Ebonye Gussine Wilkins and her husband, Andre, were 3,000 miles from their New York home, so their Santa Cruz, Calif., wedding would be an intimate affair, with just 25 family members and friends. Having a small wedding made for significant savings, but their cost-cutting hacks didn't stop there. The venue was their favorite coffee shop, with the back section curtained off for privacy. Wilkins' friend Mary played violin and her grandmother sang during the ceremony, and for the reception, they just piggybacked off the shop's "ambiance" music. The caterer was a local bar owner who provided the food much more inexpensively than a traditional caterer. And finally, her dress was only $100, purchased from a shop down the street that was going out of business. The total cost for everything rang in well under $10,000.
According to a Weddingwire.com report*, the average couple in their 30s spends $32,000 on their wedding—about $10,000 more than couples 10 years older or younger; second weddings for nearly anyone are allotted an average of $21,000. Of course, you could always elope, or throw a party and get married as a surprise for your guests, but this is highly unsatisfying for someone hell-bent on having an actual wedding, and all the visual cues available online through Pinterest and other sites can lead to some visceral inspiration.
"With all of the wedding inspiration within reach online, some couples feel an added pressure to go all out. This is entirely unnecessary of course—weddings don't have to be expensive, it's entirely up to the couple," says Araceli Vizcaino-S, community manager for Azazie.com, a site for discount wedding attire.
I did an informal poll of people throughout the country, and some in the wedding industry, and here were the top tips from people who didn't buy into all the wedding industry had to offer, but still wanted to instill fun and charm on their big day:
One of the biggest expenses with the least return on investment is the dress, which can run into the thousands of dollars for a one-time wearing. You can always wear a white dress from off the rack that’s technically not a wedding gown, as Wilkins did, and gain significant savings. You can also rent something you could never afford to buy, or sell your dress when you're done with it.
Vizcaino-S offered these tips for those who want to buy an actual formal wedding-style gown: "Even if you're getting married during wedding peak season, being strategic about when to put dress shopping on your planning timeline can make all the difference. Typically, bridal retailers want to clear out their inventory in winter and summer to prepare for the next batch of dresses, so keep open eyes for big sales then," she says. "For the particularly cost-conscious, we encourage dresses that have a lace up bodice. They're more adjustable, which means it's less likely they'll need to shell out for custom alterations. Finally, one of our best-kept secrets is bridesmaid dresses. They come in white (or the color of your choice), and cost just a fraction of wedding gowns."
Or do a sweep of your local thrift stores before you go shopping—my cousin Ingebjorg got her fancy, beaded long gown for $7 at a Seattle Goodwill.
If pictures are important to you, then don't leave it up to friends whose only professional qualification is that they have a camera on their phone—it's impossible to get a do-over if you're not happy with the results. Photographer Mike Busada says you can save by not booking the photographer for the entire event. "Unless you're doing a grand sendoff, the coverage for the last couple of hours generally consists of redundant photos of the same people dancing."
Joy Peters of Northridge, Calif., a photographer, says that she offers her best discounts when people get married on a Sunday or another day she doesn't normally work. She says you can also negotiate with your photographer to purchase the album up to a year later so you don't have to shell out all at once.
Jessica Piazza of Los Angeles didn't have a budget for the popular photo booth in addition to her photographer; instead, she set up a backdrop, a tripod and an iPad and let guests take pictures of each other via the Hipstamatic Incredibooth app. She also had a common website where everyone could load the pictures they wanted to share.
Do some hard truth-telling and ask yourself what wedding favors will be meaningful or remembered. Event planner Jennifer Taylor says to leave out the favors altogether. "Unless you're doing something edible for the favor, go ahead and just skip this tradition. I end up tossing so many of them out at the end of the evening." (Same goes for programs, they all end up in the recycle bin, she says.)
Carrie Padian-Teller of Portland, Ore., folded origami bookmarks that her guests could take with them. "They were tucked into the napkins and made a cute little place setting," she says.
Piazza had reusable grocery bags created with an image of her dog on it—a favor she knew her friends would appreciate and also use regularly well after the ceremony. "It's awesome that people think of our wedding every time they shop," she said.
Location and Reception
Guerrilla weddings are the way to skirt inflated location fees: at least one couple staged a flash mob ceremony on the National Mall in Washington, DC. Tyler and Andrea Winslow of Torrance, Calif., invited family and friends to the beach and married right there. The caveat to just showing up somewhere is that places require permits for a reason, and you're risking getting asked to leave, fined, or worse by bureaucrats on site.
Jeff Sweat and Sunny Cannon of Los Angeles married during the winter holidays, so the hotel ballroom was already decorated—no need to buy extra.
When travel writer and producer Lena Katz married, she set up her ceremony at her grandparents' pretty retirement village, in their back yard, for free. She hooked up the iPod to portable speakers her husband always carries with him when the hotel's AV plans fell through, and danced the night away. Her main piece of advice: Shut up about it being a wedding. Just say it's a "personal event" when you're planning with the venue. "I didn't let them know it was a wedding till all the contracts were signed." Some couples invite friends and family to a party without letting them know in advance they're getting married–but the risk here is that important people or those who live far away might not show up.
Stephen Sicilliano had a flamenco theme for his wedding, and hired an affordable guitarist—rather than an entire band—for the reception at a restaurant, where the wedding party ate paella.
Stephanie Wilbur Ash of Minneapolis hired "old uncles and farmers as bartenders" to pour stiff drinks at $2 apiece. You might also check the corkage fee on your venue—if it makes sense, bring your own wine and champagne for a significant savings.
As for the food, check your favorite takeout places and compare what it would cost to go through there rather than a traditional caterer.
And in the end, cake is cake, whether it's for a wedding or not. Piazza asked her favorite ice cream chain, Carvel, to do the honor. ("So much cheaper and everyone likes it so much better than wedding cake," she says.) You can also get a small, meaningful cake for the ceremony and a larger, still delicious one from Costco to share among the guests.
Wholesale markets, if you have them nearby, are the way to go the day of the wedding. You can also use mason jars, wine bottles or thrifted vases instead of purchasing vessels at a jacked-up retail rate for tables. And if you're feeling lucky, you can send a friend with a fistful of cash to the farmer's market on the morning of or day before the ceremony to buy what's local and in season. The good news here: There are no ugly flowers.
And sometimes use non-flowers for flowers: Piazza made a "brooch bouquet" from floral pins friends sent her from around the world.
The most important thing to remember is that it's your day, not someone else's, and it's up to you to decide what your values and goals are for the ceremony and party. "Fabulous weddings come in all shapes and sizes so it's not important to host a huge celebration for every person you've ever met," Viscaino-S says. "At the very beginning of the process, couples should come together to discuss their wedding budget and one of the first things they should ask themselves is, 'is this the very best use of our money?'"