How to Plan a Budget Wedding

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It is possible to host a beautiful wedding without spending a million dollars. Here’s how we did it on a “smaller” budget.

Eighteen years ago this weekend we got hitched after only four months’ engagement. Yes, it was short. We had dated for two years, though, and once you find the person that you want to spend the rest of your life with, well, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible. (Name that movie.)

In that 3.5 months’, pre-internet, pre-pinterest time period, we planned a beautiful wedding. It was by far, the best day of my life, featuring the best wedding food I think I’ve ever eaten, and definitely the best cake.

And we did it on a budget.

Weddings are expensive.

My dad was willing to pay for a wedding for his eldest of three daughters, but he wasn’t going to be extravagant. I groaned with dismay when he set the limit at $5000.

To give you perspective on that number, the average wedding expenditure today is $27,000. The average wedding cost in 1990 was $15,000. So, even though plenty of people have tied the knot for less than $5K, Dad’s number was still pretty low for the time, 1994.

Quite honestly, I was fit to be tied, but there was little I could do about it — unless I wanted to wait and save up more cash. Which I didn’t. Hehe.

Instead, a few years later I lobbied for my youngest sister to get a COLA on her wedding budget. Her budget was $8000 in 2001. And my sister Jamie spent only $3000 on her recent wedding reception. Dad got like three weddings for the price of one!

That said…. today I’m thankful that I wasn’t allowed free reign to spend more than we needed to on a beautiful wedding day. Here are some of my thoughts on the subject, almost twenty years later.

You might already be married, but chances are you have siblings, children, or nieces and nephews that aren’t.

How to plan a budget wedding:

1. Keep perspective.

One thing that I wish I had remembered and am now passing on to others is that this shindig is not all about you. This is a hard thing for brides to come to terms with. We imagine the day all our lives as the day we get to shine like a princess. And while I’ve been there, I also think it’s important to keep things in perspective.

A wedding is a celebration of a new life, a blending of two families, and a transition of roles. While the bride is a princess, she is also not the only who cares about this special day.

So, brides, don’t be a spoiled brat. Be prepared to compromise and consider the needs, wants, and personalities of both families. Keep in mind the sheer amount of money that’s at stake, also. My sister Janel now says she’d rather have that cash to spend on a really nice vacation!

Enough is as good as a feast.

2. Enlist friends to help.

Canvas your friends to find out who is willing and able to help with your wedding event. Guess what? You don’t need a wedding planner. Really. Instead draw from the wealth of skills and talents among those close to you. An older, married friend served as my coordinator. Since I lived with her and her family, she was right there to make me get things done, too.

We were blessed by friends who baked and decorated the cake, arranged the flowers, acted as DJ, served as shuttle drivers, as well as those who set tables and cleaned house in preparation of the Big Day. Our landlords even provided their home and garden as the reception location.

3. Do it yourself.

There are an amazing number of things that you can do and make yourself, even moreso now than there were 18 years ago. The trick is not to overdo. (See tips 1 & 2.)

From invitations to party favors to place settings, you can pull together pretty things simply and affordably. Don’t go overboard, but consider what special touches are just fine homemade. Instead of a bar, bartender, etc, we went to Costco and bought cases of bottled water, pop, beer, and champagne and made our own serve-yourself bar.

4. Splurge on the things that matter.

I really wanted good food, nice invitations and quality photographs so we splurged on those items. Today I have friends who would have done those things for me. But, I was content to fill the gap, knowing I was getting my druthers in a few key areas.

As it was, we priced things out and still bargain shopped. We chose the same caterers I had worked for in college and since they knew me, they gave us a great deal and superb service. (It pays to know people, sometimes!) The food was absolutely fantastic!

5. Let go of the things you don’t care about.

We didn’t have a wedding planner, a videographer, or professional hair and make-up people. It didn’t bother me in the slightest that a driveway was our dance floor. I only just now noticed the basketball hoop in the photographs!

Our “live music” was a wanna-be jazz singer who literally crashed the party! He wasn’t even invited to the wedding, but wrote a song for us spontaneously at the reception.

None of this bothered me. They just didn’t matter that much in light of the big picture and small budget.

6. Just smile.

What makes a wedding a beautiful one is the happy couple. Keep smiling — even if things don’t go the way you expect them to. In fact, be ready to laugh — at losing the rings right before the ceremony, at the party-crashing jazz singer, at the dead altar flowers from a previous event catching fire during your vows. (True stories.)

There will be plenty of things to go “wrong”.

A wedding doesn’t make a marriage. A good attitude and a lot of love and grace do. 

You can have a beautiful wedding on a budget — just remember what’s important.

Today’s Frugal Friday!

Time to swap ideas and inspiration for saving money.

jar of money on concrete by grassy lawn, with text overlay: Frugal Fridays.

How do YOU save money?

Please remember to follow the Frugal Friday Guidelines or be deleted.

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  1. 1998 wedding for around 1000.00, planned in 6 weeks. White dress 50.00 from a non-wedding catalog. Flowers from the grocery store floral dept 200.00; groom owned his own suit; cake $? from local cake lady (couldn’t have been more than 200.00 – my mom wouldn’t have spent more than that!); Church was on a donation basis – groom’s parents took care of that; friends with beautician – hair $0.00 gift; ladies from church rented a local community building as a gift 0.00; Ex-brother in law photographer 200.00; hotel for weekend – honeymoon gift from grooms parents ??.00; printed own invitations on pretty paper and coordinated envelopes from office supply store & stamps – 40.00 (?), wedding rings from pawn shop – 250.00. 150 guests fed pot luck style by friends at church. Music from brides CD collection.
    Hubby and I had known each other for 8 +/- years before he asked me to marry him, but we had never had a date. I knew his family and was friends with his sisters and had a crush on him. He had a crush on me, but I didn’t know about it. His sister basically told him, ‘do something now or you are going to lose her’. He CALLED me from 300 miles away and ‘proposed’ a couple days later. We have been together through 3 children (6, 4, and 9 mo) 2 miscarriages, 5 moves, 2 states, multiple jobs, college, debt, bankruptcy, unemployment, the guardianship of a nephew, etc. The wedding is only 1 day, the marriage is forever.

  2. We got married a little over two years ago now. Our total costs for the rehearsal dinner, wedding/reception location, minister, cake, dessert and coffee reception, coordinator, photographer, pianist, (violinist-was my husband’s aunt who played in a well known symphony was FREE!), wedding clothes, honeymoon, and husband’s ring etc were about $10,000 total. Part of this money was gifted by my parents, but we came up with the rest. I regret not hiring a better photographer, getting a dress I truly loved and the particular location we chose for the wedding/reception. I think doing it all over again I would have had a few less people at our wedding (we had about 75) so we could have maybe splurged more on the reception itself, possibly having it a really nice restaurant instead.

  3. I was married in 1993 & it looks like we had the exact same head piece! Did it have ceramic flowers? We had a tight budget – we were both students. Regret not getting a professional photographer!

    1. The veil is a funny story. I made the base the night before, just minutes before the rehearsal. My landlady/wedding coordinator was fit to be tied that I put it off to the last minute. Then the friend/florist wired on fresh flowers the morning of.

  4. Such great advice! I had one in 06 that cost 3k…and it was really well-done. You couldn’t even tell that our budget was so “low.” Lots and lots of family and friends helping and donating their services.

  5. This is a FABULOUS post! A few months ago I wrote about our $3,000 wedding – and it was very nice in our eyes. 🙂 We did most of the work ourselves.
    Now I cater weddings and I always make sure to tell the bride, “Never apologize for your budget. Take the money you DO have and make it work.”

    I’ve linked up two this week:
    1. How Important is Your Credit Score? (We don’t think it should be something to focus on.)
    2. Save Time and Money with These 10 Moving Tips…anyone who has plans to move in the future should read this one!

    Thanks for hosting!

  6. Hi, thanks for hosting. Great advice on planning a frugal wedding. Being a newlywed, I recently spent a lot of time in the world of weddings. It can be difficult to keep your head on straight, but it can be done. I love your advice to enlist the help of your friends. We did this and I have to say it made our wedding much more special. We will never forget how much work everyone put in; we are so thankful.
    Today I shared my scratch marinara #2 – a no canned ingredient recipe. I like to use over-ripe tomatoes from my local Farmer’s Market ($1/lb). I also pour the sauce into a mason jar (leave extra room for expansion) and freeze for later. These are easy recipes, tasty and much less than the $4 pasta sauce with mystery ingredients. Enjoy!

  7. Happy Anniversary! That first photo is absolutely sweet.
    We had 3 months and $5k too, and it was awesome. Actually, after the first month of planning I just took myself out of the planning process. We had the things that we important to me all set up, and the rest of the jobs delegated, so I called it good… well, more like cried and was like “I just want to be married, I’m done with this wedding nonesense!!!”
    But it was gorgeous, elegant, simple, and fun.
    memories, lol.

  8. We did the same in 1997–$5000 and that included our honeymoon! The only problem we ended up having was the baker forgetting the cake topper! The caterer was so nervous about it but I just grinned and said no big deal….the big deal already happened at church. She nearly fell over in a faint. Too many bridezilla encounters apparently!

  9. What beautiful pictures – I too was only engaged for four months (after 3 years of dating). In a way it was a blessing – there wasn’t time to change my mind or go searching for something better. We made a decision and went with it. I think we actually saved a lot of money due to that!

  10. When I was married in 1992, I didn’t ask for any help from anybody. My dad has 5 daughters and my husband and I felt that we were adults and responsible for the costs. I bought my dress from JCPenney catalog. We kept it simple. We were married by a Justice of the Peace and had a dinner afterwards. The restaurant decorated for Christmas, so my flower cost was minimal. My sister was my only attendant and I told her to wear a dress she already had.

    It wasn’t fancy, but it was a beautiful day. We ended up getting a lot of cash for presents and went to Niagara Falls for a honeymoon.

  11. I am a big believer in small, simple, meaningful weddings {which is what we had 22 years ago!}. Around here, the trend is for huge, over-the-top, expensive weddings. My friend and I were talking about it the other day and decided that we have noticed a correlation – the bigger the wedding, the shorter the marriage lasts!

    1. Well, that’s an interesting conclusion. The celebrities usually prove that one true, don’t they?

  12. Way back when I got married, my Dad was willing to spend whatever, but I was the frugal one!! I had my dress made by a woman who made debutante dresses. This saved me a fortune because I was small chested and the alterations to a store gown would have been expensive. I also had my bridesmaids’ dresses made and my mother had her dress made. We used roses that a man grew in his yard and a florist arranged them for us. I ended up with huge flower arrangements for a fraction of the cost. My mother’s best friend made our cake as a wedding gift. My photographer worked for the newspaper and was very professional while inexpensive. And my husband-to-be and I had worked for a fancy hotel so we held our reception there. Although we didn’t know it, they gave us a big discount when it came time to pay (that’s the blessing of being a good employee when you are young and in college!). I used a book that is still out today to plan my wedding: Checklist for a Perfect Wedding. Everything came together perfectly and I wouldn’t have changed a thing. Just this week someone told me they had made a wedding veil for a niece and it cost $7.00 to copy the one she wanted that was $200!!! It pays to ask around for help.

  13. When my husband and I got married in Jan. 2003, it was at the beginning of the newest developments in Iraq. As in, when a unit was alerted, they were gone within a week.
    He came home from drill on Sunday night “we’re getting deployed. Do you want to get married??”
    We got the license on Monday, were married the next Friday in the church I grew up in. Less than 25 people. I borrowed an outfit, a friend did hair/makeup, my mom threw a meal together and got a cake as well as sunflowers (In Iowa, in January!). It was short, quick and to the point.

    He spent the next week preparing for a deployment….that didn’t come until 3 years later when I was 6 months pregnant.

    Small weddings can be done! LOL

    1. We had only been dating about a year at the time, as well.

      For Christmas 2 years later, I got my “engagement” ring than I never had.

  14. Our wedding was super frugal. We got married in a small secret chapel at our Parish. It only fit 6 people including us and the Priest. We couldn’t afford the true cost of the Church but the Priest let us pay what we could afford. I hosted a small dinner at our home and made everything myself. I baked blueberry muffins to send home as party favors.

    Our day was truly about the sacrament we were participating in and the joy of starting a new life together. The only thing I regret is that we didn’t have money to go on a honeymoon:)

  15. As a musician I have probably been at hundreds of weddings.

    While I don’t think it’s necessary to hire a wedding planner for the entire event I do think it’s very important to have someone managing the ceremony. Not the officiant or someone in the wedding party and maybe not even a close family member. If you have more than one to attendants (and maybe even then) people need to be told what to do. Especially during the processional.

    It’s amazing to me how many bridesmaids and brides start down the aisle too soon! I’ve been at many weddings where we’re either not playing at all or haven’t had a chance to switch to the right music and someone’s halfway down the aisle. When this happens it usually means the bride doesn’t get the music she requested because it’s much better for the flow of things if we just keep playing rather than scramble to swtich music. I understand people are nervous, not thinking about what’s happening, and that the 10 seconds it takes us to turn a few pages seems like an eternity. So there needs to be someone in the back of the sanctuary guiding wedding party. It makes things go much more smoothly.

    Also, don’t pay for a string quartet during dinner or even cocktails. I don’t mind the extra cash, of course, but nine times out of ten there’s so much talking in the room no one can hear us. 🙂

    1. I totally agree with me what you say about having someone in charge. My husband does LOTS of weddings and it is very frustrating for him to lead the rehearsal when no one is in charge. It can be very chaotic or else too many people try to take over.

      We didn’t have a wedding coordinator but we asked my cousin and her husband to be Master and Mistress of Cermony and my aunt and uncle to be the Master and Mistress of the reception. It was so nice to hand it off to them and they did a great job. We also delegated every task. We had a high school girl in our church just be in charge of picking up lunch for the wedding party and decorate the cars. We had my little cousin pass out programs. We had another high school girl oversee the gift table. People love to be involved and help.

  16. Congratulations! You and your guy were sure a beautiful couple!
    My daughter is getting married next year. You don’t want to know what the average Long Island wedding goes for. I’m glad I raised a frugal girl ’cause she wants nothing to do with that! We’ve picked out a very reasonable place to hold the reception and she doesn’t want anything too fancy-schmancy. No $400 dollar floral arrangements on the tables (no kidding, I went to a wedding that had that), for example. As Katherine has told people who don’t get the ‘budget’ wedding thing: “My wedding is one day. My marriage is the rest of my life!”

  17. I can’t remember the exact cost of our wedding in 2003, but I know we went about it in a cost-conscience manner. Our few splurges were nice flowers and excellent pictures. The flowers were used in both the ceremony and the reception. Our efficient florist and assistant grabbed them as soon as pictures were over and hustled them down to the reception. We got married in my church and used the social hall…both of which were free since I was a member. My husband’s uncle did our video as a gift…he does this type of thing on the side, so he had super nice equipment. Family friends did all the food AND cake for the price that in-town caterers were charging for only their cakes. My dress was beautiful, but definitely was not the most expensive in the store.

    When it all comes down to it, the wedding is ONE DAY in the life of your MARRIAGE, and quite honestly, I’d rather have a marriage than a wedding!

  18. I couldn’t agree more!! July will mark 14 yrs of marriage for my hubby and me, and we did it all on 2500.00. And we did it in 4 months!! He proposed on Valentines day and we were married in early July. It was alot of work, and we did most everything ourselves, and looking back to honest I would have made it alot simplier than it was!! It can be done tastefully and frugally but still be beautiful.

  19. My husband and I did the exact same thing at our wedding and most of the guests participated in making it happen with offerings of food, flowers, dress-making skills.. And because everyone had put so much of their own personal effort into it, they enjoyed it so much more. Frugal doesn’t have to be humdrum- I think a frugal wedding is the best there is! Thanks once again for hosting- Enjoy the weekend ! Rebecca @ Natural Mothers Network ( Seasonal Celebration Sunday) x

  20. You know that scene in “Father of the Bride” when George comes downstairs and finds Annie asleep on the couch with an open copy of some bridal magazine? Then he picks up the magazine and reads, “bake your own wedding cake…have a friend take the pictures…” and that’s when he decides to give her whatever she wants. Well, it makes for a great movie, but I laugh at that scene every time because that’s exactly what we did!

    Yes, we baked our own wedding cake. Two of them actually. Five layers each. It. Was. Insane. When people ask me what I would do differently, I always say, “I’d buy a cake!”, but some cakes cost as much as our whole wedding did, so you have to be careful there too.

    We also had a $5,000 budget (including tent and chair rental costs) for our wedding in 2000. We had a friend take the pictures (their wedding gift to us was the film and having them developed), and another friend videoed the whole event (with our video camera). We got the fruit and veggies in bulk at Sam’s club, which friends spent the morning cutting up, and we served lemonade. We saved money on flowers because we used daisies (my favorite flower) and nothing extra.

    In the end, we were as married as my sister who spent twice as much on her wedding a year earlier. We were happy, married, and everyone had a wonderful (relaxed) time. Like the Nester says, it doesn’t have to be perfect to be beautiful. 🙂

    1. I think I remember your posts about the cake. Weren’t you totally caked out by the end of it? Such a fun memory. Sort of. 😉

  21. The remembering the wedding isn’t just about you is a good one, but a hard one, there are a few things I know I didn’t allow loved ones to do or say for my wedding, and looking back they were really little things which would have meant a lot to them, and really would not have changed the day that much.

  22. Great suggestions! I have been a wedding planner for several weddings and agree that less is more. More brides (and grooms) seem to be “getting” that these days! I’m doing a wedding this weekend…ice cream sunday reception! How cool is that?!

    1. That sounds very cool! How fun! And how great of you to volunteer to take on the headaches. 😉

  23. I just submitted a link above that was this exact topic! We only spent $5000 for my daughter’s wedding in October and it was amazing. Thanks for sharing!

  24. Happy anniversary! Your wedding looks lovely! We also had a short (5 month) engagement and a frugal wedding too. Since I was getting married in LA in winter I saved a lot on my dress by buying a “summer” wedding dress. It had long sleeves made of lace and was perfect for the weather. We saved money on the photographer by using a “celebrity” photographer (someone who covers parties and events for a flat fee and gives you all the negatives) instead of wedding photographer who sales packages. I splurged on the flowers and the food.

    1. You make a good point. We used the Westmont campus photographer. He was experienced at weddings, but it was a flat fee for the day and a set number of proofs that we got to keep. Years later I wrote and bought the negatives for like $50 since they didn’t want to store them anymore.

  25. Good advice. We were very young and poor when we got married (I was in college and my husband had just graduated). Nobody had money for us, but he has a huge family and people offered to do almost everything. We had friends come to us to ask if they could give us the flowers, the cake, the food, the video, the photos, etc. We were very blessed. Now, there were drawbacks since we really had no money. The church was not pretty, no two ways about that. And the person who did our photos messed them up big time. So if I had to do it all over again, I would have checked out the location better and I would have figured out a way to hire a real photographer. Apart from that, it was a great day, and I’ve often told people it is the way to go. Save your wedding gifts and money and go on a great trip. We got maybe $2,000+ in gifts and took a trip to Paris and Copenhagen. The wedding lacked in some areas, but there was tons of love.

  26. Oh oh oh! When Harry Met Sally. We actually used that same line in our wedding ceremony!

    Ours was also a wedding with a small budget ($5,000). The biggest splurge? The photographer and the flowers. If I was to do it again, I would splurge less on the flowers, though.

    These are great tips. Thanks for sharing!

  27. I’m currently planning a wedding so the reminders are perfect.
    that said i will have a planner because the location is about 5 hours away. So to have the planners expertise and help is invaluable.
    However I will be saving money many other ways. My Fiance’s sister sings well so that can work for us. My Cousin who baptized me I’m going to ask to marry us. ( i hope he has the license to marry as well). Also my theme is more laid back therefore i wont have to spend as much on frilly linens and other fancy things that I dont care about. Likewise the Invitations dont have to be that fancy.Because we do have the internet nowadays, I can create my wedding website, and use that to send the Save the Dates, and ask the invited guests to RSVP online as well instead of paying for more paper and stamps for reply cards.
    I will save some on flowers due to the area being already very naturally pretty and it will be spring.
    My groom and I are just having one person each, stand up with us and i dont think i will have a flower girl or ring bearer.

    As you can see. Many Many Many ideas to save on a wedding.

    1. I can’t imagine how much the technology has changed. That is very cool!

  28. We were very simple too and splurged on a photographer. Unless your wedding is very small and simple, I would tell future brides to think about hiring someone professional. We go to A LOT of weddings and we’ve seen some really tacky photographers who aren’t professional, get in the way (one stood the next to the pastor on stage the whole ceremony), or don’t know what they are doing. Wedding photography really is an art.

    1. Yes, that was one of my splurges. I now have a lot of pro photogs for friends. I would bribe them. 😉

      1. Definitely agree about the photos, that was very important to me. I lucked out and one of my best friends brothers worked for a tv station and he video taped our wedding for around $100. I thought that was so awesome since we had a professional doing it and using professional equipment!

    1. I did not know that about my brother-in-law, or else I forgot.