For some, a wedding isn't just a day when you exchange vows with the person you love, it's a pivotal moment that you've thought about for years, mapping out every minor detail until you have an image of the perfect nuptials. Unfortunately, while your Pinterest board might be brimming with hanging floral arrangements and geode cakes, the word "budget" rarely crops up until you're in the midst of planning the festivities. It's true: weddings cost a lot.
Before you start booking roving performers and a gourmet dégustation for 200 of your nearest and dearest, pause. The average wedding tallies $32,641 (and up to $82,299 for Manhattanites!), so being strategic with your hard-earned dollars is vital. Thankfully, even if you have champagne taste with only a beer budget, there's a way to plan for your big day without maxing out your credit card. We've called on top finance and wedding experts to find out the steps every modern bride (and groom!) should take to plan their dream day. A fairytale ending without mounting debt is possible—here's how to plan a wedding on a budget.
When you're planning a dream wedding, distinguishing between base and flexible costs can seem challenging—especially when you're convinced a champagne fountain is non-negotiable. "Wedding inspiration is everywhere, and while sites like Pinterest are fantastic for honing in on the style you want, they can also make you want something you can't afford," says consumer-saving expert Andrea Woroch. "So be careful; if you fall in love with a $30,000 wedding and you've only got $3000, you're bound to be disappointed."
Instead, start by itemizing the base wedding costs to form the foundation of your wedding budget. These are the expenses that are integral to getting married, such as hiring an officiant. If you're unsure which costs fall into the base category (or suspect said champagne fountain belongs there), ask yourself, Would my wedding be possible without this cost? If the answer is yes, save it for step two.
As with any dream event, there are likely a lot of items on your wish list, and that's okay. The key is to be aware that these are optional and flexible before you start making purchases. Flexible costs will make up the brunt of your budget, and they include expenses such as catering, photography, and entertainment. They're important, but they're also an area of the budget that can be changed to suit your spending limit.
When building this area of the budget, the key is being "creative about cutting costs," says Darcy Miller, editor at large of Martha Stewart Weddings. "For example, instead of having a full bar, serve a couple signature drinks and white wine. It will still feel special and elegant, but you'll save money without feeling like you've skimped," she explains. [The] same is true for food—choose foods that are local, seasonal and delicious… which doesn't have to be lobster and caviar!"
If you're hoping to shave costs by DIYing aspects of your wedding, Jessica Bishop, founder of The Budget Savvy Bride, says it's important to consider how that might affect other areas of the budget. Often, savings made in one category could bump up another. "If you're using a low-cost or free venue like your backyard to save money, be sure to consider the costs of bringing in all the necessary rentals to pull it off," she recommends, noting that DIY isn't always the cheapest route when planning a wedding on a budget. "Traditional venues often charge to use their space but also typically include rentals like tables, chairs, and basic linens. If you crunch the numbers, you may find that a real venue is more affordable than having your wedding at home!" she says.
You've established the non-negotiable base costs and have started to map out flexible expenses. While you might feel like you have every possible cost covered, it's still important to build a buffer into your budget. "Married couples know that budgets rarely represent all the real wedding costs people are faced with. There are so many hidden costs," says Woroch. Consider these extra expenses when adding a buffer to your budget:
- Gratuities. Woroch and Bishop agree—service tips are one of the most overlooked areas of a wedding budget. "This forgotten extra can be a big bill to foot unexpectedly," says Woroch. "Keep in mind that some venues will build the service charge into your budget, so look out for this to avoid paying double the tip."
- Seamstress services. Finding your dream dress within your budget is only half the battle, says Woroch. "Brides often forget about the cost to get it to fit perfectly. Generally, you're looking at $500 [in seamstress fees]," she says. Be warned that this is not an area to cut down on, though. "Make sure you search for a seamstress you trust, and don't skimp on this cost because a botched job can cost you more in the long run both financially and emotionally."
- Taxes and credit card fees. Paying for most costs on credit? Woroch warns that many vendors will push the swipe fee on to you. "Don't forget about taxes either! If you are planning a destination wedding, you may experience a much higher sales tax than you are typically use to," she says.
Now that you've written down all possible expenses and have allowed for extra unforeseen costs, it's time to tally the estimates. Be sure to involve your partner in this discussion so you're both comfortable and can agree on a budget limit. "If your parents or other members of your family intend to contribute, talk to them about their expectations and who's paying for what," says Woroch. "Then remember that deciding what's important to both you and your spouse-to-be may not go as smoothly as expected. You both may have to make compromises, but it's great practice for married life!"
If you're struggling to stay within your limit, Miller says that it's perfectly acceptable modern etiquette to skip a traditional registry. "If you don't feel comfortable asking for cash or checks, have your guests put money collectively toward something you can actually name. Instead of a gift registry, guests can fund your dream honeymoon—which is really the best gift because it gives you time to celebrate and relax with your partner," she says.
When it comes down to it, your wedding is exactly that—yours—so don't feel pressure to overspend on aspects that don't matter to you and your partner. After all, starting your life together debt-free could well be the modern version of happily ever after. It might seem like a dream, but we promise it's possible.