Recently Engaged? Let’s Get Started Planning!

Everything you need to kick this thing off right

If you were to draw a venn diagram of wedding planning that cataloged the parts of planning you thought were going to be fun versus the parts that are actually fun, I think you’d basically end up with an empty venn diagram, save for some cake and dancing somewhere in the overlap.

Venn diagram of wedding planning expectations vs reality

That’s because once you sit down to actually start planning your wedding, all those dreamy Pinterest possibilities become a powder keg of decisions. Where are you even supposed to start? Guest list? Budget? Decor? And how are you going to afford everything? Also, why are you suddenly crying right now?

Luckily for you, we’ve spent the last decade answering all of these wedding planning questions (hint: never start your planning journey with decor) and we’ve partnered with Zola, the free (!) wedding-planning app and registry company to walk through everything you need to know—from gathering wedding planning tools, to talking to your family, to picking your decor style. Want to have a $1,000 wedding for fifty people? It is possible. Want to spend $300,000 on five hundred of your nearest and dearest? Go for it. (Just make sure you can afford it.) You name the problem, and between Zola and APW, we’ve probably got a solution. Hopefully a low-stress, judgment-free solution. So let’s get down to brass tacks and talk about where to start… and how you’re going to slay this thing. (Pro-tip: Bookmark this page, so you can come back to it as you go.)

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Oh and before you do anything, don’t forget to toast your engagement several times before you make a single decision. (And then, look at these tips and tricks our readers have come up with for making planning a little chiller.)

the a practical wedding planning guide on a white desk surrounded by champagne, makeup an iphone and confetti

Organize Your wedding planning tools

This wedding (sadly) isn’t going to plan itself. And that means that if you don’t want to lose your mind, you’re going to need some tools to help organize this thing, as well as some places to get sage advice. Let’s talk about where you should start.

the APW books that will help: You’re going to spend a lot of planning Googling. And while we can’t tell you which caterer is the best in your particular city, the APW books can save you from having to Google where to even begin. The first will walk you through what you need to know to save time, money, and sanity, and the #APWPlanner can basically plan your wedding for you. (And if you think you might not make it through two whole books, then please at least read the most important bits.)

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screenshot of the zola app wedding checklist on an iphone

checklists galore: Before you even get started with actual wedding planning, you’ll want a place to keep track of everything. If you haven’t already signed up for the Zola App, it includes a free, customizable checklist that you can access and update anytime and anywhere. Add the tasks you want, delete ones you don’t need, then Zola will help remind you to get it done. (They can even personalize your checklist to your religion or culture and then autofill your to-do list accordingly.)

And if you also want a hard copy checklist you can print out an hang on your fridge, we’ve got you covered with our free, downloadable checklist PDF. This is not your average three-hundred-line-item wedding checklist where useful things are peppered in with nonsense like, “Shine crystal chandeliers at least one week before the wedding.” Our goal is to make your wedding a stress-free experience that will keep you motivated and focused on crossing off your wedding goals, one by one. You can start by figuring out your wedding priorities (yup, there is a worksheet for that too in the #APWPlanner), and then you can cross off all those things you don’t care about, because yes, that’s totally allowed. Encouraged, even.

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Spreadsheets: You won’t need them quite yet, but get these spreadsheets saved somewhere. We’ve got you covered on everything from your wedding guest list template to your vendor contact list to your day-of wedding timeline. You’ll thank yourself later.

screen shot of the zola app featuring their wedding planning advisor

An app to keep you organized: Speaking of thanking yourself later. We’re excited to partner with Zola because they have one of the only actually useful planning apps out there. (Not to mention it’s gender neutral, in that it doesn’t assume you’re a bride. Can we get a 🎉 for the new businesses in the wedding industry finally putting the old guard on notice?) Zola lets you choose whether you want a little or a lot of guidance from the app, and then tailors your to-do list accordingly. Plus you can integrate your checklist, guest list, and registry all in one place. So sign up now, and then they’ll ping you when it’s time to actually get sh*t done.

set a budget: Setting your budget can feel like you’re just making up numbers… but it doesn’t have to be that way when actual couples break down what they really spent on their 2018 weddings. Armed with that info, you can decide how much you can spend on your guests. Then, you need to discuss how much you want to spend on your guests. We also have sample budgets for $2,000 to $30,000 weddings, with advice on figuring out your own wedding budget. Plus, we have a guide on how to stick with your wedding budget when Pinterest is right there taunting you, and which wedding details are actually worth it.

a plus size bride wearing a short wedding dress holding hands with a black groom in front of a pink wall

do your homework

Once you’ve gathered some basic tools, it’s time for you and your partner to sit down and discuss what kind of wedding you want to have. (Psst: The #APWPlanner provides a handy priorities worksheet for you and your partner to follow.)

talk to your families AND FRIENDS: Okay, you know how you want the wedding to look, feel, and move. Now it’s time to sit down and have a chat with your families. Are you asking for financial contributions? (Staff and readers discuss the pros, cons, and alternatives here.) Have you thought about what kind of input you want them to have? Are there traditions you want to include—or traditions you want to eschew? Are you going to have a bridal party? Here’s everything you need to know about picking your squad, with some extra tips here on MOH duties (that’s maid of honor, FYI, because the wedding world is nothing if not fond of acronyms).

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screen shot of the zola wedding planning app guest list tool

MAKE YOUR GUEST LIST: You’ll notice that we’ve put the guest list before venue search. That’s because your first step in planning the logistics of your wedding (after budget) should be figuring out who you want there. Then make the rest of your plans around that. (Doing it the other way around is how you accidentally realize you don’t have enough space in your venue for your grandma. Whoops.) We’ve got tons of guidance on putting that list together. If you’ve signed up with Zola above, you can gather addresses multiple ways (including by uploading our own guest list spreadsheet directly) and manage your list from your desktop or straight from your phone. Zola’s guest list manager even allows you to track RSVPs in real-time and communicate directly with your guests (which will come in handy later when it’s time to send out thank you cards).

begin the venue search: Now? Now you’re really getting started, friends. We’ve got a comprehensive guide to choosing a venue right here. But here’s a tip to get you started: when you’re doing your initial search, try Googling phrases like “Northern California beach wedding” or “Brooklyn diner wedding” and see what comes up. Many venue and photographer websites are optimized to come up in searches like this, so use that to your advantage.

Pick Your Wedding Date: Sure, you’re going to need to find a venue and figure out what dates they have free. But here is our guide on the other things you should think through before you put a date on it. And once you have a date, you might want to send out a save the date, so here are some of our favorite ideas for those.

THINK ABOUT VENDORS: First things first: we have a guide full of folks who are committed to honoring your diverse and awesome commitment. They are awesome people and awesome vendors, and you should start your search right there. Then, here’s how you hire a wedding photographer, for one. (Psst: If photography is a top priority, this is a vendor you probably want to lock down ASAP.) We also have advice on hiring a florist, hiring a caterer, and hiring a videographer. Speaking of vendors, make sure you get contracts for everyone you work with (yes, even the ones you’re friends with). We’ve got the useful advice on that right here, plus what to do about tipping your vendors.

bride wearing a wedding dress with a cape and cascading bouquet with bridesmaids in mismatched hot pink and red dresses

Finally, Some really fun stuff!

Next, it’s time to set up the framework of your wedding. What will it look like? Feel like? How will your guests experience it? How will you? Since you have your date and maybe a vendor or two, you’re ready to methodically (or not) hash out the next phase of planning.

get real wedding inspiration: One of the best things to do whilst wedding planning is to find some real-world inspiration. Thinking of catering your own wedding? That’s super cool, and we actually have featured a lot of couples who did just that. Considering an elopement? They’re lovely. Is your community helping make your wedding happen? I bet it’ll be gorgeous. If you just want to get lost for a few hours (or days), every single wedding we’ve ever featured can be found right here.

Figure Out Your Wedding Style: Wedding planning can be a lot easier if you’ve figured out what your general style and vibe is. You can start by picking a color palette (here are some of our winter wedding favorites, with zero red-and-green in sight), or a wedding theme,  or just go get married on the beach.

Find a Killer dress (or suit): If shopping for a wedding dress makes you feel queasy, we’ve got your back. Our wedding dress shopping guide has all the details you need on fabric, sizing, and prices. Plus, we’ve got tips for plus size wedding dress shopping, queer wedding style, and even fair trade wedding dresses. We’ve also rounded up our favorite winter wedding dresses, beach wedding dresses, black wedding dresses, and short wedding dresses. We even tested out a way for those of us with lots of boob to go braless. And in 2018 we launched our very own plus size wedding dress line with Lace & Liberty.

layflat zola registry photo featuring a le creuset dutch oven, a pink kitchenaid, and pink, turquoise and blue china

Registering: Why did we put registering under the fun stuff? Because it should be fun, and we just wanted to remind you of that. So ignore all the must-have lists, and register for stuff you actually like and want. And that means giving yourself options. With newer registries like Zola, you can register for experiences and subscriptions (hello cheese of the month box, we see you there) in addition to the standard home goods. Zola has over fifty thousand gifts, including experiences honeymoon and cash funds, wedding albums—they even have partnerships with my your favorite registry brands like ABC Carpet and Home and Crate and Barrel. So whether you’re looking for old standbys or one-of-a-kind goodies, you actually have all the flexibility to personalize your registry and make sure it reflects you and your partner.

INVITING GUESTS: Are you getting ready to tell everyone about your fabulous upcoming shindig? COOL. Zola just launched their own line of invites that coordinate perfectly with their free wedding tools. Or if you want to DIY your wedding invites, we cover that in detail too. Let’s also talk about wedding invitation wording and suggestions for ways to make the invite wording more feminist. (Pro-tip: You can track RSVPs in real time if you’ve got your guests loaded up in the Zola Weddings app. And, oh yeah, here’s how you get guests to RSVP in the first place.)

wedding party guests counting money on a reception table

Digging into the A to Z of Wedding Planning

ALCOHOL: If you’re hooking up your own wedding booze, you’re going to need to do a little pre-planning. You’ll want to read up on how to buy it and how to calculate how much alcohol your wedding will need in the first place. (And yes, if you can provide your own booze, it really will save you a lot of money.)

CEREMONY: We’re not big on must-haves around here, but you’re definitely gonna have a ceremony, even if it’s all of two minutes. So here’s how to get from one end of the aisle to the other, and sample ceremony scripts of what to do when you get there.

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DECOR: When it comes to figuring out how to decorate without breaking the bank, you can check out our guide on cheap-but-totally-hip decoration ideas, along with the secret tools we use to create cool wedding designs. We’ve even rounded up everything from our secret shopping sources, to our favorite alternative guest books and cake toppers. So hit our DIY section, and get your styling on… or just find a killer backdrop and call it a day.

DIY: The number one rule of DIY is that you should only invest your time (aka blood, sweat, and tears) into the things you really care about. Spend money (or just ditch) the stuff that matters less. Because your time is precious, you hear me? Anyway, planning on DIYing your wedding flowers (or a floral crown)? Mulling over the idea of DJing your own wedding? You can do to those things, and you can do them well. In fact, I did those things for my own wedding (plus hair and makeup).

FLOWERS: Still optional but chances are flowers or greenery are going to make an appearance, so our resident floral designer tells you everything you need to know right here, and talks bouquets specifically here.

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music: You know what Google is often not awesome for? Helping you pick out wedding songs. (Unless you had your heart set on “Lonestar,” in which case, do you.) Luckily, we’ve done all the heavy lifting for you. Our playlists have a little country, a lot of soul, and basically everything in between (and we’ve covered everything from first dance songs to mother-son dance songs to non-cheesy father-daughter dance songs, and blowout jams to end the night by). But you might want to start with our master list, that covers pretty much… everything.

RENTALS 101: If your reception venue isn’t inclusive, you’re probably going to need rentals. The good news is that they’re often more affordable than you’d think (and cleanup is way easier too). Here’s what you need to know about event rentals.

SETUP AND TIMELINE: At some point, you will need to figure out how and when you’re (and everyone/anything else) is getting from point A to point B of your wedding day (and your vendors might ask for it too). So here’s everything you need to know about setup (and breakdown!) and how to figure out your wedding timeline. Plus a pro coordinator gives her insider info on how wedding days really go down.

two brides standing on a dock with their hands in the air

IT’S TIME FOR SOME PARTIES

Want An Engagement Party?: Engagement parties are just flat-out fun, but they can be particularly nice if you know you’re in for a reasonably long engagement. Here are some ideas for putting together an engagement party that isn’t a second wedding (unless, you know, that’s your jam, in which case #GoBigOrGoReallyBig).

Bridal shower ideas: Here are some legitimately cool inspo ideas plus everything you need to actually know to plan a bridal shower… so you can pass that right on to someone who’s not you. Plus, here are bridal shower games that are actually fun. Once you’ve dropped some hints on how you want your shower to go down, you might as well also dp so for what you want to get out it, so here is a some fun bridal shower gift list with nary a toaster in sight.

BACHELORETTE PARTIES: Or, how to plan one without losing your mind.

wedding rehearsals: Before we get to the rehearsal dinner, let’s talk about what really should precede it… the wedding rehearsal. Because unless you’re having a teeny tiny wedding, practice will really help the whole thing go more smoothly… even if we can’t promise perfection.

The Rehearsal dinner: Maybe your mom wants one, or maybe you just want a more laid-back opportunity to see all those people coming into town just for you. Either way, here are our best rehearsal dinner ideas.

a queer couple show off wedding rings wearing a crop top wedding dress and a navy suit with a pink tie

Last-Minute Goodness

What’s your hashtag?: You’re planning your wedding on the Internet right now, so I’m gonna guess you’re the kind of person who wants a wedding hashtag. If that’s you, here are our tips for coming up with the perfect one.

Makeup And Skincare: Maybe you’re getting professional makeup done, maybe you’re not. But either way, taking care of your skin before your wedding makes you look all glowy (and is good for you too). We’ve rounded up the products we personally use to make our skin a hundred percent. We’ve also rounded makeup products we’re really loving right now. And if you want to go sans makeup for your wedding, let’s get to it.

Hair Stylin’: Time to research wedding hair ideas? We’ve gotchu, with hair ideas for every length and texture of hair, along with a special guide just for curly girls. Oh and maybe you want tips from Beyoncé’s stylist about wedding hairstyles for black women? And if you’re trying how to make your pixie cut wedding worthy, we’ve got plenty of ideas. (Plus maybe you should gild that lily?) If you know you want an updo, we’ve rounded up ones that don’t look like a prom in 1994. If, like me, you’re going to do your own hair for your wedding, here is what you need to know. And, your bridesmaids need hairstyling ideas too.

And finally, thank you notes: Yes, you need to write them. But lucky for you we’ve come up with the perfect template to make it easy peasy. And bonus #lazygirl tip: If you registered with Zola, you can easily export a list of who got you what and when, so then all you have to do is put pen to paper.

Zola logo

This post was sponsored by Zola. With Zola, you can build the registry you actually want; add items from a selection of over 50,000 gifts (plus add from any store), or if physical objects aren’t your style, register for experiences and subscriptions—heck, with Zola you can even register for your blowout. (They just partnered up with GLAMSQUAD. I’m not mad about it.) And with Zola Weddings, now you can manage your wedding checklist and your guest list too. Other perks include group gifting, shipping control (aka you tell your registry when you want to receive stuff), and the lowest credit card processing fee in the industry for cash gifts, if you choose to add a cash registry option. Click here for a full list of Zola’s features and sign up for Zola today!

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