Amber & George

*Amber, Wedding Photographer & George, Ph.D. student at the University of Maryland*

Here is the story of Amber Wilkie’s wedding. When things just stopped working, she ditched everything. They stopped joking about Vegas, and they actually went to Vegas where they got hitched in the Valley of Fire. The interesting thing about this post is that Amber says that she failed at wedding planning, but I read it with my eyes wide, thinking that she’d won at wedding planning in a way few of us are really able to. And while she’s not able to see the Grace in her wedding, as mentioned in her wedding toast, it shines through at every point in this post. Not grace as in graceful, but Grace, the big one: This wedding lives in a state of Grace.

My husband and I got married in Vegas. Like many in the throes of wedding planning, we joked about it whenever we got frustrated. And then our venue canceled on us. Demoralized, we considered places way above our budget. Around this time, I started seriously looking into the “Vegas option” and I found a surprisingly comprehensive set of choices. Sure, there were the Elvis chapels, but also hotel chapels (at various stages of super-cheap to insanely expensive), drive-throughs, strip weddings, helicopter weddings and on and on and on. And somewhere in there, I found out there are companies that will take you out to the desert and give you a wedding that would be beautiful, simple, and—perhaps best for us—cheap.

So that’s what we did. We took our measly $5,000 budget and spent it in Vegas on our immediate families and best friends. Our wedding package (from Scenic Las Vegas Weddings) cost just $1300 and included: limo transportation for 17 people out to the Valley of Fire (about an hour from Vegas), officiant, photographer, bouquet, and boutonniere for the groom. Frankly, it was a little unnerving to send my money off to Vegas ahead of us and not have a single bit of control over whether or not the limos would show, we would actually have someone to marry us, or where we were going!

But in the end, the limos did show, and we all carted out there so my husband and I could get our wed on. When we got back, we bought each one of our 15 guests a big four-course steak dinner with champagne and cocktails. It was the wedding we would have liked to have thrown for everyone we knew, but only for our nearest and dearest, and with the money we were willing to spend on nuptials.

Because I work in the wedding industry, I end up telling this story at nearly every client meeting, and I continue to have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, I failed at wedding planning. We got overwhelmed and turned to Vegas in desperation and found an easy out. On the other hand, we more or less stayed in budget, we showed our very most important folks an incredible time and we actually had several meals with our family.

We did have family get mad (some very mad) that they weren’t invited to our wedding. After years of attending the weddings of our cousins, friends, neighbors, we were shunning all of them and inviting only our parents, siblings, and one friend each. We’ve finally mended all those relationships, but our wedding was not held without strife. (Is any wedding?)

I think it was the right decision for us. We didn’t have to go into debt to finance our wedding. We actually hung out with all our people and I’m pretty sure they all had a kick-ass time. We had a built-in honeymoon in Las Vegas (we saw the Hoover Dam and went to see the Bodies exhibit—yes, the day after we married). Keeping with our $5,000 budget, we could afford a fatty suite at the Venetian.

My Second-best Man (that’s what we called my Man of Honor—my best friend is a dude) gave a little speech at our steak lunch reception that it has taken me a while to fully appreciate. He said our wedding was full of “grace.” At the time, I was sort of embarrassed. Nothing about our wedding was graceful. Not the generic bagels and cream cheese we fed our guests in our hotel suite before we got in the limos; not the slightly-painful hour-long drive out to the desert; certainly not the boombox playing the wedding processional music so I could walk up the hill to my waiting groom… but I think I get it now. We took everything we wanted our wedding to be and stripped away all the pieces that didn’t absolutely have to be there. (Yes, we had to have steak.) At the time, we were just doing the best we could with what we were willing to spend.

I do sometimes regret not having a big celebratory bash for everyone I know. We talk about doing something big for our 10-year anniversary. In the meantime, though, we look back on our wedding with fondness. And sometimes we whisper to each other that we “did it right.”

The Info—Photography: Scenic Las Vegas Weddings and Amber & George’s friends / Venue: Valley of Fire / Amber’s Dress: St. Anthony’s Bridal (an awesome charity bridal store in Bethesda, Maryland. Every wedding dress on the racks is $150!)

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  • This. Is. Awesome. It made me tear up a little- because “just doing the best we could with what we were willing to spend” and achieving a wedding full of grace? That is perfect. Thank you for sharing.

  • Margaret

    I don’t think I’ve ever seen a desert wedding before (at least, not outside National Geographic). These photographs are arresting in their beauty.

  • Yayyy for desert weddings!!! We’re having one in September and your pictures just gave me such a rush. :-)

    I’m glad to hear that stripping things down to their essence was in the end a “graceful” experience for you. (It’s the core of what we’re trying to do as well.) Congratulations on a wedding well planned–or not planned!

  • PA

    “We did have family get mad (some very mad) that they weren’t invited to our wedding. …. We’ve finally mended all those relationships, but our wedding was not held without strife. (Is any wedding?)”

    I wish I could bold that last parenthetical sentence and put it in 42-pt font – I was going to say, “because it’s the best thing to keep in mind for couples who are eloping or doing tiny weddings,” but the truth is that it’s good for ALL couples to keep in mind. It’s safe to assume that any choice you make in your wedding planning process will have its proponents and opponents, and hopefully that can provide a sense of freedom: “There was no way to do this without some family-and-friends strife.”

    Beautiful wedding! Beautiful story!

    • This is so true! It’s impossible to dig through all of the feelings that go with weddings, for everyone involved, and not hit some rocky spots. It’s a horrible feeling to have all of your decisions put under a microscope by people who have no idea what the stakes are.
      It sounds like you truly wanted to share your joy and party with your friends, and I’m sure that you will celebrate your marriage with them in other ways for the rest of your lives. It feels so good to be reminded that wedding fairies do not magically change financial reality, and I think this post is a breath-taking encapsulation of why that is actually a good thing.

      • Class of 1980

        “Wedding fairies do not magically change financial reality.”

        This should be made into a button for engaged couples to wear. ;)

  • kayakgirl73

    Cool on the St. Anthony’s Bridal mention. A friend of mine volunteers with them. This reminds me that I should get off my duff and donate them the wedding stuff I have and don’t need anymore. They also loan decor stuff to local brides.

  • I don’t see any “failure” at planning a wedding here. You made tough choices about what mattered to you and what you absolutely NEEDED in a wedding, got married and it was beautiful. Your choices might not have led to a big wedding, or to what you expected but that’s ok.

    What I do see is an absolutely gorgeous wedding and lots of love.

  • RS

    YAY! We are doing exactly the same thing, only at Mandalay Bay. The wedding is in exactly one month! Reading this was such a nice reassurance that we can have a small wedding in Vegas without it being a “Vegas wedding” :)

  • MDBethann

    I agree with Meg – Amber, you did not fail at wedding planning. I think you planned a lovely wedding and you had those most important to you there. You had the wedding that you needed, and, as you’ve realized, was perfect for you. You and your husband threw the wedding that was right for you, and that is what matters. I don’t think that planning a wedding has to be a certain way, and I think success is having the wedding that is right. Therefore, you succeeded.

    Best wishes to you both!

  • Class of 1980

    If success at wedding planning means staying out of debt, while still marking the occasion as special, then you succeeded. ;)


    • Maddie

      Right? And Amber did all that while also going on a trip to VEGAS.

      Talk about success.

  • KateM

    Pretty much everyone I know has some regret about their wedding. Nothing is perfect and hindsight is 20/20. Not having to regret the money you spent for whatever interest rate for the next 5 yrs is pretty awesome!

  • Aw, you guys are so sweet. Thank you for all the love!

    There’s so much I could say about our wedding. It wasn’t big or showy but we still get to have happy memories.

    Also, here’s an anecdote:
    When I tell this story, I normally get a “hey, that’s cool” response. When George tells the story of our wedding, he normally gets congratulated for having the “coolest wife on earth.” Helllls yes.

    • David Emerson

      Your wedding was awesome, it’s true, and it wasn’t a fortuitous byproduct of failure, it was a wise decision to limit scope and do a few things very well. This is always preferable to indiscriminate mediocrity, and is definitely the “grace” intended.

      • David, you are so weird.

        Also, everyone – this is my “second best man” and the dude to my right during the vows.

  • Lovely! Just lovely!

  • Fermi

    I got chills from this. You so did it right.

  • melissa

    Your pictures are beautiful! The natural beauty in my wedding shots was my primary concern in picking a location. I didn’t think I’d get what I wanted on my side of the country, so I flew to the opposite coast and eloped in Yosemite to get it. I kind of wish I’d done something in Red Rock Country instead. I love the desert!