"Expensive" and "stressful" might be two things that come to mind when you think of wedding planning, but they don't have to be.
Saying “I do” at Vines of the Yarra Valley is an elegant and luxurious affair.
Figuring out your wedding budget is no easy feat. Your wedding will likely be the biggest party you've ever hosted—and the priciest. The average U.S. wedding costs $44,000 for 167 guests, according to the 2018 Brides American Wedding Study. Nearly 27 percent of couples cover the entire expense themselves, while about one-third of them pay for at least part of it. But here's the kicker: Almost half of the couples go over budget. Make sure you're not one of them by setting a realistic wedding budget—before you start fantasising about venues in Italy, booking expensive vendors, or trying on designer dresses.
To make a budget, you'll need to tally up your savings, maintain a detailed spreadsheet, so you don't go over during the planning process, prepare for unexpected costs, as well as make meaningful cuts if you do exceed your total budget. It's hard work, we know, but putting in the time and energy now ensures you'll live happily ever after (wedding-debt free). Here's exactly how to set a wedding budget you can stick to.
Table of Contents
- 1 Determine the kind of wedding you want
- 2 Have the wedding budget talk.
- 3 Crunch Some Numbers
- 4 Limit your guest list
- 5 Prioritise
- 6 Choose affordable wedding rings
- 7 Prepare for Surprises
- 8 Host the ceremony or reception at home or outside
- 9 Substitute less expensive flowers
- 10 Say no to upgrades at your wedding venue
Determine the kind of wedding you want
When you picture your wedding, what do you see? A swanky reception at a downtown loft? A backyard barbecue with all your friends and family? A classic hotel ballroom reception?
If you need a little more inspiration, think about all the weddings you've been to, seen on TV, or scrolled through on Pinterest. What did you like—or not like—about them?
Don't get hung up on the little details just yet. Instead, think about the overall feel you want your wedding to have when it comes to planning a wedding on a budget, knowing your priorities matters.
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 massive 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 quickly. 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."
Have the wedding budget talk.
Everyone paying for the event (bride, groom and parents) needs to sit down and look at the total wedding budget. This might be your first experience budgeting with your future spouse as a team. What a priceless experience! Learning to talk openly and honestly about how much you can spend—and how much you're willing to spend—on your wedding is going to lay the groundwork for wonderful budget date nights once you're married!
As uncomfortable as this budget talk might be, just remember—it's a heck of a lot easier than still paying for your wedding day on your fifth anniversary!
When I say budget here, I'm not just talking about how much money you can spend total—I'm talking about how much you should spend in each specific area. Need help planning your wedding? Check out our list of Wedding Event Planners here.
You should set your ratios based on what's important to you. Maybe you're willing to splurge on photos, but flowers don't matter to you. If you care more about one area than another, change up the percentages.
Consider the cost
If you're planning on a formal candlelit dinner in the grand ballroom of that amazing hotel downtown, your budget is clearly going to have to be much bigger than if you've sketched out an afternoon tea and dessert party in your parents' pretty backyard. In general, several major factors will really affect what you'll need to set aside.
Consider the date and time
Highly sought-after seasons and days of the week are pricier for obvious reasons. An evening reception is usually more expensive than a brunch or afternoon reception, not only because of higher catering costs for dinner, but also because people tend to drink less during the daytime, and many couples choose to go more low-key on elements like lighting, music and décor.
Have a winter wedding. Choose a Friday or Sunday. Or celebrate with mimosas over brunch instead of hosting a four-course, wine-paired dinner.
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 essential for you to 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.
Once you have an idea of how much financial assistance you'll receive, focus on your own contribution.
- How much can you and your fiancé realistically—and comfortably— afford to spend given all the real-life expenses you have to cover?
- Based on your monthly income, how much can you both reasonably save between now and the wedding?
- How much, if any, can you responsibly pull from an existing savings account?
Estimate your personal wedding budget based on your answers to the questions above.
Although you might be tempted to throw everyone you know on your guest list, that isn't always a great idea. With each addition you make, you're adding additional costs while also making your wedding less intimate.
To a degree, this was a trap we fell into with our own wedding – our guest list grew and grew to the point where we invited people that we didn't know well simply because we felt obligated. Save as much as you can, try inviting fewer people and making the event more intimate. Start by whittling your list down by 20%, then another 20%. Then see if you're happy with it.
Limit your guest list
Less is sometimes more! You might feel tempted to come up with a guest list as long as the royal wedding's, but think of it this way: Every guest is an expense. It sounds harsh, but it's true, you guys! With each addition to your guest list, you're only driving up the overall cost of your wedding.
To save money on your wedding, you may want to host a smaller, more intimate affair. If the number of people at your wedding isn't necessary for you and your fiancé, try cutting your guest list by 20%, then another 20% on top of that. Or invite more guests to the wedding ceremony and host a smaller reception with your family and closest friends.
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 on your wedding budget.
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There's a per-head cost for food and liquor, and these two are typically the biggest expenses of the whole wedding, so changing the guest list size is the surest way to increase or decrease your costs. On top of that, the smaller the guest list, the more you'll save on all your other details, including décor, stationery, favours and rentals, because you won't need as much of everything.
We know it's tough, but one of the fastest and most effective ways to lower your wedding cost is to pare down the invitees. Get out that red pen! At $100 a head, taking ten guests off the guest list saves $1,000. Also, consider the size of your wedding party: Gifts and transportation are cheaper for two than for ten.
Some venues have minimum and maximum guest requirements and are priced accordingly, and vendors might charge per head for food and drink. Headcount affects expenses across the board, says Deborah Moody, executive director of the Association of Certified Professional Wedding Consultants. With ten fewer guests on your list, Moody points out, and you'd cut out at least one table: That's ten chairs, ten place settings, ten favours and one centrepiece right there that you're not paying for. "By cutting your guest list by 10 or 20 people, you may actually save yourself $1,000," Moody says.
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 a realistic idea of your priorities!
Based on your percentages, take a moment with your fiancé to decide on your top three must-haves for your big day. They can be practical or totally frivolous: an outdoor reception, a plated surf and turf dinner, loads of flowers, a live jazz band—whatever is most important to you.
You can come up with your wish lists separately or together, but make sure you sit down and determine what you both really want. Let that vision dictate your budget.
Pick your top three priorities and allocate a little extra money for them (like your gown, catering and band). Next, pick the three things that come lowest on your priority list (maybe flowers, cake and invitations), and budget accordingly.
Choose affordable wedding rings
Wedding bands are traditionally an important part of the marriage ceremony, symbolic of your commitment to each other. That doesn't mean they have to cost you a fortune.
A typical 14-karat wedding band can cost upwards of $1,000, and wedding website TheKnot says American couples tend to spend about 3% of their overall wedding cost on the rings (plus thousands more on an engagement ring). If you're trying to pull off your wedding on a budget, this is an area where you can trim costs pretty easily.
Unlike the wedding itself, which is overall too quickly, you'll (hopefully) be wearing this ring every day for the rest of your life – so it's important you like the way it looks and feels. But again, that doesn't mean it has to cost $1,000 or more. Titanium, sterling silver, and other materials are less expensive, durable, and can be personalised for even deeper meaning. Check out some affordable wedding ring options here.
Prepare for Surprises
Before you sign on the dotted line of vendor contracts or start buying gift bag items, read the fine print, because expenses that seem small early on could add up quickly. If the total of the line item isn't in your overall budget, cut it.
Vendor Transportation: Hiring an out-of-town band or photographer? You might need to pay for a rental van or plane tickets. Double-check the contract to see what exactly is covered.
Setup and Breakdown Fees: Cleanup isn't always included, and you may have to pay overtime rates depending on what time your reception ends.
Custom Cocktails: Signature drinks and spirits can add $3,500 to a 200-person wedding, says Calder Clark, a top wedding planner in Charleston, South Carolina.
Digital Access: Some photographers charge as much as $1,200 to view and share your photos online.
Envelope Stuffing: Some stationers charge as much as $7 per invite. To save, call your bridesmaids over, drink some wine, and DIY instead.
Order all of your own paper items yourself: This means ordering or creating your own wedding invitations and appropriate inserts. Later, you'll be ordering place cards and table numbers and maybe programs and other things, too. Technology has made it easy to do a lot of this stuff on your own at home. The newlyweds-to-be choose the appropriate paper (most companies online will send free samples) and print them on their own printer, then assemble, stuff, and mail them. Even if you choose to order printed materials through a stationer, be sure to do it yourself. When you have your wedding planner assist or do it for you, it will cost you more, whether through her markup or because she'll likely be getting a thank you commission from the shop. Don't be afraid to have her proofread them; just do the creating, ordering, and assembling yourself.
Too busy with life to really plan your wedding in detail? Have someone else do it for you and check out our list of Wedding Planners in Melbourne to help take the stress away.
With a quality home printer and some time, you can make very classy invitations on your own. My wife and I picked up a simple blank invitation kit on sale at Staples and made our own invitations to our wedding. No pictures or anything – just a very classic font and simple text. It looked stylish and didn't cost us much at all.
Planners: A full-service event designer can charge as much as $25,000 or even 20 percent of the total budget for a Kardashian-scale affair, but a day-of coordinator costs an average of $1,500. Before you enlist a pro, know what you have to spend and factor in that rate. Many venues require you to contract their in-house wedding coordinator or bring in your own outside wedding coordinator.
Host the ceremony or reception at home or outside
The venue eats up the largest chunk—nearly half!—of the wedding budget. Why not cut back by using your home, a parent's home, or a public park as the backdrop? An outdoor ceremony and reception in a place with personal meaning eliminates the need for an elaborate, over-the-top venue.
If you do decide on an outdoor event, make sure you have a good backup plan. Rain or even extreme heat can put a damper on your day, so just make sure you have plan B handy.
Renting a building or function hall for your ceremony and reception can be very expensive. Instead, consider using your own home (or the home of a parent) for your ceremony, or perhaps a public park with a beautiful view.
In each case, you can also have your reception outdoors, creating a picturesque, memorable ceremony while eliminating the cost of renting a venue.
If you go the outdoor route, however, it's best to have a backup plan in case of bad weather; you don't want to get married in a downpour that leaves all your friends and family soaked. That might mean renting a sturdy tent if rain is forecast, or a few industrial fans if it's an extremely hot day — or simply stuffing everyone inside the house to wait out a storm.
Some cities and towns are just more expensive than others. New York, Chicago and Los Angeles are the obvious culprits, but small towns and remote destinations can entail greater costs if things like flowers and talent have to come from afar. Tourist towns can also up your wedding price tag during peak season. Likewise, certain venues are more expensive than others. Some—such as a city park—come with no (or low) fees, while others, like a grand ballroom, might cost you the equivalent of a year's college tuition. Also, be aware that many popular locations have headcount minimums, meaning they won't host a wedding that's too small, and some may also have a per-head minimum that requires your event to be a certain size.
Raw spaces like barns and lofts seem like a steal, but you could spend a lot making them wedding-beautiful. "You may have to bring in tables, chairs, china, glassware, silverware, kitchen equipment for the caterer, even restrooms and AC or heat," cautions Sara Fay Egan, a partner at Jackson Durham Floral and Event Design in Dallas. Before you commit, estimate the total price of a wedding at that space versus one that includes all the basics.
Substitute less expensive flowers
Choose flowers that are in season, and pick locally grown flowers rather than blooms that need to be flown in from afar to reduce costs. For example, if you exchange Black Magic roses for more reasonably priced, deeply coloured dahlias in all your bouquets and table arrangements, you'll save about $4 a stem. If you were planning on having five roses per bouquet and 10 per centrepiece, and have a wedding party of five ladies and a guest list of 150 people, you could save $700.
Say no to upgrades at your wedding venue
Another key strategy for how to budget for a wedding is saying no to unnecessary upgrades. Take what comes with the package, or the least expensive option you can stand. Couples sometimes add thousands of dollars to their budgets because they don't like the design of the white-on-white tablecloths, for example. Or they can't stand the chairs provided for the ceremony. Reality check: Nobody will be looking closely at the linens because they'll have a beautiful tablescape set on them with your centrepieces and the china, silver, and glassware. Post-wedding, no couple has ever said: "We wish we'd spent the extra $1,000 on fancier chairs."
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.