Limited Bar vs. Cash Bar: Deciding What’s Right for Your Event

Limited Bar vs. Cash Bar: Deciding What’s Right for Your Event

Limited Bar vs. Cash Bar: Deciding What’s Right for Your Event

Food and beverages are vital things that can make or break your event planning. If you plan on serving alcoholic drinks, you may wonder whether you should host a limited bar or a cash bar. 

Both options have advantages, and making a decision is easier when you understand the dynamics of each. Let’s break down everything you need to know about having a cash or limited bar at your next event. 

Understanding the Options

Defining a Limited Bar

If you’re wondering, ‘How much does a limited bar cost?’ Knowing that a limited bar is like a middle ground between an open bar and a cash bar is helpful. In a limited bar, the host offers a specific number of complimentary drinks, which they pay the bar to serve at the host’s expense. Guests can enjoy a limited number of beers, wines, and maybe some signature cocktails without paying for them. 

Once a guest reaches the limit, they can continue drinking at their expense.  They may choose to close the bar altogether if they don’t have more money. This option is more budget-friendly than having an open bar with unlimited drinks for all guests.

How a Cash Bar Works

Conversely, a cash bar runs on a pay-as-you-go basis. All guests pay the full price for their drinks throughout the event. They approach the bar, order what they like and settle the bill with the bartender. As a host, you don’t cover any costs- this is ideal in situations where your budget only allows you to cover the cost of food and perhaps a non-alcoholic drink.

Cost Considerations

The Cheaper Option

A cash bar is a cheap bar idea compared to a limited bar, but it is more pricey for guests. In a cash bar, you don’t shoulder the cost of any alcoholic drinks, but your guests do. In a limited bar, you shoulder part of the cost according to what you can afford or want to spend on beverages. 

A cash bar also saves a lot of excess inventory and waste. Since guests are paying for their drinks, they only consume what they need at a given time. While in a limited bar, they may order up to the limit even if they don’t manage to drink it all—this leaves you with more leftover drinks, which you may not be able to consume thereafter. 

Ways to Estimate the Cost

You can consider several unique factors for each option.

For Limited Bars:

  • Drink selection – Look at the beverage options and get the price of each drink to determine how much you can pay for each guest. For instance, two beers, one glass of wine, and one cocktail per guest.
  • Guest count – Multiply the prices of your selected drinks by the total number of guests. It is safe to assume each guest will drink the maximum number they are allowed.
  • Budget allocation – As part of your event bar planning, ensure the total cost of drinks is aligned with your event budget so that you can have a realistic view of how many drinks you can afford to offer free. 

For Cash Bars:

  • Drink prices – Research the cost of drinks in different venues to determine whether your guests can afford them comfortably. 
  • Guest consumption – Estimate how many drinks each guest can have throughout the event. You don’t want guests sitting thirsty and frowning because the prices are too steep.
  • Staffing and equipment costs – hosting a cash bar may require hiring a bartender, renting equipment like portable coolers or bars, and getting necessary permits for some locations. 

Extra Tips

  • Compare quotes from different vendors to get the one that offers the best drink selections within your budget.
  • Consider seasonal variations and pick drinks that are in season. These drinks are likely to be more affordable than those made of out-of-season ingredients.
  • Have a buffer by paying for more drinks than there are guests- this accommodates any guests who may unexpectedly show up with a plus one or those who attend without confirming beforehand. 

Guest Experience:

Guests’ Reaction to a Limited Bar

Most guests will love having an open bar; some might expect one, yet most will understand if you can’t afford it – they’ll appreciate the gesture of a limited bar. The key is to manage expectations by communicating beforehand that you will host a limited bar, not an open one. 

Another way to manage disappointment is to focus on quality over quantity. If you can only pay for one or two drinks, ensure they’re carefully prepared, delicious and presented well. Guests will most likely prefer such drinks to many mediocre options. 

cash bar

Ways To Make a Limited Bar Feel Special

Elevate the experience by focusing on creativity, presentation and guest experience. 

Give a positive experience for all guests by offering them alternatives that cater to their varied tastes and preferences, making a limited bar feel special. These include non-alcoholic drinks like mocktails, specialty sodas and flavored waters. 

Exemplary hospitality and service will improve the experience. Choose friendly bartenders who engage with your guests. Serve drinks in specialty glassware that complements the theme of your event. For more visual appeal, you may also include clever additions like fresh fruit, edible flowers, and decorative stirrers.

Create a positive environment through a custom drink menu and interactive stations where guests sip and talk or do an activity. For instance, they can customize their drinks by muddling herbs or garnishing them to keep them entertained and engaged. 

Handling Dietary Restrictions

Accommodating guests’ dietary restrictions in a limited bar will leave them feeling valued and included. You can do this by incorporating alcoholic and nonalcoholic drinks so that sober guests also enjoy the event. 

Also, label any allergens in the drinks, like nuts, gluten, or dairy, to give your guests a heads-up when ordering. Let the bartender be on board to communicate the same to guests. Accommodate special requests to remove or add some ingredients to the drinks as much as possible.

You may offer some customization options in limited bar ideas for a party. To avoid allergens, allow guests to pick their preferred mixers, sweeteners, or garnishes. In addition to having a specialized menu, ensure each relevant staff member is familiar with the drink menu’s ingredients, preparation, and allergen information. 

Event Type & Hosting Considerations

Cash or Limited Bars For Weddings

When hosting a wedding, consider your budget and cultural norms to decide whether to host a cash or limited bar. Regarding culture, look at what your community is familiar with; if most weddings in your culture have an open or limited bar menu, it means guests appreciate and expect complimentary drinks. It will help if your menu includes at least one drink you’ve paid for. 

Regarding the budget, do what you can without accruing unreasonable debt to pay for guests’ drinks. If you cannot afford a consumption bar vs. an open bar, do a limited one and cut down on the guest list for more flexibility. The key is to communicate openly beforehand so guests know what to expect and can carry some extra cash for additional drinks. 

Other Event Types

For birthday parties, consider the guests’ preferences, budget, and preferred theme or atmosphere. If the party will have lots of kids, it’s more appropriate to serve non-alcoholic drinks. If you’re going for a casual barbecue bash, you may offer a cash bar, while a limited bar is preferable for a classy cocktail party. 

When hosting a corporate event, consider the company culture, networking opportunities, and budget allocation. Some companies prefer to give complimentary drinks to show their hospitality, while others will have a cash bar to maintain professionalism. The budget provided by the face department will also guide you on which option is realistic. 

Other social gatherings will require you to consider the guest dynamics and event purpose. If guests are few and know each other, a limited bar will suffice. Conversely, a large crowd may call for a cash bar. If the purpose is to catch up, then you can ask everyone to bring their own drink as part of the house party.

Decision-Making & Logistics:

Factors To Consider When Deciding Between Cash and Limited Bars

  • Your budget
  • Guest preferences
  • Overall theme and tone of your event
  • Community and organizational culture surrounding similar events- how others host the same event
  • The demographics of your guests and what will make them comfortable

Choosing Drinks for a Limited Bar

Begin by choosing drinks in season, as they will likely cost less because the ingredients are readily available. Also, select what most of your guests will likely enjoy based on their demographics, tastes and preferences- some common examples are vodka, wine, beer, tequila, rum and whiskey.

Choose drinks within guests’ budgets so they can refill as often as they wish without breaking the bank. As part of limited bar etiquette, encourage versatility by having several alcoholic and nonalcoholic options so that everyone can find something they enjoy. 

How To Inform Guests About a Cash or Limited Bar

As mentioned, open, timely communication will help guests manage expectations and plan to buy some or all their drinks during the event. You can include the information in the invitation cards so they know from the get-go what to expect. 

Here are a few courteous ways to communicate:

  • Join us at our wedding celebration, with a limited bar and exciting activities!
  • We have provided a few drinks at our limited bar.
  • Join us in a celebration where there’ll be a cash bar with many drink options!
  • You will enjoy several complimentary drinks at our limited bar and can purchase more at our cash bar!

Additional Considerations When Hosting a Cash or Limited Bar

Don’t forget to plan the logistics by setting a convenient closing time for guests and staff,

Arrange transportation options like carpooling, designated drivers, and Ubers.

Have a first aid kit with essential emergency supplies in case of an unfortunate incident.

Ensure intoxicated guests get home safely with a friend or a reliable driver.


You can choose whether to host a cash or limited bar based on your budget, guests’ preferences, and the type of event you’re hosting. Create a great experience around the drink menu by having curated drinks, variety, excellent presentation, and friendly bartenders. Whichever option you choose, communicate to your guests beforehand to manage expectations and allow them to plan for their drink purchases.