The wedding industry might tell us that the average wedding typically costs more than $30,000, but many couples can’t afford that kind of expense. Even in families that want to follow the tradition of the bride’s father footing the bill, the father often has more pressing costs to worry about, like saving for retirement.
The people who really care about you will not care how much you spent on your wedding or how much you tried to impress them. While hosting a loving and memorable event, it’s possible to save in many areas, including these six:
With the help of industry experts, we’ve put together some ideas for making sure that a single day’s celebration doesn’t derail the long-term finances of couples or their families.
Most people want to get married on a Saturday since people who work traditional business hours or have kids in school will be available to attend that day. But high demand to get married on a Saturday makes it the hardest and most expensive day for which to book a venue. Katie Elder, owner of an upscale wedding venue in the mountains of North Carolina called the Overlook Barn, said that couples can save thousands — literally 50 percent off — by choosing a non-Saturday in the offseason. (Learn more: Holiday weddings: Promises and perils )
Remember that average wedding price tag of $30,000 or so we mentioned earlier? Almost half of that typically goes toward the reception venue. Keeping costs down here can represent one of the biggest wins for your wedding budget. But if you’re set on a Saturday wedding, you may want to look for a less popular venue, and preferably a smaller one where you can negotiate pricing with the owner.
The Knot, a well-known wedding-planning website, says brides and grooms typically spend around $2,400 on flowers and decor. This category can include table linens, lighting, backdrops, bouquets, centerpieces, chair and table rentals, chair covers and sashes, place settings, stemware, banners, signs, and more.
“Choosing a venue that has a lot of natural beauty or decor that’s included can help save tons here,” Elder offered. “We hear from our couples all the time that they didn't need to do much with decor because our scenery and barn are so beautiful on their own.” The barn’s pre-strung bistro lighting and mountain-view setting are photo ready, and attractive farm tables and cross back chairs are included in the venue’s rental rate.
As for flowers, it’s not mandatory to hire a professional florist who charges $100 or more per arrangement. Consider recruiting a friend or family member to buy flowers the morning of the event at a local flower market, farmers market, or even grocery store. You may have less control over what the flowers look like and have to go with what’s available, but the savings could be worth it.
If you’d rather hire a florist, the flowers you choose can keep your costs down. For example, opting for large blooms that make a statement and incorporating lots of greenery can mean buying fewer flowers. Choosing local flowers that are in season or sticking with one or two varieties to obtain bulk pricing and simplify arranging can also offer savings.
While every couple can arguably benefit from hiring a wedding planner — someone who’s an expert on every aspect of an event you might only arrange once in a lifetime — not everyone can afford it.
“I find that couples with budgets under about $30,000 really struggle to afford a full-service planner,” said Alexis Alvarez, owner and lead planner of Lillian Rose Events, a wedding planning firm in Chicago. A day-of coordinator is a more affordable alternative. This professional plans the logistics of the wedding day and makes sure everything is executed smoothly in the final weeks of planning. On the wedding day itself, they work behind the scenes to keep the event running seamlessly, allowing the couple and their families to be present in the moment.
For couples who can afford a full-service wedding planner, the cost is typically about 10 percent of the wedding budget, Alvarez said. One of the biggest ways wedding planners can help couples financially is by knowing how to work inside their budget. (Related: Budget basics)
“Our relationships are the number one money saver — we know the local pros to recommend that are in your budget,” Alvarez explained. She added that while planners’ vendor relationships occasionally result in small discounts or complimentary bonuses, this should come as a pleasant surprise if it does happen and should not be expected.
The Knot might pin the average wedding dress price at over $1,900, but soon-to-be bride Jess Wagar paid less than one-tenth of that for hers. She spent $100 to buy a used dress from a store that puts its proceeds toward housing women escaping domestic abuse.
“People will ask me things like, ‘Is your dress everything you ever dreamed of?’ and for one, I wasn't dreaming about a dress; I was dreaming about a future with someone I love,” Wagar related. She’s working with a $3,000 wedding budget for 500 guests: an incredible $6 per person.
In addition to buying a gently used dress — and there are plenty of stores and websites that sell them — it’s also possible to rent attire and even accessories. For example, Happily Ever Borrowed works with designers to create unique products that brides can borrow at 80 to 90 percent off the retail purchase price.
High-quality photos that capture the key moments of your special day are a must for most couples. Even in the age of portrait mode on smartphone cameras, a professional wedding photographer with a real camera and years of experience knows how to get shots that an amateur can’t.
That doesn’t mean your photo package has to cost a fortune. Photographer Jimmy Chan of Pixelicious Wedding Photography in Montreal, Canada, offered a number of ways to save.
“Being upfront with your budget concerns tends to work best,” he said. “Photographers have various packages that cater to different price points. They vary in the number of hours, number of images taken, whether prints or albums are included, engagement sessions, second shooter, video, photo booth, etc. If you are willing to cut back on certain areas, you can still book that photographer at a more affordable price.”
Besides the obvious — not getting married on a Saturday during wedding season — it may also be possible to secure a small discount with a photographer by agreeing to sign a contract with them on the spot.
“This not only shows that you are serious, but also helps fill our calendar,” Chan explained.
What shouldn’t you do? Asking for an outrageous discount or emphasizing that a low price is your biggest concern are major turnoffs when booking a photographer. One situation where a steep discount might be warranted, however, is when you are covering the photographer’s airfare and accommodations to a destination wedding, Chan said.
It’s also a good idea to ask prospective photographers about the resolution of digital files they will give you and whether you are licensed to make your own prints. Chan explained that some photographers will downsize the images to a point where it’s impossible for clients to make large prints, which forces the couple to order prints or albums from the photographer.
Food and drink
Food and drink is another area that can break the budget if you let it. The Knot reports an average catering price of $75 per person, and that doesn’t include the wedding cake, which comes in at another $510.
Choosing a venue that allows you to use outside catering is a good way to save thousands here, Elder explained, because venues that provide catering add a major upcharge for those services.
Similarly, choosing a venue that lets you supply your own alcohol is a huge money saver. While Elder does recommend hiring professional bartenders for safety and sanity during the reception, she said couples can purchase alcohol from their local club store and enjoy bulk pricing.
As for the cake, Wagar’s solution is potluck desserts. “I had a list of close friends and relatives who agreed to bring a dessert that was special to their family and handwrite a recipe to leave for our new marriage,” she said.
You don’t need to spend the equivalent of a down payment on a house to have a joyful wedding celebration. While there’s nothing wrong with extravagance for couples and families who can afford it, there’s also nothing wrong with sticking to your budget, however small.
“We kept it low budget because we do not have enough, even with relatives generously chipping in, to afford anything more,” Wagar explained. “I definitely do not see the point in going into debt or using savings for this.” Her focus is simply on throwing a big party and preparing for marriage.
With a mutual approach to planning, couples can celebrate one of life’s most significant milestones on any budget.
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This article was originally published in May 2017. It has been updated.