The Best (And Worst) Ways To Spend Your Wedding Budget

You'll be surprised by what didn't make the list

As someone who firmly believes in learning from your mistakes and doing better next time, I am, six years later, still frustrated that planning a wedding, theoretically, has no “next time.” This of course, is a frustration that the wedding industry loves to threaten us with: “It’s the only chance to wear the gowns of your dreams!” “If you don’t have a three-tiered cake, you’ll regret it forever!” All of that is ridiculous of course (although it’s admittedly sometimes very loud ridiculousness), because, to paraphrase my favorite Mansfield Park quote, “There are as many forms of weddings as there are moments in time.”

What I have learned from the APW book, which, sadly, wasn’t around when I was getting married, is that wedding planning is all just a matter of priorities: One person’s time and money well-spent is another’s wasted. All this is probably why I love hearing from you guys, both in our Real Wedding stories and in the comments, what things ended up being most worth the time and money, versus the things that, well, weren’t.

I’m both glad we can give people a space to share their hard-earned wedding wisdom, and delighted by how that wisdom often ends up being downright contradictory. I have plenty of my own opinions—the big stuff was worth it: off-the-beaten-path venue, good food, and a big house for all my friends to crash at—and stressing about the small stuff wasn’t: I spent two hours going to Target looking for binder clips to hang photos from twine the night before the wedding while everyone else had Chinese food and partied. But today we’re sharing a few of yours.

In the following—disclaimer!—very unscientific roundup of IRL budget tips from APW readers, there were a bunch of #trending opinions. Falling squarely in the worth-it category were all-inclusive venues, day-of coordination, DIY florals, good caterers, and shuttle buses, whereas trying to DIY things purely to save money almost always backfired. Sticking to a budget was also highly recommended: folks who splurged too much and folks who tried to cut corners (usually by ordering too-good-to-be-true things from the Internet) both wished they had done things differently. A lot of people didn’t hire videographers—but wished they had. (I can relate to this one: while we had zero budget for a videographer, I wish I had tasked someone with filming with their phone just to have some record of the ceremony, which was a total emotional blur.) Almost everyone agreed that tiny details weren’t worth major stress, and when it comes to the guest list, err on the side of inviting more people rather than fewer.


Whether you hire professional help, or put your friends to work as day-of coordinator, having someone in charge who’s not you was highly recommended:

It really depends on how many moving parts you have, what you need done, and how many people you have to do it. We sprung for a DOC about two weeks before the wedding, and it’s some of the best money we spent. He was the one who set up the church decorations, met with the florist deliveries at the church, picked up the cake and transported it and the decorations to the restaurant between the ceremony and reception, set up our minimal reception decor, ended up MCing our toasts, and drove us back to the hotel after the reception after we realized we were never going to get a taxi on the street.

Reasonably, yes, a lot of those tasks could have been accomplished by friends and family, but most of our people were from out of town without cars, in the bridal party, already performing other duties, etc. If we had asked, I am sure our families and friends would have been willing to provide the extra support, but we wanted to give them the chance to enjoy the wedding without worrying about doing anything more than they already were for us.

We got a discount on our DOC because he’s a former employer of one of my co-workers, and honestly I’d say that $600 was one of our best investments to not have to worry about anything on the day of.

I did not have a day-of coordinator, because we had a three-day weekend wedding on a mountain, and it didn’t make sense to have someone schlep there for such a long time. Instead we had friends help out for different duties at different points in the days. I had an elaborate spreadsheet to make sure no one spent an inordinate time helping, and individualized schedules for the helpers. It definitely involved a ton of work preparing, but everything went very smoothly.

For each set of tasks, I had a Czar/mini-DOC so I could still enjoy my day. Responses from the helpers were mixed, from most people LOVING being involved and felt like it brought them closer to the other guests, to some others feeling like it was an imposition (which could easily have been prevented if we had known they didn’t want to do it. Making it clear that they could opt out would be something I would have done better).

I think if finances aren’t an issue, hire a DOC. If you’re struggling with your budget, think of people among your friend and acquaintance group who are amazing project managers (especially if they’ve gotten married recently!) and outsource that ish. And if it’s not anywhere within financially possible, I can tell you that as long as you designate a clear go-to person for the wedding that is NOT you or your partner, if you plan and communicate things clearly enough, your wedding will still be fun and wonderful.

A weather backup plan = sanity = worth it:

Yeah I think of this as spending money on your sanity. I immediately nixed any venue that did not have backup accommodations for rain. It was seventy degrees and sunny on our wedding day, and I’m still glad we were prepared. I did not need to lose sleep over the weather for months.

The most stressful part of my wedding day was that there was an 80 percent chance of thunderstorms all day, and we didn’t have a foolproof backup plan. I tried to be zen about it but it was absolutely on the back of my mind. It ended up working out, but I still feel guilty for the mental energy I gave to that on such an important day of my life. It might just be worth it!!

Most money spent: Catering and associated rentals (linens, silverware, plates, glasses, etc.), just under $3,600; Venue for ceremony and reception, just under $2,000
Least money spent: Photography by a friend, $0
Totally worth it: DIYing all paper goods with my mom (and yes they were very much cheaper than ordering them); DIYing our bar, which emphasized craft beer: hiring a florist (just under $800 instead of doing it myself which would have been the same if not more): hiring a DJ (around $600) who played wedding classics instead of listening to our unconventional list.
Totally not worth it: Having a wedding party. The most drama and stress was getting everyone on the same page. If I had to do it again, I would definitely just ask for help doing what I needed doing instead of wrangling so many people’s expectations.

Not having a wedding party was one of the best decisions we made (for us). I was occasionally bummed about not having built-in helpers, but it really simplified things for us. Also made it easier to forego the pre-wedding parties we had no interest in.

WORTH IT: Photog, and GIFT BAGS!

NOT: Details.

Save in one place to splurge in another (and engagement photos can totally be worth it):

I’ve been married for two years and have had some time to reflect on this. Our wedding was about $15,000 with one hundred guests, and I used all kinds of tips, tricks and hard negotiations to get it down to that, including Sunday discounts.

One-third of the budget went to photo and video, which was hugely important to us. One-third was for catering, open bar, and reception hall rental (on a Sunday). The rest was ceremony location, parking, attire, DJ, yada yada yada.

We spent $500 or $600 on fresh donuts made on site, and it was 100% the best decision. The video was the biggest splurge, at just under $3,000, but it was incredible and I can’t imagine my life without it. The photos were great—we went all out with the album and it also was one of the best decisions.

The biggest save was my dress, $200, purchased from a pre-owned wedding dress site (but was unworn). We also saved big time on centerpieces by using in-season fruit instead of flowers. We also skipped Save the dates and no one noticed or cared. I wish I wouldn’t have purchased an aisle runner because it was super slippery, even though we had taped it down.

Oh! And holy shit, I’m so glad we had an engagement photo shoot. It made me so much more comfortable on the day of, plus I actually love those photos of us, maybe even more than our wedding photos.

Not so glamorous, but super worth it: shuttles and party buses.

Worth splurging on: Shuttle transportation between the hotel and wedding ceremony/reception. Since our wedding was about an hour outside of Boston, the majority of our guests stayed at the hotel we blocked out for the wedding. We hired two school buses to shuttle the guests there and back. It was more than we had budgeted for, but we didn’t want our guests to worry about drinking and driving, getting lost, etc. I was actually surprised at how many people commented on the convenience of the buses afterward.

Another thing that was surprisingly expensive was the party bus for the wedding party. It was about $700 (with a tip for the driver) for four hours. Yikes. At the same time though, there was no way I was going to be worrying about driving and parking and shuttling my whole bridal party around on my wedding day. We went to a couple different places for pictures in between the ceremony and reception, and it would have been hell to coordinate the driving and parking for the whole bridal party. The bus was expensive but worth it because it made our experience of the day much less stressful and so much more fun. So the point is it sucked to spend that much money, but I wouldn’t have changed it.

Guess what? Monogrammed cake boxes are not worth it. (Even the frugalist of us can get suckered in!)

What did you spend the most money on for your wedding? We had a $10,000 total budget, and the largest single expense was the $3,500 on photography. Aside from that, the venue rental (church for ceremony and hall for reception, about $900) and the catering ($900 from our favorite date night place) were the largest costs. This doesn’t include our rings, which were about $1,200 each.
What did you spend the least on? My attire. I got a dress on Craigslist for $40 and my mom altered it. I wore underwear I already had and bought gold flats at Payless. We also used my iPod for music since we didn’t want a dance floor or a big to-do, so it boiled down to a few song purchases I didn’t already own. We did Vistaprint for our Mark Your Calendars and half came with flaws, so we got all our money back on those, aside from postage. I designed our invitations using (un-copyrighted) images from online and Microsoft Word, got them printed and cut at FedEx, and added a little color with sharpies.
What was totally worth it? Gift bags. I put together state-themed gift bags for our guests, most of whom came from out of town. The photography, too. I knew long ago images were worth paying for to me, and the best part of that was actually that the moment I met Raven in person she felt like a friend I’d had for ages. We still talk regularly. Finding a venue that allowed us to use my family pastor and choose our own caterer were worth it for us, and buying cheese wheels instead of cake were personal choices I will trumpet forever.
What was totally not worth it? Some of the details. I bought silk hops boutonnières for the men, I got handkerchiefs for the women, a new tie for my dad, a fancy garter I forgot to put on, and some gussied up Christmas lights to hang at the venue. Although I’m glad we had them, I don’t think the experience would have been worse without them. What really wasn’t worth it, emotionally, was stressing about representing “us” in every decision. It’s super true that the best is the enemy of the good, and I bless Meg for speaking truth into the fact that your wedding can’t be and isn’t timeless. Bless you ladies too for guiding me toward wedding zen. Doing it from a distance could have been harder, but I let it be easier to let go of things.

NOT WORTH IT: Monogrammed cake boxes.

What did you spend the most money on for your wedding? The food cost the most, but it was only about $2,500, so that was still not that much
What did you spend the least on? It’s hard to say. There were certain things I just didn’t bother with (like a runner for the church or decorating the church at all).
What was totally worth it? The photographer: she wasn’t terribly expensive because she was new, but having those professional photographs meant so much. Also having my makeup professionally done by my hair stylist.
What was totally not worth it? My dad insisted I needed monogrammed cake boxes for the caterer to put the leftover wedding cake in. I mean they were about $150 dollars? They looked great. I gave them to the caterer, showed them to them. THEY NEVER PUT THE CAKE IN THEM, and I ended up going home with a giant leftover cake and a bunch of empty monogrammed boxes which I still have. I can’t help but feeling this is a very common thing to happen. So. Don’t do that.

Photography: to go pro or not to go pro, that is the question…

Not hiring a professional photographer was the greatest money saver, AND totally worth it. We did a lot of non-traditional things, which most people seemed okay with… until I told them we weren’t having professional photography. People lost it there. I was warned over and over that we’d regret it, but it wasn’t something that was super important to us. If it had been in the budget, or had been highly important to us, we probably would have hired someone and gotten totally gorgeous photos. Instead, we got a big group of family and friends (who had varying skill and all had moderately good cameras) together and divvied up the day.

Did we get gorgeous, artistic prints? Some, but mostly just good ol’ fashioned pictures of the day. But what we did get was an uncle stealthily rounding up old college friends during cocktail hour, two of my best friends from totally different parts of my life getting to know each other as they planned shooting our ceremony, my new mother-in-law gritting her teeth and telling my new father-in-law to “get on with it, we’re going to miss all the whiskey” during his meticulous shoot of our families, and my mom’s hilarious partner jumping up on (kind of rickety) chairs to get photos of us during the hora.

At first we thought it would be too much to ask of people, but in the end we found that “your wedding is not an imposition” to be true a million times over and people were so honored to help us with such an important task. Recently I started a new job with one of those friends that photographed our ceremony, and I brought a bunch of pictures to put on my desk. As I set them all up she ventured into my office and picked up the photo of me and my husband right before the ceremony, and with a huge grin she exclaimed, “I took this photo!” I would most definitely do it again.

We also did not have a professional photographer. A friend with no events experience but who knew photography volunteered to do it for the cost of a plane ticket (less than $500). We went for it, and I’m overall glad we did! Here’s a breakdown of my thoughts on the whole thing:

• The cost, obviously! We saved anywhere from $1,500 to $2,500, based on what we had been looking at.
• She was a friend, so we were extra comfortable around her.
• She was there for the whole weekend and got shots of the rehearsal dinner, drinking with friends the night before, etc.
• It was just a really cool thing to share with someone we love. She photographed our wedding, and we’ll always have that connection.

• She was (understandably) a little nervous/unsure, and there was a lot of back and forth on things like whether we should rent a certain lens so that she could take pictures from the balcony of the church during the ceremony. (We did, and I’m really glad that we have shots during the ceremony.)
• Because we de-emphasized photography in general and didn’t have a professional working for us, we don’t have a single picture of—for example—me and my parents.
• Some of the low-light pictures aren’t great. They’re kind of grainy and orange. Since she basically did it for free, I felt weird asking her if she could fix them.
• I felt a little guilty, since she was a friend, that she had to work during our whole wedding. She volunteered to do it, but I’m not sure she knew exactly how much work it would be.

Don’t sweat the details:

I LOVE those sections about what couples thought was and wasn’t worth it. That’s where APW totally saved me during wedding planning. Unlike a lot of people, I thought getting a photographer was totally worth it. Also worth it was having caterers. It felt like such an over-the-top expense at the time, but everything was served, cleaned, and coordinated (and it did help that there was a lovely waiter who seemed to ask me if I wanted another drink every thirty minutes while I was busy “working the crowd!”).

Having no centerpieces made no difference at all; I’m so glad we saved money there! Instead we had bowls of marshmallows that people could roast in the fire. I kind of regret spending so much on food. It was amazing, but no one remembers the food. Having online RSVPs also saved us heaps. Thank goodness for glosite :-)

I think the other bit that people don’t talk so much about is time saving. I am not a DIY person, and in the end, not a single person noticed that there were very few ‘details.’ People barely remember the ones that were there. I just wish I hadn’t spent so much time stressing about things like marshmallow bowls, blankets, and shoes. None of that stuff actually mattered in the end.

We spent the most money (half of our budget) on venue. We chose a restaurant, so that amount of money covered cocktail hour, dinner, wine at dinner, dessert and coffee (although we also had a wedding cake given as a gift), decor, day-of coordinating, and it meant we had no rentals or clean up or other logistics to take care of. It was… awesome. Highly recommend a restaurant wedding if planning a million things isn’t your forte, and if you’re kind of a minimalist who doesn’t mind a lack of decoration. (The restaurant itself is beautiful, so that was enough. If we had wanted to decorate, that was allowed.)

We spent nothing on decorations. We spent next to nothing on table numbers, escort cards, and invitations (made those very simply, by hand). We spent about $25 on music because we did the iPod deejay dance party thing (my cousin loaning us his professional speakers was amazing!). The $25 was for songs we didn’t already own but thought would make good dance party additions.

Worth it was answering any questions I didn’t feel like answering with, “We haven’t decided yet.” Also totally worth it was my bouquet. Because we didn’t really have a lot of “details,” it really counted for a lot, in my book. It turned out just how I wanted it to, and my partner loved it too when he saw it, which kind of surprised me. He still mentions it every now and then (two years later).

What was totally not worth it was stressing: about hiring a new-ish photographer, about not having a deejay, about not having favors, and about not having a “real” back-up plan for taking photos if it rained. Everything turned out fiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiine.

Save the dates are hotly contested, but easier is better…

Not worth it: save the dates. We did them through Vistaprint. I wasn’t sure, but he insisted and I caved because we only had a five-month engagement and lots of out of town relatives. I wish we had just sent Paperless Post save the dates or something instead. It caused me a lot of headache: our save the dates have to match the THEME!! I haven’t picked the invitations yet, how can I pick a save the dates?? How are we going to get them to France in a timely manner? Doesn’t everyone important already know? Then I spent a stupid amount of time addressing, stamping, assembling, and mailing them.

Ultimately it didn’t truly make a difference in who showed up. The overseas relatives got emailed anyway, and the ones who were stateside had the expected turnout—though it did let us test out the addresses of our VIPs. Some of them gave us an address with no apartment number or an old address. But it sure as hell wasn’t worth the $75 to $100 and, more importantly, the time and stress.

We did a stop-motion video save the date. Cost free, it took about a day to do, and I still love it and would do it again. Bonus, we emailed it to our guests, so I now have updated email address as well as physical addresses for everyone on my guest list. Save the dates are nice to have for out of town guests who aren’t sure they are invited to the wedding and gives more time for them to plan.

I loved our save the dates! We used Vistaprint, so they cost barely any monies—like, $20 for one hundred? I just used a picture of a local beach, and included the limited basics (“Save the date for the wedding of [our names, a date, a city]”). I thought sending a scenic shot of Vancouver might entice some out of towners, I think. Forever on the fridge and so worth $20 plus postage.

We used Vistaprint and used a photo of us from our engagement shoot standing in the old port of Montreal with the Jacques-Cartier bridge in the background. $100 for the engagement shoot and $40 for the save the dates (we sprung for the jumbo sized ones)!

Oh, right, your honeymoon, yassss:

Most money: Catering, by far. But it was an in-house caterer at a venue that was perfect in other ways, and it included everything, rentals and all, so it certainly saved a lot of hassle. And of course the underlying thing was we had a big wedding, which limited our venue choices, which caused us to have the in-house caterer, and then to pay for a lot of people.

Least money: …I mean, I’m guessing the least was some WIC stuff we didn’t even think about doing. A cake server or whatever? I bought a guest book, and then when it never got used, I returned it. Our decor was limited to flowers and my mother-in-law dealt with those, so I’m not sure how much she spent, but it was just fairly modest arrangements on the tables plus two bigger arrangements framing the ceremony space. (One of the nice things about an outdoor space is it kind of is its own decor.) Our photographers, both of whom were friendors and both of whom were amazing. My dress, which was like 60 percent off.

What was worth it: Our honeymoon, which was mostly paid for by our parents getting our tickets on miles and then by honeymoon registry. Our DJ, who I worried a lot about but was great. The post–rehearsal dinner karaoke party the night before the wedding, which would have been worth it even if we’d paid for it, which we did not.

What was not worth it: My mother-in-law did favors, which we would not have chosen, but I can’t say it wasn’t worth it since we didn’t actually have a single thing to do with them. Obviously having bought a guest book to begin with. But mostly, I feel like we did a really good job just not doing things that weren’t going to be worth it. I was going to make bouquets with my bridesmaids the day before the wedding. Instead, I scrapped the idea the night before and had a boozy lunch with them. And so on.

From personal experience: I will agree that renting is better than buying (after one unsuccessful garage sale, I donated it all to charity) and tulle is so cheap. (I wasn’t planning on a veil, but bought some tulle from Joann’s, and as I was getting dressed, my friends spontaneously fashioned a cathedral length veil with it. It looked amazing and didn’t matter when it came off and got stuffed in a corner after the ceremony.)

I really wish I hadn’t had the brilliant idea to save money on rentals by buying my own linens. Yeah it’s cheaper to buy, and you can always sell them… but then you actually have to sell them to make it worth it. I still have tablecloths and napkins in reusable bags in my guest room closet waiting for me to do something with them. In retrospect, it would have been worth the extra $$ to have rented them and then be done with it immediately after the wedding.

Also, making my dress mostly out of tulle, which will come to around $60. Folks, tulle is cheap! Like $2 per yard in stores, or $25 for an entire bolt online. If you’re into the tulle look, and can sew a straight line (or know someone who can sew a straight line), you can make a simple tulle skirt for around $30 that works as a bridal separate.

How about you guys? WHAT WAS TIME and MONEY WELL SPENT—or not spent—on YOUR WEDDING? Do you agree with the above or did you have the exact opposite experience? a little healthy wedding planning debate is a good thing, because it just goes to show, there’s no wrong way to get married.

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