Everyone knows the marriage is more important than the wedding, yet the average American wedding runs $30,000. Our realtor wisely advised us “don’t marry your house,” i.e., don’t get in over your head financially. The same advice applies to engaged couples—your wedding is one of the most special days of your life, but there’s nothing special about starting your marriage weighed down by wedding debt.
A wedding is many things–a public commitment, a legal or spiritual event, a family celebration, an epic party, and more. But one thing my wedding was NOT was a showcase of my personal sense of style, creativity, uniqueness, or Pinterest-prowess. It certainly included personal touches, but I felt no need to channel every ounce of my personality into each minute detail. If anything, it was my low maintenance approach, not the centerpieces, that may have spoken volumes about me.
I was very fortunate that my parents offered to pay for my wedding. I am so grateful for their financial support, but I never viewed their generosity as a license to spend. My mother, to whom I owe my frugal genes and know-how, helped me plan a catered celebration for 180 guests for $7,000.
The first day of my engagement, one of roommates (who was NOT engaged) proffered her secret stash of wedding magazines to me. Defying stereotypes, I’d never spent any time dreaming about my future wedding. In fact, I said I’d never get married and instead dreamed of running an orphanage in a poverty-stricken country. How’s that for a fantasy? (Now with two children of my own, I realize how delusional I was.)
Rather than lusting over the magazine’s lavish celebratory scenes, I flipped to the bridal checklist since my main concern was how in the world I, freshly 20 years old, was supposed to organize a grand social affair for all the people we and our families knew. All while being in school full time, working part time, and writing a senior thesis.
Oh, and did I mention we were only engaged four months? At least the short engagement didn’t leave me much time to over-spend.
What I Skipped
The first thing I did with the bridal magazine checklist, whose timeline was two years, not four months, was start crossing off stuff that was obviously superfluous. I can’t remember all the ridiculous expenses I was supposed to accept as normal now that Neil had put a ring on it. But here are some common wedding costs that I felt free to bypass altogether:
- Save the date cards—I didn’t have time! But most weddings I’ve attended didn’t issue these.
- Engagement photos—also no time! Someone snapped a decent shot of us at my shower, which was sufficient for us.
- Fancy invites—I bought some at Staples and a friend printed the invites from their home printer.
- Bridesmaid’s dresses—don’t worry, my bridesmaids did wear dresses, but they weren’t from a pricey bridal store. Instead we found nice, reasonably priced dresses at a department store. The bonus—the bridesmaids rocked them at other events, such as a Homecoming dance and a different wedding, because they were actually normal, wearable dresses in normal, wearable colors and fabric! And they didn’t need expensive alternations, in part because they weren’t floor-length.
- Alternatively, several recent weddings I’ve attended have asked bridesmaids to select any dress of a particular color. Not any style of the over-priced bridal store’s dresses, but any dress from any store in black, red, dark green, or whatever. This Choose Your Own Adventure bridesmaid dress surprisingly looks just fine.
- Or you could skip bridesmaids altogether. I like the idea of having people “stand up” for you, but my sisters skipped this for their weddings, and I must confess I was honored not to have to buy an overpriced, ugly dress and stand in horrible heels for an hour while trying not to bawl away all my eye make-up in front of hundreds of guests. That said, I will always be honored to serve as a bridesmaid, as well (if anyone ever asks me after that rant).
- Wedding colors—speaking of wedding colors, I just didn’t have them. Or, I didn’t choose them ahead of time. Rather than limiting our bridesmaid’s dress search to a particular color, I went with an open mind and considered any seasonally appropriate hue. We tied the bridesmaid dress color in with the wedding programs (which are unnecessary, but were a beautiful handmade gift), and that was about the extent of my chromatic commitment.
- Decorations—one trait we loved about the place we rented was that it was already decorated in a neutral way. The last thing I needed to worry about was fashioning mason jars into centerpieces. Thank God I got married before Pinterest, but I don’t think it would’ve held much allure for me.
- Theme—the theme of my wedding was…wedding! As in, I’m getting married! Going with a cabin or rustic theme for our January wedding sounded cozy, but ultimately we didn’t see the value in attaching a special motif to our very obvious agenda.
- Flower girl—we weren’t close to any girls of the appropriate age, and wanted to keep things simple, too.
- Ring bearer—I honestly have no idea whether we had one. I can’t remember! Maybe our nephew? Just goes to show how relatively unimportant some of these things are—or maybe it shows what a bad aunt I am.
- Cocktails—we had beer and wine available, but were certainly not concocting custom cocktails to show how hip we are. (We aren’t.)
- Favors—to be honest, I can’t remember many wedding favors I’ve received. Usually they are a small consumable item that might be gone before the night is over, and either represent a lot of time or money spent to make them. Since I was short on both these resources, I opted to skip it, and I don’t think anyone had a worse time for it. Do yourself a favor and save the money for the honeymoon!
- Rice-throwing—we figured people would prefer not to stand outside, freezing in the snow, to throw something stuff at us.
- Limo—Neil’s sister graciously lent us her SUV so we could head off to our Smoky Mountain honeymoon cabin safely. The groomsmen touchingly decorated it with sayings such as, “This will be a tight marriage” and, “A little marriage action,” reflecting the already-outdated slang of our high school days.
What I Did Frugally:
- Hair, nails, and make-up—my (cosmetology student) roommate did this for free.
- Videography–my video was done by a blind guy. I’m not kidding. A videographer friend of the family who was losing his vision offered to help out with this, and since videography hadn’t even crossed our minds, my parents said yes. I saw the video by chance at an out-of-state relative’s house some time later, and never again since. It’s not exactly the kind of thing you watch on movie nights.
- Photography—hired my (photography student) roommate. This is the one thrifty move I regret, though not badly. Pro photographers have the equipment to make your photos look way better than an amateur’s. It’s not really a matter of talent, but technology. My friend did a nice job and we certainly got what we paid for, but if I could go back I’d spend more on the pictures.
- Music—hired a friend to DJ, borrowed a family member’s equipment. The ceremony music came from a CD I checked out of the library.
- Flowers—hired a friend. If I had to go back, I might even do artificial for the bridesmaids (sorry, sisters!).
- Minister—Neil bartered fix-it service for the minister’s time.
- The hall—did I mention I didn’t even see the hall before we booked it? That’s right. My mom scoped out a very reasonable venue in my hometown after the places we saw near me were deemed too expensive or too small.
- Tiara—my veil was not cheap, but I picked up a cheap tiara at a craft store.
- Shoes—I couldn’t find anything I liked–everything was pointed-toe that year, and I’m not trendy or a witch–so I picked some boring ones at a department store. This was much cheaper than the $80 ballet flats at the wedding dress store.
- Thank you cards—value box from Target.
- The cake—we had one small round cake for us to cut & smash into each other’s nostrils, plus sheet cakes to serve guests. I actually have no idea how much the cake cost; my mom sent me to the bakery of an acquaintance a week before the wedding and I pointed at a generic wedding cake design and went on with my life.
- Bachelorette party—my maid of honor threw an awesome bachelorette party in my college rental home, pot-luck style. I’ve never been the clubbing type and wasn’t yet of legal drinking age, anyway!
What Was Pricey:
- My dress was outrageous at $750. I tried shopping for a white or cream dress at regular retail stores but those colors were not “in” that season. I probably should’ve looked online but it never occurred to me. My mom and maid of honor talked me out of a less expensive, plain dress that looked like something Laura Ingalls might’ve gotten married in, minus sleeves. I’m forever grateful for their guidance.
- The food & drink was inexpensive per person but multiplied by 180 it was a substantial portion of the total cost. Honing the guest list was my absolute least favorite part of wedding planning. We made some cuts but I’m glad we were able to include many of the family and friends we wanted to.
- Neil’s purview was the ring and honeymoon, and I must say he did not cheap out on these. Nor did he go ridiculously high-end in some misguided quest to prove his love for me. And he certainly didn’t go into debt—despite being in school, too, he secretly saved up while waiting to pop the question. It pays to marry a saver.
- Get pre-marital counseling.
- Read books about marriage.
- Maintain other friendships. Marrying your best friend is good advice as long as you keep up with your other friends.
- Talk about your finances before and after the big day. We recommend joint checking, creating a budget together, and delegating who will handle routine bill-paying, shopping, and banking. We don’t budget on a monthly basis anymore, but as newlyweds it’s a good idea to help you get on the same page. And remember to keep dreaming together about your goals!
- Date your spouse.
What wedding savings tips do you have? What was worth the cost to you, and what would you have done differently?