Steal the Day: Advice for Getting the Most Out of Your Wedding Budget

by Michelle Taute

You’re in that euphoric stage of early wedding planning. You’re poring over your stash of bridal magazines. Stealing a look at your favorite wedding blogs whenever the boss isn’t around. Filling up countless Pinterest boards with photos of gorgeous flowers, gowns, and cocktails. In fact, you’ve already mentally Photoshopped yourself into those dreamy wedding images.

Except there’s one little problem: None of those inspiration pictures come with price tags. So when you finally set a budget and start pricing your vendors, it can feel like someone threw a lukewarm glass of cheap champagne all over your dreams. But there’s no reason to let a little sticker shock keep you from having a fab wedding. We’ve found tips and tricks for taming the budget and still having the day you’ve always imagined.

Wedding Budgets 101

OK, it’s time to get real and talk numbers. “Don’t book anything until you’ve set your budget,” says Julie Schmidt, owner of Cincy Event Planning. Instead, she recommends you sit down with whoever is contributing to the wedding—you, your fiancé, your parents, your soon-to-be in-laws—and have an open dialogue about who’s contributing what. Then stick your budget into a spreadsheet and start dividing it up among the expected expenses, such as venue, catering, attire, flowers, and more.

“Only allocate 80 to 90 percent of your total budget. That way you’ll have some wiggle room…”

“Be realistic about what your budget is and what you want to do with it,” says Michelle Kinne, co-owner of Blue Dahlia Events. “If you have a small budget, you won’t have the biggest and best of everything but that’s OK.” Instead, she recommends you pick out the two or three things that are most important to you and spend more in those areas. Another pro tip from Kinne: Only allocate 80 to 90 percent of your total budget. That way you’ll have some wiggle room when you fall hard for a dreamy dress or over-the-top bouquet that’s a little beyond the official budget.


Guest Lists, Dates, and Hidden Savings

Two early decisions can have a big impact on your overall budget: head counts and the wedding date. “The number one way to save is to keep your guest list small,” Schmidt says. “You can do amazing things on a smaller budget if you have fewer guests to pay for.” Each guest increases everything from the catering and bar bill to the number of tables, chairs, linens, and centerpieces you need. The same goes for the bridal party: Fewer groomsmen and bridesmaids cuts down on flowers, transportation, and other expenses.

Have too many friends and family for a small guest list? Take a second look at your wedding date. “Many venues have special packages for weddings in the off-season or on Fridays or Sundays,” says Dora Manuel, owner of Viva Bella Events. “If you are willing to be a little creative with the day of the week and time of the year you get married, it can save money.” Winter is slow season in the wedding world, so think January instead of May for lower prices with just about any vendor.


Eats, Drinks, and Cents

The catering and bar bill make up the biggest slice of your reception budget, but there are still dollars to be saved. Schmidt suggests you price out the options between a sit-down meal, duet plate (a dinner with two main courses, such as lobster and steak), and buffet with your caterer. “You might be surprised that a buffet is not always the least expensive option,” she says. Also ask your caterer for creative ideas to dress up a basic chicken or beef dish without spending a ton on elaborate multi-course meals that may dig into your budget.

“You might be surprised that a buffet is not always the least expensive option.”

To sober up the bar tab, try offering wine, beer, and a signature drink instead of a full bar. Or find a venue that allows you to bring in your own alcohol. Sometimes you can buy the liquor and have the caterer provide the mixers and bartenders. Plus, Schmidt says Cork ’N Bottle allows you to return unopened items for a refund if your guests happen to down fewer cocktails than expected. It’s a simple way to get some cash back.

If you’re open to a daytime wedding, you might be able to save even more. Kinne points out that brunch costs less than dinner. Or you can have a daytime affair in the afternoon with drinks and heavy appetizers. You’ll find that the bar bill tends to be cheaper when the sun’s up, because guests naturally drink less during the day.


Amazing Dresses for Less

No dream wedding is complete without the dream dress, but a designer gown can easily bust the budget. What’s a fashion-loving bride to do? “Look for trunk shows and sample sales in your area,” says Jessica Azarov, wedding planner at Sweetheart Planners. “There are incredible opportunities to get more for less.” She also recommends checking out Nordstrom, Bloomingdale’s, or J. Crew for fashionable dresses without shocking prices. Nordstrom carries dresses with sparkle and lace, while J. Crew has sleek, sophisticated designs for brides who want a modern yet classic wedding-day look.

Related: Weddings 101: Bridal Trunk Show Tips

What else? Think about something (just a little bit) old. Azarov says more brides are turning to online resale sites like to save as much as half. You might even find gently used gowns by the likes of Vera Wang and Jenny Packham. If you prefer new, one of Kinne’s brides saved by heading to a seamstress. “She actually spent less money having the dress custom-made than buying from a shop,” she says.

Look for ways to save on accessories, too. For jewelry, Manuel suggests the something borrowed route. “There is something sentimental and beautiful about borrowing your family jewelry,” she says. “Before you buy new, ask your mom, aunts, and grandmother if you can look through what they have.”


Budget-Friendly Decor

There’s an art to making your venue shine. Oftentimes, creativity can take you almost as far as extra dollars. “Candles are my favorite budget decor,” says Azarov. “With enough candles, you can make quite a statement.” Try displaying them in inexpensive candleholders or vases. Azarov’s even seen attractive options at Cut floral costs by choosing in-season stems and simple arrangements. A centerpiece with fewer types of flowers is often less expensive.

It also pays to do a little thrifty bargain shopping. Schmidt suggests scouring Craigslist, yard sales, and local message boards for brides reselling decor. She’s seen amazing items going for half the original price. And when it comes to wedding favors, just skip them. “Unless it’s something interactive like a photo booth, most favors get left or tossed aside once the guests get home,” she says. “Trust us, your guests won’t miss them.”

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