I’ve planned and coordinated events with budgets of almost nothing (like a party for 80 with a budget of $150!) and those with budgets upwards of $500 per person. While the scope of each event is different, one thing remains the same. Each event was special to the client and the attendees. So no matter whether everyone was eating off of paper plates or bone china (or one of the many, many choices in between), I directed the budget we did have to making the party feel special.
The same goes for wedding planning – very few people have unlimited budgets, so as a planner I try to make every budgetary decision count. Of course we’d all like to have the perfect wedding or event, precisely as we envision, but sometimes tough choices have to be made. I’ve seen all kinds of cost-cutting scenarios; some work well, but others leave brides unhappy. Here are my favorite ways to trim your budget without sacrificing the wedding of your dreams:
Do: Invite people you want to be there, and trim those you can’t afford.
Don’t: Invite people just because you feel you should.
I think this is probably the number one cost-cutting scenario across all planners and wedding publications. Taking the guest list from 250 to 125 not only allows you to save on food, drinks and incidental costs (favors, printing, rentals), it probably will translate into many more dollars saved in the form of a smaller venue. Instead of tracking down a large ballroom, you may be able to hold your wedding in a more cost-effective location.
Yes – this means that you probably won’t be inviting your third cousins from across the country… But a smaller wedding can mean less stress for the bride and groom – and more time with your guests.
But try not to get caught up in the “should” game – weddings are often about what we feel we’re “supposed” to do and many brides feel as though they must invite someone, even though they’d rather not. Even if you were invited to someone’s wedding, or they’re your distant relative, or they’ve asked nicely, you are under no obligation to invite anyone. Make sure that your invited wedding guests are the people you want to spend your wedding day with – they’ll be in your wedding memories forever.
I’m not saying that you shouldn’t invite people that you want to – just that you don’t have to invite people you don’t want to.
Do: Find a location that you love.
Don’t: Go with the cheapest location you can find, just because it’s cheap.
In addition to keeping your guest list down, it’s often easier than you’d think to find a location that meets your expectations while keeping your budget in check. Want a beautiful outdoor setting? Many golf clubs offer excellent wedding specials at reasonable prices. Have a vintage soiree in mind? Keep an eye out for historical homes, womens clubs, and restaurants. Often times you’ll be able to find a great location that isn’t well-advertised; my mother found my wedding reception location in the yellow pages (after my husband and I spent days looking on the internet!).
The important part of making this work, though, is finding a place you will love to spend your wedding day. Make sure that it meets your needs – aesthetic and otherwise. In choosing a location, keep in mind the following:
- Where will you hold the ceremony? Indoors? Outdoors? A church? What does the site look like? What does it need? Will I be happy getting married here?
- Where will you hold the reception? Indoors? Outdoors? How will the site be set up? When will my vendors be able to arrive for setup? Will I be comfortable? Will my guests? How far is it from the ceremony? How will people get there?
- What is included in the price? Tables? Chairs? Linens? Dishes, glasses, silverware? Food? Florals or other decorations? Heaters? What will I need to bring in? Keep in mind that rental prices can add up quickly; sometimes a very inexpensive location without their own equipment can have a bigger overall price tag than a more expensive place where everything is included. When one of my best friends was getting married last year, I went on site visits with her and her now-husband. Their number one choice for venue was a picturesque little chapel where every stick of furniture, all the lighting, and every bit of food had to be brought in from the outside. The chapel itself was a steal to rent, but as estimates skyrocketed my friend realized she could actually save money by having the wedding at a fancy golf club a short distance away, and that her guests could dine on filet and salmon instead of pasta salad because of the money saved on rentals.
- What is the fine print? Are there restrictions on start and end times? Outside vendors? Alcohol or dancing? A friend of mine is getting married soon and discovered after signing the paperwork with her venue that she has a very limited selection of bakeries at which to get her cake. She is forbidden by the contract with her venue to get a cake from anywhere except their “preferred” vendors. Whose cakes just aren’t very good. Bottom line: make sure you’re actually happy with the terms of your rental agreement with your venue, before signing it! Very inexpensive venues often have very good reasons for being so inexpensive.
Food and Drinks
Do: Serve something you want to eat.
Don’t: Feel badly serving food and drinks within your means.
Food and drinks are another area where brides and grooms hear several “shoulds”. As in, “You should serve dinner,” or “You should have an open bar,” or “You should choose whatever food your guests will like.” Again, the trick to trimming wedding day costs without cutting down on your day is making the right choices, within your means. But don’t forget to keep these points in mind:
- If food is included, am I happy with it? If you want to stop by McDonald’s on the way from your reception, whether it’s because you didn’t like the food or because you didn’t get enough food, it’s not worth serving food at your reception. While I definitely believe that serving food at a wedding is part of the party atmosphere, I would rather focus on having tasty heavy appetizers than pay for bad dinners. Some venues will let you cook your own food (these are generally “DIY” venues), which can work if you have a good plan. Or have a potluck, if you can (although this gets logistically tricky, so be sure you, your guests, AND your planner are well-organized if you go this route). Or have a short wedding reception sans food altogether except cake. There are a lot of creative ways to serve good food on your wedding day.
- For the cocktail hour appetizers, what will you serve? Most weddings include a cocktail hour, to give time for the bride and groom to take photos following the ceremony. Cocktails and appetizers are served, which can add hundreds or thousands of dollars onto your bottom-line total. Appetizers are often priced above and beyond your “regular” food cost, and priced per piece consumed, which can add up quickly. If you are planning to serve appetizers, consider your options. Often, a “station” can be set up, where platters of food are artfully displayed for guests’ consumption. This option is typically less expensive, overall, than tray-passed appetizers, and includes more food. Or give your guests their party favors early: include individually-wrapped favors such as bags of cookies or candy in pretty containers near the entrance to the cocktail hour space. Another great option is to create a cookie, candy, or popcorn bar. Just make sure that your venue doesn’t have any restrictions prohibiting this, before you start purchasing supplies.
- How do you want to handle the bar situation? Some brides and grooms have reasons other than budget to restrict drinking at their weddings, of course. But even if your decision is purely monetary, not having an open bar is okay. No matter what your cranky cousin or that wedding “expert” might tell you. If it’s a choice between having a beautiful wedding you’re proud of and having an open bar, forget the bar. Even without an open bar, many venues provide a celebratory champagne toast, or wine at dinner. You could also give all your guests drink tickets, provide an alcoholic punch, restrict the bar to house beer and wine only, or open the bar for just the cocktail hour. Each of these options provides you with a different set of circumstances. But remember that most venues price their open bars upon consumption – that means you’ll pay a certain price for every drink that’s ordered by every single guest – and it adds up quickly.
Do: Explore Your Options.
Don’t: Use a photographer with no background in weddings. Ever. Just trust me on this one.
Your photographer captures your wedding day, and nothing else from the day will be as lasting. Photographers’ prices vary widely, from a few hundred to several thousand dollars. Many times there are good reasons for this – some photographers may be more experienced, or have better references, or provide more services than others. But sometimes as a bride it can feel overwhelmingly expensive just to have someone photograph your wedding. It may be tempting to completely ignore professional photographers altogether, perhaps asking friends to take photos with their personal cameras. But there is a reason that pros charge so much: they know what photos to take, and when. So before you cut out a photographer completely, consider these options:
- Hire a photography school student. They often will work for portfolio-building experiences, or for a fraction of the price of a professional wedding photographer. One caveat, though: make sure that either a) they have photographed weddings before or b) you have a backup. This case is near and dear to my heart; my husband and I jumped on the offer of free photography for our wedding. We met the photographer and liked her, a lot. Her work was beautiful. She’d never done a wedding before, but we thought it would no problem. How hard could a wedding be? The photos she got were – and are – truly gorgeous. She captured some incredible moments. But she failed to get several moments on film at all; from the first kiss to the wedding details I worked so hard on, I won’t be able to get those back. I wish I’d assigned a friend with a good camera to be her “backup” – to make sure he or she took serious photos of all the florals and the major parts of the wedding. We’ve been able to construct a decent wedding album, cobbling together the photos our photographer took with those provided by friends, but our photography experience has lead me to recommend to all my brides that they be very, very careful if they work with a non-pro photographer.
- Hire a photographer for just a few hours. I just have to say it: As a planner I do prefer when photographers stay until the end. That’s when so many of the best moments of a wedding happen. Dance offs abound, and candid shots are fantastic. But in the event that your wedding budget simply can’t stretch far enough, consider hiring a professional photographer for just a few hours. Pro photographers often can work out an hourly rate with couples to fall within your budget restrictions. I always recommend that couples hire their photographer for the ceremony, some formal portraits, a few shots of the details, and the “special” parts of the reception (first dance, father/daughter dance, toasts, etc.). If your photographer has to shoot and dash, work with your planner to create a timeline that “front-loads” all these special items before you sit down to dinner!
Do: Have someone to help you get organized.
Don’t: Try to do it all yourself.
I’m not saying you need to hire a full wedding planner. I know that it’s not a realistic expectation, and that hiring a wedding planner is not at the top of every bride’s to-do list. I’m also not saying this just because I want you to hire me. But a planner can be especially valuable to budget couples in a variety of ways:
- Consult with a planner for an hour or two; pick their brain and just pay their hourly rate. Many planners don’t advertise this service. But most of us are open to the idea. As long as we know up front that we’re only consulting with you – please don’t pretend that you’re a potential client! – we’re happy to help. You’ll likely make a quick agreement, pay up front, and receive your recommendations directly from the planner. Depending on what you agree to, you may have more than one a-la-carte consultation. You may even get an inspiration board or design plan out of it. But let me reiterate: please be up front and honest. Most of us don’t bite.
- Hire a Coordinator instead of a Full Planner. If you’ve got this planning thing down, you might not need a planner. I happen to be biased about this because I think that everyone can benefit from the guidance full planning offers – but I’m also realistic. For some people it’s simply not in the cards! A Coordinator can still help keep you on track, and on the day of your wedding will help make sure that your wedding day runs smoothly.
- Have your planner keep track of your budget. I’m not sure if anyone would do this service a-la-carte (I usually only offer it as part of my planning packages), but one of the perks to hiring me as a planner is that I keep track of your major budget items. This means that you know where your money is going – and how much of it is left – at all times.
- Ask your planner for recommendations. You might not know the awesome little bakery that makes tasty custom wedding cakes for under $2 a slice, or the florist who specializes in stretching every penny. But your planner does. She also might be able to help you with your invitations, rentals, and favors, because she deals with these things all the time. She might be able to buy in bulk or wholesale; she might even have a stash of wedding items just for her couples to use (I do!). Your planner might be able to save you serious cash if you ask her to help you keep down your costs!
In short: do consider alternatives you haven’t thought of yet (such as a “more expensive” venue that actually costs less overall, a-la-carte consulting with a planner, or hiring a photographer for part of your day) and don’t let planning your wedding on a strict budget stress you out. You can do this!