Natalie, Writer and marketing specialist & Taylor, Urban Planner and National Guard Infantryman
Sum-up of the wedding vibe: A food- and drinks-first Hawaii bash with all the things we love about parties, and none of things we don’t.
Planned Budget: $20,000
Actual Budget: $23,000
Number of Guests: 85
Where we allocated the most funds:
Venue and Food. I had a different venue in mind, with sweeping Hawaiian fish pond views and a gorgeous mountain backdrop—it’s still my ideal look, but at the Hale Koa Estate, which is also a beach rental house, we could have our whole wedding party and team there for a day before for setup (not to mention host the rehearsal dinner there as well). It was much pricier than option one, though, so I was close to vetoing it, when my parents—who were absolutely smitten with the estate—called me and said it would be my wedding present. In the end, I am so glad we went with it! We needed every second setting up all our DIY elements, and having my friends there before, for the Napolitano pizza truck and local pies rehearsal dinner, and after, for buzzed pool swimming, was priceless.
Where we allocated the least funds:
Attire and rings. I always wanted something different but not “too much” and I wanted to spend as little as possible on my attire (more funds for food!). As a kid, I was always obsessed with Star Wars clothing, and how it looks more epic and dramatic than movie-costume kitschy. Ideally I’d go with that, a toned-down version with inspiration from myth and space opera epics. The budget/easy way to do that? I immediately fell in love with the idea of a cape (thanks, Solange!) because it was such an easy addition of a statement piece, and gave me more freedom to search for a budget dress. It ended up being much harder finding one I liked than I thought—I wasn’t spending $1,000 on a cape, and we even debated trying to sew one myself or hire a local seamstress (still not cheap, even for a simple piece like that). In the end, I turned to eBay, where the seller was incredibly customizable-friendly, even dying my cape to match the champagne of my dress. My dress, by the way, I bought on a whim from ASOS when it was on sale. I love trains, and the elegant, understated drama of the cowl back, plus the deep plunge neckline would be flattering for a smaller-in-the-bust gal like me. It did happen to be one size smaller than I’d have liked (and it shows in some of the photos, unfortunately!), but for $170, I figured I’d probably find something else better later on, and wouldn’t be out that much cash. In the end, though, the cowl back and train ended up winning my heart, especially how they looked with the dipped-back lace cape, which we altered a little to attach to my dress just-so.
What was totally worth it:
The string quartet, ulp. We always wanted to walk down the aisle to Adagio in D Minor from the score to the Danny Lohner sci-fi, Sunshine. It’s haunting, moody, visceral—so beautiful and really represents something we bonded over from minute one: science fiction films! It was always a huge part of our vision, and something we were really looking forward to, so making that moment shine with live music would have been a dream come true. I just couldn’t justify spending a month’s rent on something as bougie and fleeting as a string quartet (just for the ceremony!), though, and one night when bemoaning about it to my beautiful sister, she threw up her hands and said she’d get it for me if I was willing to sacrifice my wedding present for it! WAS I EVER. It was an unreal addition to the ceremony—such an elegant and ethereal way to bring our—er, admittedly, nerdy—detail to life.
The food stations. I am HUGELY into food (who isn’t, though?) and drinks, so we knew we wanted it to be a big part of the wedding. Food stations were definitely more money and work to set up (the caterers I worked with seemed a little stumped at the time, as if it was not that common for them), but were a huge hit on the day of. We had mini poke bowls and fun, Pacific Fusion Cuisine–style small bites that really facilitated talking and mingling—but enough of it for everyone to get full three times over. We also saved some money with little tweaks, like ditching dish rental and sourcing on-sale eco-friendly disposable plates (especially key if everyone’s eating ten small plates—that adds up to a lot of plates, and renting them at 50 cents a dish gets pricey). My dad, who is a chef by trade, whipped up an unreal, luxe salad station with roasted beets, macadamia nuts, local cheeses, jicama—the works!—so we kept our caterer focused on statement dishes we couldn’t do ourselves, things requiring chefs, prep, and on-site cooking. A food-industry friend of mine also scored us a whole roast pig for our wedding—another big dream of mine, which was starting to look like it wouldn’t happen because whole pigs are really pricey when ordered through caterers (read: three to four times as much). We got our caterers to supply a carving chef, while we set up a little DIY station with toppings, breads and buns for guests to fix themselves—way more affordable!
What was totally not worth it:
What comes to mind here is actually what was not worth saving the bucks, rather than spending. At first we weren’t hiring a bartender and went with just beer and wine—wine on tables and beer kegs from local breweries (we tested a ton in the year leading up to it!) in a homemade rustic beer tap I saw all over Pinterest. Taylor was all about building the tap—until I found one PREMADE on Craigslist! At $175, it was a deal, as the hardware you’d need to put it together would already cost more than that. Sold. The only issue? Somehow, at the wedding, two of our kegs were so foamed up that people didn’t end up finishing them and abandoned the beer station :(. Luckily, at the last moment, we hired a bartender to make my signature cocktails vision come true, so there was plenty to drink.
We also decided to forego expensive DJs and go with the equipment-rental option. I spent hours upon hours researching how to do that, along with playlist ideas and tips (including, of course, on APW!). Unfortunately, on the day of, “shuffle” somehow got switched on, so instead of playing in the painstaking order I’d put the songs in, they were all ascramble! To make matters worse, being the nutter I am, sometimes I’d break up the list to switch to a song I just haaaaad to hear at that moment—which means the shuffle would start all over and sometimes replay songs! Oddly enough, our equipment rental came with an “MC” for $30 extra an hour, who was in charge of basic things like manning the equipment, making basic announcements—nothing crazy and no crowd-gauging or anything like that, which we expected. I had hoped he would have fixed the shuffle situation though… but c’est la vie. I wish I’d paid the extra $600 for a real DJ.
A few things that helped us along the way:
Discovering which DIY things I actually enjoyed putting the time into—like the invitation suite and signage I designed, printed and assembled myself, and which included food station signs, menus, programs, a logo, twine belly band thing, RSVP card, hand-lettered addressing, info card, and pennant-inspired rehearsal dinner invites. Or, the mini, home-infused whiskey bottle favors, which ended up being a lot of bang for our effort (looked so cute, anchored the table places since we didn’t do place settings, doubled as drinks on the day of, and all you had to do was have the wherewithal to split some vanilla beans and dump ’em in your Costco-sized whiskey handles the week of).
AMAZING people on my team, like my incredible florist, who also happens to be an incredibly dear friend. He just snagged a spot in the National Florist Board’s “Top 30 Florists to Watch in 2018″—and I was lucky enough to have him gussying up my venue at cost! What we got for $2,000 was really worth $8,000 or more!
A TON of online research. After what I would already consider a lot of research, I found my dream photographer. With a deep, slightly darker and moody style that’s a departure from the typical airy and bright wedding photography you see, she was a dream come true—but also about three times more than my budget. After more and more research, I discovered Roy—and he was amazing!! He also has a very pewter-washed, moody, editorial style that I absolutely love, and since he was starting out, we got him at a great time when he was offering newbie rates and sales. When I saw the finished pieces, I couldn’t believe how incredibly they looked. He’s definitely worth at least three times what we paid him!
My best practical advice for my planning self:
I’d read it a thousand times on blogs, but it’s something you kind of have to experience for yourself: Let things go. In the beginning, I was planning on hand-ombre-ing a hundred napkins in burgundy for the wedding. Then, I realized that I don’t find that fun. I stuck with projects that I did find fun, and developed little hacks to make up for the other things. For example, I thought the tables would look bare with no napkins or place settings, so I made elegant long menus (printed two on a regular 8 1/2 by 11 paper, then cut them down the middle) with pretty type selections, and anchored them with the mini whiskey bottle favors—which I also labeled with home-designed typewriter-style labels that noted they were hand-infused, and had our wedding date and N x T moniker.
I was already steeling myself for wedding mishaps, thanks to advice from sites like this, but I would go back and reemphasize it for sure! The DAY BEFORE check-in to the venue. A day and a half before our wedding, the venue called to tell me they had accidentally overbooked! In the end, it worked out—they shortened our stay and the stay of other couple of parties that overlapped with us. That way everyone could have it on the night of their wedding. Then they gave us a different house for the rest of our stay, but, at first, they had wanted us to reschedule for a discount later in the year! When they called, I was having dinner with fifteen friends from New York and California who had flown in for the wedding. Rescheduling was not an option. Thank goodness it all worked out, but reading the advice over and over from brides saying, “THINGS WILL GO WRONG,” definitely helped my keep the cool I managed to have (which, at one point the day before, was not a lot, tbh). Another thing: Go with that wedding planner! If it hadn’t been for her, I’d have been negotiating with my venue instead of having dinner with my friends, but instead I directed them to her. At $2,000 she seemed unnecessarily expensive for a day-of coordinator at first, but my cautious parents insisted. It was a huge part of the budget, but she definitely made everything go smoother than I ever could have. Thank goodness for her.
Other advice I’d give myself: Keep your chill, girl. I was doing great until my darkest moment, which was probably ten minutes before going down the aisle, when I saw that our friend had brought his son, despite repeated times gently informing him it was child-free—and, in fact, asking him before we made that policy if it was okay with him. Freaking out about that (what would our other friends with children think when they see him? Would they feel angry with me for allowing his child and not their own after all my emphasis EVERYWHERE on it being a child-free event? How can they completely disregard all our talks, and not even let us know they’re bringing him?) when I’m supposed to marry my partner for forever and celebrate our love with my favorite humans, was petty and stupid—and it’s not my proudest moment. Luckily, walking down the aisle and seeing my fiancé—who ten minutes earlier, I’d been crying at over the phone about this nonsense—tearing with emotion at seeing me, and not mad at all about my outburst, immediately helped me get my priorities in order. Get over it, girl. Be a grown up. I apologized to our friend later about my freak-out (which he overheard me having to Taylor). He’s been an amazing figure in our lives, and didn’t deserve that reaction, and strangely enough the whole situation made me realize how much I loved him and owed him (and, of course, how much I love his place in Taylor’s and my lives!).
Favorite thing about the wedding:
Our bartender, Cyn, was a TOTAL sweetie, so enthusiastic and creative, and so willing to work with our budget! I gave her all the liquor I’d already bought, as well as the recipes I’d come up with (she made some expert tweaks) for signature cocktails that I named after adventures and trips Taylor and I had taken during our relationship—things like “The Cambodia Bicycle” or “The Hungarian Ruin”—along with little descriptions of the ingredients and back story.
The flowers were unreal. My friend Jeff really outdid himself with it! I thought the way my dramatic crown came out, the way the urns of dripping florals at the entrance to the aisle came out—it was all amazing! My bridesmaids all picked their own dress with very little instruction from me and it worked out to perfectly complement the florals. Each girl had a slightly different hue of purply red, and together it looked like we had painstakingly selected each one’s shade!
I also loved our grog ceremony. In the military, there is a gag tradition at dinners and events called a grog ceremony, where they ceremoniously add liquors into a punch bowl, with each liquor representing something about the unit or troop (“red wine for our time in France in World War II!” “Sake for our service in the Pacific Theatre!”) and then everyone toasts with it. It gets pretty gross in the end, when they start adding in “dirty” infantry boots or nylons “of the wives who supported them”… but it’s undoubtedly fun and funny, and a great way to get guests involved in some tradition, which I definitely wanted. I also wanted a boozy group game to help with the emotional group contagion! So, I did my own twist on the grog ceremony: all the members of our wedding party added one ingredient to the bowl, and gave a mini speech as to how that ingredient represented love, marriage, or their relationship with us, the couple. (Also, the recipe was pre-developed earlier by some of our cocktail-enthusiast groomsmen, to ensure it was a delicious punch and not a boozy disaster. It was hilarious, so fun and sweet (I cried at my maid of honor’s—who is also my and Taylor’s ex-roommate—speech for how lemons represented her, my, and Taylor’s relationship) and delicious! Plus, Taylor added in a cheeky little element. He tasted the grog discerningly at the end, declared it to be “missing something,” then whipped out a bottle of champagne (secretly already on the grog recipe list), uncorked it using the sword he insisted his best man carry down the aisle (apparently best men were originally supposed to be a groom’s best warrior and ready to protect the sanctity of the union), and added it to the bowl. It was definitely memorable.
Some of my favorite things at the wedding came from what a great bang for buck/effort they were, like the shave ice truck. The first truck I found was a bit… uglier… than I was hoping for, but this vintagey rock ’n’ roll truck showed up at a party we attended just a couple of months before the event! I bought a few bottles of tropical spirits and set up a mini station for guest to DIY their own boozy shave ice—and it all cost less than $400. We had it before the ceremony, which I thought was such a fun way to start off the event instead of people having to sit around twiddling their thumbs. If I were really on a budget, I’d have gotten shave ice instead of any dessert and had it after dinner. I think it would have been a huge hit then as well!
Also, having our friend as our wedding officiant. The thought of some stranger marrying us always made me feel a little squeamish (especially after seeing a friend’s wedding where the officiant mispronounced the bride’s name!). Our officiant is a long-time friend of my husband, and he has been a mentor and support to both him and myself throughout our relationship. He is one of the most noble, wise, intelligent, and loving people I know, with such an inspiring commitment to marriage and family, so I knew he’d be the perfect person. I also asked a few other thoughtful, precious, loving people (my mother, maid of honor and very close friend) to read some poems during the ceremony in place of scriptures. They included a Margaret Atwood poem that speaks to both myself and Taylor, and feels like the perfect summary of our relationship.
Other things I’d like to share:
It was really a group effort! I roped our wedding party and friends staying in the estate to help us set up, including hanging the bunting I’d found online for $3 per twelve feet (!!) from all the bistro lights (I spent months waiting for them to go on sale, then bought four fifty-foot strands), rearranging lounge furniture from the house, arranging pies and making sangria for the rehearsal dinner, setting up my mom’s UNBELIEVABLE dessert station, which we made by picking up single tier cakes from some of my favorite bakeries around Honolulu, plus a lot of her incredible homemade goodies. Our groomsmen handled the grog ceremony and getting the ingredients for that. My maid of honor did the bakery crawl required to pick up all five of the cakes. My friend and former coworker did his to-die-for floral work. We were so lucky to have them with us all in one place, to make everything beautiful, and to remind us how fortunate we are to have such kick-ass humans in our life.