How We Pulled Off a Feminist $40K Philly Wedding for 185 Guests

AKA how to make a badass multi-cultural secular wedding even when life deals you serious punches

couple on their wedding day

ALLIE, marketer and burlesque Performer & Mikey, web dev & GEEKADELPHIA Editor in Chief

Sum up of the wedding vibe: A playful Philadelphia wedding with Filipino touches.

Planned budget: $35,000

Actual budget: $40,000

Number of guests: 185

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Where we allocated the most funds

The biggest chunk of funds was spent on the full-service venue, which included a bangin’ menu and gorgeous cake, lighting, staff, all setup and cleanup, and a dedicated (amazing!) coordinator to keep things moving smoothly. We were so lucky to find a place in the city that could accommodate everything we were looking for: a unique and accessible space to host our ceremony and the rest of the party in one spot. They handled everything beautifully and thought of things we didn’t even consider, like thoughtfully setting up old family photos around the lobby area, or having pre-made drinks ready during the cocktail hour so everyone could mingle without crowding the bar.

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Where we allocated the least funds

Decor. Since we spent so much on the venue, I tried to come up with cheap and fun DIY touches to brighten up the rest of the massive warehouse space. My mom and I sewed a massive ceremony backdrop from old ribbons and lace. We purchased table flowers in bulk at a produce market and arranged them in borrowed jars and old crystal glasses we found at an estate sale. My sister hand-painted our cake toppers using blank vinyl toys. And the table numbers were $0.99 frames from IKEA that we filled with printed cards to match our invites.

I also saved money by waiting for sales. My shoes were $12 at a consignment shop and matched the jewelry perfectly. How cool!

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What was totally worth it?

Splurging on food and photography. The photos captured so many beautiful little details of the day that we missed in the whirlwind of it all. And a year later, our families are STILL talking about the short ribs and mini cannoli. As food lovers, we couldn’t pick just plain chicken and fish.
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What was totally not worth it

Shuttles. We wanted to give our guests an option to get to and from Center City (about two miles from the venue) but it ended up being overcrowded and kind of a bust with lots of waiting around. If we were to go back in time, I’d worry less about this and remember that we’re in a city and people already know how to get around.

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A few things that helped us along the way

We are both designers, so it was fun to work on the details together. I crafted our save-the-date cards, invites, and program, and we worked together on a fun website to share important info and to explain the cultural significance of our modern Filipino ceremony.

It was hard to move past the “must do everything myself” mentality, but eventually I learned that people genuinely care and WANT to help. So we relied on a network of close friends and family to help with crafting or lending expertise—a blessing that became so important once things started to get crazy. Our DJ was a guy recommended from local vintage dance parties. Our officiant was a close friend. Another close friend took our engagement photos, and yet another friend broke out her hand-sewing skills to fix Mikey’s barong at the last minute. A group of girlfriends threw a flower arranging party the night before. And the custom wine came from my aunt and uncle’s vineyard in Virginia. It still makes me feel mushy when I look at photos and think about the contributions of love and friendship that surrounded us that day.

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My best practical advice for my planning self

Don’t stress as much about the guest list. After four and a half years together, we’d amassed a huge, close-knit group of friends. And when you’re merging two enormous families together on top of that, it’s only natural for numbers to creep up. I’d recommend sorting the guest list into needs, wants, and nice-to-haves and working realistically from there. We also had a dozen guests drop out within the last two weeks for various reasons, and a few no shows; it was devastating at the time, but we got over it. Mostly. Planners recommend financially accounting for 10 to 15 percent of guests to bail on you, but they don’t usually mention how difficult it is emotionally. Just be prepared.

I’d also recommend starting design or DIY projects way in advance, and recognizing when to just let go. It’s easy to get wrapped up in making everything special and different. Sure, I could have made some kind of handcrafted artsy place cards, but at the end of the day I opted to buy generic pre-printed cards online. It’s not giving in to the almighty WIC; it’s saving your precious time and energy for something more important: concentrating on the start of your awesome marriage.

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Favorite thing about the wedding

I love seeing ourselves in the details big and small, from the dorky table names (based on our favorite movies, books, games, and shows) to the big, joyful dance party (set to a mix of ’70s soul and ’90s R&B). Every moment of the day felt authentic to who we are as people. A little bit flashy, a little bit sentimental, a little geeky, and a whole lot of silly.

We wanted to have traditions from Filipino culture, while being true to ourselves. That meant figuring out how to respectfully throw a hundred percent secular affair while still using rituals almost always performed inside a Catholic church. We compromised by writing our own ceremony—complete with a funny reading from Mike Birbiglia and subtle feminist-minded language throughout. While I walked myself down the aisle to my favorite Muse song, we also kept it traditional by bringing in four Filipino wedding symbols: the unity candle, cord, veil, and coins. Rather than the traditional blessing by a priest, these tokens were presented by our mothers, cousins, and two best friends. The ceremony took less than twenty minutes, but ultimately it was our favorite part of the day. Many of the guests said they loved learning about the cultural significance of these unique traditions and ultimately no one was offended that we did it our way.

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Anything else

At some point during wedding planning, everything is going to feel like it’s going wrong. For us, it was a series of things that started small. Our favorite bakery shut down. Our first wedding venue closed without warning (at Christmas!), and we had to scramble to get our deposits back and find a new place. Three of our beloved grandparents passed away over the course of our two-year engagement. My parents got divorced. We worked through a layoff, a move, and other major life changes. All difficult, but manageable with time.

Then three weeks before our wedding, my wonderful partner was mugged while trying to protect a stranger. His bruises hadn’t fully healed when two days before the wedding, my sister was hit by an SUV while riding her bike.

Those last two catastrophes could have derailed everything, but instead it brought us closer. We cried together, we laughed together, and we thanked the universe for our good fortune that everyone was alive, and well, and most importantly, together as a family.

It’s easy to get lost in the craziness of planning a big wedding, but sometimes it takes everything going wrong to remind you how blessed you truly are. After all the setbacks, the day felt even more filled with love because we’d made it there together.

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