Editor's Note: This story originally appeared on Living on the Cheap.
I was never one to dream of a big, traditional wedding with all of the trimmings. When my now-husband and I got engaged, we talked about exactly what we wanted for our wedding and reception, instead of what we were “supposed” to do.
We didn’t realize it right away, but by thinking outside the box, we were able to save thousands of dollars on our wedding — and didn’t go into debt.
We preferred to have a small, intimate ceremony and a separate reception. We already had planned to take a vacation to Hawaii to attend a friend’s wedding, so when we got engaged, we decided we would go to a different island and get married ourselves.
We informally invited our close friends and family and ended up having 11 people join us for our day. We made it clear that everyone was responsible for booking and paying for their own travel and accommodations.
We explained to our guests that this trip was our vacation, wedding and honeymoon rolled into one, and we wouldn’t be spending a lot of group time together. The only day we had planned with the group was our actual wedding day, which was very simple.
How we cut expenses
We were married on an isolated stretch of a public beach before sunset, so no decorations were needed.
I purchased leis for the wedding guests at a Costco store on the island (much cheaper than buying them through a florist) and bought some assorted tropical flowers that my mom arranged into a small bouquet for me to carry.
We didn’t have musicians; the ocean waves were enough. Guests stood in a semicircle around us for the short ceremony, and my parents walked me down an “aisle” path onto the beach.
Our officiant and photographer worked as a team and obtained the beach event permit for us. We paid them a total of $499, which included the ceremony, an hour of photography and printing rights to the CD of fully edited photos.
After the ceremony, our group went to dinner at a nice restaurant.
A week after we returned from our wedding/honeymoon, we had a cocktail reception party with about 100 guests.
Since we weren’t hosting a full day of events, we set it for a Friday night, so we wouldn’t cut into people’s work schedules.
We hired a caterer to do heavy hors d’oeuvres (pulled pork sliders, a mashed potato bar, flatbread pizzas, meatballs, hummus and lots of other options) and served cupcakes instead of a wedding cake.
We had an open bar, a DJ, a photo booth and asked a family member to take photographs. Our reception was exactly as we hoped it would be — if only it could have lasted longer!
We spent way less than we would have if we had gone with a traditional wedding reception by using the following tips.
The big picture
Make a list of priorities. Good food (we specifically wanted appetizers as we don’t normally enjoy reception meals), a photo booth, music and a fully stocked bar were all important to us.
Since we already had our gorgeous wedding photos from Hawaii, we weren’t concerned with spending a bundle on a photographer, and we knew the photo booth would provide tons of fun photos of our guests.
Think outside the box
Consider eloping (or having a very small wedding).
You can always host a less-formal reception on another day, for more people, like we did.
Weekends can be cheaper
Schedule your reception for a day other than a Saturday.
We had our event on a Friday evening because it’s not typically a day for weddings. This made it cheaper and easier to book the few vendors that we used.
Consider your guest list carefully. Our rule of thumb for friends was that if we’d never invited someone to our house, or they’d never invited us to theirs, they weren’t on the list.
We don’t have large extended families, so that part of the guest list was reasonable, and we invited all relatives that our immediate families wanted there.
Children (except for family members, who all happened to be over age 8) were excluded: A cocktail party isn’t an appropriate setting for kids, anyway.
Notices and invitations
- Email save-the-date notices or use postcards. I made photo postcards on my regular printer. They turned out great and were much cheaper than professionally printed invitations. By using postcards, we saved approximately 25% on postage costs, since postcard stamps are cheaper than regular envelope stamps.
- Go for simple invitations. We used seal-and-send invites with an all-in-one design on which you can print your invitation. The format we chose included a response card on a perforated lower section. Just fold, seal and mail — no envelopes needed! Since the RSVP card was a tear-off postcard, we saved on postage again.
Limit attendants. We didn’t have bridesmaids or groomsmen since we had such a small ceremony.
This saved us from buying attendant gifts and having a rehearsal dinner. It also saved our friends and family from having to buy specific dresses or pay to rent suits.
If you have a rehearsal dinner, host it at home or a park.
Enlist a few friends and family members to help you make food. Choose a meal that’s easy to serve a crowd, like pulled pork and other picnic favorites.
Attire: Bridal gown
Instead of a traditional bridal gown, consider buying a bridesmaid’s dress in white or ivory.
Most dresses can be ordered in those colors. You can also choose an evening dress that isn’t specifically made for a wedding. I opted for a beachy wedding dress for the ceremony and a Grecian-style bridesmaid’s dress in ivory for the reception and paid well under $1,000 total.
Check out these ways to save on a wedding dress for more ideas.
Attire: Bride and Groom
- Don’t buy white shoes. Go with something you’ll wear again. Or, spring for a pop of color, like silver, blue, purple or gold.
- Don’t rent a tux for the groom. A new suit and dress shoes can cost about the same amount as a rental tuxedo. Look for good deals, and choose something he can wear again.
- If you have bridesmaids, let them choose their dresses. If you want them to coordinate with each other, tell them the dress must be a particular color. Each bridesmaid will be able to choose a dress that flatters their figure, fits their budget — and maybe they can wear it again.
- Groomsmen can buy or rent suits that complement the groom’s choice. Or, you can make it easier on them and ask them to wear a black or gray suit they already own.
If your wedding and reception are on the same day, try to have both in one location.
You won’t have to provide transportation for yourselves or your wedding party between the venues.
Consider nontraditional venues. City-run spaces, public gardens, art venues and restaurants can be great locations for weddings and receptions.
Our reception was at a private racquet and swim club in an upscale community, but it was incredibly affordable.
Since the venue didn’t have its own catering department, we were able to choose our own caterer and provide our own bar instead of paying per person or per hour for bar service and drinks. This saved us well over $1,000.
Venue and catering rentals
Budget for costly nonfood items. Consider what your venue or caterer includes as part of their service packages before making any decisions.
Our venue provided tables and chairs, and our caterer provided china, glassware, tablecloths, servers, a bartender and a party coordinator in its package deal.
The caterer also handled the rental, delivery and return of cocktail tables we wanted placed around the venue. That saved us money over having to rent tables, linens and decorations separately.
Reception and drinks
Have a cocktail party instead of a full reception. You can still have all of the trappings of a reception without the standard sit-down or buffet meal.
Our guests loved the food at our reception, and since they didn’t have to sit down to eat, the evening kept the social vibe that we wanted.
Limit drink selections
If you plan to have an open bar, keep costs in check by offering beer, wine and a signature cocktail.
We chose to have specific spirits (vodka, flavored vodka, bourbon, gin and rum) available based on our guests’ preferences.
But our bartender was under strict orders to not pour shots, mostly because we didn’t want our guests to get out of control, which is more likely to happen with shots than cocktails.
You don’t need Champagne for a toast.
Most people are just as happy toasting with whatever they are already drinking.
If you want a sparkly option, have prosecco or cava available at the bar. These Italian and Spanish sparkling wines can taste just as good as Champagne and cost much less.
Choose a small wedding cake.
Cut it for photos, but serve a less expensive sheet cake or cupcakes to guests.
The benefit of cupcakes is that you serve a variety of flavors. You can also skip the cake and serve your favorite desserts such as pie, brownies, lemon bars, etc.
Flowers and centerpieces
- Keep bouquets simple. Carry a simple bouquet and give bridesmaids a few stems of a specific flower to hold. Boutonnieres can be the bud of the same flower. Limit other fresh flower decorations. No one will care if you don’t have flowers lining the aisles or in vases around your venue.
- Get flowers at a grocery or big-box store. Choosing seasonal or local flowers will lower your cost even more. Ask friends or family to help you make simple arrangements for the reception. Buy vases at craft stores using coupons or buy them used. Here are some other ideas to save money on wedding flowers.
- Get creative with decorations. Pinterest has unlimited ideas for decorating with items like mason jars, wine bottles and other inexpensive objects. Choose decorations that can be easily arranged at the venue the day before or the day of your event. There are lots of ideas for inexpensive centerpieces.
If photography isn’t a priority, consider hiring a photography student through your local art school. Check out potential photographers’ portfolios so you can ensure their style matches what you want.
Limit the time you need the photographer present by skipping the “getting ready” photos and having friends and family take candid shots for the second half of the reception when it’s just people dancing and drinking.
Make wedding favors, or skip them. You can provide a cookie or candy table with small boxes or bags for a reasonable price.
For our reception, photo-booth pictures served as favors and I bargained with the vendor to do two copies of each photo so one of each could be included in our memory book.
Hair and makeup
Do your own hair, nails and makeup. If you’re not great at it, ask a friend or family member to help.
I know so many people who didn’t love their hair or makeup on their wedding day even though they spent a ton of money at the salon.
My sister did my hair, and it looked better than any salon updo I’ve had.
Save on music
If you’re determined to have a band, limit the time it plays. Create an iPod playlist to be played during dinner, and have a friend make any announcements.
The less time the band plays, the less money you have to pay.
Don’t forget to register
Register on Amazon. If you have decided to create a gift registry, Amazon has a great one.
Not only do they offer free shipping (guests can order online and have the item shipped directly to you, if needed) they also often have lower prices than other stores. Plus, they have a 10% completion discount on items you registered for but didn’t receive.
By focusing on what is important to you for your wedding and being flexible with the details that are less important to you, you can have a wedding you’ve always dreamed of for less money.