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April 23, 2016

How to Throw an Awesome Wedding Without Breaking the Bank

Our Wedding in 2011
I've heard there are two things people will spend irrationally on--weddings and funerals. With the average wedding cost creeping toward $30,000, I believe it. With the right mindset and a few tips, I can help you be rational and control the cost of your wedding, while still providing a great time for all.

Before you start planning your wedding, you should ask yourself one question: What are we trying to accomplish?
If your main goal is to have a big, luxurious event to impress or out-do your friends and family, you are going to waste a lot of money.
On the other hand, if you want to have a big, fun, memorable party with all your friends and family, I can help.

A lot of brides think everything needs to be just so at their wedding, but most people don't care about most of the things brides stress out over and spend money on. The main criteria for every decision should be "Will this help my guests have more fun?"
The more fun your guests have, the more fun you will have.

The Things That Matter

These are the things that will help your guests better enjoy themselves, so it's OK to pry open your wallet for them.

Open Bar
This is the single most important part of any wedding. A little alcohol makes everything more fun, especially weddings. If you don't have an open bar, even a frugal fellow like me is going to judge you, so suck it up and spring for the open bar. The one way you can save on this item is to forgo the full bar and just provide beer and wine. If your guests aren't happy with that, they won't be happy with anything.

Where you hold your wedding matters, but not in the way you might think. It doesn't matter if you have it at a fancy country club or somewhere that makes you look good. What matters is how easy it is for people to get to your wedding. If people have to take time off work or spend a lot of time or money to attend, they are going to be annoyed and you are putting yourself at a disadvantage. Locate your wedding as conveniently as possible for the majority of your guests.

Day of the Week
Weddings should be on Saturday. If your wedding is a weekday, your guests are either going to be tired from rushing over after work or annoyed they had to take a vacation day. If it’s on a Sunday, your guests know they have to work the next day. Either way they aren’t going to be inclined to have as much fun. I understand it’s usually cheaper to host a non-Saturday wedding, but don’t do it. Find another venue that’s affordable on Saturday and book it.

A big part of what makes weddings fun is the dancing, and you can’t have fun dancing without good music (the open bar helps too). I lean toward having a DJ instead of a live band because a DJ can play anything a band can and a whole lot more, so do everyone a favor and book good music for your big day.

The best advice I can give you about the ceremony is to keep it short. Nobody wants to sit around all day. Also try to make it personal. Everyone has been to a bunch of weddings, so make yours a bit unique.

This was the single biggest line item in our wedding budget, and it’s hard to avoid. Good food is important, and there’s no easy way around it. You don’t need a gourmet feast, but you need to provide quality food in decent quantities. If you find a reasonable caterer, the price won’t be outrageous, but it will add up. Limiting the guest list is the best way to control food costs. It’s also perfectly acceptable to have your Uncle Bob fire up the BBQ and serve some down home cooking.

The Things That Don’t Matter (Much)

There are a whole bunch of things that people spend crazy amounts of money on that nobody really cares about. Here are just a few examples:

Quality wedding photos are important, but only up to a certain point. Most people have that one wedding portrait on their mantle, but every other photo is in a box. How much should you spend for that one photo?
It’s great to have all the photos of the bride getting ready and some fun reception shots, but with the quality of digital cameras these days, a trained monkey could take all the photos you would ever need. The photographer doesn’t even have to pay for film any more. Don’t let a photographer overcharge you for prints either. Get the digital files and print the photos you like. Nothing more.

If you don’t have a regular pastor/minister/reverend/etc., don’t overpay some random one to come marry you. Have one of your more responsible and well-spoken friends take 10 minutes to get “ordained” online and have them marry you. It will cost less and make for a much more personal ceremony. Even if you do have a pastor, sometimes they like to get a break and just be a guest.

This is a tough one, but logic must prevail. How much does it make sense to spend on a dress that will only be worn once? The answer is “not much.”
One trick that worked for us was to buy a discontinued style on clearance. Nobody will know it was last year’s design.

Around Los Angeles, the minimum charge for a wedding cake is often $800. For a cake. Yes, that is crazy. As with everything else, it is important to step back and think about what you are really paying for and decide if someone is trying to rip you off.

Restraint is the name of the game when it comes to decorations. Some are necessary, but you don’t need to go overboard, especially on anything that will be thrown away afterward.
Our decorations were mostly homemade and low cost. We hung tissue paper “poms” and cheap white Christmas lights. The tables were covered with butcher paper and our centerpieces were local plants that the guests could take home and put in their gardens. This is what it looked like:

How We Did It
We kept our wedding budget below $10,000, which took some effort. The single biggest factor enabler of our small budget was having the wedding in my small home town. We got a lot of free or discounted stuff because the vendor knew us personally. There was also often only one possible vendor for things like the cake, so it made picking vendors far less stressful.

I will keep this simple and just insert a table below. The columns include a sample $10,000 wedding budget we used as reference, our actual budget, and comments on various items.

 Sample Budget
 Actual Cost
Reception Venue
 $        800
 $        75
Wedding and reception at a local county park. A friend paid for the venue as our gift. Would have been $640 for us, but they didn't pay that much. We paid the $75 to stay late.
Food and Service
 $    3,000
 $  4,250
We had a local caterer handle the food and they did an amazing job. Skirt steak, chicken, risotto, salad, and appetizers.
 $        800
 $     483
Total from the four lines below.
 $           -  
 $     118
 $           -  
 $        67
Last minute addition, to complement lemonade and iced tea. Bought cheapest available.
 $           -  
 $     207
 $           -  
 $        91
 $        250
 $     515
The wife's one big splurge
Cake Topper
 $           -  
 $        68
Cool custom wire topper from etsy.
Gown etc
 $        600
 $     200
Discontinued design on clearance at a local bridal shop. Paid cash and they waived sales tax.
 $        100
 $        33
Bride Jewelry
 $        100
 $     195
Bride Shoes
 $           -  
 $        60
Hair and Makeup
 $          50
 $         -  
Did it herself.
Prewedding Pampering
 $          50
 $         -  
 $          60
 $     260
Bought a suit.
Groom Accessories
 $          30
 $         -  
Groom Tie
 $           -  
 $        20
Groom Shoes
 $           -  
 $     121
Still wear these.
Ceremony Location Fee
 $        100
 $         -  
Officiant Fee
 $        100
 $         -  
Had a friend do it.
Ceremony Accessories
 $          60
 $         -  
Bride's Bouquet
 $          75
 $        40
Bridesmade Bouquets
 $        100
 $        50
Boutonnieres, etc.
 $          70
 $     150
Flower Girl Flowers
 $          15
 $         -  
Reception Decorations
 $        400
 $     133
Poms and lights.
 $           -  
 $     593
This got a little spendy, but they were plants the guests took home, so I don't feel bad.
Table Covering
 $           -  
 $        65
Butcher paper.
Ceremony Decorations
 $        140
 $         -  
Ceremony Musicians
 $        100
 $         -  
Cocktail Hour Music
 $        100
 $         -  
Reception Music
 $        600
 $     500
Local band and an iPod.
 $        600
 $         -  
Family friend did it for free.
 $        500
 $         -  
Different family friend did it for free.
Extra Prints & Videos
 $        100
 $         -  
Save the Dates
 $           -  
 $        37
STD Envelopes
 $           -  
 $        15
STD Postage
 $           -  
 $        55
 $        250
 $     156
Bought kits from Michael's and printed them ourselves.
Other Stationary
 $          50
 $         -  
His Ring
 $        100
 $     275
Could have saved a lot with a simple tungsten band.
Her Ring
 $        100
 $     752
Could have saved a lot with a simple gold band.
Bride/Groom Hotel
 $          50
 $     135
 $        100
 $         -  
Free parking at venue.
Limo/Car Rentals
 $        150
 $         -  
Attendant Gifts
 $        100
 $         -  
 $        150
 $     168
Favors were palm hand fans. Great for outdoor ceremony.
Parent Gifts
 $          50
 $         -  
Wedding Coordinator
 $           -  
 $         -  
Wedding License
 $           -  
 $        75
 $  10,000
 $  9,478
Let me know if you have any other ideas on how to save money in the comments.

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  1. This is one of the best posts that I have ever read on saving money during weddings. I too prefer small family weddings. That’s why we selected one of private Malibu wedding venues for our intimate wedding. Had invited only a couple of friends and our families.

  2. Great post! I 100% agree that this is something that many couples dive into without thinking. Financial burden is a huge factor in many unhappy marriages and it doesn't make sense to start off in the red.

    Can you follow up with advice for a destination budget wedding? Also... I'm assuming a funeral one too? :) love the blog!

    1. I don't have any experience organizing destination weddings or funerals, so I'm not inclined to offer advice on them. For destination weddings, some of the items in this post still apply. For funerals, I doubt the person who died cares how much you spend, so there's no reason to go overboard.