Planning a wedding can catapult you into a state of severe sticker shock.
Love is free, but “The Big Day” is certainly not. Catering, flowers, photography, venues, music, invitations, gowns, tuxedos . . . the list of expenses is almost as long as the guest list. The good news is that there are ways to tie the knot without breaking the bank. With careful planning, comparison shopping, and a little innovation, you can save a lot of money and still have the wedding of your dreams.
Here are 20 ways to have a special day without paying for years to come:
1. Trim the guest list.
There are lots of fixed costs involved in throwing a wedding (venue, music, flowers, photography, etc.), but there is one very large variable cost: the food (more on this in point 2). Whether sit-down or buffet, lunch or dinner, food truck or family-style, you can keep the per-plate cost down, but your cost will still be a multiple of the number of guests. That’s just an inescapable fact. Limit your guest list to those people with whom you truly want to experience the day, and don’t include your high school friends that you only say hi to on Facebook (on their birthdays). Your wallet (or purse) and future financial goals will thank you.
2. Find ways to save money on the food you serve.
- Buffet vs. Plated vs. Family Style
- Dinner vs. Lunch vs. Brunch vs. Appetizers, Cake, and Champagne
- Hot vs. Cold
- Catered vs. Not Catered
Food will be one of the largest expenses of the wedding, so consider all of the options. A buffet is usually less expensive than a plated meal. Family-style meals (a few large bowls and plates on each table for guests to share) may be less expensive than plated meals or buffets. You need to check and compare options and package prices at the venue you are considering. A wedding luncheon or brunch should cost less than a dinner, and hot food typically costs more than cold food. Some people opt for assorted appetizers, champagne, and dessert—and no main dishes—to keep the cost of food down. (Just have enough so that your guests don’t go home hungry.) Don’t think you’re being cheap by cutting back on the food. People are here for your nuptials (and probably the party/dance floor), not a rare steak and dry table-side conversation.
3. BYOL: Bring Your Own Liquor (you, not your guests)
Another large expense at a catered affair is the cost of alcohol. Many wedding venues significantly markup the price of wine, beer, and other drinks. Find out if the venue that you are using will allow you to bring your own alcohol. (Many places won’t allow that, because it is a significant source of revenue for them.)
If the venue allows you to bring your own wine and other drinks, and you have the opportunity to pick up wine and spirits at your local store, you can save a lot of money in this category. Just leave yourself enough time to buy what you’ll need. Don’t leave this until the last minute or you’ll take chances on selection. Preordering a favorite or nostalgic brand should ensure the store has it (and in cases). Also, make sure to arrange for a trusted friend or family member (i.e., NOT you) to deliver the bottles to the venue IN ADVANCE (preferably a day or so before, as they will likely have other [possibly unforeseen] duties!) You will also need to make sure that the venue will have people to serve the drinks that you bring (i.e., make sure they understand that bringing in your own alcohol doesn’t mean bringing in your own person to serve it).
4. Don’t book the wedding during the peak (i.e., expensive) wedding season.
According to Brides Magazine, the most popular (and most expensive) wedding season is from late spring to early fall, with peaks in June and September. There can also be local differences based on factors like weather and tourist seasons, so make sure to check the prices at different times of the year for the locations you are considering. Holiday weekends can also be more expensive, so check the calendar carefully and compare prices before you select a date. New Year’s Eve and Valentine’s Day are also popular (i.e., expensive) days for weddings, so make sure you carefully compare prices before you decide to get married on a holiday.
The time of year also affects the travel costs for your out-of-town guests. If you want your extended family as well as your high-flying finance friend and the one who works at a non-profit to attend, you need to be sensitive to their finances when you select a wedding date.
5. Consider other times besides Saturday night, which is the most expensive time for a wedding.
Wedding venues will probably be more expensive on Saturday night, which is a more formal and popular time for a wedding. If you are looking to reduce your costs—who isn’t . . . unless you’re marrying Princess Beatrice or Prince Albert Von Thurn Und Taxis? And no, he’s not an Uber driver—Saturday afternoon or Sunday afternoon would be good choices.
Sunday night is tough on guests who may not want to party until midnight if they have to be at work the next day (especially if they are from out-of-town). Weeknights are tough too, due to work and family obligations. Sunday night weddings can also work out on a 3-day holiday weekend, but travel arrangements are usually more expensive for those who are coming from out of town.
6. Don’t get your heart set on any particular venue until you shop around.
Couples may come to the planning process with certain preconceived notions about what they are looking for in a venue: hotel ballroom; country inn; bed and breakfast; restaurant; beach or park; tent in the backyard; country barn; vineyard; art gallery; etc. The venue is vitally important and should reflect a couple’s personality as best as possible. On the other hand, before you get your heart set on a particular type of venue or any one specific place, make sure you understand all of the costs associated with that location. (And be open to changing your views if the price doesn’t match your budget.) Different venues come with vastly different prices, so do your homework and select a place that fits with your budget as well as your style.
7. Consider alternative sources for flowers.
Flowers and plants can cost a lot of green. If you don’t mind doing some digging before planting the seeds for your future—AND if you have a creative streak—consider other sources of flowers such as your local flower market (or even the flower department of your supermarket) instead of a higher priced wedding florist.
Some people choose a single long-stem rose for the bridesmaids or a gathering of fresh colorful flowers that are in season instead of more expensive bouquets from a traditional wedding florist. To save money on table arrangements, some people buy inexpensive glass vases from a dollar store or craft shop and either buy pre-arranged flowers from a local market or combine assorted fresh flowers on their own. If you choose to go this route, though, try to enlist the help of other RELIABLE friends and family members on the day of the wedding so that you can spend your big day getting yourself ready instead of getting your flowers ready.
8. There are a few ways to reduce the cost of photography.
Wedding photos are a must-have, but there are ways to lower your costs if you are willing to keep your expectations flexible. Check out some of the wedding photo-sharing apps that let guests share the photos or videos they’ve taken with their phones during or right after the wedding. See GuestShots, Veri (by The Knot), EverSnap, and WedPics. Some couples leave disposable cameras out on the tables for their guests to use. Just don’t have unrealistic expectations for these guest photos. They will be candid—which is good—but they also may be dark or unfocused. Hopefully, though, you’ll find a few diamonds in the rough.
If you want to hire a professional wedding photographer—and there are many good reasons to do so—another way to manage your costs is to cut back on the pre-wedding photos such as engagement photos or those “getting ready” photos taken an hour or two before the ceremony. You can also talk with your photographer about how many photographers or helpers you will actually need, since your costs will be directly related to the number of assistants you will have at the event (to handle lighting or other tasks). You can also decide if you want to incur the extra cost of a videographer in addition to a still photographer. It’s a good idea to compare prices and packages before you hire a photographer so you can have a firm idea of the costs involved with the different services available.
9. The cost of music can vary greatly, so shop around.
A live band will usually be more expensive than a DJ, but there can be exceptions, so you need to compare. To cut back on the cost of music, you can look for a live group with a smaller number of musicians, a newer group that is just starting out, or a DJ who can provide recorded music.
10. Get creative and save money on invitations.
Save-the-date cards have become popular, but you don’t need to spend a lot on these. Consider sending them online or printing them at a place like Zazzle, VistaPrint, Staples, or FedEx Design and Print Center.
Consider setting up your own website where you can list the event schedule, wedding and local activities, updates, points of interest, helpful hints (including places to stay, especially if you were able to secure a discount on rooms), and even pictures of you and your betrothed. If you don’t know coding, don’t worry. This is easy to do yourself through sites like The Knot or Squarespace.
For the actual wedding invitation itself, there are invitation consultants and vendors that provide beautiful invitations, but their products can be pricey. If you shop around online or locally, you can usually find a less expensive design. Think about keeping tabs on the cost with:
- Fewer inserts
- Simpler or thinner paper
- Single card without overlays
- Smaller overall paper size
- Lettering without embossing
- Envelopes without expensive lining
- Envelopes addressed by hand or computer instead of beautiful but expensive calligraphy
- RSVP via email address or through your own wedding website (see above) instead of a separate pre-stamped RSVP card
For invitations, check out places like Zazzle, VistaPrint, Staples, and FedEx Design & Print Center. If you are creative, you can try your hand at designing your own card and uploading it for printing at a place like FedEx Design & Print Center.
11. Cut down on the number of non-wedding-party guests invited to the rehearsal dinner.
It used to be that the rehearsal dinner was a time for an actual rehearsal with the wedding party. These days, rehearsal dinners have become another reason to party the night before, and many couples invite not only the actual wedding party but also other family, friends, and out-of-town guests. In some cases, especially when there are large numbers of guests traveling to the wedding, the rehearsal dinners can grow to large numbers (large, as in expensive). Try to keep a lid on the cost of the rehearsal dinner by only inviting the wedding party and other close family or friends.
If you still want to have a large group the night before, look around for a more casual restaurant or a simpler menu. This is really where you can cut the food costs and have a party with its own flair. You might also consider arranging for a food truck to come to a local park or beach for a fun evening before the big day. There are a few perks here for everyone. Your guests may prefer showing up in casual clothes at the rehearsal dinner instead of having to bring two formal outfits for the weekend.
Also, suppose you and your spouse-to-be (or your respective families) can’t agree on the wedding dinner or venue. One wants vegan and one wants steak; one wants a church wedding and the other envisions a beachfront. The rehearsal dinner venue provides a perfect opportunity for those who want a more unique or toned-down event to have their way, while the other side can have theirs (or vice versa) on the day of the wedding. Marriage is about compromise. This is a great way to start.
12. DIY hair and makeup.
Many brides hire professionals to do hair and makeup for themselves and their bridesmaids. Some wedding parties bring hair stylists and makeup artists to the venue or make group appointments at salons. This is a wonderful treat if you have room in your budget. But if you are comfortable doing your own hair and makeup—or if you have any friends or family members who can do this for you—you can save a lot of money. Just don’t try out any new fancy moves for the first time (looking at you, contouring). If you have a specific look, practice a few times on yourself, ask a beautician to show you (free makeover counter! And you’ll know what to buy), and/or check out some YouTube videos (there are A LOT, but they are also free). Again, if someone else is doing your makeup, make sure this person knows what you want and has done this before to perfection.
13. If you have your heart set on a destination wedding, don’t assume it will be more expensive than a local venue.
Destination weddings sound like they would be very expensive, because of the travel involved. The irony is that these types of weddings can sometimes end up costing less. Guest lists have a way of mushrooming when the venue is local. If you are asking your guests to travel with you to some faraway location, it might be easier to only invite your immediate family and friends. The cost of 25 people at some exotic resort could be a lot less than the cost of 125 people at a local wedding venue.
Also, if you live in an expensive area and the resort is somewhere that a low-cost carrier is flying to (or is a major route), then you may save overall on food, alcohol, flowers, etc. It can also be cheaper to fly from New York to certain places in Europe than halfway across the country.
14. Prices of wedding dresses, bridesmaid dresses, and tuxes can vary significantly. Have a price point in mind before you go shopping and stick to it.
There is a WIDE range of prices for wedding dresses, ranging from more affordable dresses at stores like David’s Bridal to designer gowns that can run into five digits. It’s a good idea to set your budget before you shop and do your best to stick to it. Salespeople may try to budge you into a higher price point by showing you the “less expensive” Oscar de la Renta after the Vera Wang, but it is up to you to stay within your budget.
You can also look for sample sales (such as at Kleinfeld from Say Yes To The Dress fame) and end-of-season sales. Also check out places like VOWS Bridal Outlet, which sells discounted designer wedding gowns. Or check out sites like OnceWed, where you can buy previously owned dresses (“used” just sounds wrong for these beautiful dresses) or sell your own dress after your wedding to recoup some of the cost.
Some brides opt for dresses from non-bridal shops for a less traditional look. Because these are not technically wedding dresses, the prices can be much lower.
Tuxedos can be rented or purchased (new or used). If you are looking to save money on tuxes, keep in mind that some tuxedo rental places will provide a free tux rental to the bride or groom if a certain number of tuxes for your wedding party are also rented from that store. (Even if the store doesn’t offer this, ask if they would give you a discount on your tux if your wedding party rents from them.) Also check out online tuxedo rental sites such as xedo.com and theblacktux.com. Another way to save money on your tux for the wedding is to sell it after the big day. (How many people can fit into their wedding tuxes on their 25th anniversary anyway?)
Wedding Party Attire:
Menswear is pretty basic and can usually be repurposed (excluding bowties and other accessories). Think about extending this courtesy to those wearing dresses. Bridesmaids are often asked to wear matching or coordinating dresses, which can add a financial burden and possibly force your nearest and dearest to buy a dress that they either don’t like or won’t want to wear again. Consider having your bridesmaids wear any dress or outfit they want in your choice of colors or style. This way, they can buy clothes that suit their body type, their fashion sense, and their budget.
You can also get really lucky if you know someone who knows how to sew. (Eric: Heck, my mother even sowed some of her best friends’ wedding dresses—and my sister’s 1980’s prom dresses from patterns, but we won’t go there. You can even try to wear and/or repurpose a secondhand or vintage dress, which could be especially meaningful if it’s from a family member or someone special.)
15. Borrow a veil.
If you splurge on the dress, you can still save money by borrowing a veil from a good friend or family member. Veils can be amazingly expensive (considering they have holes in them), and most people only wear them during the ceremony anyway, if at all. Want something borrowed, something blue? Borrow a blue veil, and you’ve got both covered (in addition to covering your head).
16. Get creative with the cake.
Wedding cakes can be very expensive, especially if you have a large guest list. (See point 1.) Some couples use a small cake for cutting and photographs, and then keep a few large sheet cakes in the kitchen to cut up and serve to the guests. (Eric: I feel very betrayed by this knowledge. But no, most people have big cakes…and then slam a piece in the face of their betrothed.) Or maybe someone you know is a great baker and wants to make the cake as your wedding gift (lucky you). Some couples ditch the cake altogether and serve other desserts: chocolate dipped strawberries; mini cheesecakes; cupcakes; pastries; cookies; cake-pops; etc. You can have your cake (or any other dessert) and eat it too.
17. DIY wedding favors or do away with them entirely.
Did you ever go to a wedding and walk away with wedding favors like a customized tote bag or T-shirt, a small box of fancy chocolates, or personalized keychain, bottle opener, etc? These small gifts for your guests are nice, but they can cost a lot when you have to buy 100 or 200 of them. Do yourself a favor (pun intended) and find a more affordable giveaway like a bag of penny candy (yes, that term is still a misnomer, but shop around), jelly beans, or Hershey’s kisses. Or spring for some customized M&M’s (and you’re lucky if both your names start with an M!).
18. Repurpose family rings, stones, or wedding bands.
Let’s face it: Diamond engagement rings are expensive. So are engagement rings in other precious stones (sapphire, ruby, emerald). If you are offered a family ring, consider yourself lucky. Not only will you save money, but more importantly you will have a unique family heirloom piece with special meaning. You can still maintain the family connection from generation to generation even If you decide to have the setting changed or updated or use the stone in a completely different design (such as by adding other stones, etc.).
Gold bands can also be repurposed, either by having a jeweler melt down the gold and use it to create a new band for you or by resizing the band itself in its original design.
Whether you repurpose a family stone or use the gold from a family setting or band, you will have a unique ring that has a special meaning.
19. Watch out for hidden costs.
When you are planning your wedding, be vigilant about hidden costs. Some vendors may be transparent about all the extras, but others may not. It is up to you to ask the tough questions in advance:
- Are there any other costs that will be added on?
- Is there a guaranteed tip (20%? 25%) tacked on at the end?
- Are there venue fees on top of the catering fees per person?
- Does the bed and breakfast or hotel have a minimum stay (3 days?) or require a certain minimum number of guests to stay overnight in order for you to use their space as the venue?
- Does the venue have a minimum rental fee?
- Are you required to use the venue’s approved vendors (who may be more expensive than the vendors you might select)?
- Does the group rate for rooms at the hotel have a minimum number of rooms to be booked in order to get the lower group rate?
- Does the public park or beach require a permit fee or a reservation fee?
- Are you required to hire security personnel to use certain public spaces?
- Do you need to rent portable bathroom facilities for any outdoor public space?
- Are you required to take out insurance at this venue?
- Don’t forget to leave room in your budget for the often outrageously high cost of dry cleaning the wedding dress (if you have one).
20. Say “I Do” to your partner but “I Don’t” to wedding loans.
There are many lenders out there offering so-called “wedding loans” to help defray the high cost of weddings. Don’t do it. The last thing you need when you are just starting out as a married couple is more debt. Your wedding day will still be a beautiful and memorable day without all the expensive extras that you can’t afford outright. If you need to take out a loan to afford certain things, eliminate those extras or find some other way to make it work within your budget. When people talk about, “Something borrowed, something blue, something old, something new,” the “something borrowed” should NOT mean wedding loans!