Wedded Bliss or Blitz: Savvy Budgets

Deciding to get married is probably the most important life decision one will make.

Along with that, planning a wedding is a major undertaking and can be financially daunting.

The cost of tying the knot has skyrocketed to an all-time high of $36,000, engagement ring included. Of course, the more affluent the bride, the more expensive the wedding. The cost of a wedding depends on a wide variety of factors, including the number of guests, the ceremony site, the time of year, the decor and of course, the city that you decide to host the wedding in. Urban cities like New York, Chicago, Boston and San Francisco will cost more than say Memphis, Atlanta or Charlotte, NC. Based on a typical engagement lasting about 16 months, that’s about $2087 in wedding costs every month. Looking at that, walking down the aisle can be mighty expensive.

Sure, it’s easy to get caught up in a fantasy world of tulle and save-the-dates to earn you a reality show. Since this is a big-ticket experience, it doesn’t have to be a break-the-bank experience. There is enough pressure involved without adding additional stress. Saying “I do” to sharing your lives does not include saying “I do” to massive debt.

Above all, your wedding is meant to be a personal celebration of the two of you, not a competition or one-upmanship of being most extravagant or over the top. Having the “wedding of your dreams” can be just that without turning into a nightmare of overspending. That’s why using and sticking to a spending plan will keep more money in your pocket and bring more of your vision into reality. Think of it as a compass guiding you to your own “true North,” and helping you to manage your expectations.

Saying “I do” to sharing your lives does not include saying “I do” to massive debt.

The average cost doesn’t mean that should be your goal — it’s just an indicator of average funds spent. You can go way over, or more reasonably, go under that amount, and save significantly. The idea is working with a budget that won’t sacrifice quality. Keep in mind this is your celebration, not a spending spree. So, let’s get started!

  • First and foremost, find out where the monies are coming from — if it’s you, your partner, your families or other outside sources — and create your basic budget from that. Determine how much you’re willing to expend without looking at financial upset. If it’s $17,000, for example, work with that, and not be unrealistic [and stressed out] with $28,000, not knowing how those costs will be covered.
  • Set your budget according to the categories you’ve chosen. There are numerous checklists online to pick from, giving a comprehensive overview of possible charges. Also, take advantage of online budget calculators, like the wedding cost estimator found at Cost of Wedding. There are other planning tools, as well, to help you stay on track.
  • Make sure to include two areas in your budget: a “maximum” list of what you’re absolutely able to shell out, and a “goal” list of what you want to stick to. This gives you a little “wiggle room,” just in case.
  • Be aware of typical breakdowns. The average allocation has the reception being the biggest segment at 48 to 50 percent. This shows that the party afterward has the most expenses. This is not a hard and fast rule, and you have the power to change that.
  • Use time to your advantage. Depending on your costs, don’t rush into anything, and be mindful in allowing enough time to save for what you want. Barring special circumstances, there’s that average time of 16 months prior to the wedding day.
  • Pick your priorities and stick to them. Decide what elements are most important, then tailor the rest of your budget around these items.
  • Instead of getting married on a Saturday — which happens to be the most expensive day to host a wedding — consider Friday evening or Sunday afternoon. Holding your wedding on these days can save you a lot on reception costs. If it must be on a Saturday, think early afternoon, or even a brunch. Also, holding the ceremony and reception in one location is another money-saver.
  • If possible, look for unusual places other than the standard banquet hall. SIGNATURE BRIDE’s motto is “Your style, your way.” There are no rules as to where you should host your wedding and reception. Consider out-of-the-box ideas like a restaurant, art gallery, library, concert hall, theatre, city library or winery.
  • Better still, look for a venue that doesn’t require that you use their vendors. Then you can find a caterer to meet your needs [and price point] or DIY. One recent bride saved more than $6,000 using her own choices in caterer, DJ, bartender and liquor.
  • Forgo the sit-down formal service. Think “family style” with large platters, buffet service, or cocktails and dessert. Food stations are another popular option.
  • As far as the menu, think beyond surf and turf. Go with one entrée and one vegetarian option. Get creative — if you like BBQ, then do that. Remember, this is your celebration, not someone else’s idea of your vision.
  • Don’t offer endless alcohol options. Stick with the house wines and champagne or a signature drink. Buying from a warehouse store is another saver. Even the champagne toast can be modified with a sparkling drink, saving the real item for the couple and wedding party. One couple even closed the bar during the last hour, serving only coffee.
  • Watch your guest list. The more people you have, the more expensive it will be. This is not the time to invite everyone you’ve ever known. Think percentages — 50 percent for the couple and 25 percent for each family side.
  • You can save some money on the invitations by taking advantage of technology.  Offset and digital printing cost less than letterpress and engraving. Consider all your paper options; remember, square envelopes cost more in postage. Also, see if your vendor offers discounts for printing the entire paper products — save-the-dates, programs, table cards, place cards and Thank You notes.
  • If you really want a cocktail time, reduce it by a half hour. Guests really won’t mind, and less is used.
  • For flowers, think about seasonal varieties. Also, keep local in mind. Using only one floral type, cuts back on the labor of arrangements. Buying in bulk can be a plus here. There are also online sources to consider. The Bouqs, Blooms by the Box and Fifty Flowers, are just some online stores that ship fresh bulk items.
  • A DJ is less expensive than live entertainment. Since you’re supplying the playlists, you might consider streaming music from an iPod. The iTunes site features an app, Wedding DJ, where you plan and play it yourself; all you need is a sound system at your venue. If you have a DJ, stream in music during his breaks. For those who still want a live band, source local bands and music college students; music teachers generally can recommend someone talented to fit the bill.
  • There are many options when it comes to finding your dream dress at an affordable price. The key is in doing your homework. Don’t shy away from designer sample sales, usually held in major cities. You may find your dream dress through other creative options, such as dress rental or pre-owned. A site that shows quality designer gowns is Nearly Newlywed, where one-of-a-kind gowns are listed at sizeable discounts. is another site renting dresses — for the bride, bridesmaids and mother-of-the-bride — and accessories to users for affordable prices. The bridal party doesn’t have to spend a fortune, either. Many dresses have been found in vintage or at off-the rack outlets. Give them your color family, and a chance to select their own styles and shoe choices.
  • Learn to ask questions, and negotiate with your vendors and the venue. You have the right, as a consumer, to know what you can expect from your signing any binding agreements.
  • Do your research, either online or by word of mouth, and be willing to be flexible in your decisions. Focus on the details and elements that are important to you and your fiancé, and cut back on things that aren’t.  Don’t spend where you’re not comfortable. Your wedding day is about you and your man. It’s not about the latest trend or what others envision for you. True, there is compromise, and modifications, but this is not a “should” or “that’s the way it’s always been done” situation.
  • To help you stay on budget and keep track of planning and spending, consider using a special binder, spiral notebook or a special e-mail just for the wedding. Check out SIGNATURE BRIDE’s Going to the Chapel Planner to help you plan. The Planner guides readers through every stage of the wedding. It contains numerous worksheets and checklists for invitations, meal planning, music, wardrobe, honeymoon and more.
  • Thinking of taking out a loan? According to a report by CBS News, “Consumer Reports National Research Center found that about 11 percent of couples relied on loans to pay for their weddings, while 41 percent drew on their savings. About 9 percent of people younger than 50 said they withdrew money from a retirement account, which not only hurts a couple’s retirement prospects but adds the pain of an early withdrawal penalty.”

Celebrating the love you share will last far longer than escort cards, plated dinners and elaborate centerpieces. As you plan one of the most significant days in your life, bear in mind that people will always remember the cherished moments, not the money you spent.