A wedding reception that takes your breath away doesn't have to cost a fortune. You can lower the total cost simply by knowing when caterers charge more and what additional fees they may charge. Here are a few tips to help you keep the cost down while still having an elegant affair.

1. Timing Makes a Difference

You can save money on the cost of catering by holding your wedding reception at an unusual time such as at 2 p.m. Your guests will have already eaten lunch and won't be hungry for a full dinner. Caterers that agree to that time can charge 40 percent to 60 percent less than the price of a full dinner, according to the encyclopedic guide, "Bridal Bargains"(Windsor Park Press, 2014), by Denise and Alan Fields. "A reception with cake, punch and light hors d'oeuvres is all that's needed," they note.

If you want to serve a meal, brunch is less expensive than dinner—and can still be elegant—and your guests probably won't consume as much alcohol as they would in the evening. In addition to the time of the day, caterers will charge you less for a reception held during a weekday or at unpopular time of year, (in many parts of the country, that may be January and February).

If you're planning a destination wedding, find out what the peak season is for that location and don't assume you know. Caterers around the country tell us, for example, that October weddings are as popular as June weddings. 

2. The Food Might Not Be Fresh

If the thought of bacon-wrapped scallops during the cocktail hour makes you salivate, here's something you may not know: They could have been frozen and thawed before they were baked, says Ravinder Kingra, a lecturer in food and beverage management at the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration. That could also be true for mini-quiches, which may be completely premade and frozen. "Unless it's a $40,000 or $50,000 wedding, the bread is going to be brought in from the outside," says Kingra.

While it may not be possible for a cater to make all the food from scratch—and you may not even mind if some of the food has been frozen—if you are concerned about quality ask how fresh the items are that will be served, Kingra says. 



3. There Will Be Surcharges

When we conducted our secret shopping test of wedding caterers and other vendors, we found caterers that built-in to their charges gratuities of up to 26 percent for a wedding reception. There were also fees as high as $7 per slice for a cake brought in from an outside baker. Be sure to find out if there will be additional fees for items such as special table skirting and ice carvings.

The caterer may also add to your guest list the cost of food for the waiters, busboys, bartenders and others. When you're considering the cost per plate, ask whether you're expected to also include meals for the catering staff. Some catering establishments will give you a meal allowance—say, $25 per plate—for staff, Kingra notes. Also find out if you'll have to supply food for others, such as the photographer and the D.J. 

4. You Could Pay For a Higher Guest Count

You can always add guests later, but it may be harder to reduce your guest list, says wedding planner Michelle Culp, of Essence of Events in Seattle. "If you prepay for 100 guests and only 80 accept, you could still be charged for a guest count of 100," she says. The solution: Give the caterer a guest count estimate that's on lower end of your expectation.

5. Save Money With the Banquet Menu

When we shopped among caterers across the country, we found huge pricing differences between a catering menu used for a wedding reception and a menu used for other catered events. At one location in Westchester County, N.Y., wedding banquet menus started at $125 per person in January and February and $140 per person from May to October. But for other types of banquets—meetings and parties, for instance—the price per person started at just $55 regardless of the time of year. 

To be sure, there were differences. A standard banquet involved nine entrée options of chicken (five choices) and fish (four options). By contrast, the menu for a wedding reception offered 17 entrée choices, including beef. But the nine options may be perfectly adequate.

When a shopper asked about using the banquet menu instead, the catering manager said that could be done—on a Friday or Sunday. Some items would not be included, but couples could pay to add options. For a savings of at least $70 per plate, it seems worth the compromise.

Even if you're set on the wedding menu, it doesn't hurt to haggle. "You can say to the caterer, 'We want to be fiscally careful; what are your suggestions?'" Kingra says. "Smaller caterers in particular might be willing to work something out."