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Wedding Planning the Smart Way

Written by: Sara Coulter |

One of the most important days of your life could cost a chunk of change.  Learn how to minimize the cost of planning a wedding.

So you’re getting hitched?  Congratulations!  Time to start planning the details.  And just so you know…the average wedding these days costs about $35,000.  Whaaaaaaaaaa????????

Don’t panic.  You can still have a lovely wedding without starting your marriage in debt.  It just takes a little planning.  So let’s get started.

 Who's paying for the wedding?

You’ve come a long way, baby, and that means it’s no longer a given that the bride’s folks pay for the wedding.  Besides they shouldn’t be put on the spot if they can’t afford it.  You’ll need to talk this out between the two of you, and then have a sit-down with your parents to determine what scenario works best for you.  It’s not uncommon these days for both sets of parents, as well as the couple themselves, to pitch in on the costs.

Here are a few options to consider:

  • Parents contribute a specific dollar amount, and then the couple decides on a wedding budget and makes up any difference themselves.
  • Parents pay for specific items such as the wedding dress, the rehearsal dinner or the catering. The couple then has to figure out how to pay for everything else.
  • The couple can set a budget and then ask to split it evenly. This is a good solution for divided families. For example, the couple, the mother of the bride, the father of the bride, and the groom's parents will each contribute $5000, for a total of a $20,000 wedding budget.

 How much can we spend?


Once you know who is paying and how much they are willing to contribute, you can decide on a budget.  If you need to pitch in as well, decide as a couple how much you are willing and able to contribute.  Avoid getting caught up with the ideas of a pricey venue or expensive dream dress before you talk numbers.  The last thing you want is to start your marriage with bills that you can’t pay.

 Man proposing to surprised woman

What are our wedding "must haves"?

Time to get real.  Find or create a comprehensive wedding checklist.  (Here are 11 to get you started.)  Then start prioritizing.  What are the most important items to you, and where can you cut corners?  Maybe you’re willing to make your own invitations, but you won’t budge on a professional photographer.  Before you start talking to vendors, go through the list.  Cross off anything that you think you won’t need, and choose 2-3 items that are your main priorities.  Now you’re ready to negotiate.

Time to go shopping!

Now that you know what the priorities are, you can start getting quotes.  Remember, everything is negotiable.   If you really love a florist’s work or a photographer’s style, tell them, and ask them how they could make their offering fit your budget.  Sometimes paying up front makes a difference to them.  And don’t forget about talented friends and family who might be willing to give their service as their gift to you.

wedding checklist with flowers and bird decorations

Ways to cut costs

So you have a budget, you know your priorities, and you've talked to various vendors.  At this point, you might need some help making it all work.  If you're over budget, consider the following options:

Edit the guest list.  For a full-blown wedding, you can estimate that your guests will cost you $100 a head.  So if you’re thinking, “If I invite her, then I have to invite her,” get real.  For the average 135-person reception, shrinking the guest list by 15 people saves you approximately $1,500!

Go off-peak.   Have a winter wedding. Choose a Friday or Sunday. Or have an elegant brunch reception with a champagne toast rather than a multi-course dinner with wine and drinks.

Build in time.  Push your wedding date forward to allow more time to save.  You also have more negotiating power with vendors if you’re not in a hurry.

Host the ceremony and reception in the same place.  Doing so could save as much as $4,000 on transportation for the wedding party and guests.

Forget the live band.  A good DJ is just as much fun and will cost a lot less.  Or rent or borrow some good speakers, load your iPhone with music and pay a friend to be your DJ!  Once the party gets started, it won’t matter whether you have a 5-piece band or a great playlist!

Go easy on the dress.   Ladies, let’s speak the ugly truth.  This is where they get you.  We dream our entire lives of being the center of attention on our wedding day.  We become star-struck by movies, pore over magazines and create elaborate sketches of our dream dress.  But the price tag does not make the bride.  I found my wedding dress for $140 in an outlet store, while my sister’s headpiece alone was over $1,000.  And we were both just as beautiful on our special day.

You can still look and feel like a princess in a thrifted dress.  (Check out Nearly Newlywed.)  So before you break the bank on the frock, make sure you can afford it.

Honeymoon vs. gifts.  Would you rather go on an amazing trip to Paris rather than receive wedding gifts?  Then let your guests pay for it!  Sign up for a honeymoon registry (like Honeymoon Wishes), and ask everyone to make a donation to your trip. It saves them the hassle of choosing a gift, and you don’t end up with things you won’t use.

back of car with "just married" sign and cans tied to the bumper

Don’t be caught by surprise costs

Before you sign any vendor contract, make sure to read the fine print.  There are all kinds of added expenses that could pop up that aren’t in your budget.  Here are a few examples:

Vendor Transportation.  Hiring an out-of-town band or photographer? You might need to pay for a rental van or plane tickets. Double-check the contract to see what exactly is covered.

Set-Up, Service and Breakdown Fees.  Cleanup isn't always included, and you may have to pay for meals for the serving staff, as well as overtime rates depending on what time your reception ends.

Custom Cocktails.  Beware the open bar!  Signature drinks and spirits can add thousands of dollars to your bill.  Consider providing complementary beer and wine, and a cash bar for those who prefer the fancy stuff!

Digital Access.  Some photographers charge as much as $1,200 to view and share your photos online.

Tips.  While many gratuities are built into vendor contracts, some are not. Pay attention and be prepared to tip everyone from the musicians ($15 to $20 per person) to the hairstylists (15 to 25 percent). If your officiant won't accept a tip, give a donation to his or her church, instead. Officiants should also receive a thank you gift.

Now that you have the facts and a spreadsheet, you’re on your way to your “Happily Ever After”!

Topics: Wealth, Personal

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