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Anna Newell Jones is a blogger, author of the new book The Spender's Guide to Debt Free Living: How a Spending Fast Helped Me Get from Broke to Badass in Record Time, and wedding photographer based in Denver, Colorado, where she lives with her feisty husband and sassy two-year-old. Here, Anna tells her story of how her wedding spending spree pushed her deep into the red. Find out her wedding budget missteps, and how she finally told her husband the truth about her debt.
As I sat in front of my computer at two in the morning typing in my credit card info for an $80 custom zombie wedding cake topper (I thought it was a clever play on the whole "Until Death Do You Part" thing), I got that sinking feeling in my gut again, a feeling I'd felt so often I barely even noticed it anymore. I was spending money I didn't have on things I didn't need. It was a maddening cycle I had been in for over nine years. Overspending was a way of life for me, and because of it I would go over my wedding budget by 90 percent and amass, within my first year of marriage, close to $24,000 in debt.
Here's the story: I'm a wedding photographer. I love the work, and have carved out a solid business for myself. However, I'm not rich, so when we told my parents we were getting married, they gave us $3,000 to help pay for it, and we decided to add as much as needed to craft the small and simple-but-elegant wedding we imagined. Then all hell broke loose, because suddenly I had "permission" to spend — it was my wedding, after all, and I deserved a perfect day, one that represented exactly who my fiancé and I were, who we'd be as a married couple. So my already poor spending habits (mostly buying poorly constructed clothing) morphed into terrible habits. I was throwing my card down for everything I may want for this party: far too many miniature candles, countless invitation samples, and seven headpiece options — two headbands, a paper flower, a papier-mâché flower-and-twigs "crown" (cooler than it sounds), a retro 1920s feather clip, and a fluffy-but-not-too-fluffy ivory tulle veil that would be the ultimate winner.
Then came the hangover. Thanks to the decade-long spending orgy culminating with my wedding, my first year of marriage was a mess of stress and anxiety. I'd done my best to keep my spending habits hidden from my husband, but I hit my financial bottom seven months after the wedding, when suddenly the denial that had kept me plopping down my Visa for all those years just no longer worked. I was married, I was ready to be an adult, and I was sick of this secret debt overshadowing my life. I knew it was time for a change.
Then, when I was on a plane headed to visit my Midwest family for the holidays, I started thinking about an idea I had heard in passing but had brushed off in the past. The idea? Do a Spending Fast.
At the time there was nothing online about how Spending Fasts work or how to go about doing one so I decided that based on the name I'd make my own rules. I'd start by doing the painful task of building my Reverse Budget (basically a spending inventory) and then, I built what turned out to be the backbone of the Spending Fast, my Wants and Needs list. The basic idea is that I decided I would only spend money on the necessities I needed for survival. And, oh yeah, I was going to do it for a year and write all about it on my blog.
The next step was to tell my brand-new husband the extent of my spending damage. I brought it up casually, after dinner on a random Tuesday. We were seated comfortably on the couch getting ready to watch one of our guilty-pleasure shows on TV. I mentioned how my debt had been weighing incredibly heavy on me and how I was finally ready to do something kind of extreme to try to tackle it once-and-for-all. I quickly shifted gears to my plan: that I'd be doing a spending fast for a year, and documenting the process on a blog I was starting. I figured that if I acted cool with a hint of "trust me this is gonna be good," he'd be into the idea too.
To say he was not excited would be a massive understatement. Aaron is a moderate spender who only owed on a small college loan, and didn't understand the need for such extreme measures. He admitted that my spending concerned him, even if he'd mostly turned a blind eye to it, and that it was the main reason he didn't want to get a joint checking account with me. I'd thought it was because we were so cool and modern and had our own things going on. Realizing he had so little faith in my financial stability stung.
I'm an all-or-nothing type of person. I don't just "kind of" do something. I really do it. So sending an extra $30 the credit card companies every month wasn't working for me. I saw no positive movement on my statements, I was beyond discouraged, and I knew that if I was going to make any progress on my debts I was going to have to go all in. I cut out the wants and focused on the needs. I sacrificed, I learned to tell myself no, I made tough decisions. And I started seeing incredible results from my efforts, which motivated me to find ways to spend even less money. It was insanely addictive to see the numbers on my statements go down; I was actually enjoying paying off my debt, and I was feeling empowered. Paying down my debt became more satisfying than the accumulating of stuff that had led to it in the first place.
I'd set a year as my goal, and in the end it took 15 months to be debt-free. To celebrate, Aaron and I opened a joint checking account. The fast was good for my mental health, my financial health, and my marriage.
The first year of marriage is hard. Going into it with a pile of debt is not a stable foundation for the rest of your life. Because I got deeply into — and out of — the red, and because of my job as a wedding photographer, I have a pretty good idea of where you can cut back to stay on budget. Here are some tips to avoid the wedding debt trap:
1. Don't have a wedding. Have your wedding.
These days most couples are getting married later and are paying for the bulk of the celebration themselves. This is liberating! It means that your party doesn't need to be all things to all people. So, repeat after me: "I'm still married even if my big day doesn't look like a Pinterest board come to life." And avoid being pressured (by friends, parents, or even this magazine!) into decisions that don't match up with your priorities.
2. Don't set your budget first.
You need to have a realistic idea of expenses before you create your wedding budget. Start by contacting various vendors and requesting price lists. Then compile them in a spreadsheet and do some hard math. (Or let Excel do it for you.)
3. Pick your priorities.
Talk with your partner about how you see your day, then decide the three things that matter the most to you as a couple. Pay what you need to get your favorite vendor in your price bracket for each, and get acceptable versions of everything else. If food is your thing, splurge there; if fancy eats aren't a priority but music is, do a simple dinner and get the DJ you want.
4. Hire a planner.
I know it sounds expensive, but if your budget is particularly tight at least consult with a planner initially to help you define the vision for your wedding day — which will cost a few hundreds bucks (what I spent on unused headgear) — so you don't end up making unnecessary purchases in an attempt to determine what you like.
5. Don't decorate.
Pick a venue that doesn't need much (if any) embellishment. Decorations add up quickly. And watch out for the tented wedding in your parents' backyard, which seems low-maintenance and inexpensive, but the rentals add up quickly. Your best (cheapest) bet is to pick a venue outdoors that has been decorated by good ol' Mother Nature.
6. Make sure that DIY project is actually cheaper.
A lot of DIY projects such as creating wedding favors or even the invites themselves end up costing as much (if not more) to DIY than to simply buy them off of Etsy (or elsewhere). Especially if you're ambitious, or overestimate your skill set. If you fail to learn calligraphy well enough to address the envelopes, rushing a fix-job at the last minute will cost you even more.
7. Hold off on the honeymoon.
If you wait until your checking account refills and you can pay cash for The Biggest Trip of Your Life, and you won't be stuck worrying about debt long after your tan lines have faded.