A Thrifty, yet Classy Affair: How to (Realistically) Throw a Budget Wedding

When Krissy and I got engaged, we were through the roof with excitement. We were thrilled with the prospect of spending our lives together, and we couldn’t wait to legalize our commitment in front of all our friends and family. Two or three days into the engagement, however, I started to get overwhelmed by the amount of time and effort needed to plan a celebration that would elegantly capture our uniquely dorky, DIY style. More importantly, how the hell was I supposed to plan a wedding that would feel like the best party of our lives while not blowing our budget? As tempting as it might be to throw the most lavish party possible, we both recognized that one day is not worth spending the first years of marriage whirling in debt. Though we’re still in the process of planning our impending nuptials, we’ve discovered that there are plenty of ways to plan an awesome wedding day without ruining our current, comfortable financial situation.

We started our planning by setting a budget that we felt would be reasonable for a one-day event, keeping in mind that a bit of wiggle room would allow us to make the day special. Though the average American wedding costs between $18,000-25,000, we agreed to aim for $15,000 (excluding honeymoon). We then compared several wedding budget planners from different planning resources, and we created one that included everything we felt we needed for our wedding. (We were especially excited to cut all the groom’s expenses…until we realized that we then had to double all the bride’s expenses.)

After our list of necessary expenses was complete, we discussed what we each felt we needed to splurge on, and what we could do without. I couldn’t live without live music at our ceremony, but I could survive without a DJ at the reception. Krissy requires a getaway car with flair, but she was more than happy to rule out the use of a traditional limo. We both found it extremely unnecessary to go all-out with our dresses, though we both felt that we each deserved an actual wedding dress of some sort. Needless to say, being able to prioritize and compromise allowed us to see exactly WHERE we wanted our money to go, and we could plan accordingly.

Our financial planning also included a thorough analysis of any hidden costs we could possibly imagine. We had to plan for shoes, undergarments, hair accessories, and jewelry to complement our wedding dresses. (We were surprised to discover how much “stuff” went on underneath the gown to hold everything in place.) Though the bridal attendants would be providing their own clothing, we had to consider the cost of the gifts we planned to give our bridal party. Our reception venue budget also had to include the cost of tables, chairs, linens, sound system rental, servers, bartenders, and a liquor license. Creating this exhaustive list of additional costs armed us for thorough discussions with potential venues, and we were able to quickly eliminate any option that was out of our price range or required us to use the services of their preferred—and often more expensive—vendors.

The problem with most advice we found on how to save for weddings is that most suggestions were simply tacky. I am my mother’s daughter—the “Tact and Decorum” lectures of my mother and grandmother still ring true in my ears. I know it’s not proper etiquette to send Facebook invites for your wedding, nor is it anything but tacky to ask for monetary gifts to help pay for your honeymoon. Guests at a wedding should truly feel like guests and should not be encouraged to “BYOB” or “bring a dish to share.” But most of these lessons in etiquette are shunned by columnists who condemn necessary formalities as “antiquated.” Though our wedding will be anything but traditional, I believe there are simply some things you can and cannot do at a wedding. Our goal, therefore, has been to find TACTFUL ways to save on our overall cost of our wedding. The following are our suggestions on ways to save without compromising the integrity of such a special day.

The Fundamentals: When, Where, Who

One easy way to save thousands (yes, thousands) of dollars is to consider scheduling your wedding on any other day besides Saturday. Even booking a venue for a Friday can make quite a difference; when doing some research, we found that the price difference between Friday and Saturday bookings could be anywhere between $1000-3000! If you’re set on holding your wedding at a particular place, but it’s out of your price range, ask about weekday rates. Keep in mind that smaller restaurants, bars, and tap rooms create their rental rates in order to make sure they don’t lose money by holding private parties. The most profitable day for most dining and drinking venues tends to be Saturday, so prices will inevitably reflect their standard profit for the day.  In addition to being more likely to get your first choice of dates (those fall Saturdays tend to be booked up a year in advance), you’ll be able to keep your budget.

In addition to being flexible with timing, keep your mind open to less traditional ceremony and reception venues. I was initially set on having a farm wedding, until I realized how expensive and often inflexible most rural venues are. (Also, since “rural chic” is one of the most popular wedding themes of the year—thank you, Pinterest—these venues book up quickly.) Once we started considering newer and more unconventional venues, we were surprised at the extreme difference in rental costs.  An outdoor ceremony could easily take place in a Minneapolis park for $500, and the University of Minnesota Arboretum has several beautiful gardens available for rent at a reasonable cost. Also, many of our favorite restaurants and taprooms were more than happy to rent their space for a reception. As avid local business supporters, we easily agreed on holding our ceremony and reception at a local tap room. Better yet, the rental price included all of the items on our “hidden reception costs” list. Because our venue is newer on the wedding venue scene, we were able to easily secure our desired date and save thousands of dollars.

Though it’s tempting to invite everyone to the best wedding of the season, practice restraint when compiling your guest list. Don’t invite all your co-workers, and refrain from discussing all your wedding details with everyone in the office. Once you discuss wedding details with someone, it’s easy to feel pressured into verbally inviting them to your wedding—just don’t do it. Make an initial list of people who must be in attendance without consulting your social media sites; this will prevent you from inviting that one college friend whose only interaction with you is to “Poke” you on Facebook. Once you create your initial list, revisit it on a monthly basis and determine whether someone should be removed or added. Weddings should be personal and intimate, and they should involve people who are truly present in your life. Invite people who you intend to interact with throughout your married life, not people who would be fun for a party.

The Flair: Attire, Decorations, and Pictures

An easy way to save major bucks is to keep yourself on a tight budget for wedding attire. For a wedding between two brides, the cost of two wedding dresses—each one fitting the bride’s unique style while coordinating with the other bride’s dress—can easily take up most of your budget.  Remember that these dresses will only be worn for ONE DAY.  Bridal consignment stores offer huge savings on previously worn wedding dresses, and the style and size choices are endless. (Krissy and I visited a bridal consignment store to find wedding dresses to wear when we rode Segways in the Pride Parade. We had a budget of $300, and we both found dresses that were so beautiful that many people asked if those were our actual wedding dresses. Pretty good deal, if you ask us.) Purchasing a previously-worn dress is budget-conscious, and no one will know your dress isn’t brand new.  Fortunately, Krissy and I are both pretty low maintenance when it comes to clothing, hair, and makeup. We plan to keep within our dress budget of $3000 by looking for shorter, less formal dresses that will go well with our more casual wedding.

The most common—and most expensive—wedding decorations are the floral arrangements used in the bridal party and at the reception. When planning your floral decorations, look to see which flowers will be in season at the time of your wedding. In-season flowers are much more abundant and affordable, and you won’t be disappointed when you find you can’t get your favorite flowers in January. Simpler, seasonal bouquets will absolutely suffice for the bridal party, and flowers can be used sparingly in the ceremony and reception decorations. Use any outdoor scenery or greenery to your advantage; plan an outdoor ceremony near gardens, water features, or sculptures for free decorations. At the reception, create centerpieces that use flowers sparingly. Use gourds or pumpkins as the focal points for fall receptions. Gussy up wine bottles, antique books, beer growlers, mason jars, or family heirlooms to make unique centerpieces that don’t rely on expensive flowers.

In order to document your engagement and your special day, it’s tempting to go all-out with photography packages. Engagement photos are great for inclusion on Save the Date cards, but that’s pretty much it. If you’re set on getting engagement photos taken, keep your eye out for free photo session contests and Groupon deals, or have a shutter-savvy friend use a digital camera to snap some photos. When it comes to choosing photographers for a wedding, make sure to compare prices and evaluate what you’re actually paying for.  Some photography packages will automatically include the services of two photographers, and some will have options for “apprentice” packages. Evaluate your needs (how many hours you want covered, how many photographers you need, which moments you know you want captured), and make sure your package fits your needs. In order to save on reception coverage, send the professionals home early, and encourage guests to use their own cameras and get creative. Create an Instagram hashtag for your wedding, or use one of several awesome wedding photo apps like WedPics and WedSocial.

The Fun Stuff: Food, Booze, and Wedding Favors

Krissy and I love fun food, and we knew we had to find awesome eats without ruining our budget. In order to fit our more casual wedding, we gladly decided to forego the traditional plated dinner (which can cost anywhere between $20-70 per person) for a more casual option. Most caterers will offer buffet options that are substantially cheaper than the plated dinner, but don’t feel tied to even serve a traditional catered meal. Have the chef in your circle make large pans of paella, or plan a pig roast. Or, to capture the essence of local flavor, consider using your favorite food truck with several scrumptious options for guests to choose from. If you’re planning a more formal wedding, consider serving heavy hors d’ oeuvres instead of a meal. Another great, unique option is to hold an earlier wedding with a brunch reception (perfect for celebrations involving children, and for people who prefer to avoid the inevitable drunken end to the reception).  For even sweeter savings, skip the traditional 3-tiered wedding cake and order festive cupcakes instead.

If you’re like us, it’s impossible to imagine a wedding celebration without some sort of booze. Even though it’s far cheaper to simply avoid serving booze at a wedding, that was a price cut we really couldn’t justify. We realized, though, that the TYPE and AMOUNT of booze served can save quite a bit of money. Serving just beer and wine is substantially cheaper than having a full bar of mixed drinks, and it also prevents things from getting too rowdy. Since we are having our reception at a taproom, we chose to serve amazing local beer and have a gluten-free option available as well. In an effort to avoid binge-drinking (those “free drinks for an hour” situations don’t always end well), we plan to distribute drink tickets for three rounds of beer each (approximately $1,500); once the drink tickets are done, people will have the option of purchasing more beer. Just remember, tips for bartenders are NOT optional, and you should plan to tip at the end of the night for the total amount of booze purchased.

Finally, most couples choose to have a small favor that guests can take home at the end of the night. A favor is a nice little “thank you” for guests, and they should be personal and thoughtful. It doesn’t have to be anything extravagant or expensive, but it should be something useful or something tasty. Keep in mind that most trinkets are either forgotten at the reception or quickly thrown away at home, so shy away from inscribed bells, key chains, and anything that somehow resembles something purchased a tourist shop. Instead, offer mini bags of your favorite coffee, a bottle of your favorite beer tied with ribbon, handmade caramel apples, homemade jams and butters, or handmade pottery. Your guests will feel honored by the personal element to your favor, and they’ll appreciate being able to actually use or consume it.

A wedding doesn’t have to have a high price tag in order to be a success, nor do you have to go all-out to ensure a great party for your guests.  Our plan to throw a celebration that reflects our personalities while avoiding all the stress of wedding-induced debt has only been capable due to a great deal of flexibility, creativity, and open communication. By doing most of the work together, we’ve been able to keep a realistic handle on our finances and still get our dream wedding. At the end of the day on August 22, 2014, we will formally announce ourselves as Mrs. and Mrs., free of debt and full of love.

If you’re willing to think outside the box, there are many ways you can easily shave $100-1,000 off your budget. Here are some additional ways to save:

  1. Have an outgoing, close friend get ordained online ($20-30) instead of hiring an outside party to officiate the wedding ($150-400). Writing the ceremony “script” together also allows for a uniquely personal ceremony.
  2. Create a garden that will yield the flowers and plants you plan to use in your wedding, or purchase flowers wholesale from a grocer or florist. Have the “green thumb” in your circle arrange the flowers.
  3. Skip printed programs for the ceremony. Everyone knows what’s going to happen—a wedding ceremony is pretty self-explanatory. Most ceremony programs are either left behind or tossed, so you’ll also be helping the environment by reducing the amount of waste produced.

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