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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