When I used to think about when my partner and I would get married, I had these grand, aesthetically pleasing visions of a candle-lit, enchanted forest-themed autumn affair, in a rustic yet romantic venue with delicious dinner fare, and all of our families and friends formally dressed to celebrate our union. What our wedding turned out to be was a relatively last minute, sweet, simple, intimate garden ceremony.
I certainly had never anticipated getting married at the bright young age of 24, or that we would plan our wedding in exactly three months. While our wedding was certainly not what I had long dreamed about, we couldn’t have asked for a better outcome. It was still one of the best days of my life, if not the best, and I still got to marry the love of my life and celebrate with our closest family members — and all this for a small fraction of today’s average wedding cost. Here’s how we did it:
1. We didn’t have any savings. When you start out with a budget of $0, it’s pretty easy to say no to a lot of unnecessary expenses. Since we hadn’t planned on getting married for a few years after our engagement, we hadn’t yet had the time (or, frankly, the means) to save up any funds for our wedding. I am fortunate to have parents who were financially able and willing to pay for most of the event costs, but we ultimately didn’t want to be spending money we didn’t have. So, we quickly nixed elements like printed invitations (we phoned all our guests and then put all the info in a Facebook event), a fancy cake (we had cupcakes and pie), and any pre-wedding showers or parties.
2. The venue was (almost) free. I had always thought about getting married in a place that was already beautiful to eliminate (or at least cut down on) decoration expenses. We found the perfect spot for this: our city’s Botanical Gardens. I never thought I would get married outside (or in the summer — I figured swatting at bugs could be a real vow-killer), but this ended up being such a practical decision. There were already flowers everywhere, so we didn’t have to buy any, which can end up being one of the most expensive elements of a wedding. And the best part of having the ceremony in a public space was that we only had to pay admission fees for our small group of guests, instead of paying to rent out an entire space.
3. My dress was fabulously affordable. I got my dress for $200 at Nordstrom, and it was still the perfect dress (I didn’t even have to get it altered!). It was a vintage-y, floor-length, off-white lace dress that was so comfortable (no bra necessary!) and suited the relaxed-yet-romantic vibe of a garden wedding. I paid more for my prom dress than I did on this. I also made sure to get my shoes on sale, and chose a pair that I knew I could get more use out of after the wedding.
4. Something borrowed, something else borrowed. I didn’t spend a dime on jewelry or accessories because I borrowed them all from family. My necklace was borrowed from an aunt, the ring on my right hand was from my mother’s collection, my purse was a vintage family heirloom, and my grandmother gave us some of her old handkerchiefs. Even our wedding bands were family heirlooms, so we only had to pay to get them re-sized.
5. I did my own makeup. I had recently gotten very into cosmetics, so I already had all the materials and the know-how to do my own makeup that day, and I kept it very simple. (Pro tip: don’t try out any new cosmetics the couple weeks before your wedding, in case your skin reacts badly to it. Stick with what you know and love.) I did get a professional haircut, but I got it done the day before and it was a simple style that lasted until the wedding day, so I didn’t have to pay for a fancy updo or waste tons of time the morning of at the salon.
6. No professional photographer. My sister graduated with a degree in photography, so I asked her if she would be the designated photographer at the ceremony. My partner’s aunt also brought her good quality camera, so we had two people taking lots of photos that day. The photos may be slightly less polished than if we’d hired a professional, but getting beautiful photos for free over somewhat more beautiful photos (and an extra guest) for thousands of dollars was pretty much a no-brainer.
7. We kept it small. In my dream wedding, the guest list I had planned was around 75-100 people, including friends and extended family. Perhaps the most cost-effective decision we ending up making was to keep our actual guest list at around 25 family members. We wanted to keep it as small and intimate as possible, which obviously cuts down on the price of feeding everyone. After the ceremony, we had brunch (not dinner) at an incredible restaurant, which accounted for about a third of the entire budget, but still cost way less than a catered dinner with fancy cocktails and an open bar. Unfortunately, this decision to limit our invites caused some tension when certain family members felt we were leaving out certain other family members. But in the end, it was our wedding, no one else’s, and we got to decide who we wanted there with us to celebrate such an important occasion.
Now, perhaps you’re wondering: do I regret not having my ~dream~ wedding? The answer is an absolute no. Partially because our wedding absolutely was a dream (awww), and partially because we are still planning on having that formal, enchanted-forest themed evening celebration one day in the future. We’re framing it as a belated reception, and perhaps a vow-renewal, where we’ll get to invite more of our loved ones to attend. Yes, this will cost a pretty penny, and we’ll have to save up for quite a while. But the simple act of not calling this next event a “wedding” will in itself cut down on the costs — since we all know that once you slap the “wedding” label on it, everything cost suddenly skyrockets. One of my cousins, in fact, did this exact same thing, and also highly recommends splitting up your wedding into separate occasions, because it takes the pressure to be PERFECT off of one single day. I remember being so stressed out during the three months of wedding planning. But once the courthouse day arrived, I thought, “Oh it’s okay, tomorrow is the bigger deal, I can just relax today.” And then on the garden ceremony day, I thought, “Oh it’s okay, we’re already married, I can just relax today.”
If you’re someone who is set on having the biggest, most lavish wedding that you could dream of (why did you read this?), more power to you. I hold no judgments toward any kind of wedding anyone else wants. Because no matter your budget, big or small, the most valuable part of your special day is the person across from you as you say your vows.
Alexandra Friedman is a recently graduated, recently married, recently re-located young person who stress-eats cookies and has a lot of opinions. You can follow these cookie-induced opinions on Twitter @alexandratf.
Image via Unsplash