinancial help, but the couple shouldn’t delegate the decision-making, only specific tasks. In other words, they can ask you to pick up the flowers, but they can’t ask you to choose the flowers. Your task should also be relatively finite, fairly easily accomplished, and essential. For instance, it’s OK to ask you to pick up the booze from Costco, but it’s rude to demand that you stay up all night making take-home favors of Jordan almonds in twists of tulle.

If you have a relevant skill—graphic design, baking, origami—then you might consider offering it up. You could design invitations, make handmade truffles, or decorate the tables with colored paper storks. Doing something you are good at is more fun than setting out rented chairs. And it’s more meaningful because it’s personal. But the couple should wait for you to offer. They shouldn’t expect that just because you like baking, you’ll be happy to build a cupcake tower.

Your friends were reasonable in asking you to help with the bar. But they should not have tacitly allowed you to subsidize their reception. You don’t throw a party and then make the guests provide the food and drink.

Table Manners appears every Wednesday. Have a Table Manners question? Email Helena.