Anyone I work with on planning our wedding says the same thing, “You seem really calm about this.” They’re right. I am. But in the earliest stages of planning my wedding to my longtime boyfriend and now fiancé, I was stressed. And it was all because I had a budget that was less than a third of the average American wedding, and, unfortunately, I’d interacted with the wedding industry. I walked out in tears, an hour into a wedding show. My eyes welled up after talking with dozens of vendors, only to find their prices as steep as their condescension. Photographers for $4,000, venues that bait-and-switched on pricing, several-thousand-dollar cakes, wedding boutiques that body-shamed and price-gouged, and a whole industry that seemed to enjoy making me feel like crap for being a middle-class, size-14 bride who, after years of wanting to get married but not being able to (thanks, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services database errors), was finally getting married. I almost convinced my fiancé to elope, just to avoid plunging us into debt on a wedding. But that didn’t feel right. It wasn’t what we wanted. I wasn’t about to be bullied into financial burden or a wedding that didn’t honor our love or our families. So, I dumped the wedding industrial complex. My wedding wasn’t the problem, the vendors and wedding venues were. Fortunately, I founded and ran conferences as a nonprofit executive director, creating big-scale, fun events on small-scale budgets. I went back to who I was, not who people thought I should be as a bride. As a result, I’m saving us tons of money while taking joy in planning our wedding. Here’s how I’m building our wedding with apps, creativity, style, and a fierce adherence to budget. You can, too.
Make Sure Everything Is À La Carte Decouple venue from everything else. Venue + catering = ripoff. The venue will probably compromise on food quality and quantity, since it's probably upcharging on food to increase profitability and pay for staffing. We selected a nonprofit as a venue in Seattle, Center for Wooden Boats, because of its lovely location on Lake Union but also because we could self-cater and bring in our own wine and beer, saving us approximately $7,000. Instead of a hotel, we rented a nearby historic boat with five hotel rooms on board. Owned by a nonprofit, the MV Lotus Foundation, it also offered us a place to prep and a post-wedding brunch spot for a fraction of what they would have cost at a hotel or resort. Bonus: Our venue payments go to support each nonprofit’s mission and educational programming, reinvesting our dollars back into the community we love. Select a caterer or restaurant that can prepare and drop off food. I’d suggest going with a restaurant because it's more likely to give you a discount. (More on food selection below.) Everyone will worry about staffing for your wedding. If you’re like me and don’t want to enlist your wedding guests, separate event-staffing resources can be a good alternative to expensive catering contracts. Which brings me to my next point…
Vendors Should See Your Wedding As “Bonus Business” What do I mean by that? Well, a caterer or a known wedding venue, a mainstream florist or event staffing agency, will upcharge a wedding. “An undercover investigation…has discovered that brides are routinely charged more for services than other customers, with vendors charging up to $8,000 more if they know the event they’re catering was a wedding,” reported the U.K.'s Daily Mail. If you find businesses and resources that meet your needs, but aren’t wedding-focused, they’ll see your business as a pleasant surprise and value it more. So, to avoid upcharging and expensive wedding-industry rates: Search out venues, food services, staffing resources, transportation services, floral resources, etc., that don't specialize in weddings. These include nonprofits, restaurants, public venues like parks, and publicly owned buildings. Restaurants, especially the emerging number of fast-casual ones, can be a fantastic resource for reception food, especially if you’re going with a buffet. I’m a vegetarian, and didn’t want a meat-heavy dinner, so we went with Veggie Grill, modified the catering menu a bit, and got a hearty wedding buffet for 110 people at around $1,000. (Drops mic.) Through the restaurant's app, my wedding's lead could monitor when our buffet order was ready. For wine and beer, consider going with kegs. With wine and beer taps, it’s easy to cut a bartender from your budget, go with self-serve (if you think your wedding can handle that), and use a keg’s 135-glass capacity to serve drinks. Wine kegs are available through a growing number of wineries. We went with Alexandria Nicole Cellars in Woodinville, Washington. By being a part of its wine club, we got 20% off already well-priced wine kegs. Two wine kegs, with 270 servings of wine, are about $250 each plus rental of a wine tap for $200. Just $2.60 per glass of delicious wine is a very good deal. Staffing Without Staffing Companies The gig economy can be criticized for many things, but there are definite upsides for weddings. When comparing companies' event-staff hourly rates with freelancers', I found that what the staff took home was about the same — but I would pay two to three times more for a company. Of course, questions of organization and management come up. Here's how to address them: - Use a service like TaskRabbit to find event staff. You can review staffers' event experience and reviews. Select one person with more event experience who is paid higher than the others to manage the team. - Create a venue layout, event timetable, and packets with instructions for each part of the wedding. (See the AirTable app suggestion below for this.) - Use these packets and information resources (keep it short and simple) in a pre-wedding (paid) training with your event staff. Then, stay after with your event manager to go over more details. - Organize your event supplies by each phase of the wedding, and label them accordingly. (The Labels app via Livible is handy for this.) - Have your wedding supplies and rentals delivered. I used Livible to pre-pack all of our supplies, from setup to reception to tear-down, in Livible’s plastic storage boxes, picked up from my home, and delivered to our wedding venue in the hour before we got there. By organizing by wedding-event phase, I helped staff work more efficiently with less oversight. - By leveraging an event-rental company for chairs, coolers, tables, etc., I also leveraged its staff to organize, clean, deliver, and take away big, bulky wedding items, cutting down on event staff time. - Friends-as-staff have worked out with mixed results, so I’m happy when a friend offers to help, but I wouldn’t recommend pursuing a friend to volunteer. Happily take friends' offers to help, but only if you think it won’t distract from them (or you) enjoying the wedding.
Get Appy: Technology Is Your (Budget’s) Best Friend Weddings are full of rituals, and some of those rituals are ripe for disruption. I chose rituals that had a commercial element to them to modify with apps and technologies, saving money and a lot of headache as a wedding organizer. (I’ve added in some referral links that will help get you a discount for trying them, too.) - Wedding invitations. It doesn’t matter how much paper-invitation companies swamp your Facebook feed, they’re just not necessary. I used Paperless Post as our invitation and RSVP-management service. While some worry that older guests might not connect with an emailed invitation, my 86-year-old grandmother RSVP’d without a hitch. - Simplify the registry process by syncing multiple lists with Zola and selecting beautiful registry items from its list of goods. Gifts ship whenever you want, so your guests don’t need to haul or mail gifts, and you don’t end up with a pile at your door during your honeymoon. (The link here gives new registries a $50 credit.) - Airbnb is a great alternative to a wedding hotel, especially for groups of friends or families. We recommended nearby houseboats and condos that gave guests a great view of our city while saving them hundreds, and offered them a $35 discount for Airbnb newbies. Best part: no hotel blocks to worry about or hotel minimums to pay if your guests stay somewhere else. - Fancy Hands is your new wedding assistant, finding options for services and venues, researching travel itineraries, or calling guests if you need to make a last-minute change or nail down the last of the RSVP’s. I’ve been using Fancy Hands for years, and suggest going big for your first month of tasks, when the extra tasks will roll over, and then dial down to five tasks a month, based on what you need. - Manage your event staffing through TaskRabbit’s app and use it to communicate with your staff beforehand and set expectations, share event to-do lists, etc. - Manage your to-do lists with WedHappy's simple interface, thoughtful reminders, and budgeting tools. - For your full budget, recording products you’re using, linking to wedding resources, etc., AirTable is an ideal alternative to Excel for managing multiple elements of the wedding in a spreadsheet. - Rent the Runway for coordinated or matching bridesmaid’s dresses, engagement party and rehearsal dinner dresses, bridal accessories, and even wedding gowns. My wedding earrings and clutch are from Rent the Runway (and saved me $1,000). I even found earrings that match my engagement ring. - Slack or WhatsApp for group communications — I created Slack groups for event staff and my bridesmaids.
Happier Wedding Planning Since I took back wedding planning from the industry and started breaking traditions that didn’t serve our wedding or ourselves, the process has become almost zen. Sure, there’s a lot to do, but I’m not overwhelmed, I’m not worried about going into debt, and I don’t feel embarrassed about our budget. Our wedding is going to be joyous, fun, and a reflection of us as a couple. I hope that other brides and grooms can break the ball and chain of the wedding industry and take ownership of their nuptials, too.