Planning the biggest day of your life (so far) isn’t something you do overnight. While every aspect of the wedding may seem equally important right now, plenty of decisions can wait, like figuring out the seating chart and honeymoon. Eight savvy Brides editors who know pretty much everything there is to know about weddings sat down and outlined the tasks that truly need your attention during the early stage of engagement—things like devising a budget and how to figure out what style of wedding is right for you. Once you get those major chores and choices out of the way, everything else will start to fall into place. And you’ll have more time for weekly manicures and ring flashing!
Get the Ring You Want
Think he’s ready to pop the question? Now’s the time to be gently proactive. "Educate him beforehand about what you like," says Sally Kilbridge, who tackles our readers’ thorniest issues. "If you feel squeamish about telling him, pass the word on to anyone you think he’ll ask for advice." Drop hints by admiring other women’s rings or those in store windows. "Then again, he may surprise you. If you love the ring, great. If not, address it then and there," she says. "If he gives you a family heirloom, you could say, ‘I love the diamond, but I’d like to reset it to make it more symbolic of us.’" If the proposal comes without the sparkler, start by looking together online, where there’s no pressure to buy.
Figure Out the Big Picture
You need to agree upon date, time, and place early on," says Nancy Mattia, who has written articles on every aspect of wedding planning. You could choose a time of year when your workloads are lightest or a holiday when your family gets together—and then consider what would be easy for your guests. "If a lot of people will be traveling to the wedding, do everyone a favor and choose a season when airfares and hotel rates aren’t sky-high." The time of day is a simpler decision. "Daytime weddings tend to be more kid-friendly; aim for 6 p.m. or later if you want a party with dancing." As for place, do you want to get married where you or he grew up, where you live now, or someplace else entirely? Then put all the pieces together.
Identify Your Style
Every piece of your planning will be easier once you focus on a distinct wedding style. Start by thinking about the types of parties you already have—or love to attend—and then kick it way up. If you like intimate dinner parties, for example, a seated meal for 40 might be ideal. If you’re known for margaritas and salsa music in the backyard, chances are you should go more informal. "Determining your personal style helps you focus your decisions and edit out thousands of options," says Maria McBride, the creative mind behind hundreds of our reception stories. Sit down with your fiancé—"It’s his day, too, and you want him to be invested in it"—and come up with a description of how you love to relax. "If you like Saturday-morning hikes, you may prefer a celebration that’s low-key and natural," says Maria. That could mean a wedding at a beach, a garden, even at home. "But if you both look forward to doing the club scene every weekend, you might want a dressy, late-night party with lots of dancing."
Consider a Destination Wedding
"For friends, family, and the two of you, a wedding away can be even more of a bonding experience than a hometown celebration," says Sherri Eisenberg, who, as our travel expert, circles the globe for the best honeymoon spots. "It can also help your budget: You may be able to find a place where things are, overall, less expensive than where you live, especially if you’re from a big city." Often, you’ll have a smaller guest list. But the factors that help keep the numbers low (limited vacation time, transportation and hotel costs) may discourage the very people you want there. If you have elderly or infirm relatives, "you’re better off having a wedding close by." Same goes for Type A brides. "If you can visualize every detail, you may find long-distance planning frustrating," she says. "You can’t control everything the way you can at home."
Ask for Money
Talk about awkward: approaching your parents to see if—and how much—they can contribute to the wedding. You should each sit down with your folks, minus each other, advises Sally Kilbridge. "Nobody likes to talk about money, especially with someone who’s not yet part of the family." Once you’ve described the wedding you want and your estimated budget, ask them if they’re able to help out. "Nowadays, it’s unusual for parents to bankroll an entire wedding, so make it easier for them by offering a couple of choices. They might be comfortable writing a check that you spend as you see fit, or they may want to cover the cost of one element, like the flowers or the photographer," Sally advises. Whatever they offer, be gracious and thankful.
Come Up With a Budget
Presumably, the amount you can spend on the wedding is the amount you can afford. Makes sense, but what does that really mean? "Not many couples have an extra thirty grand sitting around that they can put toward a one-day event," says Nancy Mattia. "So you need to establish how much you can realistically set aside by the wedding date." Talk to your parents about whether they’re planning to contribute (see "Ask for Money," left) and then start saving enough to reach your financial goal. If you each start putting away $50 a week, you’ll have $5,200 in 12 months (that’s without any interest), which can have a substantial impact. Be realistic about what a wedding costs. "Weddings are more expensive than regular parties—you’re buying special clothes, flowers, invitations, hiring a photographer, paying your officiant—it adds up." Pulling a number out of a hat and planning around that won’t work; instead, research what the elements are likely to cost in your town, then set a date to reach that goal.
Shop for Your Dress
This tops the list of "Fun Stuff to Do When You’re Engaged," and it’s smart to get started right away. "If you’re buying your dress in a salon, you’ll need up to six months to have it made," says resident fashion whiz Rachel Leonard. "The look of your dress can also help you nail down the overall style of your wedding." Once you’ve settled on where and when the wedding will be, start scanning magazines and Web sites for ideas. Take a long, hard look in your closet. "The styles you’ve been buying for years (ruffles, A-lines) will give you clues as to what kinds of shapes to look for in a wedding dress," says Rachel. If you want a bargain, check out sample sales; if you’re a fashionista, go to trunk shows, where designers show their entire collection. "You may see dresses that the bridal salons might not even carry," she says.Thinking of wearing your mom’s gown? Don’t wait to take it to an experienced tailor or restorer.
Find Great Vendors
Ask friends who have recently gotten married for recommendations, advises Donna Ferrari, who has worked with the best of the best. Tapping vendors you already know or feel comfortable with is also a great idea. If you find someone online, always check references before signing a contract. (Actually, that’s a smart idea no matter how you find a vendor.) "All service providers have a network of people they work with, so they can be a good source," says Donna. Start to take notice of the details at charity events, department store promotions, gallery openings and, yes, weddings—any occasion where you can observe the service and style of different providers. Do you and your fiancé have a favorite restaurant? Ask if it does catering, she suggests. Searching for a photographer? Check out the real weddings featured in regional bridal magazines. Then look at the photographer’s Web site and follow up with a face-to-face meeting.
Figure Out the Guest List
"Very few couples have pockets so deep and a space so big that they can accommodate every person they want to invite," says Nancy Mattia. Once you’ve determined your budget, reception space, and how many people you can realistically include, figure out how you’re going to divvy up the list. "You may want to split it three ways, with each family and the two of you getting a third," she says. "But if one of you has a much bigger family, a rigid formula like this one may not work." To pare down your list, Nancy suggests, you can start by eliminating office colleagues (unless you’re close), friends you haven’t spoken to in years (even if you did go to their weddings), and single guests’ dates—unless the relationships are long-standing.
Kim Kolozian, the assistant to BRIDES’ editor in chief, knows a lot about keeping projects on track. Beyond putting your BlackBerry and cellphone to work (for storing names and phone numbers, snapping photos, and researching online), she suggests using your e-mail program’s calendar—and the pop-up reminders—to keep track of appointments. "When it comes to organizing data, Excel spreadsheets are great, but you can also try wedding software to monitor expenses, RSVPs, and deadlines." One to try: I Do Wedding Couple Edition (go to elmsoft ware.com for a free 30-day trial). Kim goes low-tech, too: "I’m constantly tearing out pages from magazines and newspapers, so I’m a big fan of expandable folders and three-ring binders. You can even get plastic sheets for binders that hold business cards," she says.
Discuss Life Issues
When you’re head over heels and flaunting that ring, who wants to discuss sticky topics like kids, in-laws, and money? "It’s natural to shy away from difficult conversations that involve the future, but it’s far better to resolve the serious day-to-day issues now," says Sally Kilbridge. Have you agreed on having children and how you will raise them? And then there’s the in-law talk. "The big thing with in-laws is boundaries," she says. "Are they coming over every Sunday? What about holidays—where will you go?" And how will you handle money together? Identify your saving and spending habits, decide whether you’re going to share bank accounts, figure out who’s paying the bills, and set long-term goals, urges Sally. "Finances can be daunting and dull, but they’re the key to your future and how you’re going to achieve your dreams."
Get Him Involved
You may be ready to plunge into the depths of wedding planning, but is your fiancé lingering in the shallow end? "A lot of guys look at it as a chore," says Nancy Mattia. "He’ll probably make a halfhearted effort if you stick him with something that bores him." Beyond asking him to participate in food tastings, try to give him assignments that match his interests and talents. If he loves music, put him in charge of hiring the band or dj, or mixing and burning CDs for your favors, suggests Nancy. Tech-savvy grooms could design save-the-date cards, wedding programs, and menus. Is he a car guy? Let him research your getaway-vehicle options. And almost any groom would be all over planning the honeymoon.
Start a Fitness Program
If you’re like most women, you’ve got a figure issue or two to address before your wedding day. To lose weight, you need a plan: First, determine how much you can realistically drop before the wedding. "You can’t expect to lose more than a pound or two a week safely," says Denise O’Donoghue, our health guru. "Find a program that’s flexible, like Weight Watchers, and that allows you to have your favorite foods on occasion. Otherwise, you probably won’t stick with it." Exercise goes hand-in-hand with dieting. "Pick cardio exercises you really like or have always wanted to try, like hiking or spinning, and do weight training every other day." Even if you’re exercising at home, "hire a trainer for a day to help you get started and to make sure you’re doing the workout properly."
Reply to Pushy People
Don’t be surprised if news of your engagement is greeted by "Am I invited to the wedding?"—invariably asked by people you’re not close to. Sally Kilbridge suggests handling the question this way: "Say, ‘We’re so excited about being engaged, we haven’t really thought about our guest list yet.’ " One gambit you can use once you choose your venue is "We’re having a space problem—there just isn’t room for all the people I’d like to invite." Other explanations worth trying (depending on your situation): claiming your fiancé has a huge extended family to accommodate, or saying your parents have commandeered much of the guest list. "Or tell them you’re paying for the wedding, so you have to keep the guest list small—just the immediate family and the wedding party," she says. "It’s the easiest explanation, and nobody will get mad."
Take Perfect Engagement Photos
"These pictures should be casual and natural-looking," says Rachel Leonard, "so shoot the photo outdoors, preferably in a setting that reflects you as a couple." Bring several outfits, coordinated with simple jewelry, and avoid patterns. "Lighter colors tend to reproduce better," she says. So does makeup applied sparingly: "Deeper colors will look really dense" when they’re reproduced in a newspaper. Shoot in black and white for the sharpest images. Find out publishing requirements (in terms of a photo and text) in the newspapers in the town where you both live and, if applicable, the towns where each of you grew up.
Your big news may prompt others to pressure you into having the kind of wedding that they want. If their vision doesn’t jibe with yours, "don’t let your wedding get hijacked," says Sally Kilbridge. "Everyone’s been to a wedding, so everyone has an opinion about it." Being diplomatic and sensitive, especially with family members, is key. "Your mother may have thought about your wedding since you were a baby, and she knows exactly what she’d like to see." How do you withstand the avalanche of "suggestions" that may threaten your vision? "It’s always a good idea to listen first. Telling people you’re open to all ideas buys you some breathing room," says Sally. But if you have specific plans, you have to say no. "Try saying something like ‘That would be amazing, but I’d like to do something else. Here’s what I’m planning,’" she says. "That way, you’re firm without being critical or rude."