I wish I could say I never fell for what some wryly (and rightfully) call the “wedding industrial complex.” From rings that cost three times your salary to reality shows encouraging women to say yes to six-figure dresses, the message brides-to-be get is that you’re not taking your wedding—hell, your marriage—seriously if you don’t break the bank.
This is particularly true in the city where my husband and I call home, Manhattan, where the average wedding costs more than $88,000.
Though some part of me knew better, another part of me clung to a girlhood vision of a fairy-tale wedding draped in tulle and buttercream for a very long time. If money wasn’t an issue for me, my wedding would’ve featured horse-drawn carriages, ice sculptures, chocolate fountains, doves flying out of my ass—you get the picture.
But, of course, money was an issue for me, as it is for many of us. So when I first got engaged, my partner, Arran, and I sat down and worked out a wedding budget. We wanted to figure out what was reasonable to spend, given our modest salaries (he works at an NGO; I’m a freelance writer). Since we’re both self-sufficient adults in our 30s, we didn’t expect our family members to foot the bill.
We’d saved a bit of money since moving in together, but neither of us was particularly eager to blow our life savings on one hour of passed hors d’oeuvres (no matter how delicious). So we set our wedding budget at $10,000—by no means “cheap,” but a far cry from what Manhattan nuptials tend to cost.
And we did it. From start to finish, our wedding ran us about $10,000—that includes our rehearsal dinner and our honeymoon, too. Here, exactly how we planned the budget wedding of our dreams.
Neither of us was particularly eager to blow our life savings on one hour of passed hors d’oeuvres (no matter how delicious).
The Power of Embracing Plan B
Initially, we had what I’d thought was a modest idea: We’d hold our wedding in Montauk, a village in New York’s Hamptons. We soon discovered modest and Hamptons were mutually exclusive terms, and we stumbled upon the first (and most enduring) lesson of planning a wedding on the cheap: Embrace plan B.
Flexibility became a running theme in decision-making. The pre-reception cocktail hour costs more than our first car? OK, we’ll do a champagne toast instead. The over-the-top centerpieces are starting to add up? We’ll scrap the design for something simpler. Can’t bring ourselves to spend $250 on a flower crown? I can make one myself.
Without fail, the second I let go of the thing I’d had my heart set on, an even better option appeared. On Memorial Day, Arran and I were enjoying a casual lunch at one of our favorite farm-to-table restaurants in New York City’s Union Square Park when one of us said, “Why don’t we look into getting married here?”
Our new vision: a five-course sit-down dinner celebrating our love—and highlighting my second love, food. (See, I told you a better option always appeared.)
We stumbled upon the first (and most enduring) lesson of planning a wedding on the cheap: Embrace plan B.
The Appeal of the Underrated (Inexpensive) Venue
Hosting your reception in a restaurant saves you money on rentals, staff and decorations. And if you choose a restaurant that’s not known for hosting weddings, like we did, they may be even more eager to work with you.
Another advantage: A lot of Manhattan restaurants are just the right size for an intimate gathering. Even though our venue could have hosted more, we kept our guest list to a minimum (around 50 people at $120 a head). And to shave some time (ahem, money) off the rental, we chose a nearby community garden as the ceremony location.
One consideration we had to keep in mind: Most New York City restaurants don’t allow dancing. For my fiancé and me, this was no big sacrifice. I don’t drink, and my husband dreaded the idea of a “first dance.”
This was an easy place for us to save, though I’m sure other couples might have a harder time bidding adieu to such cherished wedding traditions. (Remember, you can always save money on alcohol by doing a BYOB wedding, rather than having an open bar!)
Another advantage: A lot of Manhattan restaurants are just the right size for an intimate gathering.
The Necessity of Penny-Pinching
Instead of throwing our hands up and letting costs soar, we embraced every opportunity to save.
In lieu of pricey stationery, we went with digital invitations ($150). We took a chance on a photographer who was newer to the industry and booked three hours instead of six ($600). I paid a friend who works as a professional makeup artist ($200) and hired another acquaintance to do the wedding party’s hair ($200).
Instead of paying a requisite $2,000 “donation” for a Buddhist officiant, we entrusted the job to a friend (free!).
We embraced every opportunity to save.
Swapping Big-Ticket Must-Haves for Budget Picks
I’d always imagined myself getting married in a straight-up ball gown. But when I started shopping, I found that traditional gowns overwhelmed my petite frame. I needed to revise my idea of the perfect dress to find the perfect dress for me (and my budget).
In the end, I found my dress on a sale rack at Anthropologie—not their wedding brand, BHLDN, but the everyday line. Wrinkled and dirty along the hem, the dress looked as if it might have been on the floor. But with a good clean and some alterations, I thought, it was just the look I was going for. The price? $83.
I found my dress on a sale rack at Anthropologie.
The Importance of Splurging, When Appropriate
Like many couples, the months between our engagement and our nuptials were consumed by wedding-budget-related logistics. I wasted countless hours (and at least a couple hundred dollars) on DIY failures.
One thing that kept me sane? Allowing myself to splurge every now and then. Rather than obsess about finding a less expensive option for our aisle, I rented a vintage rug from a prop company ($250). It saved time and energy—plus, it looked incredible.
By far, our biggest splurge was our wedding night suite. I wanted a space for me to get ready in, and my husband-to-be and I needed somewhere to come back to when the wedding was over (that didn’t smell like our two dogs).
We reserved a king-sized room at the Bowery Hotel ($910 for two nights), which was less expensive than a suite, and crossed our fingers we’d be blessed with an upgrade. (We were.)
I wasted countless hours (and at least a couple hundred dollars) on DIY failures.
The Necessity of Going with the Flow
All my married friends warned me to expect the unexpected, but nothing could have prepared me for the moment the weatherman predicted a literal hurricane on our wedding day, which is unheard of in New York City.
The day before the event, the garden canceled our contract, fearing high wind. Fortunately, the restaurant volunteered to host the ceremony for free, and the hotel offered us use of their event space for photos.
We didn’t let ourselves get bent out of shape. As luck would have it, the morning of our wedding, we awoke to clear blue skies.
Admittedly, my feelings throughout the planning process were complicated. The morning before, as I picked out my bouquet from the farmer’s market, I bought an extra hundred dollars’ worth of roses—just because. I worried I’d regret not breaking the bank on every little detail.
But when I look back at pictures from my wedding day, I wouldn’t change a thing.