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Tips on How to Plan a Fabulously Frugal Wedding

I've been a couponer for over 15 years. My husband was once a skeptic, but now he's a believer.

Congrats—on all that money saved!

Congrats—on all that money saved!

Frugally Planning a Wedding

First of all, congratulations on your engagement! You've found your lifelong lover (as I call my husband of four years, together for nine), and you're about to take one of the biggest steps of your life! It's so exciting!

Now comes the planning. Ugh. It's stressful. It's a big investment, but does it have to be?

I don't know about you, but I grew up in a very frugal family. My husband was shocked when I told him that we were going to McDonald's for a treat about once a month; new clothes were only for my birthday or Christmas; and I considered garage sales, thrift stores, and dollar stores my mall. Believe me, when I graduated during the recession, I couldn't have been more thankful for my upbringing.

One of my several jobs during college was as a banquet server. I worked long hours setting up and breaking down weddings. As we shared a portion of the 18% gratuity rate charged to clients, we made it a habit to look at the bill. It was staggering. For a roughly three-star hotel back in 2004, the room rental was $5,000, the food could be $20–$35 a person (most weddings we catered were between 75 and 350 people), and if you had any kind of bar, you had to pay an inflated version of the bartender's hourly wage. That's not even including the fee for the dance floor and a $2.50-a-slice cake-cutting charge!

Good Lord! I had no idea how anyone could afford this kind of wedding, and when you consider that most people have massive amounts of student loans and/or credit card debt, this spending seems excessive and counter-intuitive.

"There has to be a better way," said the Sham-Wow guy. And me.

It turns out there is. You can still have a classic, small wedding with substance and pizzazz without having to eat ramen noodles for the next 20 years to pay for it. We did our whole wedding with 15 people for under $750, including my dress, food, space, his ring, cake, and ceremony officiator. Let's talk about how we did it.

The Dress

I am a huge dress snob and probably had higher expectations for my dress than anything at our wedding. It had to be form-fitting yet not emphasize my middle section—and sexy yet classy enough to be around my grandparents. (Keep this as a rule of thumb. I've seen some dresses that show way too much, and there's no way Grandma needs to see your cleavage. Even with a cool Grandma.) The dress had to be fit for a queen at around $100. (Yes; I know I'm crazy.)

I was pleasantly surprised to find one at David's Bridal, of all places. I wasn't pleased to be at a chain wedding dress store, but they really had a great variety and at different price points.

By the way, when you go, bring a good friend that's going to be honest about how the dress looks on you. The salespeople are there to sell. You need to know if it's not flattering or if you need to go up a size. If you have a larger bottom like me, then you may not want a dress that's tighter in the bottom. If you have short legs, also like me, then you may not want a short dress that gets wider at your knees. It's not flattering. Be honest with yourself. Know your body type. It's best for everyone.

In the same vein, be kind to yourself. Your partner is marrying you for who you are, and you should embrace your beautiful body. Just don't set your body up for failure, okay?

When narrowing down your dress choices, keep in mind that you need to move in it, it needs to be comfortable, and you'll need to use the bathroom while you're in it.

My dress ended up being $150, and I was lucky that it didn't need to be tailored. The Dress Gods were smiling that day as the dress fit me quite nicely. If I remember correctly, we did have to pay around $50 to get it pressed. We completed the look with a sparkly band from a local craft store for $20. (I would strongly avoid buying anything at the bridal stores that you can get elsewhere. The prices can be pretty inflated.) As for shoes, no one could see my shoes under the dress, so I wore my own high heels.

While I was able to find a brand new dress, you may have luck at thrift stores, second-hand stores, Facebook, Craigslist, elsewhere online, etc. I've seen white dresses from time to time at stores like H&M and Forever21 that are more casual, but again, you can adapt to what you'd like your wedding to be. If you buy at H&M, you can get a 15% off coupon by donating old clothes!

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Bonus Points: You can also sell your dress on Facebook after the wedding! This can help you recoup money spent on it.

You should start looking for the dress as soon as you are able to. Don't be afraid to look at many different spots like downtown cities like Chicago or New York that may have dress outlet stores, but you may even have luck at small-town shops.

May the Dress Gods smile on you. It may be time-consuming, so don't get discouraged!

My $150 dress from David Bridal, plus the $20 detail. Loved this dress.

My $150 dress from David Bridal, plus the $20 detail. Loved this dress.


The Ceremony Officiant

This was one of my minor regrets in planning. We hired a Justice of the Peace to officiate, but it was a bit more expensive than I thought it would be. I believe we ended up paying $75–$150 for our 20-minute service. You can do better.

I would recommend getting a friend to do the ceremony. We have not experienced this—and check the laws in your city/state—but I've read that anyone can be ordained through the online Universal Law Church. It's worth a look to get a more touching and personal ceremony for less.

The Ring

My husband did hours of research on the stone style and placement to create the ring that most represented my old soul personality. I don't know how he pulled it off, but he managed.

I wanted to return the favor. Something manly yet a little sassy, fancy, and effortlessly chic with a clean design. (For anyone that knows my husband, this is spot-on.) I peeked at jewelry stores, but being a lower-maintenance woman who rarely wears jewelry, it all seemed overpriced for what I knew he'd love.

Enter I was running out of options and landed on the website half-jokingly. To my surprise, there was a ring that matched what we wanted. And it was $20.

To this day, he loves his ring. He's received a lot of compliments on it. And we chuckle about how little we spent. If it gets scratched up, we'll simply buy another.

As for wedding bands, we found them to be completely unnecessary. Again, it's up to you. We simply took off our engagement rings for the ceremony. Nobody cared. We didn't have to spend more money, and we don't have additional rings to take care of. Win-Win.

The Ring I Bought for My Husband

Candid, but check out the beautiful ceremony locale!

Candid, but check out the beautiful ceremony locale!


The Location

One of my biggest tips: the easiest thing for you and your fiancé is to have a small wedding unless you have a huge close family. If you do, you may want to skip the rest of this article. For some reason, people are tempted to invite anyone they've ever met. Your acquaintance from college. An old frenemy that you're trying to impress. That nice person at the DMV.

DON'T. If you haven't spoken to them in years and you don't consider them close, they don't need an invite. They can see you in your beautiful dress on Facebook. Your wedding posse should be reserved for your dearest friends and family, who appreciate you and know you best. Your wedding should be comfortable with no one to impress or compete with, okay?

Okay, getting off the soapbox now.

Our wedding party was fifteen people. We wanted to get married someplace beautiful that wasn't a church. Luckily, our improv troupe practiced in a space that fit the bill. It looks like a small palace with stained glass windows, a bright, all-white interior, and a huge marble staircase. Best of all, it was historical and hit pretty much all of my buttons. I inquired, and it was $40 for an hour! We planned on having a short ceremony, and so this was perfect!

You may not strike it lucky as we did, but it may be easier than you think. Don't be afraid to think outside the box. You may find churches or hotels booked, but check historical buildings. There are historical buildings all over—in big cities and in small towns. Historical societies may own these buildings, so you could be giving the money to a non-profit versus a hotel corporation. My friend also got married in a state park, which fits her outdoorsy personality and can also be an option.

One thing to consider when making initial discussions with venues: Make it clear that you wish to keep the ceremony to a certain time (e.g., an hour) and that you plan on eating elsewhere. That should help to keep the rental cost down. Otherwise, some venues may have their own contracted food vendors that you get stuck with if you choose to eat there. I don't know about you, but I'm all about options. You should be able to choose whichever food you'd like, which brings me to...

The Food

Instead of being stuck in Meeting Room C at a hotel at the mercy of the numerous fees, why not just go to a restaurant? Of course, with reservations.

We chose one of our favorite restaurants that happened to be less than a block away from the venue. This meant that I got to make my public debut of me and my dress to people on the street (you bet I worked it!), but more importantly, the restaurant was historical, local, lively, and had a wonderful ambiance. The food was excellent, and the menu was extensive—all important to me. It was also the place where we went for our anniversaries and mere blocks from where we met.

Lucca's had pasta, pizza, salad, soups, meat, appetizers, wine, beer, etc. We wanted to make sure that everyone could find something to eat. Our family doesn't really have food allergies, but some families do, and that's always an incredibly important point to consider when choosing a restaurant. We sat at a huge table, so there was no rental fee. Best of all, no cake-cutting fee.

They devoted one server to us, and we were treated like royalty. We paid less than $300 total, and a lot of that was me prompting our guests to order what they would enjoy, plus numerous appetizers. It was an absolutely fantastic meal and exactly what we wanted.

Depending on where you go, some restaurants may charge you if you want your own private room. They may not. Just ask.

Side comment: You probably won't feel the need to have a rehearsal dinner if you have a small wedding. We didn't. It's just one more meal for fifteen people that you'd have to pay for.

If the ceremony space that you've chosen hopefully allows you to bring your own food, that would be my second choice after a restaurant. Your food choices should reflect your people. Our people are simple and unpretentious and want good food. Our local IGA has some of the best fried chicken available, so we would have had that with Bob Evans mashed potatoes (heavily buttered, of course) in crockpots and a mini salad bar with two homemade dressings. Just a nice, low-maintenance meal, complete with...

Check out that cake! It was delicious!

Check out that cake! It was delicious!

Charming restaurant with my lunatic...I mean, lovable family.

Charming restaurant with my lunatic...I mean, lovable family.

The Cake

We are cake people and judge a wedding by its cake. True story.

Keep it simple with a white cake and vanilla buttercream. You can't go wrong. Unless your crew is vehemently a lemon or other fruit-flavored kind of family. So be it. There is room for everyone. Otherwise, keep the choices easy for yourselves. Save time and just get the classic white/vanilla.

Depending on where you live and what's available to you, a tasteful cake with minimal decoration for fifteen people should be in the ballpark of $50–$150. Go to a local bakery or even a chain like Costco, which has a lot of good baked goods for reasonable prices. Be sure to call ahead to schedule a tasting beforehand, but be aware that you may get charged for the tasting if you don't buy a cake from them. Use Yelp reviews to narrow your choices down.

We had a simple, delicious two-tier cake which was exactly what we were looking for. Any decoration you add beyond sanding sugar, like anything made out of fondant (sugar clay), will cost you much extra. (I used to work at a bakery.) Check out ideas online before going to the bakeries. They can help direct you and mold your ideas, but they need something to start with.

For our cake, we were lucky that my parents offered to buy it. We didn't even ask them to buy it, so that was a nice surprise. Not only did this save us money, but my Mom is a cake testing machine who already knew the best bakeries in town. They also saved us several hours in tastings. If your family doesn't know what to get you and you already have several toasters, maybe this is an option.

Other Items

There were a few items that I didn't mention and only because they weren't a major aspect of our wedding. They may be important to you, so here are my tips for them:

  • Hair, Make-Up, and Pampering: If you're keen on getting your hair done, check out local beauty schools. A lot of times, they are charging less than half of what a regular salon charges. I've been using area beauty schools for years for haircuts, facials, and massages. They usually aren't able to work on clients until they've had experience. Most can also do make-up. Otherwise, I used vintage, sparkly bobby pins to pin my hair half up. When in doubt, do a neat, low bun. Or YouTube videos if you'd like more trendy hair/make-up. Dollar Tree has Elf brand make-up, so you can experiment.
  • Nails: Most beauty schools also offer pedicures and manicures. Be sure to book way in advance if you can.
  • Photography: This is the one aspect out of all of the other aspects that really doesn't have much of a discount. You can try a local photography student, but make sure they have the necessary, heavy-duty camera needed for the job. For ours, my mother took pictures with her camera, and that was all we needed. If pictures are important to you, this may be one area that you splurge. Use Yelp reviews as much as you can.
Don't be a Bridezilla. Keep your sh*t together.

Don't be a Bridezilla. Keep your sh*t together.

Bonus Advice

Before you start digging into the meat of your planning, consider these things:

  • This is you and your partner's wedding. Not your parents', not Martha's, not any sort of obscure Instagram celebrity that somehow has a gazillion followers. You have one day to be a King, Queen, or whatever you choose to be. Use it. Make it your own. Say no. Do things reasonably as you wish, but do not let anyone else influence your choices. Do things your way, and enjoy every minute. It goes by very fast.
  • But, Ix-Nay on the Bridezilla or Groomzilla, or any-Zilla behavior. Planning is all part of the experience, and you don't want to spend the first few months apologizing to loved ones because you couldn't keep a cool head. You are not planning for an International Dignitary. You are not curing cancer. This is a celebration of your love for each other. Don't put unnecessary stress on yourself.
  • There are things you can skimp on and things you shouldn't. Sit down with your fiancé and make a list of what is most important for the wedding. You may find striking a balance between finances and emotions easier than you think.
  • The planning is also secretly one of your first teamwork tests for you and your partner. Make sure you both are on board with your plans and agree on the spending amounts. Talk about a reasonable budget in advance based on the list you made from the previous suggestion. Finances are one of the most awkward things to talk about, and if you haven't spoken about them before, you should start now. This can give you a taste of how subsequent financial discussions with go down the line. Have frank discussions upfront, because you both will be dealing with any financial repercussions down the road.
  • Do not be afraid to comparison shop for virtually anything. Use Yelp to narrow down good/bad vendors. Try to aim for calling at least three vendors in any category (i.e., food, venues, etc.) when doing your research. You may be pleasantly surprised. Or not, but it's worth an ask.
  • Another reminder: The day will go by so, so quickly. Have fun and enjoy every single minute. You both deserve it.
Best wishes on your marriage!

Best wishes on your marriage!

© 2018 Lauren Sutton


Lauren Sutton (author) from Milwaukee, WI on April 28, 2018:


Doug West from Missouri on April 28, 2018:

I just forwarded your article to my wife. She is busy helping our daughter plan a wedding on small budget. Thanks for the advice.

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