Sharon & Jay’s Virginia Countryside Wedding

Sharon, Coordinator & Jay, Bicycle Mechanic & Welder * Photographer: Julie Napear *

How we did it: An On-Budget October Wedding in Virginia


Initial Goal: 75 / Budgeted For: 100 / Invited: 121 / Expected to Attend: 90 / Actually Attended: 71

Planned budget:

$20,000 from Sharon’s family (this was not intended to cover expenses traditionally paid for by the groom’s family or the honeymoon)

Actual budget:

$19,110 from Sharon’s family (we did not track whether or not Jay’s family expenses matched what they had budgeted for)

Where we were married: Hollin Hall in Alexandria, Virginia
We originally wanted to get married in the countryside of Virginia where we could get more for our money and have a rustic venue and festival feel. When our venue fell through, we switched to northern Virginia so that my parents could be more actively involved in visiting potential venues and caterers. Alexandria is an expensive city, so I am very proud that we stayed on budget even with the new location.

Where we allocated the most funds: Catering: $5,731 (included dessert, did not include alcohol); Venue: $4,200 (included ceremony and reception location for a total of eight hours); Photography: $2,111 (included about six hours for the photographer and her assistant with a guarantee of a hundred images per hour and ownership of the digital images)

Where we allocated the least funds: We saved money by cutting out a lot of things that were not important to us—no bridesmaids or groomsmen, no band or DJ (we played drums for music and entertainment), no makeup artist, and no wedding rings. In terms of traditional expenses that we cut costs on, we did DIT flowers and decorations for an estimated cost of $175. I enjoyed walking to the Whole Foods near the hotel to get flowers and making my future husband’s boutonnière. My sister and her friend made our bouquets with the flowers I picked out.

The Info—Photographer: Julie Napear / Venue: Hollin Hall / Sharon’s Dress: Maggie Sottero, “Zabrina” purchased from Lillian Lottie Couture in Scottsdale and currently for sale on / Jay’s Suit: Nordstrom / Mothers’ Dresses: Nordstrom / Flowers: DIT by Sharon and Jay with flowers from Whole Foods Market / Catering: Amphora Catering / Sharon’s Hair: Beau Totale Salon

What was totally worth it: The photography was excellent and worth the cost. I knew that Julie would capture the event because she’s such a talented photographer. The bonus was finding out that she’s also a professional business woman who had a clear contract, was very fast in getting the images uploaded, and had an easy website to navigate and get photos from.

What was totally not: I still struggle with the cost of the van service we hired to take the wedding party and guests from the hotel to the venue. It was only a four-mile drive, but I wanted to make that option available and could not figure out an affordable way to do it. It ended up costing $680 to transport about ten people to and from. It seems like there is a business opportunity for someone to develop a better method.

A few things that helped us along the way: I had a meltdown early on in the planning process when we visited a venue I really hoped would work out and it totally didn’t. We were back to square one and I was so frustrated. We didn’t live in the area, so we had very limited time during visits to look at venues and make a decision. After that I sat down and wrote a strategic plan for our wedding including our mission, vision, values, and indicators of success. From then on when something would go wrong and we needed to go back to the drawing board, I started by reviewing the strategic plan. It was very comforting to me and helped me see the bigger picture.

In my professional life I am a volunteer manager, so I had no problem delegating to friends and family who offered to help. It was important to me to hire professionals to take care of the essentials: officiating, food, tending bar, driving, and photography. I believe in risk mitigation and felt better knowing that trained staff with food handler’s licenses were preparing dinner and a certified driver that was paid to stay sober and know the roads would get us home safely. We took care of the rest and knew that if someone did not come through with decorations, drumming, or my makeup, we would still be happily wed at the end of the day.

A few extra things I learned along the way:
1. Virginia is one state where you cannot have a friend officiate your wedding. The officiant must be an ordained minister with a congregation or a designated civil official. Research the laws where you will be getting married!

2. We used Google Docs to keep all of the information related to our wedding plans. The collection of documents was shared with both sets of parents, my fiancé, and me so that we could all have access to the same information and stay on the same page. We were living out of our car for the first six months of planning and our parents lived two thousand miles from each other, so this was essential.

3. We were informed that “October is the new June.” So be aware if you are looking for a fall wedding and want to save money. October is expensive.

Other tidbits: Using Google Docs, I created a shared spreadsheet that tracked the estimated costs and actual costs. One thing that was incredibly helpful for staying on track was adding a line item called “Unexpected expenses.” I read somewhere (maybe in the Book) that you should plan on 20% of your budget being swallowed up by unexpected expenses. This turned out to be pretty accurate and knowing that we were really only working with $16,000 of planned expenses kept us on track.

By the way, our budget included costs such as the plane travel to get us to the wedding, hotel rooms for us, and even a new laptop since our laptop crashed in the middle of planning and we needed to replace it.

Our guest list included friends and family from all over the United States and even one guest from the United Kingdom. The actual attendance was very difficult to estimate and it surprised us who was able to come (our UK friend) and who was not (my friend of over twenty years who had been planning on it forever). In the end we were very happy that the attendance matched our original goal for the size of our wedding.

We tracked the guest list using a shared Google spreadsheet and had columns to indicate whether or not we thought the guest would “probably come,” “might come,” or “probably won’t come.” We made estimates to the caterer based on the combined total of “probably come” and “might come.” We updated the lists as we heard from guests on their likelihood of being able to attend.

Favorite things about the wedding: I loved our ceremony. It felt intimate and personal. We cried and we laughed. All of our family and our friends stood in a semi circle around us. They were asked to pledge their support for our marriage, which they did enthusiastically. When it came time for the rings, I gave Jay the wrong hand and forced the ring onto the right ring finger before realizing that it was wrong. It took me a few minutes to work it off of that finger and onto the correct one. It was a great chance to laugh and take a break after the emotional, momentous process of saying our vows.

My best practical advice to my planning-self: Planning can often be lonely and stressful, look for opportunities to make it fun. The times I remember fondly from wedding planning are when we combined a venue visit with a distillery tour, or when I went to the Bridal Expo with my mom to eat free barbecue and give business ideas to the vendors. It was crucial to find ways to enjoy the process and keep a sense of humor.

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  • One More Sara

    October is the new June? You learn something new every day! So in love with this new feature. It’s so great seeing some middle-road type budgets. I feel like the online world of wedding budgets tends to be so about one-down-man-ship, and isn’t always helpful.

    Excuse me while I hop over to my Giant Google Doc Guest list and add the “probably/maybe/probably not coming” columns.

    • Lauren

      I have mine color-coded too! My fiance gets a migraine every time he even thinks about it.

      • Ours is also color coded and has separate columns for “Adults, Children, combined” We have four tabs for ours, too, and it’s all Pivot Tables. My fiance built it and I tweak it as needed.

    • October is TOTALLY the new June. I’m getting married this Oct and was initially shocked at the estimates we were getting. Then my DOC explained that October is the 2nd most popular month for weddings. We didn’t change our date, but it’s worth noting for those who are just starting to plan. Go with November or September!

      • September is the most popular month! October is now the 2nd most popular. August is not so popular here because it can be too hot and everyone takes their vacations. (WA state/Pacific Northwest). Spring isn’t so popular now, so I’d think April-May-June would be good for the northern half of the country. I’m assuming they’re popular in the southern states because it’s not TOO hot yet.

    • We didn’t really run into any problems getting married in October, but we also didn’t really use many vendors. I did notice that for many SoCal venues, the “off season” prices didn’t kick in until November.

  • Yes to Google Docs! We used it for everything, guest list, budget, to do list, seating chart, you name it. Kept us organized and on the same page.

    Your wedding looks like it was a lot of fun! And your flowers are beautiful.

    • Erin

      Amen! I have SO MANY spreadsheets in Google docs. Comparing photographers, setting up the budget, guest list with addresses… best thing EVER.

      • Elissa

        You might have done this already, Erin, but I thought I’d mention it just in case someone finds it helpful – I’ve put all my various Google Docs docs into a folder, and shared the folder with my partner – that way, any document we create is automatically shared between us.

        Google Docs is great for us because most of our important peeps use the Google ecosystem already – so we can easily share docs as necessary. Ceremony script will be shared with our celebrant, budget/accounting spreadsheet with my parents, day of timeline with all the various friends helping on the day. So convenient!

  • MG


    Looks like such a great day. Thanks for sharing how you did it!

  • LILY

    This is so helpful! I am getting married this fall at a similar venue, and our guest list sizes and budgets match up pretty closely. Also, your bouquet is gorgeous!! And probably cost 1/10th of what it would have from a florist :) Thank you for sharing your photos and experiences with us!

    • Amber

      My question is, for those of you that have decided to DIY or DIT, how did you determine how many flowers to purchase? I’d like to arrange my own flowers since we’re getting married in a garden, so we’re just doing my bouquet, bridesmaid bouquets, boutonnières for the boys, and maybe a corsage or two for moms and grandma. But I have no clue how many bunches of flowers I need to do this! Any tips would be great!!

  • Granola

    We had our wedding in October and also heard that “it’s the new June.” At least in the Midwest, where we got married, I think it has to do with weather (which is perfect and usually not hot) and that it’s slightly (for now anyways) less busy than the summer months.

  • As a wedding guest and a friend of Sharon (and cousin-in-law!) we had a great time at her and Jay’s wedding. She shared her strategic plan with us in the beginning and in retrospect I can see how each element of the wedding was carefully thought out to achieve her goals, such as family, fun, original, true to them, etc. One aspect of their wedding that she did not mention in the post but that I found helpful is that the pre-wedding events were organized to maximize guests getting to know each other. She had a bridal shower, a friends and youngish family dinner, a rehearsal dinner where everyone was invited, and so on. She and Jay were great hosts and introduced everyone to everyone. I think it helped make their intimate ceremony feel even more intimate.

    • Aww, thanks Hadyn! Thanks for participating in the Married In Blooms support group initiation as well! I love how welcoming our cousins were to Jay. He definitely feels part of the family now.

  • Hintzy

    I was thinking that it seems like sooo many people are going for October weddings… we aren’t, but the statement that it’s the “new June” kinda makes sense. Thank you for laying all these great details out! It’s incredibly helpful to get more of a feel for setting up some basic expectations of what might be realistic. And yay for google docs, I started by creating a spread sheet on which to write out the guest list – with a list of his family, my family and our friends so we can balance it all out and know what kind of mix of people we would like to have.

  • Hannah

    This is SO helpful!! If the rest of this series is like this post I am STOKED.

    Good advice that October is the new June! I was thinking October to save money, but you’re totally right – after looking at venues it seems like the only budget-friendly time is November or March. At this rate soon all the months will be the same! Boo.

    I like that you got a van to take people home. I have been thinking/stressing about this a lot too…and why is it so freaking expensive?? I’ve thought about just renting a 12 passenger van for the day and paying a friend’s brother to come and pick people up at the end of the night. Who knows. Where I went to college there was this slightly creepy van taxi that would pick you up from the bars. It was way cheaper than a cab and fit 12 or so people. Except it was totally also where the guy slept and there was always that fear of “is this guy kidnapping us?”Ahh to be young and fearless!

    And can we talk about that piñata???!? I want one!

    • kyley

      I’ve been thinking about this issue a lot. It’s outrageously expensive. I mostly feel bad not paying for our wedding party, so I think I might slip them each a $10 and tell them to cab it. Of course, we have a giant wedding party to go along with our giant wedding, so even that is expensive!

    • Jessica

      Yes, just hire a friend & rent a van! Or even just call for 3-4 taxis to show up….I have never minded paying for the cab, but I hate having to google taxi numbers while drunk at the end of the night or trying to bum a ride off someone. :)

    • ElisabethJoanne

      The lawyer in me wants to caution people about paying friends to basically be a taxi service or chauffeur. You and the driver could end up with no insurance coverage if there’s an accident. As always, read all insurance policies carefully, and all rental contracts.

  • KB

    “I believe in risk mitigation and felt better knowing that trained staff with food handler’s licenses were preparing dinner and a certified driver that was paid to stay sober and know the roads would get us home safely.”

    AMEN!! This is why we chose to have our wedding smack-dab in the middle of D.C. – I viewed it as either we pay more for the venue or for the transportation that will get people to and from said venue because there will be no drunk driving on my watch!!! Public transportation is also awesome, all the cool kids do it.

    I also have to say that APW should totally get an endorsement from Google Docs because, seriously, that $%&# has saved my sanity. I had a breakdown in the general direction of my fiance a couple weeks ago after he said, “Well, I guess there’s not a lot left to do” – and he was serious. I made up a task list of EVERY SINGLE POSSIBLE THING that needs to get acquired/created/booked/maintained, by whom, and by when (with follow up dates!) and every time I have one of those middle-of-the-night. “Oh $%&#, we need X” I just put it on the list and it stops stressing me out because I won’t forget about it.

    • Erin

      I totally approached things the same way. When I wrote it down with a date, it got out of my head. I used docs for organization, Wunderlist for a to-do with reminders.

    • Don’t you love the sweet, adorable significant others who say things like, “Well, we have everything wrapped up, right?”

      So cute.

      • CPM

        My fiance knows there’s a lot left to do, but I still hear this a lot… because he’s the kind of person who says “we’re home!” when we’re 2 blocks away from our apartment… we complement each other well.

        • KB

          I mean, it’s totally not his fault because I’ve been handling a lot of the bookings and scouting, etc. – quite happily, too, until I realized that I need someone to be my Assistant Director/producer/gopher. After I told him that (we both used to be in theatre), I could see the lightbulb go off in his head and he’s volunteered to do so much off the task list. I realized that I can’t expect him to do a Vulcan mind-meld and anticipate every-single-thing that I will need – but once he sees a concrete list of things that I need, he’s more than happy to take it on. Love that man.

          • Amber

            We avoided the whole, “people driving home late after the wedding” by choosing a venue that has accommodations walking distance from our venue. I’ll be walking to and from my own wedding! I like that. :-)

  • Hannah

    I’m curious about where you got your information regarding having a friend officiate the wedding in VA. I’m getting married this October in Roanoke, and when I called the magistrate’s office they told me that our friend just has to provide their certificate from Universal Life Church (or whereever), and register with them at the courthouse. Perhaps these laws vary by county? Either way, I would recommend checking with your local government office to confirm the laws in your area.

    • rys

      Virginia law requires clergy (or court clerks/judges) to officiate, but it doesn’t query the “ordination.” Many states allow a non-ordained person to be deputized for the day to officiate, but Virginia does not. So if you want a non-clergy friend to officiate in VA, the person needs a Universal Life ordination or the like to be able to do it whereas in other places, a friend wouldn’t need to take that step.

    • It may vary by county, but I know that Virginia is one of only two states that the Universal Life Church warns may not uphold their certification. I actually looked into becoming an officiant and read through all the FAQs on the Universal Life Church site.

      Here’s the other references I looked at specific to Virginia:
      How to make your marriage official if it’s performed by an unofficial officiant

      List of civil celebrants in Fairfax County

      According to what I have read, only an ordained minister with a congregation or a judge or a civil celebrant can marry us. We can not have a friend become legally ordained to marry us.

      • CuriousLiz

        Sharon! Big hugs from Liz Panarelli, TJ ’02 :) Love you and your wedding – CONGRATS, and thanks so much for sharing! I love your strategic plan idea!

        On the VA celebrant question, everything you’ve said corresponds with my research. BUT, if your friend is a Virginia resident, you can have them approved as a civil celebrant, in a one-day-only kind of deal. They need to apply in their local circuit court. We haven’t decided yet whether to do this or just hop over to the courthouse sometime before the communal ceremony. I hope that helps any future VA planners! xoxo

        • Hannah

          Just received the following response from the Roanoke County Deputy Clerk:

          “Good afternoon,
          I am responding to your question about a friend performing your marriage ceremony. If the person goes through the Universal Life Ministries, they would need to bring with them a copy of their certificate and a letter from the Universal Life stating that their in good standings and able to perform marriages as their duties. Also they will need to bring a valid photo ID. This order will be good for life in the state of Virginia. There is no fee for this order and takes approximately 15 minutes to complete. ”

          Perhaps the law is more stringent in Fairfax County?

        • Great to hear from you Liz! Congratulations on your engagement!

          I do remember something about becoming a civil celebrant, but I think that depends on the county. Arlington County was quite different from Fairfax County for example. Arlington had more options for civil celebrants.

        • Melinda Bloom

          Hi Liz from Sharon’s mom. The photographer is also a TJ grad, 01′ I think. We loved the celebrant, in case you haven’t found one.

  • Christy

    I love the google docs idea. I had a spreadsheet (excel) with different tabs in which I insisted everyone (husband, me, mother) plug things into so everything would be in one place. I deleted tabs as they became obsolete (e.g., my location scouting tab). I was SO THANKFUL to have all the guest, vendor, etc. in one file that could be emailed back and forth as the day approached, and it was very useful to have up to the day of my wedding so that when my officiant went AWOL or I wanted to touch base with the band, I had all the phone numbers together instead of scattered throughout my email, which would have normally been the case. I also had a column in which I put the probability of attendence for each attendee, which I aggregated and multiplied by the total, for a running headcount. As I recieved RSVPs, I updated the probability to 1 or 0 and had a good running count of likely number of attendees, which helped a lot when I realized I could order a smaller and less expensive tent and could rely on the free “house” china instead of having to rent it from the caterer. It’s still the file I use for friend and family contact information, almost a year later (husband: What’s Jane’s address, can you email it to me? Me: In The File.).

    My mother does not have such positive feelings about it, however, and told my husband that one thing she was thankful for post-wedding was “no more Dreaded Spreadsheet”. :)

    I, too, was surprised by both the people who I didn’t think would or could attend and did, and by the ones who weren’t able to.

    • the “what’s Jane’s address”? Is already happening for us. I plan to keep the guest list address sheet for Holiday cards in the future.

  • Oh, this was so fun to read — and the wedding is gorgeous! I’m right across the river in Maryland, so I could relate to much of the planning.

    I’ll second (or third? or fourth?) the awesomeness of Google Docs, and I’m definitely keeping track of the “probably will come/maybe will not/definitely will not” guest count, which is the most important variable for our wedding. We’re inviting 210 people (and sincerely hope everyone can make it!), but obviously that will be a budget constraint. A few of the folks I thought for sure would come have already told me they probably won’t be able to make it, and vice versa.

    Also: yay for fall weddings! October is definitely the new June, especially in the D.C. area. I knew we wanted an autumn event, and October was already booked solid at most venues (and this was in January). We chose November, which I’m sure will be gorgeous, and bonus: it’s considered the off-season, so my venue and DJ gave us a discount. Plus, we’re getting married on a Sunday . . . so double double discount.

  • A few clarifications:

    For those in the DC area wondering about the venue. It looks like the countryside, but is actually only 4 miles from the Potomac River in a neighborhood in Alexandria. Our guests stayed in Old Town Alexandria.

    Also, although the weather was gorgeous for our ceremony, the next day was when Hurricane Sandy came into Virginia! We luckily got to West Virginia for our honeymoon before the storm struck and spent 4 days holed up in a gorgeous bed and breakfast away from the damaging winds and rising water. Our guests from out of town got a longer and wetter vacation than originally planned.

    The year before our wedding, on October 27th (our wedding date) it SNOWED in Virginia! We had already set the date more than a year out so we were actually planning for a chance of snow the whole time.

  • tess

    Thank you for this series!! As a bride in the thick of planning without many married friends it is so incredibly helpful to have real life examples with budgets and guest numbers and details. Saving my sanity!

  • Jessica

    This was such a helpful post! I am planning a wedding in Colorado that will look very similar to Sharon and Jay’s wedding in terms of the budget. Please, APW, post more like this one that shows the breakdown cost of a real wedding, where they felt the money was best spent, and where it wasn’t. Thanks again!

  • Caroline

    Thank you, that was so interesting and helpful!
    I think it’s interesting everyone loves Goolge docs, as I hate it so much. (Although we’ll probably use a google form for online rsvps). Instead, I have a Dropbox folder with Excel documents, and have shared the folder with my fiancé.

    • Amber

      I agree with you on Google Docs. I find it really difficult to use. I’m old fashioned and have a binder with dividers and organize all may papers and details that way.

  • Claire

    Love that your strategic plan included indicators of success.

    • Yes! You would be surprised how many people end their wedding day without being legally wed (and I am referring to couples who are legally able to marry and wish to do so).

      Here were our indicators of success:
      Indicators of success
      1. Sharon and Jay are legally wed.
      2. We spend our wedding day smiling and laughing with our closest friends and family.
      3. Our wedding guests are active participants, telling stories or dancing, lending a hand because they are welcome to do so.

  • Amber

    I love that you made a strategic plan, mission statement and all! That’s awesome!!

  • You. Played. Tha. Drums. !.

    That is all I have to say.

  • Melinda Bloom

    Hi, Sharon’s mom here. We had a wonderful time at the wedding, but I want to add a couple thoughts. One of the absolutely best things Sharon did was ask one of her highly organized friends to be the “day of” coordinator. Sharon gave her a detailed list (like the examples in the book) of what was to happen when, etc., and Terri kept everything on schedule! The bridge and groom and their parents should not have to be handling details at that point. Also, we paid for two babysitters and I have mixed feelings about it. I think it is a necessity, specially if you have more than a few kids there, but I was shocked at how much they cost (about $225) for the whole time, but then parents had the kids join the group after dinner so the sitters had nothing to do! Someone commented about the piñata….that was Jay’s family’s idea because they are from Arizona and it was a lot of fun, tho Jay’s father hated the idea of a heart…”you can’t have a broken heart at a wedding!” Awwwwww. It was a wonderful wedding!

  • Sharon, you, Jay, and family did an amazing job! It was a gorgeous wedding (that’s one of my favorite weekends here in Virginia for foliage (snow or no!), and I was honored to be a part of it.

  • Copper

    I’m so interested in how disparate the numbers were between the invites, expected, and actually attended! In you “expected to attend” category, were those people who actually RSVP’d yes? Or just people you thought were likely to?

    • We only had a few people RSVP yes and then have to cancel. No one who RSVP’d didn’t show up. The biggest factor with estimating numbers was guests with kids who lived in a different state. There were just more factors involved and more difficulty for them to attend even if they wanted to. And of course if you have a couple with 2 or 3 kids who is a “likely to come” and then ends up unable to come, that changes the guest list by 4 or 5 people. We invited 11 children under the age of 5 and only 3 were able to attend with their parents.

      Funny story — my best friend let me know she was pregnant by breaking the news that we were going to have to add one to our guest list! We were engaged for over a year, so her baby was actually 1 month old at the time of the wedding.

  • Karyn

    Yet another couple over here who used Google Docs to help organize our wedding planning!

    We had: a sheet with all the Guest List info (including their name, contact info (for invitation purposes), whether they had a plus-one and whether or not they’d RSVP’d), a sheet of budget vs. actual costs, a sheet for gifts received/thank-you sent AND a sheet of what music we wanted to play & when it would play (ie. walking down the aisle, signing fancy documents, first dance, during dinner, et al).

    It made my now-husband a lot more willing/able to participate in planning since he could easily view what needed to be done, and it made ME a lot less insane wondering “where did I put the receipt for this?! what did we decide about that?!”

  • Elizabeth

    Love this new feature!

  • Abilene

    Kudos to you for writing your own strategic plan! That’s a brilliant move. I wish I had read that before I planned my own wedding!

  • I also got married at Hollin Hall in May of 2010! We planned to get married in the garden but it rained so we got married in the reception room but still got some great post wedding photos in the garden. I loved seeing another wedding there featured here.

  • mimi

    These “How they did it” posts are great! Keep em coming!

  • Another Hollin Hall alumna here (June 2011) – love that place, love this wedding, love your post! Congrats! Fall colors, drum circle, pinatas, and good humor. Hearts.