One of the second-most exciting events to plan, alongside your wedding, of course, is your rehearsal dinner. This event is traditionally the night before your wedding, or sometime along the course of your wedding weekend. The purpose is to follow the actual wedding rehearsal coordinated by your officiant, and includes all of the key members of your ceremony. This would be your soon-to-be spouse, immediate families, bridal party and anyone else playing an active role in your big day.
“There are lots of ways to plan a rehearsal dinner, but traditionally, it is a seated dinner sometimes paired with a cocktail hour,” explains Valerie Gernhauser owner, Ruby and Pearl Events in New Orleans. “It’s typically hosted by a member of the couple’s family that is not hosting the wedding itself, although sometimes the same family will host both events.”
LISTEN NOW: We talk all about rehearsal dinners on the most recent episode of The Woman Getting Married Podcast.
Do You Have to Have a Rehearsal Dinner?
Of course, like many facets to a modern-day wedding, a rehearsal dinner is not mandatory or essential in any way. It is most often planned after the ceremony’s rehearsal and before the wedding day itself. It can also be as formal or as casual as you’d like, explains Gernhauser. “Think of it as an opportunity to spend quality time with your closest friends and family members without the entire guest count surrounding you,” she says. Gernhauser adds that the more relaxed and casual setting also means you don’t have to adhere to a strict timeline. “If couples choose not to host a formal rehearsal dinner, we are seeing them still opt for a cocktail party. Or, some other welcome event to bring families together for a few drinks and light bites before turning in for the night.”
How to plan an epic rehearsal dinner
Think of your rehearsal dinner as a mini version of your actual wedding. That means it still requires a significant amount of planning. Here’s how the experts recommend pulling off each step of the planning process.
The guest list
Traditional etiquette advises that any wedding guest traveling from out of town be invited to the rehearsal dinner. However, that is not practical for most couples. “These days, domestic destination weddings are so common that half of the guest list would qualify as out-of-town guests,” says Gernhauser, adding that most couples are not interested in hosting a rehearsal dinner that would rival the size of the wedding itself. While it’s up to you to decide how many guests to include, just make sure your immediate family (parents, siblings, grandparents) as well as your wedding party are there.
Rehearsal dinner invitations
Gernhauser recommends that couples send out rehearsal dinner invitations at least 4-6 weeks prior to the event, just like wedding invitations. “These can be inclusion cards in the envelope for the wedding invitation itself with information about the rehearsal dinner details. Or, they can be designed separately and sent as separate invitations altogether,” she says. “If you are sending as an inclusion card, be sure to create two RSVP cards.” However, just make sure to double-check that only guests invited to both get two.
Jaclyn Watson, New England-based wedding planner and founder of Jaclyn Watson Events, recommends setting your rehearsal budget based on how many people you are inviting. “Typically, you can guesstimate about $55-150 dollars per guest. A budget of $8,500-15,000 is usually the range for a nice rehearsal dinner,” she says.
The most expensive factor to budget is usually the food and beverage alongside your venue of course. When choosing a location, Watson recommends opting for one that has everything there. This would include all the tables and chairs and even a sound system for music to help you save. Another great way she recommends budgeting for your rehearsal dinner is to keep it casual and laid back. “The more you do, the more the budget will be,” she adds.
Who pays for a rehearsal dinner?
Traditionally, the bride’s family pays for the wedding and the groom’s family pays for the rehearsal dinner. However, it’s becoming increasingly common for families to split both events, according to Jen Ganson, owner and lead planner at A Fresh Event in Chicago. Or, the couple may pay for it themselves. “Unlike wedding days, where we can see an easy divide in the budget breakdown, it’s a little more challenging to do with a rehearsal dinner,” says Ganson. “When there are multiple financial contributors to this event, most often, the couple is simply gifted the money to use toward the event in whichever way they see fit.” She also notes that having one decision-maker instead of many makes the planning of the rehearsal dinner much smoother.
How to make your rehearsal dinner stand out
Here are some expert tips for how to make your rehearsal dinner extra special.
Keep it casual
Wedding days tend to lean more formal, so Ganson recommends opting instead for a more low-key rehearsal dinner. “Think of a small BBQ in your family’s backyard, or renting out the private dining at your favorite pizza place,” she says. “This can allow the two of you, as well as your friends and family, to let your hair down a bit before the more formal affair begins the next day.”
When extending the invitation to all out-of-town guests, it can easily turn into a second wedding, notes Ganson. To avoid this, she recommends keeping the dinner itself to only those participating in the ceremony rehearsal. “When the dinner concludes, the room can be refreshed and rearranged. Or, you can move to another location to host an hour or two of cocktails with guests that have traveled far and wide,” she says.
Just like you would during the wedding, it’s a good idea to allow loved ones the opportunity to speak during the rehearsal dinner. This often opens the door for additional toasts that your wedding reception may not allot time for. Sheils recommends coordinating with your family and wedding party prior to giving them the opportunity to give a toast. Also, she suggests hiring a cinematographer to capture the toasts. “They tend to be so special and heartfelt that you will want to be able to watch them again!” she says.
Don’t overthink it…
Is the idea of a wedding seating chart already stressing you out? Gernhauser suggests opting for open seating at the more intimate rehearsal dinner. “If you are really struggling with the guest list, consider keeping the dinner itself small. Then, host an informal welcome party afterward that allows you to include even more of your guests,” she adds.
…Or have it last too long
“The last thing you want is your wedding party or guests to be hungover for your wedding,” says Nora Sheils, co-founder of Rock Paper Coin and founder of Bridal Bliss. “A rehearsal dinner is always a fun event as it is essentially a reunion for many people who haven’t seen each other for a long time. Guests tend to really go big and sometimes have to be reined in so they can last the whole weekend!” The earlier it can end the night before your wedding, the better.