The Only Advice You’ll Ever Need for a Cheap-Ass Wedding

The Only Advice You’ll Ever Need for a Cheap-Ass Wedding

Ah, summer! Wedding season! Love is in the air, and it’s time to express that love in front of everyone you know in a legally binding and probably permanent way! No big deal!

Enter the Wedding Industrial Complex™: that wicked machine that chews up formerly sane couples and spits out crazed people who shout things like “I don’t give one single fuck about fucking hundred-dollar napkin rings why is this all so fucking expensive?!” at one another.

Expressions of enduring love strained through the colander of financial stress tend to come out a little… wrong.

According to The Knot, the average American wedding in 2016 cost $35k. And why? Why have weddings become so goddamn expensive? And do they have to be?

I was inspired to write about cheap wedding planning when I read useless advice like “Buy a smaller diamond!” peddled as a legitimate solution to the problem of inflated wedding costs. That is woefully in-the-box thinking. Because frankly, if you’re already struggling financially to cover the cost of your wedding, buying a diamond of any size is not a reasonable option.

So we’re here to give you the only advice you’ll ever need on how to get married on the cheap. Our cred? I pulled off my rehearsal dinner, wedding, and honeymoon on a budget of $19k. And while that’s below the national average, I still felt like I was splurging. And Kitty? That bitch had a total budget of $4,000 for her DIY, forty-person backyard wedding.

We scrimped and saved, sought discounts, borrowed shit, called in favors. We DIYed till our fingers bled, went without, got strategic up in here.

How to get married

Let’s cut the shit. There is literally only one single thing you and your future spouse need to do to get married:

Sign a marriage license.

Some states have some extra paperwork or random tests to go through, but when you get right down to it, the only thing you have to do is drag yourself down to the county clerk’s office and sign that license. Which means:

Everything else is fucking optional.

The ephemeral white dress. The Pinterest-worthy centerpieces. The mildly talented violinist. None of it is actually necessary for getting married. So with this in mind, you can decide what is actually important to you… and what’s just icing on the reasonably-priced grocery store cake.

When I got married I couldn’t afford a DJ (and y’all know I needed to dance and lip-synch my ass off at my own wedding). So we just curated an iTunes playlist and assigned a friend to plug in the speakers the venue supplied and hit “play.”

Kitty didn’t want to shell out for a fancy venue. So she turned the parking lot behind her apartment building into a wedding wonderland filled with DIY décor and magical touches of loveliness for fucking pennies.

The point is that once you winnow down a wedding to its essential ingredients (a few consenting adults and a legally-binding contract), it frees you from the obligation of spending money on the things you don’t have to have. The things you don’t need, don’t want, but assumed you had to have. From there, you can prioritize and eliminate expenses.

As long as you sign that marriage license, you can do (and spend) whatever the hell you want. (Do yourself a favor and click on that link. I promise it’s worth it.)

Remember who is getting married

Your parents are not getting married on your wedding day. Nor are your grandparents, your pushy friend from high school, your judgmental sibling, your bossy aunt. You and your spouse are getting married.

So literally nobody else’s opinion counts.

What this means is you can safely ignore the “advice” given to you by friends and relatives about what you “simply must do.” Do not feel compelled to spend money on shit you don’t care about.

Don’t let Auntie Fran bully you into expensive party favors nor your mother-in-law attempt to guilt you into inviting one hundred more guests than you’d planned (this literally happened to my sister-in-law). You do not negotiate with terrorists.

When I was planning my wedding, I lamented the pressure I got from all sides to spend money on stuff I didn’t care about. A married friend actually said “Don’t you know your wedding isn’t for you, it’s for your family?”

I reject that defeatist outlook. For while our families are important to us, my husband and I honored them by including them in our wedding celebration, not by bowing to their every whim. We didn’t get married for themwe did it for us! It was our choice and—more importantly—our money.

For example, it’s important to my husband and I to save the rain forest and shit. But my mother-in-law was stuck on the idea that the dinnerware had to be fancy. We ignored her completely and got biodegradable cups, plates, and flatware (which was, incidentally, cheap af). Nobody noticed or cared.

Seriously: when Kitty was planning her own wedding six months later, she asked where I got cheap glasses and I had to remind her that we used biodegradable plastic cups instead. She was shooketh.

You shouldn’t prioritize the preferences of others in your wedding or let them talk you into spending money. They had (or will have) their chance. This one’s yours. Spend accordingly.

Do your fucking research

Once you decide on the stuff that matters to you and that you consider necessary, it’s time to hit the books.

There’s a lot of money to be lost out of ignorance. Don’t just accept the first bid that comes to you. Get competing bids, research online, ask your friends for referrals, price out how much cheaper it would be to DIY. Do this for everything.

And here’s where I’ll actually give you advice on specific items simply as a way to show you how flexible wedding costs actually are. Remember: ain’t nothing set in stone but that marriage license!

Mum’s the word

Don’t tell people it’s for a wedding! Bakeries automatically charge extra for a wedding cake. I assume the same goes for most other vendors, but I wouldn’t know because I mostly called in favors from friends. My “cake”? Ten pies lovingly baked in my own goddamn kitchen by my sister-in-law and a bridesmaid.

Timing is everything

Be not restricted by the “wedding season”! We got our wedding venue for 40% off because we got married two days after “wedding season” officially ended. The caterer threw in a discount for the same reason. They’re so grateful to be getting business outside of their busy season they’ll reward you for it.

Call in favors

Owed a favor or seventeen? This is the one time in your life when it’s socially acceptable to call them aaaaallllll in. Remember the rules of the friend trade, but it’ll still be cheaper than hiring professionals. And sometimes your friends are professionals, as was the case with our photographer and Kitty, who designed my invitations.

DIY if you dare

If you’re willing to brave the challenge of a DIY wedding, start early. I think my flower budget was under $20… because I started folding origami flowers out of the pages of used books eleven months before the wedding. It was a pleasant pastime while watching TV, I was done with plenty of time to spare, and did I mention it cost me nothing but used books and some craft supplies?

My mother made my wedding dress, just as her mother made hers.

I’m childfree af, so I’ll be breaking the family tradition. But wearing a gown lovingly designed and crafted by my own mom on my wedding day was an experience I will cherish forever. And not just because buying fabric is a helluva lot cheaper than buying a gown and having it tailored to fit.

For having my friends and loved ones involved in my efforts to pull off a cheap wedding did more than simply save money. It made the experience more personal, more special somehow.

I still have the adorable wooden cake toppers my maid of honor painted for our wedding pies. I was touched near to tears listening to our best man sing as I walked down the aisle. Sometimes I go to a friend’s house and notice, years after the fact, that they’ve kept one of my paper flower and whiskey bottle centerpieces and it makes me smile.

Remember the important stuff…

The rest will follow.

My only financial regret about my wedding is that I didn’t spend $8.99 to get our officiant ordained as a Jedi Knight. May you be equally blessed.

23 thoughts to “The Only Advice You’ll Ever Need for a Cheap-Ass Wedding”

  1. Excellent advice, as always! My wife and I are pretty proud of the cheap and awesome wedding we pulled off despite at least one parent’s objections. We had a “pop-up” ceremony in a local park (aka no venue cost) with just our close family and a couple friends. The next day we had a BBQ in our backyard and followed it up with a reception at a local brew-pub that provided all of the food and drink for a nice low price. We spent way, way below the average and had a long weekend surrounded by loved ones – couldn’t ask for more.

  2. We got married at the courthouse and held a party a year later after we purchased our house. While we put some money and a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into getting our backyard gussied up a little, it ended up being a relatively cheap reception minus the whole buying a home aspect. I bought a super fancy dress online from the clearance rack for $250, husband wore a suit he already owned, and I purchased our dog a blue bowtie. We rented a tent, tables, and chairs and ended up being able to use them all weekend thanks to the delivery schedule. Because of that, we grilled out the night before the party and had a brunch the next morning which helped defray some of the costs for our 25 or so guests. I DIYed nearly everything from the invites to the centerpieces to the food (cook ahead of time). A friend put together the flowers that I ordered online from Costco. We live in the Portland, OR area so I bought a lot of local wines and brews (that we iced down in a wheelbarrow) and our food was mostly local. Our cakes were from the neighborhood Safeway and they were shockingly good and very pretty. Our biggest expense was hiring a professional photographer, which was important to me. Do your research and you can still find a deal – she was a lot less than many photographers because she had just moved to the local area and was establishing herself. Our friends and family pitched in and made it so much fun. My friend who HATES crafting hot glued something for me, which was honestly the best gift I could have ever received and I tear up just thinking about it. No, seriously. I have never felt more beautiful or more loved than that weekend, and it all came in at about 1/7 the cost of the average wedding.

    1. The dog bowtie was really the most important piece of this wedding.

      No but srsly, I am ALL ABOUT backyard weddings. My sister-in-law got married in her parents’ backyard and it was gorgeous. Your wedding sounds like it was goddamn ENCHANTING.

  3. I’m planning my wedding right now (it’s in January – I’ve heard that advice about off seasons before), and venues in our area are so expensive that it’s actually cheaper for us to fly out to Vegas and have a small wedding there than it would be to have it in town! We’re saving several thousand dollars on venue and catering that way. Plus we got an AirBNB and we’re already right there for the honeymoon.

    Another piece of advice about rings: If you have to have something fancy, created white sapphire. It’ll be $200 or less, looks exactly like a diamond, and is almost as hard. (Or if cheap is more important than knowing you have a fancy gem, you could go the route my fiance and I did and go with cubic zirconia.)

    1. Holy shitballs venues in your area must be super expensive. But this is wonderful! You got a destination wedding for cheap!

      MY sister has a CZ as well and it’s lovely. Lab-created gems are so much more ethical too!

  4. We spent about $1000 on our wedding and MOST of that was paid for by other people because I told both of our families, “You can have it any way you want it, as long as you fucking pay for it.” Which worked! Our mothers paid for the things they REALLY cared about and my two overbearing aunts finally stfu about me being too low maintenance and “not caring” about my own wedding (which I didn’t–I wanted to elope. But he wanted a wedding, so whatever).

  5. We had a super intimate mountaintop ceremony with 25 of our closest family and friends and officiated by a woman we found on the Internet. She gave us a “package” that included officiating, supplying the flowers, cake, and photography! Our friends took photos during the ceremony and she took photos after. We then had a group dinner at the resort restaurant and hung out. It was perfect and 10 years later I’m so glad we didn’t spend a dime more.

  6. Damn the wedding industry for convincing people to spend the cost of a car on one day! For myself, I couldn’t be bothered.

    We got married on the side of a mountain by a marriage commissioner we found online, while we were on a trip we had already booked. Total additional costs were about $500 for the licence, commissioner, and drinks for our witnesses, who were a random (but lovely) couple from New Zealand.

  7. Yassssssss!
    Also, who says you need a ceremony or any of that extra expensive stuff?
    We got the marriage license, booked out a cafe for 2 hours, threw a party for 40 people and were done with in. Spent under $3000, and that includes taking my parents to visit my partner’s family in rural Japan. Done.

    1. Actually a formal ceremony led by an appropriately ordained / registered Officiant (nondenominational or not) and attended by at least two witnesses is required by a good number of states in the US (though I’m not sure where you’re specifically located)! It’s one of the biggest roadblocks I ran into when planning my wedding because we didn’t want a ceremony. It’s stupid but it is what it is.

      It’s incredibly important to call your local county clerk (or relevant political officials) and get all the information on your state’s marriage laws BEFORE planning what you’re going to do / have. It might turn out that you’ll need something you didn’t know about initially, which always inevitably changes you budget allocations. And if you’re trying to do it cheap, that stuff matter. Better to know it right out the door than to find out later you won’t have the money for some strange demand- or worse, that your marriage isn’t considered valid because you didn’t do x!

  8. I pulled off my wedding for under $500- including my Officiant, Cake, an entire crate of Champagne, all the food, the space for the ceremony and the reception, my Husband and I’s clothes, and… Well… Everything else.

    I said I wanted a simple backyard wedding with a few close friends and family. Early on in our planning, though, my mother decided to repeatedly try and make everything much more complicated than I wanted it to be; she wanted me to have a “traditional wedding” (whatever the hell that means) and kept trying to decorate everything under the sun. Me? I just wanted to spend as little money as possible celebrating a huge social milestone in my life.

    Eventually I gave up… Even cancelled our wedding, actually; I just didn’t want to start my marriage to my Husband stressed to the teeth because of my mother- especially not after we found out they were giving us the house as a wedding gift, and we were already going to have to make extensive renovations to it (which necessitated a big loan). We decided privately on a date and spent the next 6 months privately making all the appropriate arrangements and doing the research we needed… Then surprised our family with the date a week before the wedding so no one would have a chance to interfere or raise a fuss.

    The downside was that my father didn’t get to be there that morning for the actual ceremony (though he did get to attend the reception)… But the upsides were massive- like saving a metric freaking tonne of cash, starting our marriage as stress free as we could, and not having to deal with my mother’s absurdities. Best decision of my life.

  9. This THIS!!!!! We were also in the group of ‘spent as close to no money on the wedding as we could’ people. Our aim for the day was for it to be fun and memorable, and it was. We had 7 people there, we got married in the morning and went to orchestra rehearsal in the evening, and took off to the mountains to go hiking the next week. Ours was dirt cheap, but we could have easily scaled it up to include more people, food and dancing, and still been dirt cheap. I have no regrets, and grow more certain it was a good decision everytime I see someone going through wedding (and financial) agony to create this mystical perfect day that usually causes more stress than joy. And I say this as someone who has been in some AMAZING big production weddings (as in, they spent all of the $35k and then some).

    I think we have perhaps forgotten that the wedding is not actually the important part – it is everything that comes after that. The wedding is just the (often very important) public affirmation that there is meant to be an ‘after that’. Building a life together with someone is hard (rewarding) work, and that is where the effort needs to go. Seriously, don’t blow it all on one day.

    Interestingly though, when I bring this up with friends planning their (largely theoretical) weddings, the reaction is instant ‘oh, I couldn’t possibly do that.’ FOMO seems to be extremely strong with weddings, which is odd because I feel that a wedding is actually an event where you can ‘have it all’ for a fraction of the sticker price if you’re just willing to do your own thinking.

    Wow, this turned into an essay real quick. And I haven’t even talked about the wedding jewellery (and hoo boy, do I have opinions, man!)

  10. I highly recommend elopement. It’s what we did when we couldn’t get the guest list under 100 bc of my husband’s desire to invite all of his close coworkers from his former company — when I wasn’t inviting literally half my family — and he wanted an open bar. So… no way to really do it on the cheap and we didn’t have time or desire to DIY. BUT. Many bed and breakfasts have wedding packages, some of which even include up to a certain number of guests, and there are ALL KINDS of options in Vegas (you can get married on a gondola at the Venetian and live stream things for guests who can’t make it). You can even get married by a Hemingway impersonator in Key West. Now, not all of these are cheap options… especially if you have to travel. But our wedding was less than $2K for a driving-distance b&b, and included the b&b for the wedding night, clothes, rings, etc. I had a $200 gown (I was not interested in wearing white, and found something lovely in the formal gown section of Macy’s — note that they did have lovely formal gowns in white as well for much cheaper than the ones I saw in a bridal shop!), chocolate cake, and the word “obey” was not in the vows. And my mother was there. That was literally all the key stuff, for me. And it was SO RELAXING. Years later, no regrets.

  11. Yes, yes, and yes again! This is so on point I can screech! I had my wedding in Egypt because my husband’s family lives there. It cost us about 10,000 L.E. Which was equivalent to about $1500 USD at the time. And that was including a 8 day honeymoon in two different destinations! The ticket to get to Egypt was $800 and I had all the family I needed with me. It was beautiful and I don’t regret not spending a boat load of money.

  12. Just the type of reading I was pretending not to look for!

    I never heard of people charging more for wedding related items. I’ll certainly keep this in mind if we pursue the DIY route. The only real ‘wedding’ planning I’ve done is for the honeymoon a la travel hacking.

  13. Heh ever since I can remember, my parents have said I should elope because they can’t afford to pay for a wedding (not that I’ve ever planned on having them help me pay for it!) but they’ll be happy to throw a big party for my future spouse and me after. Which probably explains why I’ve never put much thought into what my DREAM wedding would be like haha.

  14. My husband and I got married for just under $1000 – including the rings and all the paperwork/fees. We began planning a more traditional wedding, but it got stressful fast – we didn’t really have money, none of the families were going to contribute anything besides their thoughts on how things “should” be done and it was going to be so much work that we would never enjoy ourselves. So we never sent the invites, we ate it on the venue deposit ($50) and planned a *secret* wedding instead.

    Basically our goal was to elope, but have all our friends around. Since we met at a blues dance that happened weekly, we had it there one night. One of the DJs is also ordained, so we asked him to perform the 5 minute ceremony in between sets that evening. We bowed to a little pressure and told some family members it was going to happen so they showed up, but overall none of our friends knew it was happening and it was a delightfully successful surprise! We danced our first dance and then spilled out into the parking lot to drink champagne from the back of a friend’s van. Hosted a fiesta at our apartment the next day as a reception.

    We still look at each other and high five over what a fun, magical time we had.

  15. I just found your website through the article about poor-shaming (great one), and I enjoyed reading this. But something I wonder, as someone who eloped herself (just me and my partner, no witnesses, no officiants), is whether that Knot estimate of $35K is even remotely accurate. It seems like that might be the average for people who use The Knot, but poorer couples and couples who aren’t having big weddings seem not to use that website. The Penny Hoarder has a good article about this.

    Anyway, nice reminder that absolutely everything except for the bare minimum of what’s legally required is optional! I think that’s a huge thing that’s missing from current thinking. As someone who skipped a lot of “essentials” — cake, flowers, other people, engagement ring, etc. — I think that’s so true (and wonderful).

  16. Love this post! And I’m enough of a cynical conspiracy theorist to think that those articles saying things about “the average wedding in America is 35K” are possibly false and just designed to make people spend more on the wedding-industrial complex. Just like back when I was young, there were TV commercials brainwashing people into spending two months’ salary on an engagement ring.

    I have been to lavish affairs with 400 guests, and small weddings in parks, and everything in between. And my husband and I, who eloped to Vegas, are just as married as those people! Truly, everyone should do what makes them happy but please, people, stop caring about keeping up with the Joneses (or whatever the Instagram/Pinterest version of this would be). You will be happier! And you’ll have more money to save/invest!

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