Below is a trimmed list of to-dos. They are in this order for a very good reason: One thing always informs the next when it comes to wedding planning. We hope it will save you the trouble of trying to figure out what to do first, give you the least you need to know to plan a great event, and provide quickie links to key parts of this site.
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No, it's not the easiest—or most pleasant way to begin—but let's go there anyway. You don't need to get the specifics nailed down, but you do need to start the planning process with a ballpark number. Our budget tool can help you estimate, and, once you start spending, help you keep track.
The biggest things that impact the cost of your wedding are style and number of guests. Think of it this way: wedding's style + guest-list size = wedding budget.
There are the old-school traditions of who pays for what, but they're hardly the norm these days. Many couples pay for their own weddings, which means taking the time to save money (not go into debt!). Maybe that's why the average engagement now lasts 14 months.
The average wedding costs $28,082, according to the 2009 Brides.com American Wedding Study. And we've seen weddings for 30 people that cost the same as a wedding for 300—that's where the style comes in.
2. Wedding Style
Now that you have a sense of what you can spend, figure out: How do you want the wedding to feel? This choice will determine almost every other style choice you make, and help you start to budget more specifically. We've laid out some options here to help you answer this critical question. When you find your "feeling," you'll determine formality. Play around with colors on our fun color tool, and check out some very creative ideas for thematic concepts here. And enjoy it. This is the fun part.
For some people, where they'll actually exchange vows is obvious, and critical, for religious reasons. If this is your situation, start your planning with the ceremony. The timing and location will affect your next to-do: finding a reception site. For some, the ceremony site need only be beautiful and meaningful. If you put it into that category, skip ahead to Step 4 then backtrack once you've found the reception site and find a great local ceremony site or officiant in our local pages. Or, you may want to marry at the reception location. We can help with ideas, and answer your questions, in our Ceremony Index.
4. Wedding Party
Now that you know the size of the ceremony space, choose your wedding-party members. Why wait? Because ceremony sites often have size restrictions, and 10—or even five—bridesmaids may not fit. If you have no concerns about this, go ahead and choose sooner. Don't be restricted by gender or worry about having even-numbered sides. Choose the people who mean the most to you. You probably won't want to choose bridesmaid dresses until you've chosen your own gown. (That doesn't mean you can't research some bridesmaid dress ideas, though, right?) And don't forget about the guys—here are some groom and guys ideas.
Why register this early in the process? You'll be pleasantly surprised to find that the gifts may start coming in soon, in the form of "engagement gifts." And then there are the bridal showers—sometimes multiple ones. You can always add more items later, but start your checklist (see our registry checklist here) soon if you want to steer early gifters in the right direction. You've got lots of places to choose from (see a list of favorite registries from us and BRIDES Magazine) or you can create a single registry at a site called myregistry.com, to which you can import any registries you've already started, and add any item you see anywhere at any store—whether they have an official wedding registry or not.
We've got tons of ideas in our Registry Index for choosing amazing items for your registry, plus advice to help you pull it all together. And if you need some home-design inspiration, check out our digital archive of stories and images from the late, great Domino magazine in our Home Décor Index.
6. Reception Site/Wedding Date
It's difficult to set a wedding date until you have a reception site reserved. And many of these book up over a year in advance. Our advice: Pick a season and be flexible. The reality is, there's not a single month of the year that's not ideal for a wedding. If you aren't sure where you want to wed, check out our Destination Weddings Index, where you'll find all kinds of different places, from the beach, to the city, to the mountains.
Once you know how you want the wedding to feel, search through our options for venues. You may be surprised to find how many different places are now hosting weddings. Your reception site choice will also inform all your other style decisions (including your gown), and when you add it to the cost of food and drinks, will use up about 50 percent of your budget. So yes, it's a pretty critical step.
7. Guest List
Many wedding-related prices (think: meals, drinks, cakes, invitations, favors) are priced per person. You don't need to figure out specifics right now, but you need to come up with a ballpark number. The bride's and groom's sides should not be uneven simply because one side is paying. But they may be uneven if one side has a bigger family or is closer to the wedding location. Visit our Guests Index to check out our best advice on choosing, inviting, and taking good care of your guests. Keep track of whom you want to invite, and the status of your invitations with our Guest Manager tool.
8. The Dress
Our advice here is to not buy a gown until you know where you're getting married. Plans change—sometimes drastically. Once you know how you want your wedding to feel, and where it's taking place, you're ready to shop.
In the Wedding Gowns Index we've got everything you need to know about gown shopping, tips for choosing the right style for your body, great examples of real brides who've inspired us, and of course thousands of dresses to browse or search in our Wedding Gown Gallery. (Note: you can always look at anything on brides.com without having to register).
If you want to know about upcoming sales and discounts in your area, read our blog Aisle Say, where our editors will alert you to samples sales in areas near you.
Once you know the feel of your wedding, and when and where it is, start exploring all the beautiful options in our Invites & Stationery Index. Besides the number of invites you need, the biggest cost factors are the designer and printing type, which are explained in our glossary. But the biggest stress factor is usually the invitation's wording, which we have lots of advice about.
10. Wedding Website
Building a wedding website is great way to inform guests about things like directions to your ceremony and/or reception site, hotels, car services, and babysitters nearby. Putting this information online will save you some money on your invitations—you won't need as many additional pieces. You can very easily build a wedding website of your own, for free, on brides.com.
Many great photographers schedule a year or two in advance. See the Photos & Video Index for articles about how to find the right style of photography, and the right photographer for you. Once you've met with a few folks, check out our tips on weeding through all the package and album options.
Of course it really comes down to finding the right photographer for you, so start browsing for those who are near, or who will travel to, your reception location.
12. Food & Drinks
You'll need to decide not just what to serve, but how to serve it. The reception site may control all the food, or allow outside caterers, or be set up to allow for only one type of serving style. We explain all the serving styles and cost differences in our Meals & Drinks Index Page, along with creative ideas for making it memorable.
When it comes to booze, yet again your options depend on your reception site and its rules. If you need to keep costs down, there's nothing wrong with just beer and wine, or even champagne only. Our only rule: No cash bars. For any reason. Ever.
13. Flowers & Lighting
It's a good idea to have your serving style and table types settled before you figure out your flowers, so you know how many centerpieces you'll need and the sizes they should be (what works on a cocktail table would obviously look silly on a large round table that seats 10 people). Browse some gorgeous ideas or search for specific colors in our Flowers Gallery, and check out our Flowers Shopping List for a visual glossary of what you'll need. The next step is to find a great florist with creative ideas near your reception location.
The only thing more wonderful than having beautiful flowers is actually seeing beautiful flowers. And that's where lighting designers come in. And if you've poured your creative energies into styling the reception space, it's a good idea to make sure the things you want to highlight (flowers, cake, dance floor) are lit differently from the things you want to pretend aren't there (weird structural beams, bad carpeting, sound system equipment).
Band, DJ, or iPod? We love them all for different reasons. But there's a true skill to reading a crowd, and bringing a party to life. That's what hiring a professional should bring to your reception. Couples typically hire musicians or DJs for the ceremony, the cocktail hour, dinner, and dancing. We'll walk you through your options in the Music & Entertainment Index, along with lots of fresh, new song ideas (adios, "At Last" by Etta James).
Sugar is never more artfully presented than in a wedding cake. For some couples it's an expression of creativity, another surface to design and style. For others it's a tradition, and their cake's classic look says so. We've got all kinds of options for both in our incredible Wedding Cakes Gallery, with images from BRIDES, and digital archives of Modern Bride and Elegant Bride, as well. Everything you need to know about weddings cakes can be found in our Wedding Cakes Index, with shopping tips and flavor ideas. And of course it only becomes a reality when you find a baker near you.
Whether you're doing the whole "getaway car" thing or not, you'll need some way to ferry the wedding party from the ceremony to the reception and home. While you're at it, if your budget permits, we strongly suggest you provide transportation for guests, especially out-of-towners, from hotel to ceremony to reception and back again. There are lots of clever options, but a straight-up shuttle will do the trick.
17. Hair, Makeup, and Accessories
Your dress is in and fittings have begun. You should already have your shoes so you can properly hem your gown. Now that you can see exactly how your dress will fit, it's time to look for some jewelry and accessories.
It's also time to figure out your hair, and what you'll wear in, over, or around it. After the length and texture of your hair, your gown—specifically its neckline—should determine your hairdo choice. See our article on what hairstyle works with your gown's neckline. Some brides style their hair based on a veil or headpiece they love; others choose their headpiece based on the hairstyle they want. Either way works.
Once you hire a hairstyle pro, you'll go for a hair trial and figure out what works. The same goes for makeup. See some gorgeous ideas for wedding-day makeup here, and find an artist near you.
If you're planning the average year-out wedding, once you've reserved all your places and hired all your vendors (and sorted out your plans with them), there will be a pretty long lull where you won't have to write any checks or make any decisions. You'll probably wonder if your vendors have forgotten about your wedding. Trust us, they haven't. But this downtime is good, since there are plenty more details to occupy your time: