Our $25K Fusion Wedding Felt Like a Fancy Dinner Party for 95 Guests

Plus killer mehndi and two dresses

shawna & luke 

SUM-UP OF THE WEDDING VIBE: A well-heeled summer evening with our closest family and friends.

LOCATION: San Rafael, California

Where we allocated the most funds:

Food, Drink, Photography, and Venues. We chose a photographer soon after we found our wedding venue, and making those two big choices right away helped us stay true to our vision. We knew we wanted someone we could be completely comfortable with and who was focused on capturing the day as it was, versus trying to make us look like a magazine spread. Turns out Emily is a new friend whom we would have happily invited as a guest, and her photographs are EVERYTHING!

We had three days’ worth of events, so having Shawna’s parents chip in to plan those helped tremendously. They planned and paid for the food for the Mehndi/Henna Party and The Night Before. We VASTLY over ordered beverages for the weekend. Better than the alternative, but we returned what we could to BevMo (contrary to what we’d heard, they wouldn’t take the wine back). We are still drinking wedding wine a year later, which is kind of fun.

If there’s one thing we’ve heard non-stop after the wedding it’s that everyone loved the food. We are so glad the idea of having a cocktail style reception with dinner-weight food worked for everyone. We worked closely with a friend of ours who owns an amazing vegetarian Indian restaurant on a menu that was flavorful without being too spicy for the few we weren’t sure would be open to new things. Everything had to be easy to hold and eat, so he got inventive with form factors. Luckily most of our friends and family are foodies, and the dosa station was a huge hit! We supplemented the veg food with a few meat kebabs, and they blended nicely into the menu. Also, wedding pie FTW. Getting pies locally that were baked the day before was the best decision ever. Our one nod to dietary restrictions was that they made one gluten-free pie, and our friends were so happy. Everything else was luckily easy.

We were lucky to get our wedding and reception venue as an affordable package (it would already have been affordable, but they also mixed up our reservation for Sunday, so we got Saturday at the Sunday rate!) and Shawna’s parents hosted the Mehndi at their house. However, we still had to rent a spot for the Guys’ Night Out/“Man”di (Luke was so proud of that pun we kept it!) and The Night Before. Individually these were all good deals, but adding them together, locations were a big expense.

Where we allocated the least funds:

Decor, Stationery, Flowers, and Location. We intentionally chose a beautiful venue for our wedding, and it didn’t need much decorating, so we kept our touches meaningful and small. We made copies of family photos and bought cheap but nice frames so we could make the house feel like our home for a night. Shawna painted wooden letters and jewel-tone cardstock with gold to provide some tie-in with our loose color scheme. We lucked into the venue deciding to invest in bistro lights, which we had originally planned to rent. Otherwise, we let the home and gardens speak for themselves.

We were going to skip flowers altogether, but at the last minute Shawna’s mom decided she really wanted Shawna to have a bouquet and for the guys in her family to have boutonnières. Shawna described something simple made up of her favorite flowers, and in the end it was a beautiful bouquet. We still took first look and bridal party photos with fans, and the bridesmaids were happy to have fans for the heat of the ceremony! We didn’t use any other decorative flowers (e.g. table centerpieces, aisle decor).

We sent digital save the dates and make a kickass website (Shawna may not have sunk too much time in DIY but spent DAYS on the website and was damn proud of it). Since we had a cocktail-style reception we didn’t need a seating chart or menu, and we skipped programs since we knew the ceremony was going to be short and simple. Shawna stressed on those decisions for a bit, but it’s amazing what chalkboards (for basic directional signage) and little paper flags (for food) can do. The only paper stationery we did use were the invitations themselves, and we kept those simple: a flat invitation, a card describing the times, dates, and purposes of the wedding weekend events, and an RSVP postcard we custom designed to allow people to RSVP for each event. We got the invites from MagnetStreet, since they have coupons and deals all the time and offered three free samples so we could try out colors, styles, and fonts.

What was totally worth it:

GoPro videos of the toasts. This was a gift from a friend. We watch those videos all the time, and they always make me smile (or cry happy tears, let’s be real).

Taking the time to come up with our vision and discuss it. Being ruthless about what was worth spending time and money on and what we didn’t need. Nearly everyone we worked with was a small business or they were on their own so we felt like we had a community of people around us. Working with people we got to know and like meant a lot and wasn’t something we anticipated about the process.

Finding Falkirk was perfection. Friends had been to a wedding there and suggested it. It was the first venue we visited, and I was ready to sign on the spot. Luke made us visit another just to compare, but after that, we couldn’t put our hearts into more of a search. When they mistakenly gave away our Sunday date, we got the Saturday at the Sunday price, which turned out perfectly in the end. Again, the people were so nice and helpful throughout the year plus of planning!

We were engaged for a year and a half, which both gave us time to book things and to relax for a few months before feeling like we had to plan. The timing ended up working out perfectly. I finished grad school, studied for my licensing exam, and waited for the results almost up until the moment of the wedding.

Having a second dress and shoes! I bought an affordable back-up dress ($40 on sale!) and flat shoes I knew I’d wear again just in case.

What was totally not worth it:

Bartender at the wedding. The photo booth (DIY set-up borrowed from a friend). It was fun, but many did not use it, and it would have been one less thing to think about. The biggest disappointment was the hours I spent on the playlist for the DJ who ended up playing mostly his own stuff, though he did pepper in some of our songs (time is healing that disappointment).

A few things that helped us along the way:

Remembering to have a life outside of planning. Yes, most of our evenings were taken up by wedding to-do lists, but we still went out for dinner, went to comedy shows and karaoke nights, watched TV shows, and were ourselves. We had a stressful year with him changing jobs and me wrapping up school so it was key to remember the rest of our lives.

My best practical advice for my planning self:

Shawna: Ask lots of questions! You’ve hired experts so use them. I’m so glad we had people to bounce ideas off of and ask for advice. Make a decision and then DO NOT REVISIT IT. Cross it off the list and celebrate. Maybe write something next to it that reminds you why it was the best choice (why it fulfills your vision or was practical) to calm the doubts. I kept a private Pinterest board of concrete decisions made (dress pictures, venue, photographer, etc.) so I had a visual reminder of how much progress we’d made and how our event was shaping up versus the stuff we were being fed that we should like.

Luke: If you have a vision, go for it. BUT, realize that your family has a vision too. Let them be involved early and often to support your vision somehow. Offload events they can own and let them craft it. Be okay that it might be different than you may have created. The calm that involvement will bring far exceeds a few minor differences. Drink calculators are dubious. Simplify drink offerings. Include lots of water for a summer event. If you want photo albums, create an account on Shutterfly. Consider buying something. Once you’re in the system, you’ll start getting great 40 to 50 percent off coupons, especially around the holidays. Great savings! Something will go wrong. Let the planner deal with it. Take solace in the fact that no one but you will know what did not go to plan. Everyone will have fun anyway.

Favorite things about the wedding:

Laughing with my mom, sister, and best friends while getting ready in the morning. My mom’s little *NSYNC song and dance to keep me from crying right before the ceremony. My grandmother tearing up as she gave me my loha. Calling Luke “husband” for the first time right after the ceremony while hiding in a little garden from guests exiting the wedding lawn. That everyone glommed onto the strangest parts of our vows (cucumbers and mushrooms). But actually the days leading up to the wedding were my favorite. Getting to see everyone and seeing my friends and family get to know each other. Hearing someone say, “Oh that’s so [that person],” about someone they’d just met two days earlier. Seeing my parents so relaxed and happy. The biggest delight was how heartfelt, funny, and surprisingly moving the toasts were—the element of the wedding we had no control over. That’s when I was most relaxed and myself.

Other things we’d like to share:

We are so glad we succeeded in creating a wedding weekend that allowed our geographically separated friends and families to really get to know each other. Luke and I met at a monthly live band Beatles karaoke event in San Francisco. We have since continued to go back every month, and he has been adopted into the band as my sister and I had been before we met (she and I are known for our harmonies; now all three of us go up to close the night by singing the last song/medley).

The Beatles’ music is not just extremely meaningful to us, but also to our families, and who doesn’t love a good Beatles song? So we knew we wanted to include that aspect of our relationship in our wedding. Very early on we had the idea of making a private Beatles karaoke night into our “The Night Before,” as neither of us felt the need for a formal rehearsal dinner. That way, we could invite our wider community too and celebrate our marriage with one big shabang (sidenote: I drank SO much tea with lemon the morning we got married). I would not trade that night for the world. My sister put together an amazing slideshow of photos from both of our childhoods and tried to make sure there were photos of everyone present with one or both of us included in the slideshow. So even the people who weren’t that into our karaoke efforts were amused by the old photos or waiting for themselves to appear.

We also carefully included traditions (seven steps, mehndi). I had pictured how I wanted that aspect to be for so long that it was incredibly gratifying to work on the specifics together (so it represented both of us) and then to see it all become real. Nothing was off the shelf about this—we created it together. And I really hope that having these photos and stories available on a site like APW as an example helps a future bride who can see herself represented because there were almost no examples of fusion weddings that felt like what we wanted.

Insisting on doing it together. I am terrible at delegating. So we mostly didn’t give tasks to others, but we did do almost everything together—the two of us. So when people said the wedding was so personal, so much a reflection of us, it was a real vindication of the struggle to keep it close and craft something that was meaningful for both of us.

The Info:

Photography: Emily Merrill Weddings | Location: San Rafael, CA | Venue: Falkirk Cultural Center | Shawna’s Dresses: Sarah Liller Bridal and The Wedding Party | Luke’s Suit: Armani | Caterer: Sangeetha | Pies: Upper Crust | Planner: MSH Events


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  • lirr

    But who did the mehndi?? My wedding will also be a Bay Area Indian/western fusion wedding & I’d love to know!!

    • Shawna

      Oh you’re in for a treat! Darcy from Henna Lounge! http://hennalounge.com/ She is the bomb and is based in Oakland. I would also highly recommend Sabreena from Ritual By Design http://www.ritualbydesign.com/ She’s in the Mission (SF). We used Sabreena for the mehndi party, but her bridal mehndi is gorgeous too. It was hard for me to pick only one to do my mehndi. But Darcy and I just clicked (important when you’re spending 5 hours with each other).

      We are so lucky to have a ton of incredible mehndi artists in the Bay. Follow these two on instagram and get to know the community by who comments, etc. Depending on where you are in the Bay there are more artists in the South Bay too. Many of them travel if you need it. Good luck!!

      • lirr

        thank you!!! I’d already seen Ritual by Design on instagram but I didn’t know about Henna Lounge. We’re right in SF so maybe I’ll look into who is willing to drive up from south bay.

        • Shawna

          I went to Darcy to have my bridal mehndi done (my bridal party came with me and had their hands done too) and that worked for me, but depending on how you want to do the mehndi (with a ceremony, have your mehndi done AT the party where others are also getting mehndi), you may need an artist to come to you.

  • Liz

    Really interested to hear more about why your bartender wasn’t worth it. Right now we’re planning a pretty similar wedding, and we’ve been debating back and forth whether we need a bartender or if putting our alcohol in buckets for people to get themselves is fine.
    Really beautiful and meaningful wedding! I hope we can craft a day that feels as sweet and personal.

    • Shawna

      Thank you! And of course you can! Just follow the APW playbook for keeping true to you :)

      Our bartender was one we found off Thumbtack and we liked him and his attention to detail at first, but were surprised just how many details he then got wrong. He was supposed to have three dispensers and we were very specific about what to put in each, but when for some reason he only brought two he just mixed everything together. As a result we had pink lemonade and cucumber water, which was all well except that both my sister and my husband HATE cucumbers (and we learned that day thanks to including this detail in our vows that others share their views. Whatever haters – cucumber water is fancy and delicious on a hot day). ANYWAY it wouldn’t have been an issue if we’d also had plain water as planned. It was HOT so a few key people not having easy access to water was a bit of a problem. Really, if it had been anyone it would have been a problem, but it’s nice to not inconvenience the groom, ya know?

      Beers and sodas in buckets worked fine (for the wedding and the other weekend events), but at the end of the night we also had (I can’t remember if it was 7 or 9) but either way a ridiculous number of half opened wine bottles. Um….wasteful? And why we had a bartender, not self-serve for wine and cocktail? I heard later that he kept leaving the bartending area to go to the kitchen for stuff. Not sure if that meant he didn’t have as much behind his station as he needed for refills or if he just peaced out at various intervals. So I think it’s possible people ended up opening new bottles of wine if they didn’t see him or already opened bottles (or he wasn’t keeping track and he was opening lots of bottles). Either way, not a good look and not successful for us. We had asked him several times during planning if he needed a second person or if we needed to cut down on variety of drinks (he was in charge of red and white wine and mixing the one cocktail we offered: manhattans. Everything else was self-serve and distributed around the verandah). We had already ended up cutting the menu down so it was surprising that a pared down station was still not handled well.

      Like we said, though, we still had a year’s worth of wedding wine (oh, and an unopened handle of bourbon) afterward so it’s not like we ran out! I’m sure there were other minor details that went wrong on the day, but I wasn’t happy to have this one be so obvious. Your mileage may vary!

      • Liz

        Thaaaaank you lady! This is so helpful!

        Also, what’s up with people being so weird about cucumber water? There’s a restaurant my fiance refuses to go back to because they gave him cucumber water without asking if he wanted it with cucumber. He’s not allergic or anything, just picky about water, I guess!

        Thanks again for sharing your experience, I think this will really help as we try and figure out what to do for our lil shindig.

        • Ayla K

          Maybe I’m in the minority here, but the taste of cucumbers makes me physically nauseous. I prefer my water 100% unflavored, thanks! (That being said, I wouldn’t avoid a restaurant completely for the same reason as your fiance, unless they were totally unable to give me water without cucumber in it. Just ask them to switch it next time!)

  • Jess

    “Man-di” – I died of laughing!!

    But honestly, your wedding looks so beautiful and I love all the meaning you wove in, and the DIY you chose to not do.

    • Shawna

      Thank you! Yes, once we heard that one, it had to stay.

  • Cellistec

    That photo near the end of the two of you in the window took my breath away.

    • Shawna

      *blush* Thanks! Emily had something like that in mind from the moment she saw the window. We love that little series.

    • That is an amazing photo! Definitely one to frame!!!

  • Shawna

    A little correction: The Wedding Party is where we found our bridesmaids dresses. My second dress (the white and gold one) was from the Macy’s sale rack ;)

    Sadly, the Wedding Party doesn’t do bridesmaids dresses anymore. They were so awesome and helpful! And Sarah Liller is switching focus from bridal to her everyday line, which is gorgeous and very comfy: https://sarahliller.com/

  • Zoya

    AHHHH that dress and that veil! Shawna, I remember meeting you at the APW Minted event last year and you were telling me about your veil. It turned out so beautiful!!

    • Shawna

      Hi! Aw, thank you! Wishing you well!!

  • StevenPortland

    Your dress and veil are fantastic! Best advice ever is: “Make a decision and then DO NOT REVISIT IT. Cross it off the list and celebrate.” I need to take this to heart in my everyday planning.

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  • kktea23

    This is genius. Excuse me while I copy you immediately!

    “I kept a private Pinterest board of concrete decisions made (dress pictures, venue, photographer, etc.) so I had a visual reminder of how much progress we’d made and how our event was shaping up versus the stuff we were being fed that we should like.”