At this point, we've all heard about elopements and couples going the non traditional route. However, there are more and more couples doing a small wedding ceremony but big reception, and I am all for it. This new "trend" is one of my absolute favorites. So much so that I even did it myself. Creating two different wedding experiences allows you to have best of both worlds. Have an elopement or small wedding one day, then a celebration the next.

Small Wedding Ceremony but Big Reception Inspiration
Photo by Rachel Epperly

What is Considered a Small Wedding?

A small wedding in the US can mean different things to different people. Some may consider under 100 people "small" while others think a guest list with over 50 is "big" to them. Typically speaking a small wedding will have a shortened guests list; and may contain less logistics and events than a traditional wedding. However, that is totally customizable to each couple, and you get to determine what "small" or "big" is to you. Having a small wedding DOES NOT mean it is any less amazing though.

Small isn't synonymous with cheap or tacky. You can have an epic intimate wedding at a destination you've been dying to go, and bring with you your closest loved ones to celebrate. It may be the same cost as a big traditional wedding, but will definitely be a totally different experience. On the other hand couples may choose to host a smaller wedding that includes lots of personal DIY projects, or have guests pitch in. It may include less decor and details than a traditional wedding, which might reduce costs if that is the priority. Keep reading for more tips on having a small wedding ceremony but big reception.


The Benefits of a Small Wedding

Couples choose to have a small or intimate wedding for a variety of reasons. Whether that be for the budget, a better fit for introverted personalities, fewer logistics, or other personal reasons. It's not as off to find out a friend got married and didn't invite all their co-workers or extended family. Big traditional wedding couples often find that not only is the planning process an overwhelming and expensive experience; but the wedding day itself can be filled with chaos and tension. Scaling back on the guest list and events of the day can therefore bring a more peaceful and relaxing experience. AND it opens up a lot more options for where/when you get married.

I've documented everything from big weddings, to small weddings, all the way to eloping just the two of them. I can tell you there are SO many benefits of going the smaller route. Below are just a few that I've seen from an outside perspective (and from doing it myself).

  • The guest list: Guest lists, in my opinion, are one of the absolute worst parts of planning a wedding. You literally put others feelings before your own the entire time. "Well, if I invite cousin Tommy, then I have to invite his sister even though I haven't talked to her since I was 5" or "Ugh I know this person will be mad if I don't give them a plus one even though they don't even have a significant other." You literally are preparing for the drama before it even happens. With small weddings, there is much less of that.
  • The financial benefit: Food, drinks and venues are what drives the cost up for a wedding. Reduce your guests, reduce those costs. You don't need to have as much food, drinks, and as big of a venue.
  • The experience: This is by far the most important factor in doing a smaller wedding. You get to have your absolute favorite people ever together and do more than just a quick 4 hours trying to fit 5 minutes in with each person. Instead, you get to spend quality time with everyone, and make it a full weekend if you wanted to! You can add activities, make events, and incorporate them in any way you want to.

Benefits of doing both

So, should you have a small wedding ceremony but big reception? If the idea of planning one big day sounds stressful; and you prefer intentional one-on-one time with your people; read on! Splitting up your wedding days into two events can give you a lot more freedom and time. Not only do you get to spread out the timeline and relax, you get to really be present with those around you. Big traditional weddings are notorious for speeding by in a flash. With couples often complaining about missing out on seeing all of their guests, not getting time to SIT and enjoy their meals. OR feeling like the day is a big rush to stay on the timeline.

Often times the burden of planning a wedding for others becomes the focus, as opposed to creating a day that reflects you as a couple and your upcoming marriage. Here's a short list of the benefits of having a separate wedding ceremony and reception:

Benefits of Having a Separate Wedding Ceremony and Reception:

  1. You get more time to relax. From getting ready slowly to taking the whole day to explore a national park, to getting a whole weekend dedicated to celebrating! The freedom is yours to make the wedding best suited to you and your partner's values and personalities.
  2. You get to create unique experiences. You're not tied down to traditional wedding venues and timelines. This means you can create two totally different days if you want. From an adventure elopement in the mountains to formal reception on the beach! Not everything has to be in the same location
  3. You get to include more people. If you're dreaming of a hiking elopement, but really cherish your disable grandparents and want them to be a part of your wedding; or have so many friends that you want to party with, this is a great alternative. You can have the best of both worlds!
  4. Each day, you get to be present. This is my favorite thing to see of my couples. Watching them have the most epic stress free just the two of them. THEN all their stress or anxiety is completely gone by the time they enter the events with their loved ones. In their minds, they know they already had the most perfect day. No matter what happens, no one can take that away from them.

Unique Small Wedding Big Reception Ideas

Have a day just the two of you, then have a big party with your loved ones

elopement in the Canadian rockies
Photo by Willow and Wolf

This is what my husband and I did (yep, that's us!)! We had the adventure elopement of my dreams in the Canadian Rockies, and then less than two weeks later we gathered our families at our home to have a full weekend celebration. We hiked, had dinner, played games, had a yoga session, a delicious brunch, then an intimate ceremony and dinner followed by dancing. These were two of the best days of my entire life and I legit would not have done it any other way.

Plan a full weekend celebration

Montana engagement photos

This can include as few or as many people as you like! The options are limitless here. You can plan a destination wedding/vacation and take your nearest and dearest along for the adventure. Or you can book a rental house with your friends and spend the whole weekend doing fun excursions together. You're not confined to a couple of hours of formalities, but rather spending multiple days doing life together and celebrating in your own unique way.

Take a look how Beth and Kris did that in Montana here!

Do a small ceremony with immediate family, then go back to party with your closest people

Small backyard wedding with family

This is a great alternative if you want your family to a part of your elopement ceremony, but don't want 300 eyes staring at you as you say your vows! Keeping the formalities more intimate can be great for couples who are more introverted, or simply don't want to extra hassle of a large ceremony! Plus it's great for transportation if you don't want to shuttle tons of guests to a separate reception location! Rather you say your I Do's, take your gorgeous photos, and head to dinner to meet your guests!

Michaella and Zach here did just this and it was SO much fun. They kept it super low key, had their ceremony at a park, then went back to party it up for the rest of the day. They had music, volleyball, a food truck, and fires going.

Have several receptions after your just us ceremony

New Hampshire elopement ceremony with big reception

If you have friends and family spread all around, this can be a fun way to visit and celebrate at the same time. You can have small or big gatherings in different places, and you get to dress up in your formal wear all over again (if you want of course!)

Meg and Richard did this and when I caught up with them at their gallery reveal, they said it was the most epic month ever. They had so much fun having a friends only weekend, then two different family weekends. They made their wedding a full month celebration.

Small Wedding Ceremony but Big Reception Inspiration

Check out this post on Wedding Traditions I Recommend You Reconsider. And be sure to follow me on Instagram for more Wedding + Elopement tips!

Kelsey Converse Photography adventure elopement photographer

Hey, I'm Kelsey!

A New Hampshire based adventure elopement and intimate wedding photographer for the adventurous souls. I travel throughout New England and worldwide, empowering you to create the most beautiful, adventurous day and give you the memories you'll be able to look back on for all the years to come.

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