We had our wedding a few weeks ago, and now that I’m coming down from the insanity that was orchestrating the whole thing sans wedding planners and without having any professional hired help (more on that in a second), I feel like I learned a lot about putting on a giant outdoor shindig. I wanted to share a few of my lessons for anyone thinking about hosting a big backyard party, wedding, family reunion… basically, anything that involves a large crowd of people outside. I figure a lot of people who read this are similar to us in that a backyard shindig is a pretty common occurrence. But once you get over 30 people, you start needing to prep and think about things like tents, so when and if that happens to you, I’ve got some tips.
Hope for the Best, Prepare for the Worst
We knew rain was a possibility, so the bulk of our ‘overspending’ was definitely on the fact that we got two tents (one for food and dancing, one for just tables and chairs for eating). We also got the sidewalls. It turned out better even though the weather was good: having enough space for food and dancing under a tent was great as it got darker, and the small amount of rain we did get would have been much worse if we hadn’t had both tents.
Lists. Lots of Lists.
I had lists for absolutely everything—or so I thought. It turned out, what I really needed, were lists of every single tiny task for the 2 days before and the day-of broken down, and delegated. Our parents were amazing and super helpful with everything, but a few times when they asked how they could help, I felt super inefficient because I just didn’t have a task I could think of. So even having a list of ‘bonus tasks’ ready to go makes things a lot smoother. But for months before, I can safely say I listed pretty much everything under the sun.
Food Doesn’t Need to be Fancy
When we told our parents we were going to have Chipotle cater, they thought we were insane. But… I had so many people say it was the best wedding food ever! Plus, it was super easy, and having everyone getting to make exactly what they wanted was rad. Plus, bluntly put, we saved a lot of money. And it’s sort of nice that whenever we get Chipotle now, it’s a reminder of our wedding. So, if there’s a ‘fast-food’ option you really like, think about having that for catering instead of something fancy.
Keep Plates Simple
Chipotle provided plats and forks, but I wanted it to look nice so I got a bunch of faux-fancy plastic plates and silver plastic forks and knives. Ultimately, no one used them, because the Chipotle bowls also got set out. And, if I’m being honest, no one cared.
String Lights Are Bright
I had no idea that string lights from a rental company would illuminate the entire tent. If I’d known, I would have saved money by not renting other dome lights. So the point of this tip is more: consult with your rental company. I also got waaaaaay too many string lights. Probably could have saved $150-200 if I’d just called and chatted about my needs.
Know Your Hosts
If you’re renting a place, first of all, make sure you know if the owners will be on-site or not. On-site wasn’t a dealbreaker for us, but it was a different experience with the owners randomly popping up throughout the week. Letting the owners know, regardless of on-site or not, that you’re having a party is super important. No one wants the cops called, or a security deposit not given back… And make sure the place allows alcohol if you’re serving, and what the noise ordinances are. (This one is important even in your own home!)
Backup Playlists are Key
We had an amazing friend on DJ duty and things worked out perfectly but… If I was to do everything again, I wish I’d had a backup dance party playlist ready to roll in case something happened to his phone. We had zero cell reception, so streaming from Spotify wouldn’t have been an option, and the music I do have on my phone isn’t really dance party jams.
Hire Help With Care
I made the mistake of trying to find a server on Craigslist, just to help refill water, and get the food out on time. The result? I emailed to confirm he was all set on Friday afternoon, and he replied he wasn’t coming because something else came up. (So he was just going to … not show up?!) Insane. Luckily…
Have Someone to Delegate
It’s your wedding / party / whatever. As the host, you’re going to be busy and it’s going to be hard to bring food out, refill water, make coffee… So find a friend you can ask to help. For us, that meant we had a day-of “planner” in the form of my sister Colleen’s best friend. She came, and just acted as the hostess for the whole thing, and saved our butts by helping get the food out since the server bailed. A couple other friends also rallied and helped with refilling water and coffee-duty.
Cheap, Fabric Table Clothes
I bought these online at the suggestion of another friend who did her own wedding, and it was the smartest move. Under $150 for satin-y white tableclothes with bright blue table runners and big white polyester ones for the food tables instantly made our fairly inexpensive setup and rental tables and chairs look nicer than leaving them bare or opting for plastic clothes. Plus, we now have them in stock for other parties, and we used two for our clinic last week and one for a beach blanket on our mini-VA Beach excursion. Weirdly handy to have around.
Little Touches are Great… but Not Necessary
My mom is a crafting extraordinaire, and made the coolest centerpieces for us. My dad is an awesome carpenter and made a gorgeous arbor for us to get married under. We had a crazy cool cut-out of a tandem-riding couple for guests to take pictures with, and beanbag toss featuring a bride and groom. But my parents love doing that stuff. If you’re not crafty, keep it super simple. A couple small things go a long way towards making everything look nice—mason jars with battery-powered tealights on tables are ultra easy centerpieces, and swapping plastic pitchers for glass jars with spouts was a cheap move that made everything fancier without adding extra work. You don’t need to go overboard.
Buy Extra Only When You Use It Normally
We ended up with a ton of extra wine, beer and soft drinks (because my dad and I were living in mortal fear of either running out). That wasn’t the worst, since that stuff generally keeps and we got brands that we like, so now we’re pretty much set for a few months. But if you’re buying a ton of drinks you normally don’t go for, ask for return policies on soda/wine/et cetera.
Clean Up That Night
We spent about 30 minutes after most people had gone to bed just doing some basic clean-up (all the garbage into the dumpster, table clothes into garbage bags to be washed, glassware back in boxes for the rental company…). Doing that made the next morning so much better because there just wasn’t a lot to do when we woke up, compared to how it would have felt waking up to a mess that I’m sure would have gotten a lot grosser overnight.
Expect and Budget for the Unexpected
My last word of advice: save some money in your budget for “emergencies.” To be honest, the week of the event, you’re going to remember a bunch of things you wish you had, or that you desperately need. (Paper towels, bottle openers, the need to rent an extra room because you overestimated the size of the house, a pet fee…) Stuff comes up—but because I was ready and had the cash put aside in the budget, it didn’t sting as much, and the small issues were a lot easier to solve and emotionally deal with as they came up.