Planning a Wedding On a Budget

If you are not careful, planning a wedding can lead to acute sticker shock. According to The Wedding Report, a market research publication, the average price of a U.S. wedding in 2010 was over $24,000. While your “Big Day”is certainly a major rite of passage, it’s important to remember that $24,000 is a big chunk of change to spend on a one-day event.

If you have money in the bank, those funds could be used to put a down payment on a home for newlyweds, or to pay off student loans. If you don’t have money to spare, are you sure that going into debt is the right decision for a pair of newlyweds?

But don’t despair: it’s not necessary to forgo the wedding entirely—just approach the planning with a level head and incorporate cost-cutting measures that will result in a memorable occasion for family and friends, without incurring outrageous expense.

Start by discussing wedding expectations with your bride and both families to make sure you are all on the same page—will it be beer and fried chicken at the Elks Lodge or Champagne and Lobster Thermidor or at the Plaza?—and be clear on who will be responsible for payment.

Once the general style is established, get quotes from several service providers, and arrive at a reasonable budget. You may find that your expectations need to flex in order to remain on track financially. Weddings on a budget do not have to be chintzy or cheap; when handled correctly, the guests will never notice your penny-wise choices.

Wedding Gotchas

Industry experts estimate that couples typically overspend their budgets by 15%. We all know about the standard expenses such as catering, music, flowers, rings, attire, decorations, printing, photography, site and equipment rentals, officiant fees, and the cake.

But there are other hidden wedding costs that can add up to foil the best budgeter. These are costs such as dress alterations, tips, postage, delivery charges, gifts for the wedding party, salon costs for the bride, taxes, cake-cutting, corkage and coat check fees, and overtime charges for the band, photographer or servers. Keep these items in mind, and quiz vendors to nail down all costs beforehand.

Top 10 List for Planning a Frugal Wedding

1. Invitations. Never order oversized or oddly shaped invitations, no matter how attractive they are. Postage for a standard size first-class letter is 44¢. Over-sized or over-weight letters can costs as much as $2 each to mail. Consider sending a save-the-date email in lieu of a separate snail-mailing. If you are artistic, you may decide to make your own invitations either on your computer or by hand-writing the invitation cards.

2. Attire. Shop on eBay for the wedding dress. A gorgeous, used-once, designer dress can be had for a fraction of the price and no one will be the wiser. The groom and groomsmen can all wear dark suits from their own wardrobes (if available), meaning that only matching ties need to be purchased.

3. Timing. Avoid high-season (May through October) when prices rise sharply across the board. Avoid Saturdays and evenings to get the best deals.

4. Venue. Go for the non-traditional: parks, museums, sporting venues, private homes, botanical gardens, or beaches. You may incur extra charges for deliveries or rentals such as tents, tables and chairs, but you will probably come out ahead compared to a hotel or other event space.

5. Guest List. Trim mercilessly. This is the quickest way to reduce your bottom line.

6. Music. Consider creating a playlist of songs that can be set up on an iPod and played during the reception. You may have to rent a sound system, but this is a vastly cheaper (and more personalized) option than a band or DJ.

7. Decorations and Flowers. Make centerpieces and decorations with inexpensive, yet eye-catching items such as round paper lanterns, twinkle lights, tulle fabric, seashells, miniature potted plants or fishbowls with real goldfish. Choose flowers that are in season and avoid tropical flowers. Choose simple arrangements and add volume with less-expensive greenery.

8. Photography. Hire a pro for shots before and during the ceremony. Have friends and family take candid shots during the reception.

9. Bar. Stick to beer and wine and skip the liquor. If permitted, purchase your own beer and wine at a discount store, and bring it to the event. Even if you are charged for corkage, you will generally save on the total bar bill. Skip the Champagne toast. Champagne toasts are symbolic, and guests frequently don’t drink the Champagne anyway!

10. Seating. Use fewer, larger tables in place of smaller tables. You can seat 120 at 12 tables for 10 or at 20 tables for six. Using fewer tables saves on linens and table decorations and creates more interaction between guests.

Many blissful couples enter the meat-grinder known as the wedding industry completely unprepared. With research and planning, weddings on a budget are perfectly realistic. Planning a wedding can be a rewarding experience that will provide memories for a lifetime. And for the faint of heart, there is always Plan B: elope!

For more ideas, check out the excellent book Bridal Bargains: Secrets to Throwing A Fantastic Wedding On A Realistic Budget and the following blog posts on wedding budget tips:

Comments

  1. Please dont’ use goldfish. Unless you have a home for them you will be starting your marriage killing a bunch of fish for table decorations… not exactly romantic.

  2. We tried the candid photography thing at our wedding. We put disposable cameras on every table. About half of the guests took them home. The rest of the cameras were used in photo wars by the kids in attendance. I don’t think we got a single good picture from it.

    • I’ve always wondered if that really worked. Of course, comparing high-res digital photos with ones produced by these disposables isn’t really fair, is it?

      I’ve also wondered about friends giving a video message to the bride and groom during the reception. I’ve been to a couple weddings where this was done and (most) messages seemed touching. Seemed like something that would be fun to watch again on anniversaries, etc.

  3. This is a great article! I think you forgot the most important part of this post though: you don’t have to have all of these things! Figure out what matters most to you and what you don’t care about, then spend accordingly. I didn’t give a hoot about the music, so we had a friend volunteer to do it. We printed our own invitations instead of ordering them. However, I wanted excellent professional wedding photos for the ceremony and reception. I could have had friends shoot candid photos, but honestly most people don’t take great photos, so we spent more to get the quality we wanted.

    Another tip is to shop around for vendors. We talked to at least three flower vendors before we found one who was actuallly willing to work with us, instead of selling us what was expensive or traditional.

    • Totally agree with Abby B. I am a professional wedding photographer in the Nashville area and I understand that weddings can get crazy expensive! Each couple has to decide what is important to them and plan accordingly. Obviously as a photographer, I hope to attract brides who hold photography as an importance, but sometimes I do get inquiries where they say their photography budget is only $1000. Realistically… this is not doable for me because I have a family to feed and professional expenses to cover. But a great vendor will steer you in the right direction when they can’t help you. I always refer those inquiries to someone I trust who may be just starting out. So brides should definitely ask for referrals when they find out that a particular vendor is out of reach for them. It is better to get a referral from someone who KNOWS the industry than to depend on a Google search. Everyone has a pretty website these days. :)

  4. We got married in November. We planned for about 6 months. Spent around $8,000 in total. We had around 110 guests. Our cash gifts nearly covered the cost of the wedding and every single person said it was one of the best weddings they had ever been to.

    The trick is to focus on the important items. Not everything is important. For us, the photographer was. However, we didn’t need a lot of flowers. We reused items from our friends’ and families’ weddings. The cost of the dress, food, decorations, alcohol were all kept to a minimum. We did everything ourselves with the help of our family. The wedding was beautiful and it seemed that no expense was spared.

    • I did our wedding for about $5000. It went so well that I was asked to do two more. I agree that its about what is most important. I refused to spend thousands of dollars on a dress that I would wear once. I went to a dress outlet store and got a nice one on clearance for $89. I made my own flower arrangements, wedding favors and my own veil. We set up and torn down the reception hall and did such a great job of clean up they discounted our fee (money back in our pocket!) We all know someone who is in a business (or knows someone in a related field) to get a connect of hook up, so we utilized those connections. We didnt try to short change them, but just requested a discount on their normal charges. A friend did the photography. A cousin catered the food- both at discounted rates. Blank invitations were bought at an office supply store and enhanced for free on my home computer.
      You can cut cost without cutting style, and nobody notices a thing!

      • Hey. I am beginning to plan mh wedding a d definitely like the way you did yours; on a budget.

  5. Mrs. SPF is currently writing a 6 piece series on our Sustainable Wedding planning.
    1) we used e-vites instead of paper invitations except for our parents and grandparents – saved a bundle.
    2) attire – Mrs. SPFs Mom MADE her gown and me and the boys bought suits instead of one night rentals
    5) guest list – we parred it down to 67 and 4) selected a venue that couldn’t hold a ton of people
    8) we did exactly this
    9) 2 bottles of wine free per table – pay bar

    We found wedding party gifts to be a bit costly.

  6. Well, I have to look at this and add a few things. You’re missing some very common-sense items, Frugal Dad!

    Invitations – there are some great kits out there now that make invitations a fraction of the cost they once were. And at many chain stores, they are items that qualify for the 40% off coupons.
    Attire – don’t just think of the traditional sources for wedding gowns. Gap and J Crew have great dresses at a fraction of the cost new. At the same time, check out other sources of gowns, such as a local dressmaker. A friend of mine did her dress and her 10 bridesmaid dresses with the same dressmaker because the woman gave her a volume discount. The bride was happy AND the bridesmaids!
    Music – a great wedding I went to had a laptop and speakers set up for the music. Throughout the wedding, a bridesmaid’s or groomsman’s name would be called and they got to pick the next ten songs. People are much more forgiving of this now because of the expense. Other weddings I have been to consisted entirely of a karaoke machine on all night – and it was always packed! It just depends on the family and friends of the bride and groom. A friend of mine is planning a Rock Band setup at her wedding this coming May.
    Photos – from my own experience, it was better to pay a couple adult relatives who knew how to take good photos to do the majority of them. I paid a couple hundred dollars, got six rolls of film and all rights to the photos. I created a Flickr pool online and told everyone to add them photos to that. In all, I got about a thousand photos, and most of them were of good quality. If you choose to do the “camera at the table” thing, you need to make sure they are labeled with something explaining to take the photos and drop the camera in a collection spot on the way out, not to take them with you.

    A few points on Venue AND Timing –
    -Look at moving your wedding outside of your immediate area. A Chicago wedding that costs 24,000 would be a fraction of that cost in northern Indiana, for example, and even less in northern Michigan.
    -Look at your venue with a critical eye for both the location and timing. A historic church might not need as much decoration as a modern one, for example. Ask the venue if they have any decorations they can throw in for the price. At the SAME time, ask them what they decorate for various holidays. A friend of mine spent $0 on decorations because she was married in a historic church in the winter, when it was already beautifully decorated for Christmas. Another friend spent $0 on decorations for a military wedding at her local VFW, because it was already decked out in flags and other Memorial Day regalia. Same for the reception site – a nice park, garden or beach doesn’t need $10,000 worth of flowers to make it pretty, or even a room with a nice view doesn’t need as much – the guests are there to party and have fun, not take apart your decorating skills!
    -High season is an invention of the wedding circuit. Look at hotels that host retreats, large resorts, etc. and this will matter less in the pricing. Availability will be less, but you can plan around that. If you don’t want to have an evening wedding, afternoon weddings in May and June can still be at a substantial savings.

    Also, with a lot of costs of decorations, dresses and tuxes, etc. – ask your family if you can borrow them! If you can’t borrow them, consider renting the items. Hobby stores and rental agencies can be great sources of items. A friend of mine rented an archway for a beach wedding from a hobby store for $200 for 3 days – and it was a $800 archway! Many of my friends who are brides are renting dresses from clothing rental shops, and telling their bridesmaids to rent online as well. For $50 for the weekend, one can have a designer dress and you don’t have to store it afterward.

    The other costs that you are forgetting are those of the bridal shower, bachelorette party, bridal tea, etc. and customs such as the Polish custom to have a bottle of vodka on each table of the reception, or the eastern european customs to feed the guests again at the end of the night. You need to ask about those PRIOR to planning the wedding to know what to expect, and how much the mother of the bride, you are expected to put in, your bridesmaids, etc.

    Lastly, I think the problem with so many of these “planning on a budget” type lists for a wedding is that it focuses so much on what is being “left out” of the budget. The bigger idea that people need to understand is that a wedding is what YOU make it, not what the wedding industry SAYS it is. My wedding was $3,000, friends have spent upwards of $40,000 for 400+ people, others have spent $100. The important thing is that the bride is focusing on the experience and the fun of it, not that they didn’t get the $125 pillar candles.

    • Excellent points, Connie! I rely heavily on commenters filling in the blanks and providing additional perspective, and you’ve done just that.

      I particularly liked your last paragraph regarding the expectations set by the wedding industry rather than planning within our own means. This lesson could be extended to many occasions where we typically overspend.

      Thanks for commenting!

  7. Boy, am I glad I found this blog! And my very own frugal father will probably be very glad as well, lol! There are some excellent tips here. Thank you so much for posting them.

  8. Isn’t your suggestion about using music from an ipod a violation of copyright laws? I know people do this, but that doesn’t mean it’s legal or ethical.

  9. Great suggestions. My wife and I were married about two years ago, and definitely felt the “acute sticker shock”, when all was said and done. Two of the more expensive things for us were our band and photographer, the same two things that absolutely made our wedding day as special as it was, and gave us a great deal of wonderful, professional photos to boot. There are a lot of ways to cut costs, but I must say, I would be willing to cough up a premium once again for an amazing band and an outstanding photographer.

    Pat
    http://compoundingreturns.blogspot.com

  10. Fresh flowers?- pricey…but we found http://www.amazonflowers.us/. We bought bunches of gerber daisies and tubular roses (smell amazing). We made the bouquets (ribbon on stems) decorated the base of the cake and floated them in bowls for centerpieces.
    Invitations- we are not crafty http://www.theamericanwedding.com/ did a great job. After all the pieces from my friend’s wedding- it was cheaper as well. (I am not associated with either site).
    Decorations- watch for ribbon and decorations after Christmas or Valentine’s day. We bought twinkle lights for a buck and ribbon for less.
    Dress- she found hers in a boutique. A woman had ordered three and left two for the store to resell…lol….designer dress from a foolish woman who could not make up her mind. Sometimes look in the place you least expect.
    No alcohol. They chose that since many invitees cannot hold their liquor.
    They did a sparkling cider toast and made it known that there was a pay bar in the next room.

    What I wish we had done better- the photographer. Ours was young. She got two or three excellent pictures- but the lighting was not good. If I were to do it again I would have asked to see more work ahead. Those are the breaks. The two great pictures hang in both our house and theirs.

    and yes Kevin- we did a lovely wedding with most of the bells and whistles for under $2500- including the honeymoon. If you don’t care, why are you reading.

  11. Those are great suggestions…

    I’m getting married on February 5th, and we’ve been pretty successful at sticking to our budget, which is far, far lower than $24,000 (in fact, we came in several thousand under our budget). Here are a few additional “frugal wedding” suggestions:

    Consider buying a bridesmaid dress for your wedding dress. When selected in a white or ivory color, some of them look very bridal …and they’re much, much cheaper. For example: alfredangelo.com/Collections/ProductDisplay.aspx?productID=17322a4a-ce4d-4ef7-8cb7-93bc1cffc355&categoryID=772f03c9-de43-4942-bfa0-da77e21ebd65&pg=2&colorId1=1d33e245-dd85-42a3-b0fa-0279dfb8b485

    Don’t read bridal magazines and websites (with the exception of some of the alternative wedding websites, such as my favorite: apracticalwedding.com/). I finally adopted this rule after I read a “Countdown List To Your Wedding Day” in which step 10 was to get liposuction (and this was a fairly popular magazine!).

    If you have reasonable computer skills, consider making your own wedding invitations via CafePress or Zazzle (or a similar site). This isn’t much more expensive than making them on your own computer, and they’ll look very professional (and be more meaningful). Search for a promo code (very rarely will you have to pay full price) …and remember Frugal Dad’s wise advice to select a size that fits into a regular envelope (to assure postage will only be 44-cents).

    This suggestion is a bit trickier and probably won’t apply to most engaged couples, but my fiancé and I were lucky enough to find a restaurant that provided everything …and by “everything” I mean decorations (the restaurant is decorated in an old European style and we couldn’t possibly have added anything to it …the tables always have tall vases with fresh orchids), the food (a multi-course sit-down meal), a full open bar (with everything imaginable), a pianist, and a wedding cake. They are closing down the whole restaurant for us (we can stay as long as we want). Price? $100 per person, tax and tip included …which seems a lot at first, but when you consider everything it includes and the fact that it’s a four-star restaurant, it’s an amazing deal. The restaurant isn’t known for hosting weddings – my advice to couples would be to explore the restaurants in your city to see if you can find a similar deal to us.

    Speaking of venues, always remember to ask whether tax and tip is included in the price you are quoted (often it isn’t).

    I’ve never heard a married couple say that they wished they had better napkins or that the bride had a fancier wedding dress …but I’ve heard countless couples say they wish they’d hired a good professional photographer. This is the one area we were prepared to go less of a frugal route. However, we still did shop wisely. I scoured the web for hours and hours and eventually found a photographer in our city whose online portfolio was amazing (before seeing her price list, I thought she was going to be another one of the 5K plus photographers), had all positive reviews (e.g., on Yelp), and would fit within our budget ($1,050 for 8 hours). I later discovered that her prices were relatively low because she is very young and trying to build up her business. Low and behold, when I checked out her prices again a few weeks ago, they had more than doubled (thank goodness we have a contract!).

    Consider buying your wedding rings from Etsy – we had ours (etsy.com/transaction/26889422) made by a husband/wife team and are thrilled with them! Not only were they cheap ($110 for both), but it’s neat knowing ours have a story behind them.

    Lastly, I agree with Abby B and Ryan – you don’t have to do everything – figure out what is important to you and leave the other stuff out.

  12. To add my two cents to the chorus:

    My husband and I actually didn’t set a budget or schedule when we planned our wedding. Instead we listed our priorities and then worked through them. When we reached the point where were not comfortable spending any more money, we stopped.

    Invite your friends and family to do the flowers. We ordered a wedding pack of flowers and then invited everyone who wasn’t in the rehearsal to come and put together bouquets and arrangements and then join us all at the rehearsal dinner. They had fun and we ended up with a variety of nice arrangements.

    Get clothes that you will wear again. My husband bought a kilt instead of renting a tux. He’s now worn it so many times that it has pro-rated out to less than the cost of a rental. I bought a dress that is now my formal dess, and I have since worn it a couple times (it helps that I didn’t want white).

  13. I made all my own invitations with my printer! I have a background in graphic design, so that part was easy. I spent about $50 on paper, envelopes, postage, and a new ink cartridge. We got several compliments, too!

  14. Weddings don’t have to lead to breaking the bank. If you are frugal and do things yourself or enlist the help of others you can save a lot of money. My only wish for my wedding was cake insurance because our cake was a disaster. Other than that, perfection:)

  15. A great way to reduce centerpiece and cake costs is to purchase Sam’s Club cakes (they will frost in whatever color you want) in a variety of flavors and use those with a few flowers (or even just petals) for your centerpieces. It’s also a great way for guest to mingle as they find a table with their favorite flavor of cake. Worked for our wedding!

  16. Once played Mrs. Sommes in a play called, “Our Town”. That’s as close as I have’ve come to being married. But, I can’t resist reading about weddings or looking at the websites on-line. This one is truely one of being frugal. Yes, I agree stick to the beer and wine.

  17. Wedding costs spiral out of control unless you really agree and subsequently, stick to a budget. Plan everything carefully and remember it is only one day of your life – you don’t want to be paying it off for another 10 years plus!

  18. Frugaldad
    There are some really good tips here, particular with regard to the venue, avoiding typical wedding venues can save you a packet (on the venue) but also because you can then decide on which suppliers you use for food and drinks (the supermarket) etc…allowing you to get a competitive deal.

    Of course the most important thing for making sure you get the dream wedding without the price tag is to create and stick to a budget. Live by the budget throughout the planning process.

  19. Awesome advice – I had an uncle, who does photography as a hobby, do the photography for our wedding. I’ll be posting a link to this on my blog (http://mrshoestring.blogspot.com/) where one of topics I cover are tips for a having a wedding on a shoestring.
    I had friends of ours mail out postcards with the choice to either e-mail or text their RSVP for their wedding.

  20. I”m getting married in June, 2014. I am an older bride, past 55, but I want a very nice wedding on a budget. We are a mature couple that places priority on things that make sense. I am crafty, and would like to have an oriental inspired reception. Any suggestions to help us accomplish this would be appreciated. We reside in Pennsylvania.

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