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5 tips for keeping your wedding under budget

Kelly Dilworth

Last weekend, I married my Canadian sweetheart in a casual ceremony, surrounded by our closest friends and family. Less than a week later, I’m still having a hard time processing how much we actually spent on an event that lasted just a little more than five hours.

I’m still not ready to tally up the final number. However, here’s a hint: We spent nowhere near the average cost of a U.S. wedding, which hit $27,021 in 2011, according to TheKnot.com and WeddingChannel.com. However, thanks to the generosity of my family and the sudden rush of wedding fever that comes with being newly engaged, we spent a lot more than the $5,000 that I originally had in mind.

It’s much harder to rein in wedding costs than I anticipated. Anything tagged “wedding” is marked up significantly by retailers and finding good alternatives isn’t always easy. For the most part, I don’t regret how much we spent on our wedding. However, I’m glad we took steps ahead of time to keep our budget in line and avoid going into debt for a daylong party.

If you, too, are knee-deep in wedding planning or are just recently engaged, here are some hard-won tips for keeping your own wedding costs from spiraling out of control.

1. Buck convention.
We got married at 9 a.m. on a Sunday because it was the only time slot available for the free but popular wedding venue that I had my heart set on. It turned out to be one of the best decisions we made. By choosing an unconventional time to get married, we had an easier time booking our first-choice vendors — and we were able to avoid the expensive markups that often come with booking pricier venues on a Saturday night.

We also used the earlier time slot as an excuse to forgo the traditional extras that seemed more fitting of an evening wedding than an afternoon brunch. For example, we served barbecue and craft beer rather than cocktails and stuffed chicken, opted for rustic-looking succulents and feverfew over polished floral centerpieces and skipped the all-night dance party. I also cut the cost of my wedding dress in half by choosing a dress that hit at the knee rather than a more traditional full-length gown.

2. Look for a venue that can accommodate just a limited number of guests.   

This was key. We chose a tiny chapel and reception venue that could only hold 50 guests. That way, we were forced to winnow down the guest list to just our closest friends and family. We also had a ready-made excuse in case our families tried to invite additional guests that we hadn’t seen or spoken to in years.

3. Scout your area for talented up-and-comers rather than established vendors.
Vendors that are just starting to build their own businesses are often significantly less expensive and eager to please. Our wedding photographers may have looked like they just graduated from college. However, they cost nearly $1,000 less than the more established photographers with similar portfolios — and their photos were just as beautiful.

That said, be prepared for the inevitable hiccups that come with inexperience. Our reception site was also brand-new and even though that meant better deals on catering and other extras, we spent much of this past summer — and a significant part of our budget — dealing with last-minute changes by the inexperienced staff.

4. Know that do-it-yourself (DIY) doesn’t always mean cheaper.
Adding handmade touches to your wedding may be fun. However, just because you made your wedding decorations yourself, it doesn’t mean they’ll be less expensive. For my own wedding, I hollowed out a book for our rings and visited every thrift shop in town looking for teacups for our handcrafted centerpieces. I had a great time doing it, but when I added up the final cost of all my DIY projects, I was surprised by how far over budget I went. As many DIYers find, the cost of craft supplies can quickly mount — especially if you don’t already have them lying around your house.

5. List everything you can think of in your wedding budget when you first write it up, then stick to it.
This was one of our biggest mistakes. We carefully wrote up a detailed budget before we started booking vendors, but we didn’t foresee many of the extra expenses that pushed our spending way up.

Nearly a third of couples bust their wedding budgets, reports USA Today, citing Brides magazine research. And it’s no wonder. Extra expenses that seem too small to write down, such as bar napkins and plastic cups, add up quickly and often cost more than you think. I routinely underestimated how much we would spend on smaller wedding details, such as rented chairs and tables, and would get depressed when I realized how much more we were spending than we anticipated.

In the end, we dealt with the unexpected costs by nixing some of our original ideas and slimming down our wish-list. However, if I were to do it all over again, I would have spent more time before the wedding tallying possible expenses and reflecting more deeply on what does and doesn’t matter on the final day.

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