Our $35K Quirky Wes Anderson–Inspired Christmas Wedding Was Warm and Perfect

With a surprise “coffee hour” outside the church

Katie, speechwriter & Carlos, Conservation finance professional

Sum-up of the wedding vibe: A Wes Anderson hotel, a personal Episcopal ceremony, and a warm intimate dinner party for a hundred of our nearest and dearest in an urban loft.

Planned budget: $30,000
Actual budget: $35,000
Number of guests: 100
LOCATION: Richmond, Virginia


Where we allocated the most funds:

Photography: We knew from the beginning that photography was very important to us. We were planning to put a lot of effort into this wedding, and we wanted photos that would help us remember it forever. So I immediately reached out to a photographer whose worked I’d followed on Instagram. She was already booked on the date we had set, but recommended a friend, Carly Romeo. I was hooked from the moment I read Carly’s bio—she billed herself a “feminist wedding photographer” and had worked for Gloria Steinem. Hiring Carly was among the best decisions we made, and thinking of our wedding as an event that would reflect our values, including our feminism, stayed with us through the planning process and the big day.

Venue: Our reception venue was brand new—they were just finishing up renovating the loft space when we looked at it and were scheduled to hold their first event in a few months. We were able to negotiate the price down a bit because of that; the owner was looking to get events on the books quickly and promote the new space. But having a separate venue for the ceremony and reception canceled out any savings there—because we live in D.C. but were getting married in Richmond, we had to pay for the use of the church as non-members.

Catering: We thought we could save a little money by having barbecue, but the truth is, if you want a full-service dinner with a bartender, passed hors d’oeuvres, the whole shebang—which we did—that adds up quickly.

Where we allocated the least funds:

Transportation: Initially I was nervous about not having all the transportation arranged ahead of time. We had activities at three different locations, with the wedding party photos at the Quirk Hotel, the ceremony at the church, and the reception at the loft. But the fixed costs of hiring cars or vans ended up making the prices exorbitant for traveling a grand total of about three miles. So we decided to just wing it with Ubers, and it worked out fine! I think we made the weekend of the driver who took us to the church, just the two of us and the photographer.

Dance music: We loved the idea of a live band, to create the sophisticated-but-intimate feeling we were after, particularly in a smaller space. But the band we wanted—a bossa nova trio—was not going to work for a serious dance party at the end of the night. So we had them only play through dinner, and then we switched over to an iPad DJ (manned by the sister of the groom) for the first dances and after-dinner dancing. APW’s guides and the app WeddingDJ were lifesavers!

What was totally worth it:

Hiring a professional florist and stationery designer. Jessie, with Hew & Co., was actually the first vendor I reached out to, even before contacting venues and photographers. I had followed her work on Instagram for a while, and had just placed a special order for a 2016 calendar, when Carlos proposed the day after Christmas. Initially we were just going to have her design and print save the dates, invitations, and menus, but having her do the calligraphy for the escort cards, place cards, and table numbers ended up being one of the best decisions we made. It saved us a lot of time and headache on the mail merging and printing, and those custom pieces—along with the crest she designed—helped give the whole affair a cohesive look and feel. I had a stamp made of the crest and stamped it on cocktail napkins and favor boxes, and we had custom coffee cups printed bearing the crest. The sophisticated whimsy of her work perfectly captured the mood we wanted to create.

The coffee cart that we had parked outside the church following the ceremony, as a surprise for guests, was also totally worth it. Since our whole reception was in one big room, there wasn’t any physical separation for cocktail hour—so this was a nice little interlude between ceremony and party, to greet guests and offer a bit of warm hospitality in the form of coffee and cocoa. And I think the ones who most appreciated it were the members of the wedding party! It had been a long day already, and we were all dying for a little caffeine boost.

What was totally not worth it:

The one thing we invested in that did not pan out was trying to DIY the string lights in the loft. We initially ordered a bunch of bistro lights on Amazon, and figured the groomsmen or the day-of coordinators would be able to hang them—it was an industrial loft, it couldn’t be that hard to climb on a ladder and throw some cords over the beams, right? Wrong. The more we looked into it, the more we realized this plan was not going to work. Many of the pipes weren’t ductwork, but were in fact part of the fire sprinkler system, so hanging anything off those pipes violated the fire code. It was too late at that point to return the lights, and we ended up having to shell out a hefty chunk of change to pay for professionals to come and hang their own lights. It was worth it to pay the professionals—the twinkling lights over the candlelit tables were exactly what we wanted—but we would have been better off going that route from the beginning, rather than wasting money on our own lights and then having to scramble in the final month.

My best practical advice for my planning self:

Never be afraid to ask how much something costs. The worst someone can say is a number that’s not in your budget, and you thank them for their time and move along—and who knows, they could be willing to negotiate, particularly if you have a wedding on a weekday or, in our case, during the low season. Most wedding professionals are entrepreneurs. They’re looking for business, and they are more than happy to try to find a way to work within your budget without selling themselves short. I wasn’t sure if we could afford to have a florist do arrangements for the reception, but when we talked to Amanda Burnette she was able to give advice for getting the look we wanted—simple, seasonal greenery down the center of the tables—within our budget. (The secret? Loosely arranged greenery laid down the center of the table, instead of a pre-made garland.)

Favorite thing about the wedding:

How perfectly it reflected the two of us as people and as a couple—from the whimsical Wes Anderson-esque hotel (seriously! So many guests told us how staying there felt like staying on the set of a Wes Anderson movie) to the coffee cart for two caffeine addicts, we tried to incorporate aspects throughout the day that made it truly personal. Our ceremony was a traditional Episcopal ceremony, but our minister was wonderful about offering tweaks here and there to update traditions. We had our siblings do a joint reading, the traditional Corinthians 13, but my brother read in English and Carlos’s sister in Spanish, to include Carlos’s visiting Bolivian family.

The food and drinks were “us,” to a tee. We ate barbecue off fine china. I have a lifelong love affair with cake, and we had three of them. The tiered cake looked traditional on the outside, but when we cut it, the inside was funfetti, because rarely has a birthday gone by since childhood when my mom didn’t bake me a funfetti cake. We bought all of our own booze for the wedding; initially the idea was to save money. I think we ended up saving a pretty paltry amount, but it was a lot of fun to pick it out. All of the drinks had some connection to us, whether it was bourbon in our signature cocktail from the distillery we visited on our first road trip together, or a white blend from the Virginia winery where we ran a 5K through the vineyards. I made and printed trivia games about the different drinks—“Katie and Carlos, a Love Story in Nine Glasses”—and left them on all the cocktail tables.

Something else we’d like to share:

You read a lot of advice about what is and isn’t worth it when it comes to weddings, and a lot of it seems to end with the pronouncement that ultimately, all that matters is the “feeling” you have and remember that day. That’s probably true—but how you get that “feeling,” and what exactly it is, is going to be different for every couple! So you do you. Trust your instincts.


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