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How We Made The Most of Our $6,500 Budget for 40 People

Even with our dream photographer.

HANNAH, EMPLOYMENT BRANDING BY DAY, MAKER AND CURATOR AT BUNGALOWWINSLOW.COM BY NIGHT & MATT, FREIGHT BROKER BY DAY, MAKER AND CURATOR AT BUNGALOWWINSLOW.COM BY NIGHT

ONE SENTENCE SUM-UP OF THE WEDDING VIBE: Our wedding was a personal, cozy, ethereal celebration of love.

PLANNED BUDGET: $5,000
ACTUAL BUDGET: $6,500
NUMBER OF GUESTS: 41

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WHERE WE ALLOCATED THE MOST FUNDS

I started working in the event industry when I was nineteen. After five years of planning weddings, working for huge venues and landing my first big girl job as an event planner for a Fortune 500 company, I became jaded and burned out. I knew the ins and outs of the business and I hated it. The markup on dresses, the outrageous food and beverage minimums, the cookie cutter events that could be churned out night after night. I felt like the event industry was a huge selfish corporate machine that preys on people’s emotions and I didn’t want our wedding to be part of that.

From the very beginning I refused to spend our life savings on a one-day celebration. Our honest to goodness goal was to make our wedding look as good as we could for as little as we could. We didn’t have a set budget and we didn’t track all of our expenses, but we always tried to make thrifty decisions. Ain’t no shame in our game.

We had pretty much settled on a private wedding, just us, but it was Matt who really wanted to explore the idea of having a wedding. He said that we could have a wedding that was exactly what we wanted and nothing we hated and still be able to share the moment with people who meant the world to us. So he asked me what I thought our perfect wedding would be. He took notes as I rattled things off and that was that. That was a guiding light for the six and a half months of our engagement. Having a fabulous and supportive partner who looks out for the best interest of your life and relationship is a massive blessing.

When working with a small budget, the best advice I can give is: creative solutions. It is all about creative solutions. Think of things people aren’t doing and try to take that route. If it hasn’t been done yet, the likelihood of there being a crazy fee is slim. I don’t just think outside the box. I live outside the box. Use your imagination and problem solving skills to find creative solutions. Your ideas will be fresh and meaningful.

We splurged on the photography because that was the most important thing to me. I had been following Christian Gideon since college and I loved his work. I always knew that he was the person I would have capture our wedding. We even talked with him before setting the date. He was the most expensive purchase of our wedding, but such a great investment.

We also splurged on transportation. It wasn’t a huge cost (I think around $200) but it was a cost that we didn’t anticipate. After considering that our wedding was a destination for ninety percent of the guests, the distance between the ceremony and reception venue and the drinking acumen of our guests, it was way more important for us to provide safe and easy transportation for everyone than to save a couple hundred dollars. We didn’t go wild—we rented a school bus—but it was still money we didn’t think we would have to spend.

Our penny pinching ways almost lead us to not have any ceremony music, but it was way too important to us to cut it out in favor of saving money. We splurged a couple hundred dollars to get a live bagpiper to play the processional and recessional. It gave me goosebumps. #WorthIt

Then there was the cost of something we didn’t need (at all, given our menu) but we loved them so we did it anyway. We had custom cutlery made by Sucre Shop. The forks had our wedding hashtag (#WardGoesWinslow) on them, and it was so kitschy cute. Loved it.

We learned quickly to decide what is most important to us and make our investment there. It’s important to know what you want, what you don’t want, and to remember what the wedding is actually about: the love and the joining of two people. Not all the chalkboards, sparklers, and hullabaloo. While I love pretty stuff, remembering the real reason for the wedding helped us overcome hurdles of the planning process.

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WHERE WE ALLOCATED THE LEAST FUNDS

Let’s be real. We tried to save money at every opportunity. Cue the creative solutions.

First on the big savings list were the venues. We were able to score our ceremony location for free by exchanging vows at Phantom Lake YMCA camp where I spent my summers as a kid. Then we used airbnb to rent our reception venue for around $600. This was a huge win for us because we got to have the venue for a few days and we got to stay there. Killing two birds with one stone. That’s kind of my jam. (Disclaimer: If you’re thinking of doing an airbnb rental for your reception, know that it takes some work. Some rental properties allow events and some don’t. We were able to work with the owner and tell them the details about our small backyard style fete in order to make the arrangement. They needed to know amount of people, timing, cars on the property, etc. So you’ll have to do research and work with the owners to make sure everyone is comfortable.)

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Next, we made everything we could and did as much on our own as possible. I did all the planning, design, and styling. We made the dance floor from reclaimed pallets. I sewed all the table runners from antique salvaged fabric. I made the place cards and escort cards… neither of which were actually cards. We designed and assembled the ceremony altar. We built and painted our lawn games (cornhole, jenga, and ladder golf). I made our guestbook by adhering mini colorful envelopes to the pages of a blank book. We hand stamped individual bags for popcorn. Matt built all the signage for the ceremony and reception and his sister painted the words on them. I customized the glasses for the signature drink. I designed and made our programs, as well as the hand cut confetti in bags attached. I turned flour sack towels from Ikea into customized wedding napkins that doubled as favors. We also sourced as much as we could on our own. We collected all the antique china from thrift and vintage shops in St. Louis. Purchased other decor like our cake knife and vintage wood ironing board (welcome table) from estate sales.

We also saved from the wardrobe perspective. I rented a Marchesa cocktail dress from Rent the Runway for $100 and had my friend’s aunt make me a tulle skirt to wear over the dress on the bottom half. This allowed me to take the skirt off at the reception. I LOVED it! It was one of a kind. I then used the same tulle fabric and made myself a veil. My headpiece ended up costing more than my dress! Matt chose what he wanted to wear and it was pretty basic: slacks and a dress shirt. The red suspenders and wooden bowtie really brought his gregarious personality to the ensemble.

For the reception music, we purchased an awesome portable speaker from Sam’s club, hooked up a phone cued up our Spotify playlist and just let it rock. Folk, which happens to be my favorite (how ’bout them Avett Brothers), classic rock, country for Matt, soulful love songs and those sing in the shower type songs.

After seeing all the tug-at-the-heartstring type wedding videos out there, I knew I wanted one. Then I looked into and I was like… yeah never mind. Not for us. Instead we rented three GoPros from borrowlenses.com and set them up in a few different places to record the ceremony. There was one in my bouquet, one on the altar and one on a bench in the crowd. One day I will turn these into a video… one day. Anyone out there good at video editing?

Having an alternative reception venue allowed us to use any caterer we wanted. Matt wanted burgers and fries so we booked the food truck Burgermeister. It was easy on the budget (our catering bill was about $600) and a huge crowd pleaser! We also cut back on costs by doing a self-service bar of wine, beer, and a signature drink, so our bar tally was about $500, all purchased at Sam’s Club. The signature drink we served was the Nordic Palmer (Firefly vodka, champagne, and a scoop of lemon sorbet). The local micro-brew, Spotted Cow, was the crowd favorite (and mine too)!

WHAT WAS TOTALLY WORTH IT

Focusing on the ceremony just as much as the reception. A lot of the time the focus seems to be on the reception and the ceremony is just something guests have to get through before the party starts. We chose to put just as much time and effort into making our ceremony personal. The good times started when all the guests took a thirty-minute bus ride to the ceremony venue. The bus was stocked with cans of PBR, so I think everyone was happy. Instead of using a typical wedding flow or script, or whatever, we asked my sister who was serving as our officiant to write the ceremony. She put so much love and wisdom into the ceremony. Her touching words and giving of time was the greatest gift we received. Our ceremony was short, sweet, and personal. We wrote our own vows, which were totally representative of our personalities. Mine was sentimental and Matt’s was goofy and sweet. Instead of the ho hum “I do” Matt declared “Hell yeah!” Our ceremony was filled with laughter, joy, and happy tears. It felt like a true celebration of our love. It gave me all the feels.

WHAT WAS TOTALLY NOT WORTH IT

Pay attention folks, this is a big one. What was not worth it? Stress. Trust me, stressing about your wedding is not worth it. Honestly, there were very few moments I was stressed. But like the time I found out my first dress order was canceled with two months till the wedding, there were a few minutes of panic, then you calm down and have to figure out how to make it even better. Don’t stress about who you invite, who you don’t, who can’t come, or what other people think about your wedding. The day is not to please their tastes; it is for you and your partner. I got a lot of unsolicited opinions about the small guest list, to my “crazy” wedding venue, to not having any attendants. Be polite, but stick to your guns. You and your partner know what is best for you.

A FEW THINGS THAT HELPED US ALONG THE WAY

The biggest help was that Matt and I were on the same page. We compromised where necessary and acted as a team. Our family was also a big help. My sister married us. My dad made all the desserts and our wedding cake. We spent roughly $600 on flowers, which my mom and Nana then arranged. Mother-in-law and sister-in-law set up the place settings and the whole Winslow family spent hours painstakingly hanging the string lights for the reception.

Accept help. Trust in your loved ones and delegate tasks to those who want to help make your day special.

MY BEST PRACTICAL ADVICE FOR MY PLANNING SELF

Remember that time you thought everything would be perfect and go off without a hitch? Yeah right girl; you’re outside your mind. I thought I had everything on lockdown; I had done this professionally for years. I could make a bump in and bump out schedule in my sleep. But expecting to do it all on your own and for everything to go perfectly is a total joke. I forgot the seating chart, the string light bulbs kept breaking during set-up, and our day-of planner called me the day of the wedding and said he couldn’t make it due to a death in the family.

Things will go wrong. Things will be beyond your control. And you know what, that’s okay. No one else will notice. Keep your cool and just go with it.

FAVORITE THING ABOUT THE WEDDING

My favorite part of the day was our grand entrance. This is ironic because we were so opposed to doing this at first. We both don’t like a lot of attention, so the idea of dancing awkwardly into a huge space when someone yelled your names over the microphone wasn’t appealing to us. Instead we wanted to just do it organically. We hopped on some vintage bikes (one we rented and one was my mother’s) that our friends decorated for us, and rode down the long gravel drive to the yard where all of our friends and family were gathered for cocktails. Nobody announced us, but the clinking of the tin cans on the gravel got everyone’s attention, and I have to admit I was totally in love with the noise. In that moment I was so undeniably happy. We were laughing and smiling ear to ear the whole time (despite the flat tire on Matt’s bike). Our friends cheered and when we got to the end we were greeted with a big toss of confetti.

ANYTHING ELSE

You know the quote from When Harry Met Sally, “When you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with someone, you want the rest of your life to start right away”? Well, that is how we felt. We knew we wanted each other forever, but we didn’t want a long engagement or a circus of a wedding. We didn’t want hundreds of people staring at us. We didn’t want a cheesy DJ. We didn’t want to go into debt. We wanted to be married and we wanted celebrate our love.

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