In May 2014, after what seemed like an eternity of planning and worry, my wife and I got married in a small-town Iowa church, just steps from her old high school. Our reception was a few miles down the road in a beautiful river valley with a hundred-year-old barn.
We were blessed to have a huge crowd of our friends and family, many of whom traveled from the coasts and the Deep South, to celebrate with us. The ceremony went off without a hitch, and aside from a brief, violent thunderstorm at the very beginning, the outdoor reception was an absolute blast. I don’t get emotional often, but I certainly did that day.
Now that some time has passed, my practical side is ready to assess the financial lessons of our wedding day. I’ve come up with 11 decisions we made that definitely saved us some money throughout the process. If you’re in the midst of planning a wedding, use these tips as you get ready for your big day.
Save Money on Your Wedding and Still Have a Blast
1. Start With a Well-Defined Budget
Saving money on your wedding begins with a strict, clearly defined budget. Use the following steps to create it.
- Set a Hard Maximum. First, look at your savings and determine how much you and your soon-to-be spouse can afford to put toward your wedding – every single aspect of it. If appropriate, talk to your respective parents about what, if anything, they’d be willing to pay for. The sum of these figures should be your absolute maximum.
- List All Known Expenses. Next, make a spreadsheet and tally up every expense you can think of. For fixed costs such as the DJ or band, venue, outdoor furniture, and officiant, source a range of price quotes in your area or directly ask the person or company you hope to use.
- Make Educated Estimates for Other Expenses. For things like food and drinks, estimate how many people you expect at your wedding and how much the average person is going to consume. In our case, we figured that each guest, on average, would need about a pound of food and six drinks. Of course, we knew some of our guests would just pick and sip, but others would go back for seconds and constantly have a drink in their hands. Based on what you know about your crowd, determine which end of the spectrum they’re likely to fall on.
- Build a Buffer. Finally, build in a buffer for last-minute or unknown expenses, such as extra decorations, additional tables, and staff tips. Depending on the extent of these unknowns, your buffer could range from 5% to 30% of your budget. In our case, the initial buffer was 15%, and we ended up using about half of it.
- Arrive at Your Target Budget. The sum of the figures in steps two through four should be your budget goal. If that number is more than your maximum from step one, you may need to reevaluate your priorities and jettison any ideas that aren’t essential to your vision.
2. Don’t Go for the Most Obvious or Convenient Venue
It might be tempting to hold your wedding at the closest or most convenient venue to your house. However, because opting for an outside-the-box choice could save you a significant amount on your ceremony and reception, you should explore as many options as possible. Broadly speaking, you can divide these options into three categories: those that work in small towns and rural areas, those that work in bigger cities, and those that work in both.
Rural Areas and Small Towns
If you live in a smaller community, look at venues like the following:
- Country Club or Golf Course. You may be able to rent space in a banquet room at your local country club or golf course. In cities and affluent suburbs, this can be an expensive proposition, but in small towns and rural communities, golf courses and country clubs often struggle to stay afloat. Talk to the course or club manager to see if you can work out a favorable deal, such as a free or discounted rental if you use the onsite catering service. Expect to Spend: Free to $500, depending on location and terms
- Public Event Space. Renting a public space like an American Legion hall can also be expensive in a more populated area, but affordable in a small town. The main rooms at American Legion posts typically hold between 200 and 300 people, depending on the size of the community they serve. If your wedding is smaller, your American Legion outpost – or a similar organization’s facility – may have a cheaper, cozier space. For instance, the one in my wife’s hometown had a main upstairs area that could seat about 250 guests for $300, and a downstairs bar area that could hold 80 for $120. Cost: $100 – $500, depending on the size of the space
- Rec Center. If a suitable public event space isn’t available, try a municipal rec center’s gymnasium. These cavernous spaces can comfortably hold 200 or more guests. In a big city, they may be difficult to book, but in smaller towns they’re typically available. And, since they’re often drab, they can be rented on the cheap. For instance, the rec center gym closest to my wife’s hometown costs no more than $200 for an all-day rental. If you can source cheap decorations to enliven a venue like this, it could be a great option. Cost: $100 – $300
- Campgrounds. If you’re doing a warm-season wedding and you know your guests won’t mind roughing it, look for public or private campgrounds with group sites that can accommodate larger gatherings. Every campground is different, so talk to the supervisor or ranger to determine where you can hold your event, when, and what restrictions you might face. Depending on the size of your group, it may be possible to fit the entire reception in a single large site, or several adjacent sites. Unless you don’t need amplified music or lights, you should probably spring for a campsite with an electric hookup or find a place that allows diesel generators. On the bright side, though, your guests are likely to be very close to their private rooms. Cost: $15 and up, depending on your group’s size and requirements
- A Friend or Family Member’s Land. Like a campground, a friend or family member’s property lets you spread out and enjoy the outdoors. If you’re granted use of the house and outbuildings, it may also give you valuable storage space. We considered using my wife’s parents’ rural spread for our ceremony and reception, though her dad ultimately vetoed the idea – but your family might be more receptive. And, they probably won’t charge you to use the property. Cost: Free (hopefully)
Cities and Metropolitan Areas
If you’re in a bigger city, the following ideas may present affordable options for you:
- Local Restaurants. Destination restaurants often have spaces that can accommodate small to medium-sized wedding receptions. For instance, a popular German restaurant near our current home rents a banquet room at a per-person rate that includes the space itself and a dinner buffet, with a minimum of 50 guests. Prices, not including alcohol, start at $15 per person for the cheapest of four options and range up to $30, though bulk discounts can be negotiated. You may be able to find an even better deal at a restaurant near you. Cost: $10 per person and up, depending on the restaurant and your catering options
- A Museum or Gallery Space. If you’re a member of a local museum, you may be able to get favorable pricing on a gallery or hall rental. Just make sure you aren’t required to use a specific outside caterer – a popular museum in our city attaches its preferred catering company to every event it hosts. An all-inclusive reception there, including food, music, and drinks, carries a minimum cost of $10,000 before taxes and fees, or about $13,000 after those expenses. Cost: $500 and up
Some options work well just about anywhere:
- Your Home. No matter where you live, your backyard can be a cost-effective place to hold your reception and wedding – especially if your gathering is small. Like a friend or family member’s land, it’s free to use. Cost: Free
- Public Park. If your group is very small, you may be able to gather in the park for free, though you should check with its superintendent first. If you need to reserve a gazebo or barbecue pit, you can expect to pay something. The exact cost depends on your town’s policies, what you’re renting, how long you’re staying, and possibly how many attendees you have. Cost: Free to $500
Despite living more than 500 miles away at the time, we eventually settled on two venues in my wife’s small, isolated hometown. The ceremony took place at her childhood church, and the reception followed at a nearby nature preserve with an event-friendly barn, a broad lawn for games and mingling, and plenty of camping space for guests. The preserve was less expensive and more distinctive than the options we looked at in the closest big city.
3. Leverage Personal Relationships and Keep Business Local
Once you choose your venue, determine whether you can leverage relationships with local business owners. In addition to helping you out, it’s a way to keep business in the community and potentially make friends and family feel like participants on your special day. If you have any skills you can offer them in exchange, such as web design or legal expertise, don’t hesitate to make an in-kind offer.
Consider the following ideas:
- Bartending. Whether it’s a college friend or cousin, you likely know someone you can trust to serve drinks responsibly. Offer to pay them an hourly rate, trade for services you can provide later, or let them keep some leftover alcohol (if such an arrangement is legal in your area). At our wedding, we tapped the son of my wife’s family friend, who had hospitality experience, to serve as the bartender and paid him a discounted hourly rate.
- Photography. You may have artsy friends or friends who are actually professional photographers who can take on this role. If so, offer to compensate them at an agreed-upon rate – hopefully less than market rate – and make it clear that they don’t have to get you a wedding present. We worked with a very talented local photographer who was friends with my wife from elementary school, and secured a small discount in the process.
- Transportation. If your ceremony and reception aren’t in the same location, you don’t have to pay for a fancy party bus or limo. Chartered transportation services for a medium-sized wedding can range from $1,000 to more than $3,000, depending on trip frequency and the number and type of vehicles used. To avoid this hefty line item, reduce your costs by relying on designated drivers or transport specialists among your friends. Several months before the event, put out a call for designated drivers within your group of invitees, and make sure they don’t indulge at the wedding. Offer to compensate them – an hourly rate or free hotel room, for example. Better yet, see if any of your guests own larger vehicles, such as vans or buses. If so, offer to pay them – both for use and associated costs such as gas and hired drivers. Alternatively, if you’re in a city with robust public transit, encourage your guests to take the tram or subway from the ceremony to the reception. They won’t mind spending $2 or $3 a piece to do so, and there’s nothing quite like taking over a train car with your fellow revelers. This way, you can get just a single limo or bus for your wedding party, and possibly arrange a few taxis for older guests.
- Decoration and Setup. See if you can borrow potted plants from friends in lieu of paying for expensive floral arrangements. Tap family members to make simple decorations, such as table runners and streamers, and to set up your ceremony and reception sites. My wife’s mother made simple but elegant table runners from wholesale fabric, saving us both material and labor expenses.
- Officiating. If any of your friends or family members are licensed to perform marriages, ask them to officiate the ceremony. Since this is a somewhat hefty responsibility, it’s a great opportunity to trade your services for theirs. However, you can also offer to pay them a fee or cover their lodging. Even if you don’t know a clergyperson, a gifted orator among your friends could easily get a minister’s certificate online, a process that can take just a few hours (they may need to complete a course and take an exam). The cost is nominal – for example, $10 on the Universal Life Church website – which you should cover, of course. In our case, we asked one of my wife’s close friends from high school – an ordained minister – to officiate the ceremony. He did so for free, though we made it clear that he didn’t have to get us a present.
- Cleanup. On the day after the wedding, tap friends or family members – perhaps the same people who assisted with setup – to help clean the venue. Members of our bridal party each pitched in about an hour of their time and the place looked great by mid-morning.
- Random Tasks. Delegate some smaller tasks that tend to fall through the cracks at a wedding, such as guarding the door to the bridal dressing suite and telling guests where to go when they first arrive at the reception area. You can compensate this help by offering to pay for drinks – if you don’t have an open bar – or providing extra wedding favors. In our case, the people who directed traffic and tended our modest bonfire were willing to do so for free.
4. Explore All Your Lodging Options
Even if your venue doesn’t have beneath-the-stars sleeping arrangements, you can save your guests some money.
- Reserve Multiple Room Blocks. If you’re dealing with a diverse group of guests with different lodging requirements, reserve room blocks at multiple lodging facilities. These can include a nicer hotel for those who crave creature comforts, a cheaper hotel for budget-conscious guests who want a place to freshen up, and a campground or hostel for those who just don’t care. We did all three.
- Negotiate a Discount. If you have AAA, veteran status, or access to another type of discount, see if your preferred hotels can knock a few dollars off your room rates. You could save 10% or more.
- Go Heavy on the Favors. Reward guests who stay at bare-bones accommodations with extra wedding favors, such as a bottle of reasonably priced wine ($5 to $10) and a dark chocolate bar ($3 to $6).
Our decision to hold the wedding in a rural area probably saved our guests some serious money on lodging: The hotels in the nearby county seat ranged from $50 to $100 per night, roughly half what they would have been near the city sites we considered. Since the nature preserve had ample campsites within walking distance of the venue, many of our younger, more rugged friends camped out for $8 to $15 per night. After all, the hope is that your guests remember the wedding itself – not how they slept afterward.
5. Look for Alternatives to Onsite Catering
Some venues are more strict about allowing outside food and beverages than others. If your venue doesn’t require you to use its catering service, definitely make arrangements to bring in your own food and utensils. You can buy plastic cutlery, cups, and paper plates at a warehouse store for less than $75, depending on the size of your party. For the food itself, local specialties may help reduce your costs. A lobster bake in New England, traditional barbecue in Texas or the Carolinas, and handmade sushi in California might all cost less than in other parts of the country.
If local flavor isn’t a priority, you could save even more on wedding food costs if you opt for something more low-key, like grilled burgers ($5 for a pack of 10), hot dogs ($4 for a pack of 8), and chicken breasts ($12 for a family pack). No matter how you do it, make sure your setup is self-serve – people love building their own plates, and a buffet line cuts down on the help you’re going to need.
We went the local flavor route. Being that our wedding was in Iowa, a top pork-producing state, we purchased a whole hog from a local farmer and served pit-roasted pulled pork with hot sides from the local deli: green bean casserole, baked beans, and bread. Together, the hog, sides, and labor cost around $1,200. Compared to what we would have spent at the urban venues we contacted for quotes, we saved about 50% on consumables.
6. Buy – or Make – Your Own Alcohol
The markup on alcoholic beverages can be steep at catered events, as venues often require you to pay retail for each drink served. At a nice venue, the going rate can be $6 to $9 for a glass of wine, $4 to $6 for a bottle of beer, and $10 or more for a mixed cocktail. That’s a markup of several hundred percent.
Instead of paying retail, make a trip to the local warehouse store and buy all the boxes of wine ($17 to $22, depending on the brand) and bottles of liquor ($30 to $40 per 1.75-liter jug) you need. You can also make your bartender’s life easier – and possibly eliminate the need to hire extra help – by putting your beer kegs somewhere your guests can easily access to serve themselves. We paid $60 for a domestic keg and $80 for a craft keg, but your costs may vary. If you have a home-brewing or fermenting enthusiast in your family, you may be able to save even more money by making your own beer or wine.
7. Choose Your DJ Wisely
For your wedding entertainment, you have three basic options:
- Hire a band ($2,000 and up for a professional outfit)
- Hire a DJ ($500 to $1,100, based on quotes we sourced for our wedding)
- Use someone’s phone and speaker deck (basically free)
The idea of saving $1,000 or more by using the third option sounds appealing, but it may come with some drawbacks. In particular, you may want to have an experienced emcee to direct traffic.
You should screen any DJ candidates by phone for their experience and comfort with this role. Use the interview to ask about the following:
- General Experience. It takes more than a microphone and an assertive voice to corral a crowd. Ask how long your DJ candidates have been directing traffic at parties, and how many weddings they’ve done.
- Venue Experience. Every venue is different, and setting up sound equipment is not always obvious or easy. Be wary of someone who has never worked at your reception venue.
- Day Job. Many people DJ on the weekends and have nine-to-five jobs during the week. Ask your candidates if this is the case, and if so, what they do for a living. Jobs that require interaction with the public or managing other employees are a plus.
- What They’re Willing to Do. We asked candidates if they’d be okay announcing that dinner was ready, directing each table to the buffet line, managing each toast, taking song requests, and engaging with the crowd during the post-dinner festivities. The more they could do, the better.
For our wedding, we eventually settled on a guy who had been DJing and emceeing for more than a decade. He had put on multiple events at our venue, and had extensive managerial experience at his day-job. Despite a higher cost, it was the right decision: Due to the configuration of the barn, tents, and buffet line, our guests were spread over a radius of more than 100 yards, and the DJ’s announcements ensured that no one missed the dinner, cake cutting, first dance, or anything else big.
8. Control Your Floral Budget
Wedding flowers are expensive. If you decide on a color scheme for your wedding, you can reduce your floral budget by relying on seasonal, locally available flowers to match it. Though costly tropical flowers like orchids might look stunning, avoid them. In our case, using simple, in-season flowers dropped our bill below $400, or 50% less than quotes we got for more elaborate displays.
In addition to using seasonals, you can save money on your wedding’s flowers by doing the following:
- Use colorful natives to achieve an eye-catching effect with fewer flowers
- Supply your own vases
- Use flowers from your own garden (or your friends’ gardens)
- Bring in potted plants from your friends and family
9. Keep Decorations Simple and Tasteful
No matter where you’re holding your ceremony and reception, don’t be afraid to let the space speak for itself. In short, don’t overdecorate. If part or all of your event is outdoors, rely on the venue’s natural beauty.
If you’re inside or you need some additional touches to spruce up your outdoor space, try cost-effective design touches like these:
- Mason jar vases (less than $1 each, if bought in bulk) for table centerpieces, or glass wine bottles (free if you save or acquire enough of them prior to the event)
- One candle ($2 to $5) per place setting, instead of live flowers in the center of the table
- Handmade place settings (free, except for materials)
- One or two childhood photos of you and your spouse at each table (free)
We definitely kept our wedding decorations simple. Our ceremony featured floor runners (thin, carpet-like fabric laid down the wedding aisle) supplied by the church for free, rose petals laid by the adorable flower girls ($10), and some well-placed flowers throughout ($50 total). If we had put on the party in a hotel ballroom, as we’d considered, we probably would have gotten more creative with wall decorations, had fancier table runners, additional flowers, and other touches – and that would have raised our decoration budget considerably.
10. Use Minimalist Thank-You Cards and Invitations
Don’t splurge on wedding invitations and thank-you notes. Put that money toward your ceremony and reception instead. For your invitations and save-the-dates, pick two of your favorite engagement photos for the front of the cards. Keep them on single sheets of paper in simple envelopes, with an extra sheet for members of the wedding party and those invited to the rehearsal dinner.
If your photography studio offers multiple packages, choose the most modestly priced. At our studio, the cheapest package was about $200. The most expensive was more than $500. Depending on where you live, your range may be higher or lower.
You can significantly reduce paper waste and save money by asking guests to RSVP online. A typical wedding website costs just $20 to set up and maintain for a year, so if your guests are tech-savvy, definitely go this route. For older guests who might not have Internet access, have your parents or maid of honor accept RSVPs by phone. In our case, doing away with RSVPs saved us between $50 and $100.
When it comes time to send thank-you notes, opt for a similarly bare-bones approach. Choose simple postcards that carry your wedding’s color theme, and use one of the outtakes from your post-ceremony photo session – if possible – as the cover photo. All told, your postcards shouldn’t cost much more than if they were store-bought – roughly $100. Ours turned out to be less than half what a more elaborate setup including envelopes would have cost.
For smaller gatherings or ultra cost-conscious nuptials, you could even send invites online for free through a service such as Evite. This won’t appeal to some, but it’s worth considering if you and your spouse don’t find it objectionable and if you can reach all your guests. Or, mix it up with traditional invites for less tech-savvy guests. The same premise works for thank-you cards, as well.
While we were lucky enough to be able to throw a pretty big party in a beautiful setting, many folks prefer to keep things simple with a courthouse ceremony and an intimate gathering in a park or backyard. Ultimately, what we’re going to remember about our wedding is not the name of our DJ or the color scheme of the decorations. Weddings are about celebrating a special day with your friends and loved ones – and starting off a new chapter in your life on the right foot. Get that part right, and the rest is just icing on the cake.
Did you discover any money-saving tips while planning your wedding?