How to Avoid the Wedding Budget Surprise


Pro tips for making a realistic wedding budget

by Alyssa Griffith, Contributor

budget shock no text

For most couples, a wedding is the first time you’ll ever have to think about planning a huge event (unless you’re a professional event organizer, or in theater or entertainment). Which means lots of people start planning a similar way. First you think about the wedding you want. Then you think about how much you’re comfortable spending. And then you hope really hard that the two concepts match up. The problem is, unless you actually are one of those professional event planners, it’s almost impossible to know how much the event you’re envision is going to cost until you start getting into the nitty-gritty of planning. Which is how you end up reading things on APW that start with, “We set a budget of $5,000 but once we started actually planning, that number quickly tripled.”

The media would like us to think that these couples just got caught up in the expectations of the wedding industry and spent $10,000 on crystal vases. (Silly them. You would know better.) In reality? The culprit was that they thought chair rentals cost $1 when they really cost $2. Or they found out their dad would be heartbroken if they just served sandwiches. Then it turns out that the only wedding photographers in their area who didn’t call them “sweetie” during the initial meeting charged $3,000 instead of the $2,500 they were hoping to spend, and not being talked down to felt like it was worth finding an extra $500 in the budget. Next thing they knew, the combined total of those surprises was $5,000 and rising.

We’ve all read and researched the tips and tricks for how to save money, how to have a budget wedding, and even how to stick to a budget.  But how do you figure out what that budget is in the first place? And how do you do it in a way that’s not going to give you sticker shock later?

THINK ABOUT THE KIND OF WEDDING YOU WANT TO HAVE

This may be the one part of wedding planning that you’ve already knocked out of the park. But if not, it’s time to get to dreaming. Do you and your partner want a picnic in the park, an intimate urban party, or a huge shindig with all your friends and family? There are so many different kinds of weddings out there, and so much inspiration, that it can get overwhelming quick. You shouldn’t spend too much time on specifics initially, but you should determine the general feel you want for your wedding. Think about the look, the style, the people, and the emotions—all the pieces that will make your wedding unique to you two. I often tell couples to think about weddings they’ve been to or seen, and figure out the words to describe them. Because while fun and fancy can coexist, they don’t always. For example, you may want your wedding to be low key and relaxed like your cousin’s last year—but a little more formal, while still avoiding a stuffy feeling.  You can even start to get more specific, think: “Low-key ceremony, with a relaxed upbeat dance party, and a family-style dinner that feels casual but looks kind of fancy-ish.”

CRUNCH SOME NUMBERS

Here’s where it’s time to get serious about figuring out how much you have to spend. Not everyone sets a clear and strict wedding budget total and sticks to it, and that’s okay. However, for most people in need of a wedding budget there is some discussion that needs to take place. Sit down with your partner and figure out how much money you are ready, willing, and comfortable spending on your wedding. Are other people going to be contributing financially to your wedding? This is also the key time to discuss with them what and how they will be helping. Sometimes this is a dollar amount that you can build right into your budget, and other times it’s a particular portion of the wedding that they’re going to pay (up to a certain amount) on your behalf. Either way it is important for you to know before you dive into budgeting and planning.

I know that talking to our families about money isn’t always the easiest or the most comfortable thing to do, but sometimes it just must be done. Generally I think it’s helpful to start with the mindset that your families may or may not be able/willing to contribute, but that you are asking because it’s better to ask than to miss out. The conversation could start a little something like: “Hey Mom, _____ and I have been engaged for a few months and we’ve decided to start thinking about planning a wedding. We are really hoping to have a fun, laid-back gathering for all the people that are closest to us. We picture it being a day that can bring our families together, an intimate ceremony and a fun party for everyone. I’m not sure if you’ve thought about it yet, so no need to answer today, but I was wondering if you and Dad are willing and able to contribute in some monetary way to our plans? Whatever you’re able to offer would be beyond helpful!”

Another number that needs to be crunched at this point is your guest count. This is the time when you and your partner should open up an Excel file and start inputting names of people that you want to invite to your wedding. No matter where you are, or what kind of wedding you’re planning, the number of guests you plan to invite will make a huge impact!

PRIORITIZE

You and your partner should each pick your top three priorities for the wedding day. These could be just about anything: Rocking music, an open bar, that photographer your cousin’s friend’s sister had, a four-tier cake, late night tacos, a live string quartet, tons of flowers, or any other detail you each feel strongly about. Having this short list of priorities is just a good idea so that you can focus a little more money, or time, or energy, on the things that are most important to the two of you. I recommend making these lists separately and then sitting down together—you don’t want to be tempted to write down the same things your partner wrote down; it’s better to have an honest idea of your priorities!

An example of how this could play out:

budget priority chart

GET REAL

You should now have a starting number of guests, an idea of how much money you’ll spend, and a vision of what your wedding might look and feel like. With these pieces of information, it’s time to start finding out if it’s all possible. The unfair truth about weddings (and money in general) is that sometimes the things we wish would work, just won’t. This is the “getting real” phase. Maybe you dreamt of a huge sit-down dinner for your 250 closest friends and family, but you only have $4,000 to spend. How’s that going to play out? Tip: while most websites don’t list budgets on the real weddings they publish, you can start to get a feel for how weddings come together by reading the APW How We Did It Series. What does $4,000 mean when you want to feed 200 people? When you start seeing how other couples sacrificed and compromised in their weddings, it can be easier to imagine how you’ll do the same for yours.

RE-EVALUATE, ESTIMATE, AND CREATE

If your original plans and your numbers don’t match after doing some quick research, take some time to re-evaluate. Can you spend more money to make your ideal wedding happen? (And more importantly, do you want to?) Can you change the type of venue or overall look and feel of your wedding to make it fit your budget? Can you DIY or even remove some elements to save? While there are always ways to save money, if your budget and your vision are in direct contradiction, you have to find ways to level out the plan.

A note on DIY: Making elements of your wedding is a great way to add your personal touch to things, especially when you can’t get your desired look anywhere else. But it doesn’t always save money or time. So be realistic about what you want to DIY, and don’t fall into the trap of setting yourself up for hours of crafting if it’s not worth it. You’re better served by cutting things that aren’t important to you, because making things that aren’t important to you is a version of hell you don’t want to live in.

KEEP YOURSELF (AND YOUR MONEY) ACCOUNTABLE

I’ve created a template for you to use when building a budget for your wedding. It is important to note that there is absolutely no way to create a wedding budget worksheet that fits every one of your weddings. There are simply too many variables, and suddenly this document would be twelve pages long. I have included some industry standard percentages so that you can have a place to start, but you should by no means feel locked into those numbers—adjust them to fit your priorities and your event. Getting married in Mom’s backyard? Your venue now costs zero percent! Is your cousin baking your cake as a wedding gift? Cut that down to zero! Just remember that this is your budget, and your wedding, so make adjustments that fit. (Note some things that are not included: honeymoon, other parties, hotel accommodations, rings, wedding party gifts, super specific items like rentals, ceremony items, or decorations for the getaway car.)

DOWNLOAD THE APW BUDGET SPREADSHEET

Here are some steps for using the worksheet in a personal and useful way:

  • Input your current planned “Total Budget.”
  • Use the industry percentages outlined to break up your budget by category. Insert the corresponding dollar amounts under “Budgeted Estimate $.” (This should give you a basic guideline so you don’t accidentally spend eighty-five percent of your funds on your caterer and then need to increase your budget drastically—but remember not to feel trapped by these numbers!)
  • Strike out or remove any pieces that you won’t be having or won’t be paying for, and reallocate that money. (Example: Your parents have agreed to pay for the DJ, you can just remove that line item and not worry about it!)
  • Add in any line items that aren’t here but that you know you want to have. This budget worksheet is specific to the wedding day—if you need to include the rehearsal dinner or a morning-after brunch, you’ll need to add that in! You can also add a lot of specifics for your event that aren’t here so that you can keep track of money spent in a more detailed fashion.
  • Update as you go. When you get proposals from vendors, you can add the costs into “Actual Estimate $.” As you sign contracts and pay deposits, add those amounts and due dates into “Deposit Amount Paid $,” “Balance Due $,” and “Final Payment Due Date.” And don’t hesitate to reallocate the amounts as you go so that you have an up-to-date visual of your wedding budget and money spent. This way, you end up with no surprises.

The most important thing to remember when you’re putting together your budget is that no two weddings are alike. Your budget, and how money is allocated, is fluid and will undoubtedly change and need adjusting throughout the planning process. No matter what your wedding budget is, if you and your partner are happy and comfortable with the wedding you’re throwing, and if you’re married at the end of the day, you’ve done it right!

Alyssa Griffith

Alyssa is the owner and lead event planner for Rose Gold Events in the San Francisco Bay Area. She’s been rocking the wedding industry for the last four years after becoming a Certified Wedding Planner in 2011. In her free time, you’ll find her traveling, reading, and training CrossFit. Alyssa loves love, macaroons, logistics, and a good party dress. And she still cries at every wedding.

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  • Nell

    OMG yes to all of this.

    I’d add one thing: Consider budgeting for a planner. In an ideal world, your planner is actually helping you save money by presenting options you haven’t thought of or negotiating for better rates. In our case, the biggest thing she’s contributed is saving us TIME. She negotiated rates for blocks of rooms, called 1 billion caterers, and rescheduled our vendor meetings for us when things were canceled.

    Our planner had us separate out our budget for wedding outfits from the rest of the budget – which I was skeptical of at first, but it makes sense now. It’s the only decision that you’re going to make individually (presuming you go the traditional route of not shopping together), and it would suck to discourage your partner from getting an outfit that made them feel super confident because it means you can’t have extra passed apps.

    • Good point! Ours saved us so much money because she had been to a bazillion weddings, so when I would ask if we should add some silly thing, she would almost always say, “No, you don’t need to bother doing that, no one will remember it.” And every time we realized we needed some little wedding thing– flower girl baskets, cake cutters, etc– she’d ask if we wanted to use hers. Those were all things that seemed so fun when we were in the “Pinterest planning” stage. There are such cute flower girl baskets on Etsy! But once there was an actual wedding to plan and pay for, it was like, “flower girl baskets cost how much?!”

    • Kayla

      Yes a million times on the planner front. Our day-of-coordinator (but really all-around planning badass) was SUCH a good deal. She got us a discount on flowers, hosted a flower arranging party that meant we avoiding paying for a florist, got a huge discount from our DJ, had a 10% discount from the rental place, and loaned us a bunch of decor items for free. She saved us way more money than we spent hiring her.

      And that’s before we even talk about the money I would’ve spent on therapy without her help.

    • Steph

      Agreed. Our planner also saved us money by negotiating with vendors on our behalf – literally negotiated rates down to the point that we saved more money than we paid her.

    • Couldn’t agree more! ;-)

  • Sosuli

    I really love the practical advice here! It’s mainly stuff I’ve kind of figured out on my own over the last couple months. I have been crunching numbers and trying to get informed estimates of what we could expect to pay for things. I initially tried putting down the top end estimate of everything we definitely wanted included in the wedding (so hair and makeup yes, wedding favours no), so that I would have a kind of “at worst” budget. That just ended up with a panic attack of “holy shit, we’re never going to afford anything”. I think I’m going to transition into the method used in the spreadsheet of having a more accurate budget for each thing, plus a contingency sum at the end.

    The thing I would love to hear other people’s advice on is how to get other people involved in the planning to be a bit more realistic about the budget. How have other APW readers dealt with this? FH and I invited my future MIL to a wedding fair with us last weekend, and that provided a bit of an eyeopener for her (I kind of loved the look of shock she had examining a vendor’s cake price list).

    Unfortunately actual FH is being a bit too relaxed about budget for my liking so far. I feel like at the minute I’m the only one putting the numbers together, trying to get estimates, thinking about what’s realistic. He is instead saying things like “of course we can afford £850 on a photographer” and “no way are we DIYing invitations”. I think he’s mainly trying to calm me down (sometimes during these convos I’m shedding panic tears), but I really just need him to be REALISTIC and it’s not happening.

    • Kate

      I know my husband was amazed when he found out how much everything cost, so just looking at average costs for vendors in our area was really helpful to start.

      If your fiancee is having a hard time attaching those budget lines to actual money, maybe it would be helpful to make a spreadsheet of how much money you have available to actually spend, and what sources the money is coming from. E.g., what we have saved + gifts from family + credit card debt = total budget. And then start subtracting each vendor/item from that overall total so you can start seeing the funds deplete.

      • Jules

        Yeah – we have a total “wedding fund” in our spreadsheet. It looks like this: total budget (all categories) – total funds (family + savings) = _________. If that number was negative we started slashing things or figuring out if we wanted to bump up the contribution.

    • Jules

      Our parents had wedding sticker shock too. When they each offered to make a contribution, I told them my target number and what it would buy, and how that related to industry standard (was it a splurge or a save or in the middle?). There is often a minimum price for something. You just can’t find a photographer for $1000 here, you can’t feed 125 people dinner for less than a certain amount, etc. So we shared the costs and our vision (we’d like a Saturday evening wedding with dinner for 125, a live band, and beer & wine, and a photographer for 8 hours).

      From there, we all figured out if we could make it work or if we would need to change some of the vision. You can shave off a bit of wedding cost here and there, but choosing a DJ over an 8-piece band will result in a lot of savings right off the bat, as could saying, “OK, maybe we should consider a cocktail or brunch reception”. Much better to know, in my opinion, that once all your contracts are signed you probably won’t be under $X,000 rather than thinking you’ll be able to magically find $5K hiding under the rug or in wild wedding savings.

      Realistically this meant having a budget spreadsheet with our target goals and a tiny bit of a slush fund, and then we just had to make sure all those funds were available through a combo of us and my parents.

  • Katie

    When estimating what you think you’ll spend on each line item, PLEASE don’t forget taxes and gratuities. I found it helpful to start with the total number I was willing to spend on something, take out the estimated taxes/gratuities, and THEN list the result on what my target price was. For example, a $1000 dress budget means you have $945 to spend after a 5.5% sales tax. A $5,000 catering budget means you have $3,780 to spend after backing out gratuity of 20% ($1,000) and taxes at 5.5% ($220). Some caterers don’t automatically charge gratuity, so if you get some control over what that amount would be, consider it a happy surprise, but plan for it anyway! It’s one thing to choose to spend a little more to have nicer chairs or a better entree, and a whole other thing to have a budget balloon because of taxes and fees. WAY less gratifying.

    • guest

      and remember dress alterations! And accessories.

      • snf100

        and dress specific undergarments, like when your regular strapless bra strap peaks out of the back of your dress and you have to buy a new one

    • THIS. We knew gratuity was going to be added automatically (it was in our contract and, duh) but didn’t remember to budget for it or just didn’t do the math on what it would actually BE and then we had to find/make room for an additional $1500 like…six weeks before the wedding.

    • Kate

      Yes!! And remember that a “service charge” is not always a gratuity. SURPRISE!

      • Glen

        Definitely true in California — the service charge/gratuity if it’s built into the contract gets taxed.

    • Lauren from NH

      At the start I budgeted for a 25% contingency. I just assumed there was a bunch of shit that was going to be more expensive than we thought or have additional fees or other things we straight up forgot! I adjusted it down as we got more info, but when we had committed about half of our budget it was a little hard to relinquish the contingency fund and realize we had crossed over to a place where there were fewer BIG unknowns.

      • Katie

        I’ve seen people use this method, but I found it less helpful than applying the taxes/gratutities to each line item in advance. This is because when I sat down with a vendor to look at contracts, I would know “OK. I can only afford X amount to stay in budget” as opposed to thinking I could afford it and counting on the slush fund. Especially because the taxes/gratuities go up as your underlying contract goes up. Like, yes, we will add warm chocolate chip cookies and shot glasses of milk to the catering to be served as people leave, BUT, that will add not ONLY the $3 per person item cost, but ALSO the sales tax and gratuity. So actually, your cookies will cost $3.80 PP. ANYWAYS. I think it depends on your feelings about the money. I wanted to really know all the way along how we were doing, and I think the line item by line item approach was best for that. We ALSO had a 25% slush fund, but it was more for the “these chairs are terrible. we should really get the ones that don’t bend in half when you try and sit on them” situations.

        • Caroline

          We did about 22% slush fund and that was the best wedding budget decision we made. That said, it was not for taxes and fees. If we had X dollars for catering, I knew X included the taxes, tips and fees. When I talked to vendors, I knew that and told them a little less than the actual budget was our whole budget including tax.

          The slush fund is for crises:
          -you planned on DIY flowers and cake (really, mom will DIY) and you realize two weeks out she can’t do both and so you hire a florist
          -you forget to budget for a microphone and speaker for the ceremony
          -mostly, finding a reasonable replacement for things we planned to DIY which we coldn’t
          -also for when rentals cost twice as much as you expect, despite doing good research on the issue. I could not just skip tables and chairs, or plates.

          • Katie

            YES. That’s exactly what I meant. YES to a slush fund, NO to having your slush fund be for taxes.

    • Kirstin

      Yes, I don’t know why we didn’t think of it, but I didn’t realize we were going to have to tip the DJ, florist and others until a friend mentioned it a few weeks before.We knew it was built in for caterers but didn’t think about other vendors. That definitely wasn’t in the budget. We made it work, but I would have honestly tipped some of our vendors a bit more based on amazing service than what we were able to do. Is there a post on “Here are all the people you should think of tipping, and what’s a reasonable amount” because that would be super helpful.

      • Greta

        Make sure to “tip” them by writing awesome vendors awesome reviews on the interwebs! I felt bad that we couldn’t do more for tipping, but I spent a lot of time writing down how amazing they each were and posting it online so they could get more business. I also volunteered to be a reference for them for other couples that contact them in the future. A good review/reference can actually generate lots of future income. I also recommend my favorite vendors to all my friends getting married too!

        • Kirstin

          Awesome idea! Thanks for sharing.

    • K.

      And even if gratuity is included, make sure it’s what you would normally tip. For my rehearsal dinner, the gratuity is 18% but I’m very serious about always tipping wait staff 20% (at least) so I had to budget accordingly.

    • Lindsay

      For people wondering who/how much to tip, there are already a couple of good articles on the subject!

      https://apracticalwedding.com/2011/07/tipping-wedding-vendors/

      https://apracticalwedding.com/2013/11/tipping-your-wedding-vendors/

  • Emily

    We had SUCH a hard time with the money discussion and our parents. I know now that if we had been a little more straight-forward with them, a lot of things would have been easier at the end when we needed to turn “we can probably help you pay for some things” into “here is a check”.

    • Abbey

      Yes! This has been a tough issue with my fiancee’s parents, as well. They volunteered that they were going to contribute, but have been very elusive about how, and any gentle efforts to ask for further information (we’ve been engaged for a year now, and our wedding is in 6 months) have been met with a lot of resistance. So, we just didn’t factor any contribution from them into our planning and anything they give will be a pleasant surprise.

      • Emily

        We found late in the game that the tactic that worked best was to say “hey, This Thing (bar, flowers, whatvever) is going to be $XX, we know you mentioned you would really like to help us with some expenses, do you think you could chip in on it?”. My MIL was much easier to work with once she had a tangible item that she was purchasing.

  • Rhie

    This is so incredibly helpful–my fiance and I got engaged two weeks ago and the budget to vendors ratio is giving me hives already. Gearing up to have the parent conversation in the next couple of weeks while FH and I hammer out the guest list.

    • Congrats and good luck with all the conversations and number crunching – you got this!

  • MABie

    Recently, I saw a comment on here that replaced the familiar “select your top three priorities” advice with something that was VASTLY more helpful to us as we we were trying to develop our budget: WHAT MAKES A WEDDING A WEDDING TO YOU?

    When I was trying to work within the “top priorities” framework, I just got confused. I was like, “food and venue, I guess?” It didn’t help us narrow anything down at all. When I asked myself what makes a wedding a wedding, I answered immediately: “Fancy wedding attire, a shit ton of flowers, and a bomb-ass wedding cake.”

    Our attire, floral, and cake budgets increased dramatically…and I am a lot more excited about our wedding than I used to be.

    • emmers

      Sometimes this bleeds over into “what makes a wedding a wedding for whoever is helping pay for your wedding?” I think if we had had that conversation explicitly with the family members who were contributing, it would have helped.

      Our families definitely had different priorities than us, which resulted in some random additional expenses (like them insisting on a baked potato bar, since they wanted to make sure there was more substantial food than just appetizers at our cocktail reception).

      • MABie

        Definitely. My parents are making a small contribution to our wedding: the alcohol (we can supply our own at our venue). When we were planning to pay for the alcohol ourselves, we were just going to do a beer/wine bar, and we were going to serve a single type of drink at the cocktail hour. That idea horrified my mother. She wants a full bar. My parents want to feel like it’s a special event, which means they want to make sure everyone has access to the specific type of alcohol they prefer. Even though it will probably be a little more complicated/difficult for us because we have to pay for more bartenders, we’re just rolling with it. I’m glad they care so much and want to be included. It wasn’t an easy road to get here.

      • Caroline

        Sometimes this bleeds over into “what makes a wedding a wedding for whoever is helping pay for your wedding?”

        It definitely does!!! We budgeted an amount for catering that boggled my mind. It was close to 3.5 our rent at the time we got engaged, and was more per person that I had ever spent per person on a meal myself as an adult. But it turned out that that was absolutely not enough money for appetizers and lunch for our crowd from a good traditional caterer in our area. We were down with a restaurant catering or something but that was not okay for a wedding for my mom, who was helping pay a lot of the costs so we totally redid our budget (sticking to the same amount but moving money around, not touching the slush fund), until our catering budget was 150% of the original and we could afford tasty interesting food (top priority for us) from a caterer (top priority for mom).

    • K.

      That’s an awesome way to put it and helps me feel better about my “priorities” that I previously felt like were too wedding-y…framing it as wedding-y as the POINT absolutely does make it much more exciting. And mine are similar to yours – fancy wedding attire, shit ton of flowers, and flowing champagne. :)

      • MABie

        Yeah! If those things are an important part of the experience of having a full-on wedding (vs. eloping, getting married at the courthouse, etc.) for you, then you should allow yourself to love them, spend money on them, and enjoy them!

        The biggest surprise for me was the cake. I didn’t realize how much I wanted a “real” wedding cake until I did this exercise. Now, I can’t imagine not having one, and I am so excited to start looking at bakeries.

    • Meg Keene

      Totally. Same question, different phrasing. Sometimes I also call it “wedding mission statement.”

    • That’s a great way to think about it!

  • Lauren from NH

    If it helps people for comparison sake (or just because I found it interesting), here are my percentage breakdowns:

    Venue (42-50%) – 33% ~Food truck for the win! and alumni discount for use of college space
    Ceremony (2-3%) – 2% ~licence and flying our friend in from the Bahamas to be our officiant
    Photography (18-20%) – 14% ~skipped the engagement shoot and using an APW vendor with a promo
    Decor (8-18%) – 20% ~Rentals for a garden wedding eep!
    Stationary (3-7%) – 2.5% ~Just postcard invites and Squarespace
    Attire (8-10%) – 14% ~I just gave up on being responsible here – it’s an effing pretty dress :)
    Entertainment (6-10%) – 1% ~iPod DIY + sound system rental
    Planner (5-15%) – 6% ~DOC on APW promo
    Misc/Emergency (2-8%) – 9.5% Tip money + “I forgot about blank!” money

    We have committed to 12K out of 16K so while these number may not be perfect I think they are decent and this is planning from the DC area for an event ~1.5hrs from the city.

    • Kate

      Interesting! My husband and I joke that our “next wedding” will be a food truck wedding. Sounds awesome.

      Here was ours for a pretty tradish 145 person seated dinner wedding on Long Island, NY.
      Total cost ~ $50k
      Venue (including all rentals, dinner, open bar) ~ 51%

      Ceremony (marriage license and a hefty “donation” for our priest and rabbi) ~ 5%
      Photos and video ~ 8%
      Flowers/Other décor ~ 6%
      Invites ~ 2%
      Outfits (me and him) ~ 5%
      Band (so good, so worth it) ~ 15%
      Welcome Event ~ 6%
      Other (where did it gooooo?) ~ 4%

  • I found the APW budget spreadsheet SO helpful. A couple additional things I did with ours:
    – Added a line to every category for “taxes, miscellaneous, and fees.” That gave us wiggle room in each category (and when we used it, I removed it/added it in where it needed to go) instead of just having a big chunk of “miscellaneous” extra money to play with. It just felt easier that way.
    – Added a sheet for everything the bridal party was expected to pay for so we could make sure we weren’t asking them to spend an outrageous amount.
    – Created separate sheets in that spread sheet for things that had a BUNCH of line items, particularly favors, decor, and the food. For example, our favors had stuff coming from a bunch of different vendors and I needed to be able to actually see how much the jars, the twine, the tags, etc. was adding up to our overall favor budget. It was also a good place to easily keep track of different prices/SHIPPING COSTS/URLs when we were pricing out different options.

    • Lauren from NH

      Using the Google drive has been AMAZING! For sharing info, staying organized. I just got super motivated and double checked all my contracts and put them in their own sub folder. It’s strangely super satisfying.

      • Greta

        I loved google drive! You can share each individual doc with whoever needs it – so some things can be shared with your partner, some with your parents, some with your planner – and you can control people’s editing privileges! It is one of the best wedding tools out there!

      • vegankitchendiaries

        Totally! Google Drive housed EVERYTHING related to wedding planning for me. The APW spreadsheets work in Drive really well, plus I could always refer to my “wedding master spreadsheet” while I was away from home, either on my office computer or on my cell phone…

      • Google drive is incredible! I had a tiny bit of pre-engaged sticker shock when I started looking into things so I started making a bunch of spreadsheets with sample budgets and venues and any info I think is important. It’s perfect for keeping everything grouped and keeping all the budgets together in different sheets but the same document. I find spreadsheets VERY satisfying. Apparently my version of a secret Pinterest account is loads of spreadsheets and budgets :|

      • kate

        amen! my Mr is totally not a spreadsheets type of guy, but they give me SO MUCH SANITY i don’t even care. plus it is absolutely weirdly satisfying to organize and review stuff, helps me feel like i’m getting something done. :)

    • Vanessa

      “What is this wedding thing?” cracks me up, like you are an alien trying to plan a wedding on this planet.

  • Also, that lead image is perfection.

    • vegankitchendiaries

      YUP! I actually guffawed!

  • Kirstin

    We used the budget tools which were SO helpful, and we actually did pretty great with our budget. Our challenge was that we budgeted for the big stuff and actually came under budget on most of those things (photographer, flowers, etc.) but then forgot some of the last-minute, little stuff, which adds up quickly. For example, I budgeted to get my makeup done, but didn’t think about that I’d want to buy some of the products for touch ups later. We also budgeted for our wedding hotel, but not for the downtown parking for two cars for the days we were there. The more you can nail that down or having a miscellaneous line item, the better.

    Also consider thinking about that you may have more meals out and other things around the weeks leading up to your wedding, which may also change some of your life expenses for the month you are getting married. We were so busy running around or entertaining guests in town, that we just spent a lot more that month than we would in the average month. Not necessarily a budget item for the wedding, but something to consider.

    • kate

      yes, i’ve seen elsewhere the suggestion to include 5-8% line item for “just in case/misc”, which i think is a GREAT idea and one we’ve currently got included in our budget. we’re the same as you’re describing so far – under budget on almost everything, but i just know there’s certain things we haven’t accounted for yet (parking) and that things will come up last minute and i don’t want to be stressing about all of that stuff adding up to an extra $500 (or whatever) that we weren’t prepared to lay out.

      plus, if we somehow don’t dip into it, bonus feelings of being awesome.

      • Caroline

        We did 22% slush fund, which I’m SO glad. We used all of it, and it kept us under budget. It gave us SO much freedom to throw money at problems in the last weeks. We frequently picked the easy, low-stress, not cheap solution, because we had plenty of room to do so. I’m so glad we did.
        It wasn’t even about the extras on buying flower girl baskets or parking or other little things adding up, for us, although those happened and were a portion of the slush-fund budget. It was about big solutions to problems. Two weeks out, mom decides DIY flowers are too stressful? Great. We’ll hire a florist. NBD. etc.

        • kate

          oh, absolutely. the bigger you can reasonably make your slush fund, the better i think. ours is actually closer to about 20% all told. that said, i think it can feel a lot harder to do that when you’re already on a really small budget because you feel like if you don’t spend every available dollar you *really* won’t be able to get anything.

  • AGCourtney

    Well, I know what conversation we’re having this weekend! This and the guest list. Lord help us.

    • kate

      you can do it! and everything else is a lot more fun after that… :)

      • AGCourtney

        Haha, thanks. :) We’ve done a couple preliminary guest lists, and have definitely discussed the budget before, but now we need to nail down some definite numbers.

        • Lauren from NH

          (This probably not your problem at all, but I need to get it off my chest.)

          Don’t drag out the guest list! My fiance has spent the last 3-4 weeks discussing (procrastinating and arguing) with his family trying to finalize it so we can order our invites. It’s finally done, but good lord that was harder than it ever needed to be!

        • emmers

          Totes agree with Lauren! And this may also not be your problem, but depending on whatever key players you have in the wedding planning process, you may want to consider mentally adding a few extra “just in case” guests to your final number.

          I was shocked at how many guests we ended up inviting after we had our “final” list. Some of them were due to people we didn’t know about (oh, you’re engaged to someone now who I didn’t know you were dating?), and others were due to familial guilting, a few self-inviters, and a few people we forgot about.

          • Lauren from NH

            Yeah a lot of my friends have either been dating someone for a short time or just met someone. We are 5 months out and about to send the invites, but I don’t want to force them to have the awkward “do you think we’ll be together then?” conversations, but if they have someone special in their lives, that person is totally welcome. So we’re basically telling people they can add on not a date persay, but an SO up until the RSVP deadline.

          • Caroline

            We rounded up on plus-ones a lot. We didn’t offer plus ones, but we did assume that basically every cousin-who-is-currently-single-and-an-adult might enter a serious relationship that required a plus one, when calculating our guest list. (For us, this was about 6 extra people). One of them did, and a few extra friends.

            And yes, I think we invited a good 15 extra people after our “final final” guest list. A lot were friends we didn’t think to invite, or friends we became a lot closer to in the year+ of our engagement.

    • We had that conversation last night…and this morning… and via text… none of it too pretty. I think we both needed to see where the other stood before we could start compromising. The priorities thing really helped too. Now that I know he wants a fun wedding, and in his ideal reception, there would be a photobooth, I know to make sure I prioritize that when making a budget. Now that he knows that guest list is one of my priorities, he knows to stop pushing me to cut people (hopefully…).

  • Kate M

    When we were planning, I actually started with a guest list and a budget first. My priority was I wanted to be able to invite everyone I wanted there and refused to do cuts. I have a huge family and a large group of friends and this was really important to me. However, it was also really really helpful in planning everything else too. Because we were inviting over 350 people (we ended up with 250 guests) it drastically cut down venue options, and limited our food choices as well. Fewer choices is actually a good thing in my opinion! We ended up with an event barn an hour from DC (where we lived) and bbq catering (which was awesome and super super cheap) and able to bring in our own alcohol (also a great cost saver). Because it was a beautiful setting, we needed minimal decorations. So there were definite trade offs. We were also married in a church which had some unexpected fees that I had not originally planned for, so that is also something to keep in mind. However, we managed to pull it all off for under 13k with everything totaled. For a sit down dinner, open bar, and dancing for 250 people, I consider it a win.

    • toomanybooks

      I might be a little late here, but what were your venue and caterer?? I live in DC and I’m trying to find affordable options… Would *love* advice!

  • snf100

    A few things: When you budget for stationary (invites, save the dates, thank yous, rsvp cards) stamps need to be included in that budget or have their own line in your budget. Take a completed invite, thank you, and anything else and get it weighed by the post office and buy enough stamps in the correct postage amounts plus a few extras. When budgeting for DIY projects make sure to factor in the cost of special supplies, some projects need better glue than that ancient elmers you found in the back of you closet from the 3rd grade or something and a great cheap DIY project can get expensive fast when you are buying a $30 tube of glue. If something is a not super important thing to you but you recognize you need it go for the cheapest thing or the thing you can re-use later, we needed programs to explain our religious service but I didn’t want to spend a lot, so I designed a simple one of my own and had it printed at staples for $38 (they even folded them all) and then I needed some place to put them I found baskets for cheap and now the baskets are in my house holding stuff that is not wedding related.

    • Greta

      Or for those last minute things, use stuff around your house you already have! I found a small basket in our house for our “card box” and then I took a 5 x 7 picture frame I already owned, printed out a sign that said “place cards here” on leftover stationary from our invites, and then put it in the picture frame. Card box and sign both done, for almost no cost!

  • Caroline

    – Slush fund. We did a 22% slush fund, and it was absolutely the reason we stayed under-budget by about $100. We used every bit of the slush fund and not more, on last minute things like: rentals costing more than expected because we added more things we (for real) needed, mom deciding DIY flowers was too much work for her 2 weeks before the wedding and hiring a florist, etc. Mostly it was DIY projects that were too much work.

    – DIY often does not save you money:
    We did DIY invites. It was not cheaper than buying a beautiful design online from an APW sponsor and paying to have them printed. But I loved them.
    We planned DIY flowers. It was overwhelming, and we spent a good chunk of money buying them instead.
    We planned a DIY cake to save money. Just in ingredients (for the cake and many test cakes) and equipment (like baking pans and more), we paid as much as buying a cake. This was BEFORE we paid a friend of my sister’s to assemble and decorate after we realized it had to happen at the same time as getting ready and we wanted mom and sis getting ready with me, not making cake.
    DIY alcohol DID save us money. Especially the homebrewing, but that only because we already had the equipment, so we just needed the ingredients (beer ingredients are cheap!)
    DIY music (ipod DJing) did save us money.

    – How we made a budget: My parents offered to pay for most of the wedding. My mom asked me to make up a “how much we’d like to spend” budget and they’d get back to us on what they were giving us. I came up with numbers for how much the wedding we were picturing cost, some from actual research (aka emailing people for costs), some from estimates from reading APW for years. My mom encouraged me to increase some of the numbers, saying that we couldn’t get what we wanted (or what she wanted for us in some cases) in the numbers we gave. My parents got back to us with a total sum they wanted to give us. We jiggled the budget amounts to fit what they were giving us and we could spend ourselves. These were tough conversations to have. My parents and I have never really talked about money, ever. It was awkward and difficult, but needed.

  • Kelly

    Budgeting is one adulting thing that I fail at so hard (I don’t mean spending more money than I make, but actually setting a budget and tracking spending and thinking about percentages and line items and opening spreadsheets and actually putting numbers into them…) I am seriously in awe of the people who can do this! Our approach to the wedding budget was, “Does this seem like a reasonable amount of money to pay?” and “How much more effort do we want to put into finding something cheaper?” and “Well, this seems to cost more than we’d like, but there’s no other option, so we’ll just try to spend less on another thing.” Still pretty sure we came in under $10,000 (can’t be bothered to add everything up…it’s over and it was amazing!). But I do feel like we could have been smarter about spending if we had been able to master the whole “actually using a spreadsheet” thing.

    • Amanda

      My husband is a master budgeter (like, every month he tracks things and categorizes them down the penny) and I…seem to fall more into the camp you described for yourself. For our wedding we employed a similiar strategy as the one you explained and I actually think it was for the best. I’m sure we could have been a bit smarter in some ways but we stayed mostly within the range we anticipated for each thing and, I think, it made our wedding planning so much more enjoyable. I think we were lucky in that both of us had a reasonable idea of how much a wedding like the one we wanted would cost and we had the funds to cover it, but when I watch some of my friends planning weddings based solely on the spreadsheet they created at the beginning of things it seems like it can really create a lot of tension. Of course, everyone needs a starting point, I just think there is something to be said for the process you describe above.

      • Kelly

        I definitely think it comes down to knowing what will help you stay sane, and what will just contribute to unnecessary stress. As long as both people feel good about how decisions are being made, then just go with what works!

    • lady brett

      haha, honestly, i was a super budget-and-spreadsheets nerd when we got married…and i totally didn’t keep a wedding budget. i mean, i started one. and then i went back two years after the wedding and filled it out as best i could remember out of curiosity (and we more-or-less hit our budget on the nose). but during the planning, it was completely un-feasible for me, partly because the money was stressing me out badly, and partly because on a fairly small budget things largely fell under a couple of big, mostly non-negotiable line items that could be added up in your head pretty easily.

  • Magic

    i’m pre-engaged and live in the bay area- so attempting a $5k wedding is laughable at best with our family sizes.

  • THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU!! My fiance and I had our first argument about wedding planning, that involved him saying he was just going to “take the damn pictures himself” rather than shell out money. This budget spreadsheet will hopefully help him see that we can pay for a good, strong photographer with a style I love (one of my priorities) while still fitting in the super fun photobooth at the reception (one of his priorities).

    • You’re so welcome – yay for getting some tangible numbers on paper and being able to meet both of your priorities!

  • This is a great article (all the APW budgeting resources are super helpful.) But can we dispel the backyard venue = $0 myth? Backyard weddings will often still require tents, chairs, outdoor lights, tableware rental, or even an indoor backup plan. All of those combined can be on par with, or more, than some venue rentals.

    (Since we have a low budget, we had to deal with a lot of people telling us that “we should just have it in the backyard,” when they haven’t seen the breakdown of how much a backyard wedding can actually cost.)

    • vegankitchendiaries

      We did backyard (well, technically front yard) b/c Mr. VKD bloody insisted. Mostly because our home felt “right” to him, and since it was the only thing he seemed to be passionate about during the planning process, I let him have it. But he also assumed it would be wayyyyyyyyy cheaper…

      The price we paid for rentals was just a bit higher than what we would have paid our 2nd choice wedding venue which was a gorgeous historic event/performance hall in our neighbourhood. The thing is, that other place was USED to having weddings and their price would have included set-up, break-down.

      I’m so, so, so glad we had an “at home” wedding but rhubarb is totally correct in that they are absolutely not cheaper… and probably require a bit more elbow grease/organization too.

    • Super valid point, and beyond true. Creating a venue anywhere that isn’t generally a venue get’s expensive – but most of those things fall under rentals in this spreadsheet case.

    • Aubry

      Also keep in mind how many hours of work are required and try to factor that in to your mental cost. My venue, while “free” friend’s backyard, required hours (and hours and hours) and landscaping and several hundred dollars in supplies over time. Not exactly free in the end, Of course we also had to rent all the tables/chairs but overall it ended up cheaper probably. I won’t look too closely at that in case I’m wrong!

      Also consider your relationship and the reality of the homeowners involved if it isn’t your home. There were some strained/damaged relationships by the end that maybe could have been avoided with some more realistic considerations.

      Of course, I loved my wedding and am glad it was what it was.

  • I just have to chime in and say: figure out what things in your area cost early!!! I would not/did not do this in the order listed above because I knew what things cost before we started planning. Go to a wedding show (as awful as they can be), peruse websites, etc. Don’t create a budget and then create your dreams around it. That’s like going dream shopping for a house on the rich side of town only to find out later that your budget can only accommodate somewhere in the less pricey side first. Be realistic! Dreaming is good but without good data it’s just pie in the sky. If you start with having some idea of what things actually cost you’re more likely to stay within your budget, at least that’s how it was for me.

  • Ashley

    There is so much great information and advice in this article, but I’ll be honest: I don’t think you can avoid the wedding cost shock, unless you have reason to already know how much all this stuff costs. At some point you have to learn that dedicated wedding venues cost $2,000+ just for the space, and that even the “cheap” food options of BBQ or buffets still cost $15-20+ per person, and that a DJ is $1,000, etc etc etc. There’s just no way to not be shocked if you don’t already know about those costs (because you’re in the wedding industry, have helped friends plan, whatever). It’s something that most of us are only exposed to once in life, and it’s pretty flabbergasting, regardless of how you might try to set your expectations.

    THAT SAID: If anyone is there right now, you’ll get through it! I cried early on when I realized how expensive venues were. We ended up at a $500 park and it was the best day ever. You’ll adjust your priorities, find ways to save more money, cut things out, or find cheaper options. And your wedding will still be awesome and worth every penny you choose to spend.

  • Chava

    My husband and I planned on a 40 person, $5000 wedding. We could have made it work – it would have been in a public park near our house ($400 for the entire day, including tables and chairs!), I would have made my dress, we would have used an iPod and speakers for music, we would have gotten flowers from Costco and vases from Dollar Tree, we would have gotten a food truck, blah blah blah – we had it all planned out, and it would have been slightly under our budget. In the end, though, neither of us could stomach spending $5000 on one day. Frankly, I’m just cheap! A couple of weeks later, we said “screw it” and went to our county clerk’s office, then went to our favorite ramen place for lunch.

  • Kate

    I am experiencing budget shock myself. We did a really good job planning and trying to predict the cost of things, and prioritizing the important stuff. We are even getting married far far out of town to reduce costs (we get our venue for two days for under 1K!) but we are still about 2K over our projected budget, which we were on the edge of affording anyway. Now we are having to ask our folks for some extra help which is so uncomfortable for me, or we are facing some re-planning. It’s hard.

    I think that (though it may be almost impossible) everyone should craft a budget that’s a good amount less than what “they can afford” because wow things balloon. Even if you’re very very careful.

  • Megan

    I was super paranoid about going over budget, so I got price quotes for pretty much every major category before deciding on anything concretely. Which has helped tremendously in keeping us within budget – in fact, we’re under budget, so we’ve been able to add things we wouldn’t otherwise have had, like videography. I found that most things were MUCH more expensive than I was anticipating, but some were less expensive, so I was glad I did all the research before making any decisions. I looked at it like one big puzzle – I needed to know what each of the pieces were going to be before putting it all together. Because we spent a little less on the venue, we were able to spend a little more on photography, etc. etc. I think if we had planned it “step-by-step” we would have definitely gone over budget because you just can’t know what its going to cost until you actually start talking to vendors.

    • jspe

      We’ve planned step by step, and have gone over budget because of exactly that. Partially it all felt like a puzzle, as you describe, and I didn’t want to solve 5 puzzles when I only needed one. In retrospect though, I wish we would have done that, or talked to more friends about budget numbers. Instead, I just knew the budget numbers for two friends very DIY (not artistically) weddings, and so I felt like “if I worked hard enough, I could do that to. Instead, we’re here today spending almost twice what we have imagined. We’ve had access to enough cash that the budget could double, but I feel all kinds of shame (I’m getting over it) that I couldn’t pull off a cheaper wedding.

  • JK

    spreadsheet appears to be on “view only” … currently does not allow you to input anything.

  • Amanda

    I knew from the get-go the kind of wedding my finance and I wanted, so I started by looking up venues that I could actually see myself getting married in. I didn’t concern myself with budgets at all, and just totaled up what each place costs, including taxes and fees into a spreadsheet. I was able to see that the all inclusive expensive sticker price places I might have shied away from were a way better deal than the places that seemed inexpensive, but nickle-and-dime every detail that makes a great party. A lot of “affordable” places had so many hidden costs, that I’m glad I didn’t put a budget on my initial search. Overcome with noise about how expensive NY weddings are, I decided to price out a backyard wedding on my finance’s grandparent’s vineyard in NH (people kill for this kind of place & it was available to me for free!). HAHAHAHA! Before paying for a bit of food or service, all of the necessary rentals, tents, generators, plates, chairs, coffee spoons, extra bathrooms, cost more than an all inclusive wedding at my favorite Brooklyn locations. So Brooklyn it is…

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