I woke up in a hotel room, at the age of 25, and realized that I was about to zip on another dull-colored polyester bridesmaid dress, and walk down the aisle, just as I had done almost a dozen times before. All of my friends were getting married, and I couldn't even secure a third date on Tinder or get a response from a Nice Jewish Boy on JDate. But my mid-20s life crisis was less about the fact that I was always a bridesmaid, and more about how I could possibly afford to continue being one. I was broke. All of my assets were tied up in bridesmaid dresses and trips to exotic bachelorette party locations, which made for a nice collection of stamps in my passport, and a terribly unsustainable bank balance. That’s when I decided to go from broke bridesmaid to bridesmaid on a budget, a rule that I've stuck to no matter what over-the-top requests the bride or maid of honor have tossed my way. I started off this new frugal mindset with an ostensibly simple, yet hard-to-adapt plan: I would say no to things I couldn’t afford. But since I still wanted to have a good time and be a bridesmaid for my friends, I adjusted the rule a little bit. Instead of flat out saying no, I would find a way to afford everything that came with it — the dress, the parties, the hair and make-up, and the gifts — for less than $250.
I started putting this new rule into practice when I was asked to buy a bridesmaid dress that cost $400. I had been shopping the clearance racks of clothing stores my entire life. The first time I ever bought a significant item that wasn't on sale was a bridesmaid dress at age 22 for $300. I then spent another $75 on alterations and a sewn-in strapless bra (I blame that one on you, flat chest). After buying more than six bridesmaid dresses, for a couple hundred dollars a pop, and wearing each of them only once before then crumpling them up in a ball and sticking them underneath my bed, I decided I would never buy a brand-new bridesmaid dress again. Before approaching the bride and telling her I couldn't shell out $400 on the navy chiffon dress she had chosen, I put on my bargain cap and searched the internet. I could either find a place to rent the dress, buy it used, or look the bride in the eye and tell her that I would be wearing something straight out of my own closet — in navy, of course. I ended up finding the same gently worn dress for a third of the price, so I snagged it. When the wedding was over, I ripped the dress off, stuck it in the washing machine, on delicate, and then resold it, making 75% of my money back. A different bride, two weddings later, decided to have her bachelorette party in South Beach. I mapped out how much the weekend trip would cost me and had to rub my eyes three times just to make sure I was seeing the numbers correctly. With airfare, hotel, limo rides (the only way the bride said she would travel during that weekend), food, and drinks galore, my total was climbing up to around $1,000.
I told the bride that I didn’t have the funds for the trip, but I’d make it up to her when she got back. So I did. I threw her a second mini-bachelorette party at my apartment, with decorations I got for under $25 off Amazon and bottles of wine I bought at Trader Joe's for under $5. I missed a weekend of sunshine and vacationing like a Kardashian, but I didn’t feel too bad about it. I was able to pay my rent that month and have a girl’s night with the bride; it was our very own version of the fling before the ring. Even though I’m not the best with a curling iron (or even an eyelash curler), doing my own hair and makeup for weddings saves me a lot of cash. In the past, I might have spent anywhere from $150 to $250 getting glammed up for a wedding. Now, I’ll spend some time on YouTube learning how to do hairstyles, or ask a fellow bridesmaid to help me twist my locks into an appropriate wedding look. If the bride wants everyone to have a certain makeup style that I can’t pull off myself (smoky eyes, cat-eyes, highlighter on the cheeks), I’ll run over to the mall or a local makeup counter and have them do that look, which is usually free or complimentary with the purchase of an item. And then there are the gifts. Oftentimes as a bridesmaid, you're not expected to hand over a gift. Some brides will view the money you spent on being a bridesmaid as the ultimate wedding gift. But I don’t like to show up at the bridal shower or the wedding empty-handed. So I’ll usually make a DIY gift for the bridal shower, or split something off the registry with another bridesmaid. On the day of the wedding, I’ll give as much cash to the happy couple as I can afford. But if funds are tight, and usually they are, I’ll save up over the next few months and mail the couple a gift when I know my check won’t bounce. I don’t mind walking down the aisle for a good friend or family member. But when I do it, I do it smiling, knowing that when the wedding is over and I go home, there won’t be an email from Bank of America telling me that my savings account was overdrawn. Again.