Like most girls I know, I’ve had a wedding Pinterest board for… let’s say a really long time. Even though I’d saved dozens of potential wedding themes, DIY decor ideas, and color schemes, when we actually got engaged I still had a hard time nailing down exactly what our wedding should look like. With a home under renovation, full time work for both of us (plus full time school for him,) student loans, and other bills and time commitments all pulling on our shoestring budget, Tyler and I knew we were going to have to be crafty in myriad ways. I’m SO pleased with how it all turned out, and since I know for a fact there are so many other brides out there on tight budgets , I thought I’d share everything we learned and how we managed to pull it off!
All photos by Melanie Reyes Photography, unless otherwise noted.
Photo by Katie Gouwens
Setting a Budget
Every wedding magazine tells you to decide on a budget first, then itemize each expense and how much to spend on each one. For Tyler and I, we decided to take it one step at a time and instead of setting a numbered budget, we made a list of priorities for spending, then picked a maximum cost for each item. Our families both wanted to contribute for the wedding, but wanted to do so by paying for particular items or vendors. By ranking what was most important to us to spend money on down to the least, we were able to decide when it was worth splurging or worth skimping. In the end, our total wedding cost was under $6,000– a far cry below the national average. For us, photography, reception venue, dress, food, decorations, flowers, and music were ranked most important to least important for allotting cash. We made our guest list early (around 120 people) so we knew what quantities we were working with from the get-go.
Choosing a Date
Pick two or three potential dates. I feel like most people decide on their date, set it in stone, and plan from there. We knew we wanted a Friday wedding, because it was important for us to have a full weekend to rest and relax and enjoy ourselves after the wedding, since we choose to postpone a honeymoon until his school is officially over in April. Fridays are often cheaper for vendors. We also knew we wanted a fall wedding in either September or October, when the weather in Michigan is nice and cool. The fall is also a less popular and crowded wedding season than summer, meaning we were more likely to get good vendors. We got engaged in December, and planning for Sept or Oct gave us a good 9-10 months to plan. Having three different potential dates in mind meant we had flexibility to get the vendors we wanted and plan around their availability, which leads to point 2…
Vendors: Play Favorites
Decide who your dream vendors are and contact them, regardless of whether or not you think they’re out of your budget. For us, photography was our #1 priority, and even though I’d assumed my dream photographer was out of our price range I gave her a phone call and chatted one afternoon. It turns out she had availability on our ideal date (September 20th) and offered us a great custom package! If you take away anything from this whole blog post, let it be this– you will never get something you don’t ask for! The worst they can do is say no.
Reception Venue: Think Outside the
I was one of “those” brides– I wanted a rustic barn for our wedding reception. We set a limit of $3k for our reception venue budget and not gonna lie, finding a venue for under this price was the most difficult part of planning the entire wedding. Barns in particular are pricey because they don’t typically include any tables or chairs or linens or even bathrooms, and those extras add up FAST. I found a beautiful barn in February that was only minutes away from our church where the ceremony would take place, and they offered me an amazing deal! They were brand new, and I was SO excited, but sadly it fell through a few days later because they couldn’t get their event permit from the county in time. I hated the idea of giving up on a barn, but was running out of time and options.
I was really discouraged that I wouldn’t find a venue I loved, but one day scrolling through Facebook I saw a photo of Concourse Hall, a venue owned by the local English Country Dance organization. Tyler and I used to go to their dances at a different venue, but this new one looked so pretty, full of light with glossy hardwood floors, a canopy of twinkle lights, and vintage quilts hanging from the ceiling. I sent them a quick email and went for a tour– it was perfect, and less than half our venue budget, including everything we needed! While pretty basic looking, I knew we could dress it up with decorations, it was perfect for dancing, and even had AC (a real bonus over any barn.)
To satisfy my barn aesthetic, we took our wedding photos at a local apple orchard with big rustic barns. This gave us the beautiful look and feel of having a country vintage style wedding, without the cost or extra work of having a whole reception in one.
It may sound odd, but deciding which wedding traditions are important to you and which ones can be tossed out can actually make a significant slash in your budget. Going back to photography, one of the ways we were able to save was by taking the bulk of our portraits before the ceremony instead of after. This meant doing a “first look” before the ceremony. On the 75 degree wedding day, Tyler and I and our entire wedding party really loved getting our photos taken while all our hair and makeup was fresh, the sun shining brightly, and guests not yet antsy or hungry. Budgetary reasons aside, it’s important to really examine traditions and decide if they feel right for you and your betrothed! We’re both pretty low-key people and felt way more comfortable with a private first look and getting to spend time together before the big ceremony. I also decided early on I didn’t want a wedding band, and only wear my engagement ring (I vastly prefer to only wear one ring at a time!) Tyler forged his own ring for the ceremony, and we purchased him a cheap tungsten carbide ring from Etsy to wear on the daily so we don’t have to worry about it getting banged up/scratched/lost while he works on cars and house projects.
You Don’t Need to Spend a Million Bucks to Look Like a Million Bucks
I adore watching Say Yes to the Dress, and if it’s a priority for you to go to the showrooms and try on different styles with your best gals, DO IT! I always, always thought I’d be one of those brides. I absolutely love fashion, doodled dream wedding dresses since I was five, look for any excuse to wear a fancy dress, and shopping in general. But when it came down to it, a few factors added up to me never once stepping in a bridal salon.
For one thing, if you are looking to spend under $2k for a wedding dress at a non-chain bridal store, well, may the odds be ever in your favor. Salons don’t stock different sizes of every gown, but rather make you try on a sample, then special order your size. Every salon I called only offered out-of-date sample sized gowns to buy off the rack for under $2k. Second, sample sized wedding gowns are usually in sizes 8-12, which translates to street sizes 4-10. The plus size sample gowns are rare and typically size 20 or 22; I am not any of these sizes, but somewhere in between. Even if a sample gown roughly fit, I’d have to get it altered, which also costs a chunk of change. Buying off the rack at a chain store like David’s Bridal isn’t exactly great either– the quality is usually poor, and they often still end up special ordering sizes that still require alteration.
Out of sheer curiosity, I start browsing preownedweddingdresses.com. I filtered results to my size, and on the first page popped up a gorgeous beaded Allure ballgown I’d recently saved on Pinterest… and it was $300. I did a quick google search and found the dress originally retailed for $2,200! I start up a convo with the seller and it turns out the dress was never even worn. She told me she’d ship it for free, but wouldn’t take a return. I felt a moment of panic, realizing I’d still be spending several hundred dollars on something I hadn’t tried on and wouldn’t be able to return, but decided it was worth a gamble. Five days later it arrives, in pristine condition. It was too big and too long, so I ended up spending nearly $200 in alterations, but it was worth it to get a designer dress that I couldn’t have afforded brand new.
For Tyler and the groomsmen, we already knew we didn’t want tuxedos, and together picked out a $30 vest on Amazon for him and the guys to wear over white shirts, with black ties and black dress pants. His total outfit was well under $100. Our bridesmaid dresses were from Azazie, most costing under $150.
Use Your Contacts!
Going back to my #1 piece of advice (ask and the worst they can say is no,) if you know or know of someone who’s really good at something you need, talk to them! My friend is an amazing hairstylist, and it was wonderful to spend time chatting with her on my wedding day while she styled my updo. An acquaintance I’d met through work has the most incredible garden/floral styling I’d been stalking on Instagram for years, and I knew I could trust her to make a jaw-dropping bouquet and hair piece selection for me. My father in law had a friend at work who keeps bees, and offered me mini honey jars at cost to use for favors. My mother in law asked to make our cake, and an outgoing, gregarious friend of my sister made for a great amateur DJ. Everyone has talents, everyone is good at something, and don’t underestimate how many people love weddings and want to help you out!
An important note– THIS DOES NOT MEAN YOU ASK PEOPLE FOR FAVORS OR FREE STUFF/SERVICES. ALWAYS OFFER THEM FAIR COMPENSATION OR A TRADE. While many people will wave their hands and say “no no no!” and happily do stuff for you as a friendly favor, these things still take precious time/money/skill. Even though everyone I talked to gave us amazingly generous discounts or their service as a gift, we still asked them what their charge is/should be, or offered them what we could afford with the option to say no. The goal is to support your friends and contacts’ talents/businesses, not freeload. In the future, remember their kindness and be sure to offer them your talent/time in return.
Food, Glorious Food: Think Beyond the Chicken (Alternatively: How Our Wedding Took a Turn for Hipster Town)
Tyler and I have attended many weddings together over the past 8 years, so we’ve consumed a lot of catered food. That’s not to say it’s bad! It’s just pretty standard, tasty stuff that costs way more than we think it should. We had a conversation before we were even engaged where I jokingly said, “you know I think sometimes I’d rather just serve a bunch of pizza because it’s hot and filling and everyone likes it” and he told me, “that’s what we’re going to do.” So it was settled, easy peasy! Or so we thought. First off, our families were less than thrilled with the idea of serving our 120 closest friends and family members pizza at a wedding. We assured them it would be classy, but kind of ironic, but they still weren’t quite convinced. However, we wanted to stick to our guns on this one and serve everyone pizza.
Turns out it was actually tough finding pizza catering! We first looked into your standard chain pizza places, but none of them offered hot buffets for pizza outside of their own venues in Ann Arbor. Disappointed but still resisting standard wedding fare, we gave up and started looking into BBQ catering options. It was there on a local food truck website I saw a link to Wood Fired Up, a wood fire pizza truck that catered weddings! I reached out the owner, who was available that date and had a pizza and salad package that was well within our food budget. He parked the truck with the blazing trailer next to the venue, and our guests lined up outside in the gorgeous weather to grab made-on-site, gourmet pizza and Caesar salad, the happiest and trendiest ending I could imagine to our budget friendly food story.
We were lucky this truck had a website and knows catering, but if you’re not sure where to begin getting a food truck for your wedding, seek out a food truck park (often called a meetup or parade or plaza or something of that nature) in your area and visit, eat, and chat with the owners– these kinds of events happen often in cities in the summertime several nights per week. On the same site as our pizza truck I saw food trucks for tacos, Indian food, and BBQ all with catering information.
The Exalted Open Bar
To get this out of the way first: nobody needs alcohol to have a good time. If you are strapped for cash and don’t care about drinking, don’t let your booze loving friends or family convince you to spend your budget away on alcohol. If you do want drinking at your wedding (as we did) and your venue doesn’t require a licensed bar service (as ours didn’t) you can save a LOT of money by stocking your own bar. Even if they do require a licensed bartender, you can still sometimes hire a bartender (ask around your friends to see if anyone’s licensed) and stock the bar yourself and save money on hiring a bar service.
I’d originally planned on vats of signature his-and-hers cocktails, beer, and wine, but when it came down to it neither of us felt like mixing fruit, muddling herbs, and dealing with leaky dispensers. For a cocktail option, we went with two big handles of Captain Morgan and cases of pop for rum and cokes; for wine, several jumbo bottles of Costco Sangria; cases of Champange and St. Julian’s non-alcoholic sparking grape juice; gallons of apple cider and individual bottles of water. Tyler’s a beer fan, so he bought a few cases of Guinness, Blue Moon, and local Wolverine Brewery ale. We borrowed big tubs from a friend, filled them with ice, and put everything out on a table. A responsible friend volunteered to “bartend” for us, serving folks to make sure nobody underage drank or sneaked too much. Nobody complained, lots of people got tipsy and danced like crazy, and everyone got home safely.
This system worked for us because of our relatively small attendance– we knew everyone there, trusted our family and friends to drink responsibly, and didn’t overstock the alcohol. We only spent about $200 total, and let our friend bartending put out a tip jar for his time and service (which was pretty full by the end of the night!) If you have any hesitation about friends or family members drinking responsibly, then it’s safer to go with a licensed service or bartender, but this system worked for us and our crowd.
DIY, BDTTH (Do It Yourself, But Don’t Try Too Hard)
If you’re here reading this or know me at all, you probably know I make a lot of things. I’m pretty much the DIY-est person there is. I was excited to make stuff for the wedding, but knew early on I’d have to be selective due to time constraints. Here’s what I did myself and what I farmed out to others to DIY:
Me: Hall decor
I knew I wanted to make triangle bunting, which was really fun and simple (hoping to write up a tutorial soon!) I pulled a bunch of fabrics from my stash and ordered some new ones that fit with our peaches-and-honey color scheme.
I also made cloth napkins, one for each table as a little mat for flower vases to sit upon. That’s it, fam– the only things I sewed.
Maid of Honor/Groom: Bridesmaid bouquets, boutonnieres, and table flowers
While I had my bouquet and hair flowers made for me, we went with a cheap n quick option for the bridesmaids bouquets, boutonnieres, and table flowers– good old Trader Joe’s! My sister, with the help of my gardens-and-nature-loving-groom picked out all the flowers from Trader Joe’s the day before the wedding and made all the arrangements. They looked up Pinterest tutorials, bought ribbon from Joann’s, and just did it for me. Which was amazing.
Me and Maid of Honor: Favor Jar Dress-Up
I bought a pack of craft paper labels and used the Avery website to add our own design, printed them out, and the MOH and I stuck them on the jars. My mother in law ordered mini honey stirrers online in bulk, and we tied them on with neon peach ribbons.
While good music was a priority for us, we decided it wasn’t something we wanted to spend money on and instead made a playlist in Amazon Music and hooked a laptop up to the hall’s sound system. I’ll admit this was the most troublesome thing for us to DIY, with only one of three speakers working, wiring issues, and a sound engineering student best man crawling under the stage to try and fix it. We did get it working in about 15-20 minutes, but I wish we’d figured it out the night before.
The Good Stuff
Prioritize the things that are worth your money, don’t overdo the DIYs, and remember that even if you hired out every little thing to the best vendor, someone is still going to come up to you (the bride) and complain that they didn’t get salad, that their sister is annoying them, that they lost their phone, that your new husband didn’t respond to their text yesterday, that you didn’t play their favorite song, that the cake wasn’t gluten free, etc., etc., etc. Your music might stutter out, you might spill champagne on your dress, the invitations might have a typo. Do what you like and feel comfortable with, whether that’s serving your favorite food or skipping the big white gown. The amount of fun your guests have isn’t based on how traditional or fancy the wedding is– it’s based on how much fun YOU have! It sounds cheesy to say, but after all is said and done, none of the little annoyances will matter; you’ll still remember it as the best day of your life.
And don’t forget, the stuff that goes wrong is the stuff of great stories to laugh about later.