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How to Make a Wedding Budget – 6 Essential Steps for Planning Costs

It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of wedding planning. Things like the venue, decor, food, and wedding attire can make it a truly magical time — until the bill arrives.

Talking about your wedding budget probably isn’t a conversation you’re looking forward to. But it’s a necessary one.

Before viewing locations or booking your videographer, create a wedding budget. A budget helps set expectations for how much things cost and how much you need to save. Most important, a wedding budget can help prevent you from having to pay for your wedding with a personal loan, acquiring a ton of debt as you embark on your new life as a married couple.

How to Budget for the Wedding You Really Want

Planning a wedding gets stressful when you confront the financial realities. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the numbers, don’t worry. Just follow these steps to establish your budget before jumping into the details.

1. Settle on Your Wedding Vision and Determine Your Priorities

Before jumping into the numbers and creating a budget, talk with your partner about what you really want in a wedding. What’s your vision? Is your dream wedding grand and over the top? Or would you prefer a small, low-key affair?

Do you feel comfortable using all your savings on your wedding celebration? Or are you more interested in saving for a down payment on a home or investing for early retirement? Having these conversations upfront can ensure you’re on the same page and prevent future fights about the budget.

There’s no right way to get married, and everyone is working with a different budget. You and your partner need to have an honest conversation early in the wedding planning process to ensure you’re on the same financial page. Start with these questions:

  • What’s the Most You Want to Spend? Your upper limit and your partner’s might be wildly different. Your max might be $28,000 (the average wedding cost in 2019, according to The Knot), while your partner might be thinking $5,000 is the most they want to spend.
  • Are You OK With Wedding Debt? Are you comfortable going into debt to pay for your wedding? If so, how much?
  • What Are Your Must-Haves? Each of you can list the top five things you most want to have at your wedding, such as a live band, a gorgeous cake, or a hip venue.
  • What Do You Want to Skip? You can also list the things you don’t care about or would rather not have at your wedding, such as a bouquet toss (or flowers in general), a DJ, or an open bar.
  • What Are You Lukewarm About? There might be wedding traditions or expenses neither of you really care about, like a photo booth, formalwear, or a limousine.

Ideally, your wedding must-haves, skips, and don’t-really-care-abouts will overlap somewhat. If not, find areas of compromise to make them work with your budget. For example, you can each take one must-have off of your list if there are too many. Or if one of your skips is the other person’s must-have, you can find a way around that.

Once you know what you want from your wedding, you can create a vision board.

A wedding vision board is a visual way to organize your wedding ideas. It can help you establish your wedding goals and the overall vibe you’re hoping to achieve. You can also share it with different vendors or your wedding planner to help them better understand your vision.

The vision board also helps you see what’s within reach of your budget. If you both know you want to get married on the beach, you can look for beach venues that won’t break the bank. If you want a photo booth, you can look for DIY tutorials and add them to your vision board.

If you and your partner agree that you don’t care about formal wedding attire, you can hunt around for semiformal or casual wedding outfits that work with your budget. For example, a bride who wants to wear white can choose a simple shift dress or pantsuit.

For inspiration, head to Pinterest and search “wedding vision boards.”

2. Calculate How Much You Have to Spend vs. How Much You Need

To create a wedding budget, you need to know what you’re working with and how much you’re ultimately going to need. There are a few things you need to know to make such a calculation.

Who Is Contributing?

Are you and your betrothed the ones footing the entire wedding bill? Or have relatives or friends offered to help? Once you’ve determined all the sources of wedding funds you have to work with, add it up to see how much you have in your total wedding budget.

Another thing to consider is how you’ll pay for the wedding. Will you charge your credit card? If so, will you pay the balance in full before the big date, or do you plan to pay it off after you get married? Do you have enough savings to pay for the wedding in cash?

When Are You Getting Married?

Are you planning to get married in the next few months, or do you have a year or two to save money? If you have time, you can set aside monthly savings based on the estimated costs of your wedding. For example, if you’re getting married in a year and need $3,000 more dollars, you must set aside $250 per month to meet your goal.

How Large Is Your Wedding Guest List?

One of the primary factors influencing the cost of a wedding is the guest list. Many vendors, such as caterers, break down wedding expenses on a per-person basis. So to get accurate estimates of how much things cost for your wedding, you need to know the size of your guest list.

A massive wedding can be a ton of fun, but it can also be costly. That’s probably why the average wedding size has been shrinking in recent years. In 2019, the average wedding had 131 guests, according to The Knot, down from a high of 153 in 2007. If you’re creative, a small wedding can be just as fun.

Do the math to figure out the cost per head. That means adding up the per-person costs of every vendor. For vendors who don’t quote on a per-person basis, such as wedding photographers, divide their quote by the number of people who are currently on your guest list.

Once you have your per-person total, divide that by your maximum budget number to get the number of guests you can realistically invite. Based on the figures from The Knot, the average per-guest cost was $213 in 2019.

If you can’t cut your per-person wedding costs to fit into your budget, you have to cut your guest list to make it work.

Let’s say you need to cut your guest count in half, from 150 to 75 people. First, cut out any plus-ones. If you have 20 single friends attending and you were going to let each of them bring a date, you just freed up 20 guest spots. Your single friends might grumble a bit about it, but you can gently remind them they might hit it off with another single guest at the reception.

Another option is to make your wedding adults-only. If five of your friends have two kids each, you’ve quickly taken 10 people off of your guest list. If most of your guests have children, you can likely achieve your goal of cutting the list in half just by making this rule.

Next, choose your top 30 must-invite guests. These include your and your partner’s immediate family members and people in the wedding party, plus close friends and relatives.

Now, look at the number of people you have left. Be forward-thinking when deciding who to invite. For example, it makes more sense to invite someone who’s friends with you and your partner now rather than someone you went to college with 10 years ago. The people who attend your wedding should be people who are excited about the life you’re about to build together, not the people you knew back in the day.

3. Research Wedding Costs

What you think something costs versus what it actually costs can be shockingly different, especially when it comes to anything wedding-related.

In 2016, Consumer Report investigated the concept of the “wedding tax.” They sent secret shoppers to see if there was a hidden surcharge for weddings. They found that limousine companies, caterers, and photographers charged more for a wedding than another type of event. That’s why it’s necessary to research all your potential wedding expenses.

But don’t lie to vendors about your event. For one thing, they’re likely to figure out you’re getting married, and you could risk violating your contract with them if you’re not completely upfront about the type of event you’re planning.

But there’s also a reason some services cost more for weddings. They actually take more time and require a different level of service. For example, a wedding photo shoot is likely to be more chaotic than a similar gig for a business retreat, and the wedding couple is likely to be much more demanding about the quality of the shots.

Similarly, bakers must sometimes make recipe modifications to frosting and carefully plan decorations to ensure cakes can last several hours, especially if your wedding is outdoors during the summer.

Call or look up wedding vendors in the area where you plan to tie the knot. If you know when you’re getting married, have a reasonable estimate of your guest list, and have some other details nailed down, you can start to ask vendors for quotes.

If you’re still working things out but want to get a general idea of pricing, ask the vendors to provide a range of prices. Contact multiple vendors for each wedding need so you can compare pricing. Your research helps create a more realistic budget.

When conducting your research, look into:

  • Wedding venues
  • Food and drinks (including appetizers, cocktails, wedding cake, dinner, and corkage fees)
  • Attire (such as a wedding dress, tux, shoes, jewelry, and associated alterations)
  • Grooming (such as hair, makeup, and nail professionals)
  • Transportation
  • Wedding ceremony fees (like the officiant fee and marriage license)
  • Photography and videography
  • Music (Do you want a live band, DJ, or playlist?)
  • Wedding favors
  • Flowers
  • Wedding invitations and stationery, such as RSVP cards (and place cards if applicable)
  • Wedding planner
  • Wedding rings
  • Gratuities (budget for gratuities for tipped professionals, such as servers and hairdressers)

And always ask about cheaper rates when you see package deals. Some vendors, such as photographers, florists, and caterers, have special wedding packages, designs, or menus because they’re commonly requested for weddings and most couples just want to pick something and be done. If you’re willing to put more time and effort into the selection process and make compromises, you may be able to save money.

4. Create a Wedding Budget Tracker

As you’re conducting your research, it’s helpful to have a document or spreadsheet to track your numbers. It doesn’t have to be anything too detailed. You can use a simple Excel or Google spreadsheet. Style Me Pretty has a free Google Doc wedding budget template to get you started.

Include a column for your estimated costs, one for your actual costs, and one to highlight the difference. When you get a quote from a vendor, start to plug in your estimated numbers.

If you’re not sure how much of your budget to allocate to which expenses, Martha Stewart has a handy wedding budget breakdown. For example, the reception should account for about 50% of your wedding costs. Wedding attire can be between 5% and 10% of the budget, depending on how formal or informal you want to be.

Once you make a purchase or pay a deposit, record the actual cost so you can see if you’re going over budget on anything. It’s also helpful to keep a running total so you can keep tabs on how much you’ve spent and compare it to your total budget.

If you want something a little more modern, WeddingWire has a spending tracker that automates the budgeting process for you.

There are also wedding-planning apps available, such as The Knot app, which provides a wedding budgeter module to help you set expenses. The app even recommends budgets for every aspect of your wedding, such as your venue, attire, and flowers.

5. Eliminate Nice-to-Have Items When Necessary and Finalize Your Budget

If you’re creeping over budget, it’s time to reassess your spending. Reference the conversation you had with your partner about nonnegotiables and nice-to-haves to help you prioritize. If you can both live without the fancy centerpieces, then make the cut.

If you want to stay on budget, you need to be a bit ruthless. Your wedding is a very special day, but it is only one day. Keep things in perspective. You can throw an epic party without crisp white linens or chair covers.

If you don’t want to do without something entirely, you can also compromise. For example, perhaps you can cut $600 to $1,000 from the cost upfront by skipping the live DJ, but you still want music. You can just put together a playlist and ask someone at the venue to show you how to pipe it through the speakers. Even if you have to buy party speakers because the venue doesn’t have built-in sound, you still save a big chunk of change.

6. Set Aside a Wedding Budget Emergency Fund

Even after all your research and careful planning, there’s still a good chance you’ll encounter an unexpected cost. That’s why having an emergency fund is crucial.

A wedding emergency fund is money you can dip into if absolutely necessary. For instance, say you’re planning an outdoor wedding and find out it’s going to rain on your big day. You can use your emergency fund to rent a tent. But don’t use your emergency fund as an overflow fund or an excuse to overspend.

Other examples of instances that warrant using your emergency fund include:

  • Renting heaters for unseasonably cool weather
  • Purchasing umbrellas for guests to help them get to and from their cars on a rainy day
  • Venue overtime fees
  • Paying to cover a last-minute guest

You can add your emergency fund as an additional line item in your wedding budget spreadsheet.

Final Word

Nothing kills a new couple’s vibes faster than bickering about budgeting. So do yourself a favor and work with your partner to decide on the type of wedding you want and then set a realistic budget to help you to achieve your wedding goals without jeopardizing your financial future.

Without the structure of a budget, wedding expenses can quickly creep up, leaving you with a mountain of debt after your wedding day is over. To avoid the stress and financial hardship that can follow a wedding, establish your wedding budget before you start shopping.

Amy Freeman is a freelance writer living in Philadelphia, PA. Her interest in personal finance and budgeting began when she was earning an MFA in theater, living in one of the most expensive cities in the country (Brooklyn, NY) on a student's budget. You can read more of her work on her website, Amy E. Freeman.