Your wedding is probably the priciest, most complicated party you’ll ever spend money on. In 2017, the average cost of a wedding skyrocketed to $38,700, according to The 2019 WeddingWire Newlywed Report.
Navigating the planning process can be difficult when everyone seems to have an opinion on what traditions are necessary and what you absolutely need to do. Combine that with the FOMO from seeing picture-perfect weddings on Instagram and Pinterest, and you can find yourself in debt or despair (or, if you’re lucky, both!).
In this article
Luckily, weddings are scalable. No matter what prestige bridal magazines say, you can have a truly memorable celebration, whether your budget is $5,000 or $500,000. It just takes discipline and a clear-eyed vision of what you and your partner want in a wedding. Your idea of a beautiful and meaningful wedding may not include a tropical honeymoon, monogrammed wine glass favors, or matching bridal dresses — and that’s OK! What matters is that your wedding truly represents you and your partner-to-be.
We spoke to Jessica Bishop, founder of TheBudgetSavvyBride.com and author of “The Budget-Savvy Wedding Planner & Organizer,” and asked for her advice navigating the pains and joys of wedding planning.
The Case for Saving for Your Wedding
Putting all of your wedding expenses on your credit card may feel tempting. Instagram, Pinterest, and wedding magazines are filled with images of designer ball gowns, fairytale-themed venues, and professional calligraphy — and combined with the social and familial pressure for weddings to be perfect, taking on debt may feel like the best option.
However, at Reviews.com, we recommend exercising caution before putting a down payment on a venue you cannot afford. Money is already a fraught topic for many couples. Combining your life with someone who may have a different history, philosophy, and level of education when it comes to money is difficult enough. In fact, money disagreements are one of the biggest causes of divorce in the U.S.
Starting your marriage in the red — especially if one or both of you already has student loans — could make matters more stressful than they need to be.
If the cost of a wedding feels too daunting right now, try scaling back the wedding or elongating your engagement. This is a better long-term decision than, say, racking up credit card debt or raiding your 401K or mortgage.
First Things First
Get on the same page with your partner-to-be
“If you want to plan a wedding that truly reflects you and your partner, the best place to start is sitting down and discussing what you actually want together,” Bishop said.
Start by making a list of must-haves. Given everything that you could possibly spend money on (from the venue and decorations, to wedding attire, photography, and videography), what do you and your partner value the most? This is an important and unskippable step — not only in the wedding planning process, but also as a first step in the marriage. It’s an exercise in collaboration and negotiation, as not everyone will want or care about the same things from their weddings.
Just as valuable is making a list of traditions you don’t care about. For example, if you think spending thousands of dollars on flowers sounds egregious — you don’t have to do it! It’s never been easier to buck tradition, especially as the internet has opened up a platform for real people to share what their weddings were like and how much they cost.
Remember that your wedding is just that: your wedding
Unless you are an Instagram celebrity or the heir to an oil baron, you will likely have to make some sort of sacrifice for your wedding. It’s best to look at this not as a constraint on your imagination, but as an opportunity to narrow the wedding down to what you and partner care about the most.
Set aside preconceived notions of what your wedding ought to be, especially if it’s stressing you out and making you feel like you need to spend more money than you are able to part with. Putting pressure on your wedding to be the Best Day Ever™ could be setting it up for failure. No matter how expensive or luxurious the celebration is or could be, it won’t compare to the elation of marrying the person you love.
Step 1: Determine How Much You Need to Save
The average wedding costs about $38,700, according to a survey from WeddingWire’s 2019 Newlywed Report. However, you do not need to use this as a barometer for how much you want to spend, as this figure does not account for you and your partner’s combined savings, contributions your parents or other family members may want to make, and your own tolerance for big-budget line items.
How much of your savings are you willing to part with for your wedding? This is an entirely personal question for you and your partner, as your risk tolerance may differ. However, we think it’s important to maintain emergency savings in the event of an unforeseen expense or tragedy. We also don’t recommend draining your retirement accounts to help pay for your wedding, as this could jeopardize your long-term financial health as a married couple.
If you are fortunate to have parents or in-laws willing to contribute to your wedding, congratulations! This is a move that could lighten some of your financial burdens. However, we won’t pretend that this is as simple as saying “thank you.” Sometimes, those funds come with strings attached.
“I recommend sitting down with anybody who’s contributing and really hashing it out. I think the biggest way to avoid stress is to set expectations clearly upfront.”Jessica Bishop, founder of TheBudgetSavvyBride.com and author of “The Budget-Savvy Wedding Planner & Organizer”
Ask the family members if they would prefer to give a lump-sum cash gift (and if so, how much?) or if they want to put those funds toward something specific, like a wedding dress or photography. Even in the latter case, it’s best to get an understanding of the dollar-amount they’re willing to contribute so no one is surprised when the bill comes. For example, does “I’ll pay for food” include the food and the wait staff, linens, and open bar?
Bishop recommended asking the difficult questions too, such as: “How much say do you expect to have in the decisions that we’re making? How involved do you want to be in the planning process and is that a stipulation of you giving us that money?” Airing out such concerns early on can lead to fewer headaches as the wedding gets closer.
Where to spend
Once you figure out how much you plan on spending for the wedding, it’s time for you and your partner to figure out where that money will go.
“What do you want to see, hear, smell, touch, and taste [at your wedding]? Define your vision for what you want and use it as a guiding principle while you’re making the decisions,” Bishop said.
Do you hear a string quartet playing during the ceremony? Do you see wildflowers in the bouquets and on every table? Do you want the smell of the ocean to waft from a beach-side venue? Channel these sensory elements and let them be a north star when you are bombarded with all kinds of spending opportunities.
Here is a sample budget of $20,000, which estimates your expenses based on a sample budget breakdown from Kim Forrest at WeddingWire. Use these percentages as a starting point for your own budget, which may be bigger or smaller than $20,000, and feel free to nix any categories that don’t apply to you.
|Venue, catering, cake, and rentals||50%||$10,000|
|Photography and videography||12%||$2,400|
|Wedding attire, hair, and beauty||9%||$1,800|
|Flowers, lighting, and décor||8%||$1,600|
|Invitations and stationery||3%||$600|
|Officiant and ceremony music||2%||$400|
|Favors and gifts||2%||$400|
Venues and rentals
“Everything revolves around the location of where you’re going to have it,” Bishop said, explaining that once couples lock in the timing and venue, the rest of the details can be planned.
Venue costs for the ceremony and reception can vary wildly, depending on the location’s popularity, metro area (bigger cities = bigger demand), the season of the year and day of the week (Saturdays over the summer will be the busiest time), and on-site amenities.
Bishop recommended looking at the real weddings featured on The Budget Savvy Bride or sites like Peerspace to find unique and inexpensive locations. “Couples are finding their venues at union halls and lodges and community centers. You can go to your local chamber of commerce and ask them for recommendations on event spaces that aren’t necessarily what you might consider a wedding hall but do offer, like, a nice arch that you can decorate and utilize for a wedding event.”
Sometimes all-inclusive venues will get a bad rap for being expensive, but depending on what they include, they may be a better deal than paying separately for things like tables and chairs, wait service, silverware, and catering. For example, an outdoor wedding at a public park may be cheap on its face, but when you’re factoring in the number of vendors needed to make the celebration come together, it may be more expensive and a bigger time suck than you feel comfortable with.
Food, drinks, and cake
Many couples are opting for potlucks, appetizers served buffet-style, and even taco trucks over your typical sit-down dinner of chicken, mashed potatoes, and asparagus. Mixing up the catering is an easy way to show you and your partner’s personality, while also saving money. You can also opt for beer and wine over a full bar, and even buy those drinks wholesale (depending on local liquor laws and venue restrictions).
As for the wedding cake — it doesn’t have to be traditional at all. Instead of elaborate multi-tier cakes from bakeries (which could cost between $300 and $700), some couples are enlisting talented and trusted friends to make homemade cakes. Others are opting out of the tradition entirely with donut walls, cupcake towers, and ice cream sundae bars.
Photography and videography
It can be difficult to cut costs when working with service providers like photographers and videographers, but it can be done. For example, Bishop said some photographers will charge less if you’re not booking them for the entire day of the wedding. “You could negotiate a shorter length of time where you’re paying an hourly fee rather a package,” she said.
Professional photo booths, complete with props and a dedicated photographer, have come into vogue the past decade, but these can come with a high price tag. Instead of hiring a service, you can set up a DIY backdrop and a camera rigged to a tripod, or distribute one or two instant film cameras for guests’ use during the wedding.
Hiring a wedding planner to take on all the logistics is certainly a time saver, but the average cost is $1,988, according to The Knot. If your budget is limited, this is an area where you can cut corners. Instead, consider hiring a day-of coordinator, whose sole responsibility will be coordinating vendors — from the music to the decorations — on the day of your wedding.
If a planner isn’t in your budget, that’s OK! Provided they have the time and willingness, you may be able to lean on your wedding party to help with some logistical matters. And of course, don’t forget that you are just one half of a team — your significant other will also be crucial in alleviating the workload and stress of planning.
Number of guests
We’ve outlined many of the top expenses and ways to save money, but nothing will be as consequential as the number of guests you invite. The Spruce estimates you can expect 85% of people who are local will attend the meeting, while you can expect that percentage to go down depending on the number of out-of-towners you invite and how close to them you are.
Guest lists are tricky, because you don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings — especially if they’re family or if you were invited to their wedding. However, you also don’t want to foot the cost of your entire workplace or college fraternity’s attendance, if you are only acquaintances at best with most of them.
This sentiment is why micro weddings are becoming popular. Bishop explained, “[Many] couples are just inviting their closest family members and maybe a few friends. They don’t want to spend the equivalent of a [house] down payment on a one-day party when their bigger priority is maybe buying a home together or going on a honeymoon.”
Step 2: Saving for Your Wedding Budget
Saving from your regular income
Now that you know the amount you’ll need to save, you can figure out how to save it from your and your partner’s regular income. The easiest way to calculate this is to take the desired savings amount, subtract your savings and family’s contribution (if applicable), and divide that by the number of months or pay periods left until the wedding. This will tell you roughly how much you’ll need to save to stay debt-free.
Look at the low-hanging fruit in your spending and see where you can make cuts. If you buy lunch every day at work, for example, get into the habit of bringing a brown bag lunch. Is there a gym membership you’re not getting the full use of? Cancel it and rely on at-home exercises or run outside.
Everyone needs some sort of outlet or indulgence, though, so make a plan that sets you up for success.
If this number sounds impossible, though, consider scaling back your wedding expenses or lengthening the engagement period.
How do you plan on tracking your savings goal? If you don’t already have a system in place, then you will not know if you’re saving or not. Where many people go wrong is they don’t set concrete and easily definable goals. According to the SMART framework of goal-setting, you are best equipped to achieve your goals if they are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely.
With this in mind, it’s not enough to declare that you want to save money. You must also define, for example, how much you and your partner want to save ($7,000), how you’re going to measure the goal (create a budget spreadsheet and check in on your goal bi-weekly), and your deadline for reaching your goal (one month before the wedding). This exercise will get you thinking about how you’re going to move forward and set yourself up for success.
In this case, a good budget is key. It clearly defines your monthly income and your expenses, both fixed (such as rent, utilities, cell phone bill, etc.) and discretionary (such as restaurants and entertainment). This system of inflows and outflows can be created in a spreadsheet or through an automated budgeting software like Mint. These programs connect to your credit cards and banking institutions, so you can see all of your purchases in one view and get a complete financial picture.
Where to put your savings
We recommend putting your savings into online savings accounts, which offer higher yields (exceeding 1.50% APY) and liquidity, meaning you can access your funds easily. Online banks tend not to have brick-and-mortar stores, but they make up for it with customer service and nationwide access to ATMs.
Checking accounts are also decent options. Savings accounts often require a couple days for a transfer to a credit card or debit account to go through, but transactions through your checking account are nearly instant. Plus, many checking accounts from online banks are now offering rewards in the form of guaranteed returns. While the APY won’t be as high as a savings account — and oftentimes is contingent on an account balance — it’s a good option for people who want their money in one main account.
If you know you won’t need portions of your money immediately, you can also put some of your savings into certificates of deposit (CDs). These tend to offer higher returns than savings accounts and more stability than putting funds into the stock market. In return, you lock in your money with the bank for a fixed period of time (ranging from 3 months to 5 years, typically). The downside is that your money isn’t easily accessible — and if you need to withdraw funds before the term length, you may have to pay a penalty, which could eat into the principal investment.
Step 3: Stick to Your Budget and Get Creative Along the Way
Enlist the help of your partner
Remember that you’re not in this alone. Oftentimes, the person planning the wedding is the one who takes on the emotional burden of budgeting and sticking to that budget — and that’s a level of stress that no one needs to carry alone. Remember, this is their wedding too, and the important part is that you both end up married at the end.
Ask them to coordinate the guest list RSVPs, sort out vendor contracts, and help with DIY decorations. Involving your significant other in the decision making will make your relationship stronger. It also minimizes the resentment that could come from one person shouldering most of the responsibilities of wedding planning. In a way, it’s training for the lifelong practice of marriage.
Minimize indulgences, but keep some for sanity
If wedding planning requires strict adherence to a budget, it may be difficult to not feel deprived. After all, the stress of coordinating a huge event, plus a major lifestyle change, is a lot to get used to. For this reason, we recommend keeping some extra spending money in your budget so you don’t go crazy.
If your pricey gym membership is what keeps you feeling like you, then it may be easier to cut expenses in the “going out” category. If daily lunch at the local deli is your way of getting out of the office, then limit that purchase to twice a week — and go to the local park with a brown-bag lunch the other days of the week.
By allowing yourself small indulgences, you’ll have an easier time saying no to bigger impulse purchases.
Advice from the Reviews.com team
Our team at Reviews.com are experts at finding ways to save money. Here are some tips from our own weddings to help you along the wedding planning journey:
- Fresh flowers are for rich people! I used dried flowers at my wedding and my sister used Sola Wood flowers. We both were able to make bouquets by hand weeks in advance and save the hassle of refrigeration and lots and lots of money! – Lauren Thomas, Communications Specialist
- I had a small wedding but most everyone who did come from out of town so our venue was a giant lake house we found on Airbnb. it was much cheaper than most wedding venues and equally beautiful. – Jermaine Lecky, Production Assistant
- I am creating my sister’s invitations for save-the-dates and the actual wedding invitations. I am using my own hand lettering to make it more personable and not have to spend so much on a template and a provider. – Jessica Hunt, Communications Associate
- We did a curated playlist instead of hiring a DJ, had a potluck reception instead of catering, made most of the decorations ourselves, and held the ceremony and reception at a local church that was very, very affordable. – Philip Palermo, Lead Senior Associate, For the Home
- We hosted our reception at a park district building that, in our case, was a very nice space and only like $500, compared to thousands at other private venues. – John Puterbaugh, Senior Editor
There are a ton of resources online that will help you find small ways to save. We recommend the following guides and tools for wedding planning:
- The Budget Savvy Bride: Wedding Timeline and Checklist
- The Budget Savvy Bride: Real Weddings
- The Knot: How to Actually Pay for a Wedding
- The Knot: Wedding Planning Tools You’ll Love
- Offbeat Bride: Sample Wedding Budgets
- I Will Teach You to Be Rich: Why Are Weddings So Expensive?
- Shutterfly: Wedding Budget Calculator