Don’t Marry Your Wedding

Sorry, you have to look at us again this week.

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:

  • Jewelry–borrowed.
  • 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.

Most importantly:

  • 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?

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29 Responses to “Don’t Marry Your Wedding”

  1. Jim Wang says :

    Me and lot of our friends are anywhere from 8-12 years away from our respective weddings and I recently asked them, what were the most memorable things about your own wedding. Overwhelmingly the answers were about the feel of the wedding, not specific things like flowers or dresses or anything else. It was about the people there, how much fun they were having, and definitely note the save the date cards, invitations, or flowers. So maximizing those things, which aren’t always pricey, can make your wedding a lot more memorable without being more expensive.

    • Kalie says :

      That’s an interesting question to ask not-so-newlyweds. Reflecting on the big day for the post, I realized how much I simply haven’t thought about in ten years, unless someone asked me specifically about it. I have NEVER thought, I wish I had a video of our wedding. The memory is enough!

  2. Mrs. Wanderlust says :

    Oh gracious, I relate to this so much! We got married during our full time, unpaid, student teaching internship our last year of college. We spent around 3 or 4 thousand out of pocket, no loans, all cash. It wasn’t the wedding my husbands parents wanted for him. My parents didn’t care and encouraged us to elope. That was appealing to us but we had a few elderly relatives that very much so wanted to see us wed. So, we threw a little shin-dig.

    Like you, I slightly regret that we didn’t hire a professional photographer. Thankfully, there are some photos I dearly love. But overall, I was deeply disappointed. The work she had done prior (groomsmen best friend/roommate) was beautiful and stunning. She spent the majority of the wedding and reception hitting on my soon to be and newly wed husband and the aforementioned groomsmen. Super awkward and super lame. We have very few photos of our reception. We have a lot of nice ones from the ceremony.

    • Kalie says :

      What an awful experience with the photographer! I also got married right before student teaching, and I’m so glad we did. Having each other’s full support through the end of school was actually very helpful. If we were paying for the wedding, we definitely would’ve done it even more frugally–probably smaller, a potluck or homemade food, and no alcohol, to name a few.

  3. Hannah says :

    I’ve been the guest at many very fancy weddings, but like you we had a short engagement, and other than the groom and the guest list, very little was important to me. Rob has particular(ly weird) music tastes, so he cared a lot about our DJ.

    We paid plenty for our photographer (no regrets at all, he’s actually gone on to more than triple his rates since our wedding, so we picked well), and we actually paid a lot for the park we rented out. Thankfully, the park also ended up being a frugal choice since alcohol was banned and we could have the ceremony and reception in the same space.

    Overall, I think the biggest key with keeping costs reasonable for your wedding is to emphasize the things that matter to you, and to eliminate as much as possible that you don’t care about.

    • Kalie says :

      No alcohol definitely saves a lot! It’s so true that focusing on what actually matters to you, and dismissing the rest, allows you to have a less expensive wedding while still enjoying a very special celebration.

  4. Josh says :

    Our engagement period was 3 weeks. It was supposed to be closer to 3 months, but I got moved with my job the next week (Boss told me Monday afternoon & Tuesday morning I drove 3 hours up the road to report at new location) after popping the question. So instead we had a very small wedding with immediate family (parents, grandparents, aunts/uncles) & very close friends (other friends were going to be invited originally) & we took our honeymoon a month later once the dust settled.

    Our advice is to keep your wedding as simple as possible (Easier said than done). Any wedding is a lot of work, our little one included.

    I would say saving (or spending money instead of on the wedding) for a honeymoon is important, we had a great time with just the two of us without distractions. And we want to take our family back there eventually because it was so much fun.

    Also a wedding photographer. Ours is a family friend, so we were blessed in that she was really generous to us and really affordable. We look at the pictures occasionally & enjoy the memories of that hectic summer.

    • Kalie says :

      Wow, 3 weeks! I absolutely agree that the honeymoon is more important than the wedding in many ways. It is the start of your marriage and you want to get off on the right foot. That doesn’t mean it needs to be exotic–we actually preferred the beautiful, low-key mountain setting where we could focus on each other instead of sight-seeing.

  5. Abigail says :

    Luckily, we were advised by several people that the day ends up being a bit of a blur. So even if we hadn’t been broke and frugal, we’d have been careful.

    I also regret not spending more on a photographer, but we still have some nice shots.

    Like you, we found our bridesmaids dresses cheaply at JCPenney. Luckily, royal blue was in that year. (Tim is kind of OCD about colors and matching. Like actual diagnosis OCD. So I let him pick the colors, which were royal blue and white/silver.)

    Like you, I winced at the price of the dress ($500, down from $1,000), but it was lovely. Also like you, I never sat around planning my dream wedding. I just sort of chose things slowly. The long engagement let me search for deals all over the place.

    • Kalie says :

      The day is a blur! Photographer regrets are emerging as a theme.

      Your colors sound beautiful, and I think it is so sweet when the groom has an opinion on this and the bride can agree.

  6. Tarynkay says :

    I think Laura Ingalls Wilder got married in black. I seem to remember that from the books.

    Like you, I never daydreamed about my wedding. We got married in 2001 at age 22 and spent about $2000. We had the ceremony on the beach and the reception in a building on the beach owned by the parks department. It was $300 to rent this for the day. My dress was a white linen sundress I found for $100. The most expensive part was the food.

    We also had a friend do the photos, and I also regret not spending more to hire a photographer. I also regret not spending more on the music. My dad insisted that we hire his friend to DJ and he was seriously the worst DJ ever. He completely ignored both our playlist and our “do not play” list. But we still had a great wedding and here we are, heading into year 15, so I guess it worked!

    • Kalie says :

      Haha, yeah the dress in question was probably something more like “prairie sun dress.”

      Sounds like a beautiful wedding. Food was also our biggest cost. I know we could’ve done it less expensively, but we got a pretty good deal for catering.

      Photographer regrets seems common. That’s too bad about your DJ, but it sounds like you have a good perspective on it 15 years later.

  7. Mary in Maryland says :

    We married in our 50s. We’re Quaker, so we married each other without benefit of clergy or bridesmaids. We invited everyone in our congregation and many friends from work and community theater. ($600 donation to the meeting for the space). 125 people signed our certificate. We considered a fancy venue for the reception, but decided the church basement was easier for our older friends. We decorated with quilts I had made over the years.The church ladies and I had done food for many weddings for less than $100 (think lentils). I went wild and offered a $500 budget for glorious finger food. My dress cost $40 at a thrift shop–cobalt blue and sequined. A professional photographer friend did pics of us dressed up a couple weeks before the wedding, and shot about 30 pics at the reception. We took out of town guests to a restaurant the night before the wedding, and did dinner for them and the neighbors at a neighbor’s house after the wedding. It was a lovely wedding for less that $2500. People were shocked that we didn’t have a cake (neither of us like cake–we did have cookies.) And everyone who came through the line asked about the honeymoon. We’d been on several mission trips together, and there was no way to get off during the semester.

    • Kalie says :

      Sounds like a lovely and resourceful wedding! Thanks for sharing your thrifty strategies. It is always beautiful when friends come together to support your marriage and pull of the wedding.

  8. Emily from evolvingPF says :

    Great post! We definitely weren’t as frugal as you but we did just leave out certain elements that that wedding-industrial complex considers necessary (alcohol!). It’s the advice I give to other brides and grooms as well: Just skip the stuff you don’t want to do! It’s pretty hard for a guest to notice missing elements like save the dates or favors.

    We were engaged for 5 months so I totally agree that there just isn’t time (or money) to plan everything that might be expected by the sum of your guests. And ITA about premarital counseling! Counseling was by far the most fun and beneficial part of our engagement. (We didn’t find wedding planning to be particularly fun, though it was nice to work on a big project together.)

    I wrote about the best frugal elements from our wedding here:

    • Kalie says :

      I enjoyed reading your post; thanks for sharing! Counseling was invaluable, and we’ve actually had the opportunity to offer others some help along these lines as they prepared for their wedding. We’re not professionals, but I believe the input of close friends can be just as good in some cases.

  9. Jaime says :

    I’m not married yet but I’m taking notes. I heard on the news the average wedding was $30k. I think that’s absolutely insane! Wedding dresses are crazy expensive. You’re lucky yours was $750. I’ve seen ones go up to $50,000! Anyway good job on not going into debt for your wedding!

    • Kalie says :

      Anything I felt was “too expensive” for my wedding, I’ve tried to keep in perspective because I know the spectrum goes way high on the other end. I’d just much rather spend $30,000 on almost anything else–travel, a house down payment, investing–anything but a single day. That said, it does cost a lot to throw a large celebration.

  10. Prudence Debtfree says :

    $7,000 is an amazingly inexpensive wedding! We have 3 daughters, and I have always had it in my mind that I’d give each $20,000 if and when she marries. (If they decide not to marry, then I’d give the same amount at a certain point.) My husband says $5,000. I think I could learn a few valuable lessons from your mom.

    • Kalie says :

      I am the oldest of four girls (plus a brother), so my parents knew they had to pace themselves! My mom is an all-around frugal goddess, though.

  11. fehmeen says :

    A very interesting wedding!! First time I read about a bride borrowing jewelry but I don’t think it’s a bad idea. I know some brides get artificial jewelry for their wedding for security reasons, but I think if frugality is on your mind, that works too. We tend to over-think weddings and at the end of the day, it’s a day you barely remember because there’s so much other stuff on your mind that day. We really ought to re-evaluate how we spend (waste) money on these occasions.

    • Kalie says :

      I don’t even remember whether the jewelry I borrowed was artificial or not. I didn’t care, and I don’t wear much jewelry so it didn’t make sense to buy it for one day. Especially since I can’t remember.

  12. Holly says :

    We sacrificed a lot of “extras” in our wedding because we didn’t really have any money. My husband was still in school, and I was just poor. We skipped most of the fancy stuff, and I bought a rack off the dress. We had appetizers and wine instead of a full sit-down meal.

    We’re still married ten years later! Looking back, I couldn’t care less how it went down – I only care that it did.

  13. Cat says :

    Yes! We kept our wedding pretty frugal because we knew we didn’t want to be paying for our wedding forever. We wanted to marry each other and use our money for other things, not a wedding and reception that only lasts a few hours.

    • Kalie says :

      So true–that day is over before you know it. And after all the hype and planning, the end of the big day comes as a relief.

  14. Bob says :

    About professional wedding photography: Yes, sometimes you get what you pay for. I’ve taken photography teams to weddings and we’ve have taken 1200 photos and still not had “the one”.

    On the other hand, don’t discount what can be done in post production. Assuming you have the digital originals, you may be floored what a pro can do with what otherwise seem just passable.

    And the final part is how it is output, obviously the same shot on a 30X40 canvas can look better than on a 4X6 print. Just suggestions.

  15. Karen T. says :

    My husband and I got married almost 32 years ago, and I honestly don’t remember that much about it! I got my wedding dress and bridesmaids’ dresses from J.C. Penney — they were nice-looking and affordable. Like several other commenters, I wish we had spend more on photography. I also wish we had gone to a bakery for the wedding cake — my mom made it and it became a great source of stress. It was not the wedding my parents-in-law wanted — too small and simple — but we didn’t care, and in the long run that didn’t harm my relationship with them.

    My oldest daughter got married 5 years ago. We had a good photographer (kind of a splurge) but no videographer (totally unnecessary, we all agreed), and nice food, saving money by limiting the guest list to 100 and not serving alcohol (she was married in our church, so that was prohibited anyway). She bought a used dress which was affordable and looked beautiful on her. She made her own hairpiece (a beaded cage veil) and made gorgeous silk flower bouquets for herself and her bridesmaids. A friend (newly licensed cosmetologist) did hair, nails, and makeup as her wedding gift. One of my friends who owns a bakery made the cake as her wedding gift. Invitations were the kind you can buy at Target and print at home — they looked really nice but didn’t cost a lot. We didn’t have a DJ — my daughter and her husband-to-be made an iPod playlist of their favorite music and it went out over the nice speaker system in the church hall. Centerpieces were inexpensive white candles in collected jars filled with sand and tied with ribbons in the wedding colors. It was a fun time and we have nice photos to remember it with. My son-in-law spent most of his savings on the ring and honeymoon (his parents might have helped a little), but I believe they both felt it was worth it.

    • Kalie says :

      Thanks for sharing your story, Karen! I love how your daughter carried on your tradition of a beautiful but affordable wedding. Congrats on 32 years!

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