What To Do When You’ve Got Wedding Sticker Shock

When your Pinterest wedding is five times your budget

Chances are, if you’re recently engaged, you’ve just hit the part of wedding planning where expectation meets reality. After collecting ideas for however long, you’ve added it all up and realized, shit, the wedding you planned on Pinterest is expensive. This, my friends, is what we call wedding sticker shock. This is a great time to sit back, reflect on your priorities, and hit the reset button on your imagination. Because it’s likely there is a way radder wedding out there than what you’ve been mulling over on Pinterest.

So let’s start with your budget. There are two main factors to consider when setting your budget: 

  • How much can we afford to spend?
  • How much do we want to spend?

Read the open thread on wedding budgets from a few weeks ago, and you’ll note that many, many people go into wedding planning with the goal of spending $5–10k. That seems like a hell of a lot to spend on a party, and it is probably way more than you’ve ever spent on a party before. While it is certainly a significant chunk of money, the hard truth most couples face not too far into planning, is that even a huge chunk of money doesn’t easily buy the Modern American Wedding (you know, the one with the sit-down dinner and the professional photographers and the everything-letterpressed, etc.). But that doesn’t mean you can’t have a beautiful, meaningful, kick-ass wedding (far from it!). 

So, what do you do? Start getting creative, and start asking for help. We recently talked about the latter, so let’s get down with getting creative:

Venues. The most common mistake people make with venues is focusing only on venues who do a majority of their business around weddings. There are definite advantages to going this way—the main being that they’re easy to find, and secondarily that they’re probably set up pretty well to hold a large event. The downside is, of course, that they’ve also figured out what “standard” rental fees in your area are, and are probably charging accordingly. Some of my very favorite weddings have happened at “non-wedding” venues, many of which were as pretty and as suited for a large event as the popular venues we work at regularly. So, how do you find one of these magical places?

  • Community Centers—Seriously, often hidden gems. They’re usually not listed on any type of venue guideline, so you’re going to have to dig around the Internet for the official websites of cities near you (get ready for some seriously dated web design) and see what you can find. They can be amazing. Often cared for by a mix of city employees and volunteers, many community centers rent out for an (affordable) hourly rate, and they’re going to be excited about having your wedding there. Score on both parts.
  • Parks and Park Districts—Regional and state parks are some of my favorite venues—in addition to large, reservable picnic areas (that often come with things like picnic tables, bathrooms, parking, and water hookups) many park districts actually have buildings that you can rent out for great rates. Like community centers, many parks districts don’t advertise their spaces anywhere, so calling around is key here.
  • Restaurants—I always warn clients that restaurants can initially give you sticker shock, because they’re most often rented out for a food and beverage minimum. That number can seem high if you’re thinking about it as either your venue rental fee or your catering bill. However, if you think of it as covering your venue, food, drinks, staff, rentals (tables, chairs, plates, silver, glasses), and a large part of your décor (most restaurants are already decorated) then the truth is that restaurants are often a steal. Don’t be afraid to approach restaurants that don’t regularly do events, and keep in mind that you’ll often be able to get a significantly lower buyout price on a Sunday than a Saturday. (Generally they need you to cover what they’d normally take in during that service timeframe—and while Saturday nights are big business nights for most restaurants, the same generally isn’t true of Sunday nights.)
  • Places that have never done a wedding before—At some point, every venue did their first wedding. One of my favorite client weddings was in an art gallery that had never done a private event but was totally game when we approached them, and they ended up being almost unbelievably cheap. I’ve seen weddings in antique stores, garden centers, coffee shops—really start thinking outside the box. Is it a pretty space that’s big enough to hold your guests? Talk to them and see if they’d be willing to rent to you.

Catering. Catering is generally the largest individual bill a couple will see at a wedding—it’s not unusual to have it be thirty to fifty percent of the total bill. You can very generally break most catering down into two categories: full service (includes staff, some level of event management including set up and break down, and generally management of your rentals) and food service (includes… food). Full service is, rather obviously, more expensive, so if you can manage to make things work with limited-service catering you’ll often save a ton of money. Some options:

  • Food trucks—These have definitely become trendy, and this is a great thing, because going this route for catering no longer limits you to tacos served from a window. We’ve done weddings catered by food trucks where I’m fairly certain most of the guests didn’t even realize a truck was there, because the food was being served from buffet tables inside. Think wood-fired pizza, rotisserie meats, breakfast sandwiches, burgers, and, well tacos. (Because, really, who doesn’t like a great taco?) Food trucks are mobile kitchens (with the appropriate permits), which makes them especially great for non-traditional venues that may not have a commercial kitchen.
  • Restaurants—These are another great catering source, even if you’re having your wedding somewhere else. Many restaurants will do platters of their normal food upon request. Clearly, some types of food work much better for this than others (it’s kind of hard to make take out trays of artistically plated tapas), but it’s always worth talking to your favorite places and seeing if it’s something they’d be able to do.
  • Grocery stores and delis—My personal favorite place to order food for a party is from my favorite local market—they do incredible platters of cheeses and meats, as well as some of the best salads/cold entrees/pastas/breads around. Everything comes in those big, black plastic containers, which is fine for a picnic and just requires some quick re-plating for fancier parties. I’ve used them for multiple wedding cocktail hours to great success—it’s affordable, and doesn’t require anyone to actually do all of that cutting up of cheese, bread, and other things ahead of time. You just pick it up and go.

Staff. I’ve talked before about how most weddings require a lot of dealing with stuff—there are things to haul, set up, pass out, serve, and then pick up, pack up, and pack out.

  • Try a staffing company—The truth is, a lot of catering companies are hiring from staffing companies for large events as opposed to keeping people on hand. Most of them are totally happy to work with one off private events, and you can get seasoned, professional staff for an hourly rate, totally independent of other services.
  • Ask around—Do you belong to a religious community? Have younger relatives? Know a college student who has friends? Know someone who works with college-aged people? I, like many people I know, often did pick up party work throughout my early twenties. Paying $20 per hour is a great deal for competent help, and also an awesome amount of money to make if you’re young and broke. This, my friends, is what we call a win-win.

Music. You may not need it, but many people want it. Live ceremony (and maybe cocktail hour) followed by DJed dancing is one of the most common formats we see, and the price on this can vary a hugely. Your venue has a piano, and you’d love someone to play it, but can’t afford a seasoned pro? No worries:

  • Students—Call music departments at local colleges or even high schools and ask if there’s anywhere you can post an ad looking for a ceremony or cocktail hour musician. Students, especially at the college level, are often very, very good, and will often be significantly cheaper than professionals. They may also be less, well, professional, than a more seasoned musician, but—compromises.
  • DIY it—It’s been written about on APW several times before, but, worth saying again—it works. How To DJ Your Wedding With an iPod, and Wedding Music—DIY or DJ are both good places to start.

Photography. Most weddings I see have professional photography for eight to ten hours (or longer) but the truth is that this is a fairly new phenomenon.

  • Hire a pro-photographer for a limited amount of time—Many don’t advertise this, but it’s not unusual for professional photographers to have fewer-hour packages at a significantly lower rate than their advertised packages. Not everyone does, and sometimes they’re only available on non-Saturdays or off-season months, but if you’ve found someone you love who’s out of your price range, it’s always worth asking if they have any lower priced options. (Note: don’t just ask for a lower price on an existing package.)
  • DIY it—For reals, this can be done, let’s review! How to DIY Wedding Photography (plus Part II,) How to DIY Your Wedding Photo Booth, and How To Crowdsource Your Wedding Photos with Instagram. Throw all of these together and I can pretty much promise you that you’ll end up with at least one photo that you’ll want to hang on your wall forever, plus decent documentation coverage of the day.
  • Don’t worry about it—Let’s get something clear, before I have a million photographers sending me angry emails—I love me some fine art wedding photography. I’ve personally hired professional photographers to shoot family parties. If I were getting married right now I would be blowing a large part of my budget on photography. But. But. My parents, who have been married for forty-one years, did not have a single wedding photo up in their house until about ten years ago, and I’m pretty sure I was the person who instigated that finally happening. I remember going through their wedding album a few times growing up, but it was always tucked away in the top of a closet somewhere (and unfortunately has been lost somewhere in their house for the last… five years? We expect to find it when they move). The thing that lasts from your wedding is actually not the photos—it’s your marriage.

So, do you need to step away from Pinterest? Maybe, or maybe just realize that one of the beautiful things about pins is that you can delete them from a board when you realize that rustic-chic backdrop will cost several thousand dollars to re-create. You can indeed, with a little extra work, have a wedding (even a Modern American Wedding), that you love, at a price point that works for you. And remember that, in the end, the very most amazing part of your wedding isn’t going to be the venue, the food, or the photos—it’s going to be the fact that you stood in a space, surrounded by all of the people you love most in the world, and committed yourself to your partner. That shit’s pretty hard to capture in a pin.

Still feeling a little anxious about what to do next? The APW book has lots of ideas for throwing a wedding on a budget that feels right to you, and that still feels like the wedding you want. plus there is a ton of advice for keeping yourself sane and a bunch of other stuff you won’t find on the site. Plus, you know, you can give it to your Mama.

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  • Alyssa M

    National Forest Service FTW! For the price of 1 hour at my ceremony venue we got our reception venue for TWO NIGHTS! It’s a group campground, so definitely rustic, but with a day ahead of time to decorate to my hearts content it will be beautiful. And if I were really strapped for cash I could totally find a way to hold the ceremony there too.

  • Anna

    We’re doing the whole thing through a hotel (catering and everything) so they’re not charging us much of a venue fee – we’re basically just paying for food through them and that covers the venue as well. We went for the limited time photographer too – we’re getting him for 4 hours, with a pre-agreed overtime rate if we decide we want him to stay a bit longer (if everything runs late or something!).

  • Laura

    Community building vote here! We’re having our reception and maybe ceremony at the local police lodge.

  • Stacey Fraser

    To add to the venue discussion, museums and historic sites have been building their rental business over the last decade and this can be a great option. For example, I’m the co-director of a small-ish museum in Boston’s North Shore and we have rental space available for around 70 guests including tables, chairs, set up, and break down as well as use of the museum’s kitchen for $150 an hour. Plus the building is a circa 1800 Federal style house and therefore beautiful for things like photographs. It also has gardens and grounds for tents and photographs. Way cheaper than what I paid for my own wedding venue.

  • Whitney

    Voting ‘restaurant’ over here! Our reception will be held in the 2nd floor space of a small restaurant. They do charge a minimum but it ends up being around $45/person and that includes buffet food AND alcohol! No need to rent linens, plates, silverware, or glasses… it all comes with! The space is very casual and relaxed (cafe high tops, two bars, couches/lounge seating, coffee tables), so centerpiece wise, I may just put a few candles on the coffee tables and call it a day. Exposed brick, wood beams, granite bars, and wood floors!

    We also swapped out an engagement session (a friend took photos) for 1.5 extra hours on the day of with our photographer!

    • Cathi

      Chiming in about the charm of restaurants :) Ours was $55/person for family-style food and open bar at a SUPER NICE, local restaurant. Not having to worry about linens, centerpieces, service, venue fees etc… was so freeing.

  • June

    Talk about timing! We took our first serious look at our budget last night and I may or may not have had a mini meltdown thinking about how easy it would be to spend more than I make in one year on this thing. Granted, the budget template I was looking at included things like wedding gloves (don’t need those, right?) and menu cards (nice touch, but I can just as easily make a nice sign, right?), but still. Yowza.

    (Money is so dumb, by the way!)

    • Outside Bride

      So, if you haven’t yet, buy the book! Seriously I don’t work for these people, but I found it incredibly liberating to have that “permission” from someone who had really researched the subject to start by grabbing one of those budget lists with the wedding gloves and crossing out almost every single item. Also, getting to write my partner’s and my names at the top of the essential items. I knew the vast majority of the messages I was getting after getting engaged felt topsy-turvy and wrong, but when it seemed like everyone who had done this before (my family, wedding magazines, the whole goddamn internet) was giving me the message that I needed more more more, the book (and the lists WE made) have become a real touchstone with reality.

      • Snazzy Apple

        Thanks! I’ve bought the book, and it’s so great because I’ll read a chapter and then put it down for a few days. Then, another big question will pop up, and I’ll have a moment where I’m like, “but what do we do about ____?!?”, and the I’ll open up the book and my question will be the topic of the next chapter. It’s like magic. :)

    • Laura C

      I had some good laughs looking at various templates, but wedding gloves is a new one!

    • Erin Rafferty

      Money IS dumb!

  • Meigh McPants

    “…the very most amazing part of your wedding isn’t going to be the venue, the food, or the photos—it’s going to be the fact that you stood in a space, surrounded by all of the people you love most in the world, and committed yourself to your partner. That shit’s pretty hard to capture in a pin.” PREACH. I think it’s so easy to get bogged down in the pretty and lose sight of the real purpose of a wedding. (I know I did for a while there when we got hitched.) I get a lot of “budget” clients (we’re in a major metro area, so budget is relative) and I have yet to see a wedding that was less magical for lack of hand-calligraphed menus or artfully plated filet mignon. Also, getting creative with your wedding budget is one of the best things you can do when learning how to work with your new forever teammate. Wedding planning is kind of a crash course in how you function as a couple when faced with challenges, which is good stuff to have in your toolbox for the future.

  • Meigh McPants

    Shout out for Parks/Park Districts! I know that where we live (DC burbs) has several park-owned historic properties that can be rented for weddings, and are way less expensive than similar venues. We did one for our wedding and it was perfect.

  • Seconding the state park idea–we have been staying at state parks on our long road trip for the past 8 weeks and let me just say that the Texas, Florida and Georgia state parks systems alone have BLOWN our minds. LIke mega clean bathrooms, ample parking, lots of variety of areas for photography and the like….They are amazing. I might have suggested we live in a state park at one point to my husband.
    Also, we are hosting the New Orleans and Traverse City Pop Up wedding at state parks too–and I couldn’t think of a more beautiful spot for these! Unique, fun, cheap and beautiful? Couldn’t ask for more.
    Picture below of Florida state park right as we pulled into our campground for the night–I KNOW. Imagine getting married there with that as your backdrop! For $14. Guys. Do it.

  • Amie Melnychuk

    Ours was in a theatre, in their summer off-season, which is also the wedding on-season! They came with planning help and a list of preferred vendors that they have used for benefit banquets.

  • LibraryCarrie

    While I love me some nontraditional venues, there is one small (hopefully obvious) point I’d like to make. If you find an awesome looking venue that has event space, but specifies that they don’t rent out space for weddings, chances are there is a very good reason.

    I used to work at a museum that regularly played host to after-hours events like corporate meetings and army reunions, and the facilities were well-suited to those types of events. Weddings, however, are a completely different thing. After allowing to a few of them, our event staff (a single person!) decided that it was not in anyone’s best interest to continue hosting weddings–the space was not well-suited, there was no dedicated catering space in the building, nor was there anywhere for a wedding party to get ready other than public restrooms. Weddings are high-maintenance events, everyone involved is strung out and emotional and we found that even in a nontraditional venue, people were still expecting us to have full-service wedding capabilities, usually sometime around the last minute. Our staff was small enough that a large wedding would literally overwhelm everyone in the building, and it was incredibly stressful, and our event fees were low enough that we’d actually lose money trying to staff the things, so we stopped renting out space for weddings.

    BUT, for some reason, brides didn’t care. We would explain our policy, and then they would come back and book the space for a “birthday party” that was actually their reception, and the crazy stress continued, and the staff started to resent being lied to. This happened multiple times before our events person finally figured out a way to convey to people that we really, really don’t do weddings.

    So for the love of all that is holy, if the venue says they don’t do weddings, PLEASE don’t try to have your wedding there anyway.

    • K.

      D: That is some kind of special audacity right there.

    • Outdoorsy Girl

      Yeah, just want to chime in here with a note of caution on approaching non-traditional venues that either haven’t held weddings or don’t advertise it. We tried this route, and got no’s, or no responses to our emails and phone calls.

  • Kara

    This is so true–we got married almost 5 years ago, and planning the budget made me want to rip out my hair.

    As for non-traditional venues, some of these places are worth a second look:
    – Church Camps (may not allow alcohol, but they definitely have the space and restrooms for everyone)
    – YMCA camps (many don’t allow alcohol)
    – Boy Scout or Girl Scout camps (it may not hurt to check these options out)

    – Museums
    – Wildlife Sanctuaries

    – Ranches
    – Anyplace that will host a family reunion

    My husband and I almost booked our venue at the Heard Natural Science Museum (in McKinney, TX), but we were afraid it was just too small of a space for the number of our guests. We ended up going with a community event center that has hosted weddings, 4-H events, FFA events, senior citizen events, and more.

    • Audrey

      I have to say, museums are kind of hit or miss. In my area a lot of the more “hip” museum were surprisingly expensive for just the venue (certainly than the gardens + basic community center-esque room we booked). The one museum that was cheaper was out of the way and you had to figure out how to deal with your guests paying for parking…

      • Erin Rafferty

        So agree. I would love to go with one of the awesome museums in Chicago, but they’re SO commonly used for events that you basically can’t spend less than $25,000 at any of them. That’s about twice as much as I’d like to spend, period. Sigh.

  • Ashlee

    Just to kind of expand on the using-a-restaurant-as-the-venue suggestion, and also the hotel mentioned above, going with a place that is going to make money off of you in some other way beyond the venue fee seems like a great strategy. In our case, that means going with an already highly-rated, but reasonably-priced caterer in the area that actually owns several venues. Most of these venues are historic places, maybe a bit out of the way, making them awesome places to get married (at least in our opinion), and probably making them cheap purchases for a catering company. Now, this means that we *have* to use this caterer, but they would have been our choice for a professional caterer, anyway. Their venue fee is *significantly* lower than anything in the area (like Meigh above, the DC burbs, where it seems like a minimum $4,000 just to *exist* in a space for four hours is required), because they’re going to make their money from our catering bill, instead. They include all the linens, tables, fancy chairs, etc., and they don’t charge the ridiculous corking and cake-cutting fees (so we’ll save again by bringing our own booze and dessert).

    • Alison

      Details? I’m in the DC area and I’m very curious.

      • Ashlee

        Sure! The caterer is called Putting on the Ritz, based in Maryland, and here’s their page listing their rental spaces:


        We’re using The Great Room at Savage Mill. Feel free to e-mail me (ashleenwilkins [at] gmail [dot] com) if I can help with questions!

  • Laura C

    Man, I wish my catering budget was only going to be 50% of the total. Though I guess the thing is, when you have a larger number of people the catering costs keep going up proportional to the number of people, but the dress and so on stay the same cost. Also I guess our catering includes all the rentals, so there’s that. But also it’s just high. But our venue choices were so limited and the in-house caterer is just something we have to live with. Urgh.

  • Kayjayoh

    Another museum vote here. The rental cost gave me sticker shock at first, until I took into account the things it included, particularly decorations, activities, and a very flexible space. (The fact that it was a block away from the hotel and would allow us to plan an outdoor ceremony with an immediate back-up plan was perfect.)

  • County or state owned parks are also a great idea, because they sometimes have historical sites (like mansions or barns) that you can use for super cheap.

    • Rachel H.

      Absolutely! We had our wedding at a county park in Washington State, and it was really easy. The space was beautiful and didn’t need much decoration, and because the park rents the space as a weekend package for weddings, lots of our friends and family were able to come stay at the night before (in yurts!) and be on hand the morning of the wedding to help out. *And* the park had a barn where we had a square dance after the reception. (All for ~$1700.)

      • Um, the square dance sounds really freaking awesome!!!

  • Sonora Webster

    Thanks for this! I’ve gotten over my Pinterest wedding ideas, but I’m worried that my friends haven’t yet! Yesterday my coworker showed me a picture she had saved for me on Pinterest of indoor fireworks. They will install fireworks in the floor of your venue, so as you are having your first dance, fireworks start going off around you. And don’t worry, they are totally safe. Says the company you pay to install them.
    My eyes are already bugging out of my head looking at prices just to feed 100 people, and she wants me to have fireworks? Installed? Inside? So I’m a little worried that Pinterest hasn’t just changed my idea of what a wedding should be– that other people will be disappointed in my wedding if it doesn’t look like Pinterest. Stupid Pinterest!!

    • Kayjayoh

      [and then the dress lights on fire…]

    • Lindsay Rae

      So funny!! There are some CRAZY ideas on pinterest… if you have the money and the resources then by all means go for it, but I read some of the comments on people’s pins and think… really???

    • K.

      Oh god, yes. My maid of honor – who is truly one of the most wonderful, awesome women I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing – is Pinterest craaaaazy. She is constantly sending me things like reception dresses and floral installations and gold rimmed champagne and these otherworldly looking chair covers. Everything is really beautiful, but I’m at the point when I see pictures like that, I don’t see the aesthetic beauty or even feel “inspired.” All I see is dollar signs. I think if you’re not the one actually getting married (and even if you are, but you’re not getting down to brass tacks), it’s easy to not really think about the logistics of the pins and just get swept away. I totally get it, but when the bride suddenly becomes uncomfortable with the reality behind the pins and your wedding party (or mom or aunt or whoever) still doesn’t think about it that way, it can be tougher to navigate.

      Part of the thing is, I’m actually one of the bigger budget brides on here, so my MOH probably thinks that she’s not sending me anything that we can’t afford to do. But even a bigger budget is still a BUDGET. Most of our money is going toward our (truly incredible) space, food, bar, entertainment, and (yes) floral design. But I still can’t spend 50% of my budget on incredibly elaborate State Dinner-esque installations or fireworks (I was also given that suggestion, only REAL full-scale fireworks over the bay…uhhhhh, that would be an extra $10,000 that we definitely don’t have). But Pinterest makes it look like it’s so accessible to everyone, so for someone who is spending more than average on their wedding there is additional pressure to have all of that plus some. Which I know is a world’s smallest violin complaint, but it’s definitely solidified my love-hate relationship with the site.

      (And it sort of goes to APW’s point about how your wedding doesn’t have to be blog-worthy. That’s been A LOT harder than I thought it would be. When I first got engaged, I was like “Uh, duh, my wedding doesn’t have to be blog-worthy.” But that shit gets in your braaaaaaain.)

      • april

        I went through almost the same thing – from thinking that I didn’t care about how the wedding looked (while secretly thinking that it would effortlessly look amazing) to becoming almost despondent everytime I looked at Pinterest or a weddin idea and realized that I would never be able to put enough time and/or money into making my wedding look that good. I finally took the advice I read here somewhere (one of ESB’s guest posts, maybe?) and declared a self-imposed moratorium on Pinterest and the wedding blogs (except this one). I’d definitely recommend it …

      • Alyssa M

        omgyes. I’m definitely a low budget bride. My parents gave me money to throw the wedding and yet it’s still my mother sending me the crazy impractical pins. It’s her money, she KNOWS how much I have to spend, and yet she still thinks $500 re-purposed wine barrel drink coolers are “omg such a fun idea!”?????

    • p.

      Dealing with other people’s suggestions was also a struggle for me. My manager at work told me about how we should have a signature cocktail and I was never sure if I should really spell it out for him our venue would charge us more for a cocktail (vs just wine and beer), and that we didn’t have a budget for that additional cost. But it was also good practice because years later when we were remodeling our kitchen, people also had many suggestions for us that we simply couldn’t afford.

      • laddibugg

        A lot of places charge less for a signature cocktail than for an open bar, so that might be where he’s coming from.

  • Lindsay Rae

    It’s important to note that at “all-in” banquet halls the catering may look like very high
    percentage. But remember: that it is the cost for the space, food, tables, chairs, bar, waiters, staff, bartenders – and
    sometimes they include linens and a cake. So if you are going with a
    venue like that and looking at an % break down example, you have to remember to combine all the areas that apply to your percentage.

    I hope that made sense. These are the kind of venues that are super popular by me (NYC / Staten Island / New Jersey) – and although the price tag is higher on first glance, it’s a little easier when one place/vendor is taking care of so many of the moving parts.

    • Alisha

      Exactly. I actually saved money by going with a country club that does a lot of weddings rather than a non-traditional venue. The upfront number was larger, but it’s covering set up and tear down (including any decorations I brought, talk about a stress reliever!), linens, a bartender, servers, coat check, the works. I am still *fingers crossed* under my budget because of this decision.
      I was also getting sticker shock in looking at DC venues and decided to look into my alma mater, Virginia Tech, out in SW Virginia. Dinner costs went from starting at $70/person without booze in DC to $40/person including booze in Blacksburg.

      • Kaitlin

        Thumbs up from a fellow Hokie alum! As a plus, gorgeous scenery included for free!

        • AK

          Another Hokie alum! My cousin was married in Blacksburg last year, I was so happy to have a chance to go back. Blacksburg is such a beautiful spot for a wedding. Hope you’ll submit a graduate post ;)

          • Alisha

            So many Hokies here! If anyone has any vendor suggestions let me know. We nailed down the venues (War Memorial Chapel/Blacksburg CC as mentioned above), but still need to find a photog and baker

      • Kat Robertson

        Hooray for country clubs! I’m going this route too, and the simplicity of not having to worry about rentals or search for a caterer etc… was 100% worth it for us. The value for everything we’re getting has ended up being really good, and since they hold a lot of events other than weddings there they have been a lot more laid back than venues we visited that only do weddings.

    • NrgGrl

      Yes! And this type of budget optimization/guesswork exercise is why decision-making is so difficult and exhausting. For example, I had heard that “full-service” venues might end up saving you money (in theory because rentals at nontraditional venues can get expensive, depending on what you need), so I spent a ton of time comparing prices for full-service venues to venues where I would need rentals (like a community center). It turns out that we’ll end up saving about $500-700 by going with the community center, but only because we don’t need to rent tables and chairs for this particular community center. So, I can definitely envision scenarios where it would be easier and cost the same amount to opt for a full-service venue.

      But the broader the point is that it’s just plain crazy how much thought, calculation, and estimation it takes to plan this dang thing. (In order to save $700 in the end…which isn’t that much when you consider that the total cost is about $20K.) Sad face.

  • swarmofbees

    One way we can actually afford an out-of-our-budget venue is by going off-season. We had to do the wedding in mid-summer anyway, but we got very respectable discounts for having a wedding in July in Phoenix. In NYC you get discounts at a lot of places for winter weddings. You have to stay indoors more, but damn, can you “save” some money.

    • Second to off-season. We are getting married at a ski lodge/inn in January that primarily does weddings in the summer. Not only did they waive the $3000 site fee, but they also didn’t require us to book the all the lodging up front. This saved us about $5500 (basically making this whole wedding possible).

    • Lindsey d.

      Sigh — There seems to be no such thing as an off-season wedding in Louisiana. Maybe August? But, ugh, no. Just couldn’t do it. Too. Hot.

    • K.

      Just make sure you’re okay with the little comments people will make (and they WILL make them). We’re getting married in June in Florida, for various logistical reasons including saving almost $7k on our combined venues, and almost every person responds with, “Ugh, that’s going to be too hot!” even though we are having a 25 minute max ceremony, late in the day, where we’ll be providing fans, water, parasols, sunscreen and bug spray. Then we’re having indoor reception. except for a rooftop space, but that will only be open well after sunset and will still have fans just in case it’s a really hot day (but very unlikely in north Florida). We’ve thought through all of it and are going to make sure everyone is comfortable, but the gut reaction is still people making a face and complaining. It’s to the point that I have to bite my tongue from saying, “If the event will be so awful for you, you really don’t have to come.”

      But otherwise, hell yeah to off-season discounts.

      • swarmofbees

        Yeah, we have started hearing that, but really only form my FMIL, who will complain about everything anyway so I am trying to just ignore. I plan on saying something along the lines of “I know, it is hot, isn’t it? So glad you could come!! Have you tried the sangria?” If they push, I will give the real reason, my Dad’s health, and hopefully they will back off.

      • Amy March

        I think one thing to remember is a 25 minute ceremony really means closer to an hour outside. People like to be a little early, things often run late despite everyone’s best efforts, it feels wrong to rush to your car at the end of socializing. Not that I think people complaining to you is cool, but they may well be speaking from experience that if you need fans and umbrellas and bug spray, it just may not be very comfortable.

        • K.

          Yes, I’m aware of that. We’re providing those things more as a precaution, in case it is an unreasonably hot day, even around sunset. Generally, in the town we’re getting married in, the hottest it will be at that time is 85 which is definitely hot, but managable with the right equipment. And frankly, while I care about their comfort and we’re going to make every effort we can moving forward, our venue is already paid for so at this point they should either keep their complaints to themselves or not come.

    • Marcela

      We got married June 1 in Orlando last year and it was HOT. However the people who wanted to dance party with us still danced their butts off and the people who complained about the heat were the ones we were expecting to go home early anyway. Just make sure you provide plenty of water and people can deal. :)

  • MisterEHolmes

    Just read the fine print on public spaces and community buildings–ours didn’t allow any alcohol at all, required hiring X number of police and paying extra to rent the chairs (the chairs that were already in the room?!). Just be sure you really know what you’re paying for.

    • Sarah E

      Yeah, we’re keeping county parks on the last resort list because of the alcohol restriction. If we must, then okay, but our vision is a dessert, booze, and dancing reception, which would need to be majorly adjusted.

  • Jana

    Let’s hear a shout out for county parks! When we were doing our planning, I didn’t see many weddings online that were held in county parks. It’s turning out to be a great option for us, though! We rented an enclosed building in a beautiful park for two days for just $350. Score!

  • KT

    apw you are reading my mind this week! thanks for a great series of articles at just the right time!

  • Moe

    my wedding was in a friend’s backyard ($0!!) It was a really big space and the house had 3 bathrooms that was able to accomodate 100 people easily, plus it had a built in dancefloor on the patio. All it needed was rentals and the lighting was already there, I just added paper lanterns. my wedding would not have happened without this house.

    • swarmofbees

      Oooh, that looks so pretty! We are having the rehearsal dinner in my parents’ house and I am getting ideas now!!!

      • Moe

        candles and paper lanterns = instant glam

    • K.

      That’s really, really gorgeous.

    • Lindsay Rae

      I planned a surprise 25th anniversary party for my parents in our backyard. I was 21 at the time, working as an intern (aka $0 to my name)… so i made EVERYTHING. Save the dates, invitations, centerpieces… knew a caterer and called in a few favors… now I’m 25 and wedding planning thinking how the heck did I do all that?

      Thankfully my grandma paid for tables, chairs and tent rentals. (Also the rental lady thought I was “sweet” when I explained the party, so she threw in a few free-bees.)

      It was an AWESOME party. and absolutely didn’t need to be anywhere other than our home!! Paper lanterns and candles go a long way :)

      • Moe

        There are so many things you can DIY but yes, it can be exhausting. I ordered all the rentals and then discovered that there were some church tables that were available to me, it cut my order in half. Another wedding miracle!

    • Lawyerette510

      Was this on Offbeat bride? I feel like I just saw a pic of this and it stuck with me because it was so gorgeous and I so wished that the people I knew with a beautiful back yard lived even somewhat close to where we want to have our wedding, instead of a 4 hour flight away…

  • Molly P

    We’re DIYing the DJ. I am going to rent a sound system for like $150 bucks — not the best, but it’s what we can afford — so we can play our own music at the reception. I’m working on the playlist. My dad is a musician so I’m gonna get him to help me set up the equipment and make sure the levels are all good. For the venue, we have a really beautiful lodge on the state park here in town. It is “expensive” — over $1,000 — but the place is so gorgeous, we won’t need to decorate much, and we aren’t having to rent very much stuff because interior tables/chairs are included and so we won’t need much for outside, if anything. It is seriously an amazing space.

  • emilyg25

    Definitely think outside the box for catering. We wanted a pig roast, so I just put our wedding location in Google maps and used “search nearby” with the term “pig roast.” We ended up finding an amazing butcher shop/deli that also does catering, specializing in pig roasts. It was only $20 pp (in the Philadelphia area, so CHEAP) and so, so tasty.

    We got married in a family backyard, but that option can get expensive fast because you have to cart everything in.

    • Kara

      Good point! Also, see if you can find a commercial caterer. Our caterer was used to doing business events of up to 5,000 people, so he definitely could handle 200. Also, since he wasn’t a “wedding” caterer, he purchased food in much larger bulk so his prices were cheaper.

  • Sarah

    I’d just like to second the idea of “just don’t worry about it” when it comes to photography. My husband’s brother did our “professional” photos (he’s definitely NOT a professional, just an enthusiastic amateur) and when I first saw them I was very disappointed that they didn’t look like everyone else’s pictures. But you know what? I have half a dozen amazing pictures worthy of framing and quite a few that are good enough for an album. Would I have hired a professional if we could have afforded it? Most definitely. Am I glad we didn’t spend thousands we didn’t have? Even more definitely.

    • Alyssa M

      I think the biggest thing is that we stop thinking amazing photos are an essential to a wedding. If you can afford them, yeah, they’re an awesome perk, but I’m sick of hearing that I will SERIOUSLY REGRET if I don’t hire a professional.

      It’s your “one special day” and “the best day of your life” you need the best possible pictures to “remember it by” and take with you. No, no, and no. Even if I don’t have one SINGLE picture of the day I will still have many years of happy marriage and my memories of the day to remember it by. I don’t think I *NEED* to have gorgeous pictures that cost 1/3 of my budget.

      • Sarah

        Exactly! We chose other things to spend our money on, and while yeah I’m a little sad I didn’t ask more people to take casual pictures just so I could see more of everyone’s experience at the reception in particular, I’m really happy with what we could afford to do/get. My parents also have no wedding pictures on display (I don’t think they had a photographer at all), so while the pros are definitely worth it, the cost was just too much for us and it seemed logical to be the one thing we “cut”.

  • Sarah E

    The fairgrounds in my hometown is on our options list- for an all day rental of their banquet space, it costs $500. They regularly have events there, and the space is great. The only “but” is the beverage service. It’s way over our budget to have an open bar, even with just beer, so we’re debating options of open bar/cash bar combo, along with looking at other places.

    We’d love to find a place where we can bring in our own alcohol, but I’d prefer not to have a bunch of other rentals, too. My mom keeps saying firehall, which is legit, except my fiance would prefer not to use a firehall if we don’t have to. Le sigh. Venues, man.

  • Stephanie

    I mentioned this before, but we ended up spending $50 total on our two venues in downtown Washington DC. We had the ceremony at the World War 1 Memorial on the National Mall (permit= $50) and the reception at a restaurant in Dupont Circle where we only had to pay for the food and drink. It took me 6 months of stress and tears to figure this out but it saved us soooo much money in the end.

    • Claire

      What restaurant did you go with in Dupont Circle, if you don’t mind me asking? In my dreams I would rent out the whole of Birch & Barley for brunch…

      • Stephanie

        Sorry for not getting back to you sooner! I looked at a whole slew of restaurants and most were either too small or too expensive, then I stumbled on the Beacon Bar & Grill, attached to the Beacon Hotel. They have an upstairs event space that holds up to 50 (more if it’s a cocktail reception I think) and has a gorgeous outdoor patio area. The food was really excellent and the coordinator, Aric is fantastic. Plus it’s connected to the hotel which means most everyone just stayed there.

  • NicoleT

    I get the sticker shock, but my fiancé is in the “you only get one wedding” camp. His parents are fronting the majority of the costs, but still…
    We looked at a lovely venue yesterday, but I got majorly sad when the event specialist handed us the estimate. On paper, it looked to be around our budget, but when you add in the “extra” stuff that is really necessary, everything sky-rocketed (for instance, $1000 for a platform across a fountain so your band has somewhere to stand). I *hate* this process and I wish there was a way to get a beautiful venue that my fiancé loves with a price that I’m comfortable with.

  • vegankitchendiaries

    Here’s our ZERO MONEY venue – aka, the front yard of our tiny rented house. (Pictured at the start of spring but that Magnolia tree is a lot more full and lush come July.) Hopefully we can make this work for 60 pax with rented tables, chairs, dancefloor. Of course we have to pay for rentals and everything else but this is really the only thing we could swing with our >$5000 budget!
    We’re going to go visit a woman with a vegan food cart (we’re vegans – the smug, unbearable kind) this weekend to see if she’ll set up shop and give out burritos for $7 a pop. Then hoping we can self-cater the sides, cakes, and dranks.
    Someone tell me it’s going to be OK! :)

    • ART

      It’s going to be OK :) We are having a front-yard wedding, very different space, but you can make it work. The food truck idea is solid…food prep/serving takes up a lot of space!

    • Lawyerette510

      It’s going to be great!

    • Erin Rafferty

      That’s an adorable yard, and a great venue! The food truck idea is great, especially with supplementing it with your own sides and stuff. Plus, you can basically just start stockpiling booze now and you don’t have to haul it ANYWHERE come wedding day :)

  • JSwen

    I definitely had sticker shock and am still dealing with it while planning five months out. My advice is (even though it is a lot of work) to get lots of quotes. For the big things (venue, food, music) I refuse to accept how much things cost until I’ve seen three reputable vendors all around the same price range. It helped me understand the tiers of caterers in our area and which tier we were in – it was about $1500 more to get really high quality food and good service than the lowest price options – before I could come to grips with the total costs. I also didn’t set my budget until I had some quotes. This helped me prevent an unrealistic expectation from the get-go.

  • april

    Another tip on photography – find someone who is still starting out and looking to build his or her portfolio. We used an art student (who I’m only a little embarassed to admit I found on Craigslist) from a local college who had worked as second shooter with a couple of professional photographers but hadn’t done many events on her own yet. She charged a fraction of what most professional photographers were asking, and she did an amazing job!

    • Melissa

      Just want to second this tip! I’m fortunate to have a good friend who is in this situation– not super established, but eager to build her portfolio and her stuff is really great. She is absolutely THRILLED that we asked her to shoot our wedding. We’re getting a wonderful photographer for a reasonable price and she is getting loads of material for her portfolio– truly a win-win!

    • Craigslist can be a great resource. When I was starting out, I posted on craigslist that I really wanted to get into shooting elopements and offered a discount to eloping couples for a month-long period. It was a great way for me to get the work I could use to build a portfolio, and it lead to some awesome people who seemed to love their photos, but said they wouldn’t have been able to afford me if it wasn’t for that major discount. Win! Win!

      It just takes some more work on the front end to make sure you are getting someone reliable who will use common sense and follow through with their promises. Everyone starts somewhere!

  • Jess

    Live music for the ceremony? Totally go the college kid route! My brother, and a number of friends, played so many wedding ceremonies while in school to pick up some extra cash. You can usually find anything from a solo artist to a string or brass quartet that are interested in getting some performance time to their names as well as making some money on the side. Plus if you have fun music they actually get a kick out of practicing it.

    And you know what? Those kids are damn good.

    • Kestrel

      Yes, I was coming here to say that. While I never played weddings in high school (trombone isn’t the most in demand for weddings. Although someone was looking for a brass quartet once but I couldn’t make it) I had several friends in orchestra that formed a string quartet and did weddings over the summer. They were very good – and unless you’re a musician yourself, you couldn’t have heard the difference.

      College music students will almost certainly be good enough but do be a bit more cautious about high school students. Some are amazing, some are not.

      The only thing I’d say is to give them a dress code (all black is always a safe one – everyone has it). Students are not always the most knowledgeable and many of them may not have real ‘appropriate’ clothing.

      • Jess

        If they’re in band or orchestra, I guarantee you they have a very appropriate all black outfit. That’s like, standard protocol uniform! I remember having three or four back in the day.

  • Anon

    Just a word of caution about food trucks…. My husband went to a wedding where they had 2 food trucks for about 250 people. The DJ called each table to get in line, and then people could order what they wanted at the windows. Because his table was one of the last to get called, they waited over an hour to get food after the ceremony and cocktail “hour” (which was more than an hour because they took their photos after the wedding and that took longer than planned). Either more food trucks or a better ordering system seemed to be needed.

    • Winny the Elephant

      I can’t imagine thinking that a food truck was a good idea for 250 people. I think those people were having a wedding for 50 and then ended up inviting 200 extra people

  • Lou

    If you’re in Canada, might I suggest a Royal Canadian legion? They are EVERYWHERE, and range from $100-350 for the day. Every hall is different, but many of them in my area offered catering through their Ladies Auxiliary group. How cute is that? We managed to snag a hall for $339, which includes bar service, set-up and tear-down, and HST. Our buffet for ~80 and their CHEAP CHEAP booze (yay) will only run us $1,500. It’s the pricest part of our budget, which is otherwise under the $500 mark.

  • S.

    Another reception venue idea to consider is bars! We are hiring out a bar downtown on a Saturday night and all they require is a minimum in bar sales, so it’s basically free! We have chosen to pay the bar minimum ourselves, and then after that runs out it will go to a cash bar, but you could choose for it to be a cash bar all night if you want to save even more money. The place we’ve got is super laid back and looks beautiful, so I don’t think we’re even going to spend a penny on decorations or rentals. The only other thing we have to pay for is catering. If we’d had to pay for the venue itself there’s no way we would have been able to pay for our guests’ drinks as well, so this way everyone wins!

  • Melissa

    GREAT post, and one I hope all newly engaged sisters will take to heart. I wish I’d read something like this sooner. The wedding industry typically does tell you to set a budget– but the question of what you *want* to spend is never asked, let alone validated.

  • Alicia

    My husband and I got married in the fall and definitely faced the wedding sticker shock a number of times. In the end, our wedding was still way more expensive than either of us imagined it could be, but I think we spent the money the best ways we could.

    We decided to DIY our music, which was one of the best decisions we made. We used our iPad and an app called Limitlist, which is a jukebox and photobooth in one (https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/limitlist-music-player-for/id807222473?mt=8). It saved us hundreds of dollars and our guests loved it. Our venue was a conservation centre outside Toronto called the Kortright Centre (http://kortright.org/), which was really affordable, beautiful and totally us. If you live in an urban centre, being willing to look outside the city can also keep prices down. We also used potted plants for our centrepieces. We planted them all at the beginning of summer so they were lush and colourful for the wedding and cost us less than $10 per table.

  • Erin Rafferty

    As a professional musician, I have to completely second the student suggestion!!! I played TONS of weddings while I was in school, and usually only got paid a hundred bucks or so–meaning $300-$400 for the whole group. (Usually a string quartet.) HOWEVER, that’s still a decent chunk of money, so some additional tips:

    1. Try to find a complete group if you can. There might be a resident graduate quartet, or just an able group of students that the right professor can recommend. This is great for a couple reasons. For one thing, even as students, a lot of musicians work as contractors, meaning they’ll find the rest of the group (or even the whole group, if they can’t play on your day), and charge you a little extra for the trouble of putting it together. (I’ve done it, and I paid myself less than the actual performers, but some people will even pay themselves MORE.) Also, from an aesthetic point of view, most weddings are played by pick-up groups (put together by those same contractors I mentioned above). They’ll probably each know the standard wedding fare, or be decent enough sight readers, but an established group will know how to read *each other* in a way that four people who just met absolutely can’t. So it’ll sound better, even if your rep choices are a little out there!

    2. Speaking of teacher recommendations, don’t just call the student affairs office or whatever! They usually have a list of students who have paid a fee to be on a gig call list, but that will almost always lead you to the contractors. The actual performance professors have much more day-to-day experience with the students, and they’ll know if there’s a great group of sophomores who are blowing the grad students out of the water. So, if you want a string quartet, look on the faculty listings for people who teach chamber music, and call them! If you want an acoustic guitar or a pianist, that professor will know which student is going to be most willing/free to play. It might seem a little weird to just call a professor out of the blue, but trust me, they get calls about gigs all the time, and if they’re good teachers, they’ll be down for getting their students work. And who knows, they may even offer to play themselves, and in your budget!

    3. The offer of appetizers and drinks at cocktail hour will go a LONG way towards making your small budget seem less small. Obviously you don’t need to feed ceremony musicians dinner like you would for your photographer, but I’ve never met a musician who would turn down free champagne after a gig.

    Hope that helps!

    • racheloboes

      Yes, yes, yes, all of this!!

  • Margaret Thatcher

    We got married in a Scottish Rite temple.

    It was beautiful! And only about $1500 for ceremony and reception space.

  • I know as a planner most people think that the only types of clients I want are the ones with tons of money, but to be honest, I LOVE it when a couple comes to me with a small budget. I know, you still have to pay me, but really, if you don’t have the time, or know how to do all the searching hiring a planner is your best choice. I recently had a couple with a holiday wedding, 12k budget, 150 guests and it was so fun planning it with them. They had some big ideas but we creatively and realistically brought it together for them. They couldn’t have been happier with how it turned out and I couldn’t have been happier to bring it together with them!

  • sheismle

    Wonderful post & comments! Sorry I’m late. Just wanted to chime in as someone whose ship has sailed on a lot of the above items, but who continues to have heart palpitations over the cost of her wedding.

    We’re far enough into our wedding planning that it isn’t so much “sticker shock” as a numbness, but I am still having issues with how much we’re going to spend. We’re getting parental help & are fortunate to be able to afford the rest, but the numbers in our budget spreadsheet are staggering. That said, we are really excited to host a “wedding weekend” for our families, who will all be driving 4+ hours or flying to come to our city for it.

    So to help deal with my personal issues with the total dollar amount (thinking of all the other things we could spend that money on; not wanting to tell my parents how much things cost since my sister was recently married and spent a fraction of what we are looking at!)– I have found that it is helpful to even save a few hundred dollars here and there. Even though they are drops in the bucket, each one makes me FEEL a lot better. It’s easy to feel powerless in the face of that budget spreadsheet, but DIYing or semi-DIYing makes me feel like I have a bit of control over the expenses.

    The items that I’m saving on are of course are not big tickets like venue, music, etc., but again, this is just to help me feel better about all of it. I’m doing the Vistaprint thing for our invites, and with the help of a friend was able to design them in Illustrator. It was fun (I get a kick out of that kind of thing), didn’t take me any longer than I would have spent shopping for non-DIY invites, and saved a few hundred dollars. The other biggie is flowers. I found a local flower grower and we are going to get buckets of flowers from her, then DIY our bouquets. I’m a little nervous about this, but hoping it will be a fun activity with my mom & sisters the day before the wedding. Again, saving hundreds (if not thousands) and helps me calm down a bit when I open that horrible spreadsheet.

  • Karen

    We’re getting Chinese food in party-sized containers from a Chinese buffet. I think this will genuinely come out at more like $3-5 per person, rather than $30 for a fancy caterer… less fancy, but way more interesting than rubber chicken!!!

  • ah-nonny-muss

    Honestly speaking in my area, parks charged about the same as any other venue, advertised just as much as any other venue, and often had fewer amenities, not more (you had to rent port-a-potties and pay fees for bringing them in, no buildings so you had to rent a tent and generator and lights and pay a fee for the tenting because it ‘disturbed the grass’, no help at all if you chose a fully outdoor wedding and it poured that day), and most won’t allow alcohol to be served on site.

    So…we gave up on parks pretty quickly.

    Venues that were not typically seen as wedding venues but were quirky and cool seem to have figured out that they’re quirky and cool and often charge accordingly, too.

    We ended up at a venue that does a lot of weddings (and other events too) because it was actually *cheaper* than going for some of the more offbeat options!

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