The Complete Guide to Planning a Wedding

These actionable steps will help you get started.


JOEY WILLIS / Design by Zackary Angeline

Planning a wedding can feel pretty overwhelming at times. While couples often hire professionals to help manage their wedding plans, there are plenty of reasons why they might also opt to take on the majority of the responsibilities on their own, too. Maybe they're working with a tight wedding planning budget or maybe they simply love all of the DIY possibilities—in any case, it's a lot of extra details, but it is possible to plan the wedding of your dreams on your own.

Organization is key to keeping everything on track when you’re faced with decisions, lists, deadlines, and everyday life. The first step is making sure to give yourselves plenty of time for wedding planning. A longer timeline is your friend here—aim for around a year, if possible. And don’t forget to involve your significant other in this step, as well. Your wedding should represent both of you, together as a couple.

5 Tips for Planning Your Own Wedding

 Jessica Olah/Brides

So, where to begin? We've got you covered with answers to your most burning questions. Just remember to keep one very important thing in mind: Try to have some fun! This is your wedding, after all. Don’t get too hung up on the tiny details and focus on what’s truly important: celebrating the love the two of you share and getting married, all while surrounded by your friends and family.

Here are our 42 top tips for how to plan your wedding, from getting organized to traversing the legal framework of a vendor contract to maintaining your mental sanity.

01 of 42

Set Your Wedding Budget and Stick to It

Money on dance floor

Photo by Whitney Neal Studios 

Your wedding budget will be the driving factor for many of your wedding-related decisions, so this should be one of the first things you tackle. If any family members will be contributing, chat with them about what they’re comfortable spending. If you’re footing the bill yourself, it’s time to take a hard look at your finances. Be prepared for a reality check when it comes to actually budgeting for your wedding day as many couples don’t realize the full scope of costs involved. Once you’ve got that magic number, stick to it!

While setting and sticking to your budget is key, it's important to give yourself some wiggle room for unexpected additional costs, must-have upgrades, or last-minute changes. As a rule of thumb, plan to have a 10 to 15 percent cushion for those fees you couldn't account for.

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Construct a List of Wedding Priorities

Live band

Photo by Leila Brewster

Sit down with your partner and determine what the three most important aspects of your wedding will be. Is it the venue or a specific wedding date? Locking in a certain wedding photographer or live band? Prioritize those details and be willing to compromise on the rest. This will help you stay within your budget and help you focus your efforts on what really counts.

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Determine Your Wedding Style

Bride and groom making a cheers at their botanical wedding reception


Find a few resources of bridal inspiration you like best—Pinterest, Instagram, magazines, trusty bridal sites (including Brides, of course!)—and start researching. Having a good sense of the type of wedding style you want helps immensely once you start meeting with potential vendors. Don’t overwhelm yourself with all the wedding inspiration that’s out there. Creating one or more Pinterest boards—or even a visual collage on a cork or poster board—will help you to figure out what sort of look and feel you really want and keep you aligned with your larger vision.

It's important to remember that there is such a thing as too much inspiration, so it's a good idea to limit the amount of time you spend looking at photos and ideas in one sitting. Making a list of your likes and dislikes, as well as wants and do-not-wants, can help you better review inspiration images, too.

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Get Organized

planner, highlighter, and coffee

Photo by Estée Janssens Photography

You can use checklists, spreadsheets, Word, Excel, Google Docs—anything, really—as long as you can gather all your thoughts, budgets, numbers, etc., in one place. There are also some great online tools and apps out there that can keep you organized. We love WeddingHappy for staying on track with tasks and AllSeated for visualizing seating charts and venue layouts.

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Involve Your Significant Other

Bride and groom

Photo by Whitney Neal Studios

Don't feel like you're in this wedding planning process alone. Consult with your partner along the way; their opinion is bound to be invaluable and—even if they're only involved in some aspects—it makes wedding planning that much more fun when you can make decisions together. Working toward a common goal not only further bonds you and your partner but also helps you grow as a couple with every issue you tackle as a team.

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Buy a Wedding Planning Book

Woman with books

Lena Gadanski / Getty Images

For couples who opt to take on the wedding planning process sans a professional planner or coordinator, a traditional etiquette and guidebook (such as The Wedding Book) is a wealth of information and expert advice, including tips and tricks and even examples of timelines and checklists.

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Create a Master Checklist

Bride writing

Photo by Pat Furey 

Check out our master wedding planning checklist and timeline to keep yourself on track and tackling tasks like a pro. (Feel free to adapt it to suit your own needs as necessary). This will help you visualize and prioritize goals without being overwhelmed with everything all at once.

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Think About Dates (and Seasons)

Newport Summer Wedding

Chi-Chi Ari

Choose a few ideal dates for your wedding and try to be flexible, if possible, so you’re not constrained when attempting to book the wedding venue and vendors. Take into consideration external factors, like how popular those dates might be for other to-be-weds (making availability scarce and prices higher), if the dates would be difficult for your guests to attend, and the price differences of venues and vendors between seasons.

09 of 42

Select a Theme

Grand exit

Photo by Trevor Akanger; Event Design by Aaron Hahnselle

Whether it’s specific wedding colors, seasonal or style inspiration, or an actual theme (like the Roaring Twenties or Festival Chic), sometimes it's helpful to choose a concept to design your wedding around. Once you have an aesthetic in mind, it's easier to make design decisions, and generally, everything looks more cohesive.

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Consider Having an “On-Site” Wedding

Reception space with tables

Yuri Kriventsoff / Getty Images 

In wedding lingo, an “off-site” wedding is one where the venue doesn’t have a commercial kitchen and where you need to bring everything in—think places like a park, a public beach, even an open field. In contrast, having an “on-site” wedding—somewhere like a hotel or restaurant—will greatly simplify the planning process as they'll likely have a range of catering offerings available as well as access to the basics, including designated space, chairs and tables, and possibly even an on-site coordinator to assist you.

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Start Working on Your Guest List

Zoomed out shot of bride and groom at the altar

Photo by Roey Yohai; Event Planning by JZ Events

Making decisions about the guest list can be a complicated process and one that will depend largely on your venue and budget. Sit down with your partner and key family members to put together a wish list of wedding guests. Chances are, you’ll need to make some cuts. You will also need to decide whether you’re inviting children and who will be allotted a plus one.

12 of 42

Talk to Other Married Couples

Girls talking to bride

Photo by Kate Headley 

Have you recently attended a wedding that you really enjoyed? By all means, ask that couple for advice and insights. They probably have some expert tips and tricks that they learned along the way that they'd be more than happy to share with you. Sometimes, friends and family are the best resources.

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Research Your Venue Options

Villa D'Este

Photo by Ross Harvey; Event Planning by The Lake Como Wedding Planner

Be sure to investigate prices, packages, and any restrictions (including minimum budget spend or guest count) from several different potential wedding and reception venues before you sign on the dotted line. Even if there's a venue and a package price that you really like, keep looking at additional opinions. Ask around and see what other venues are charging before agreeing on a price.

14 of 42

Only Book Vendors You’re Comfortable With

Groom with videocamera

Photo by Whitney Neal Studios

When it comes to booking wedding vendors, it's essential to not rush into any decisions. Consider at least a few different options to make sure these important wedding-day partners understand your vision and can also work within your budget. Wedding vendors are the nuts and bolts to ensuring your day is ultra-memorable and everything runs smoothly, so make sure they're a team of people that you really vibe well with. They should have a good sense of your vision, and you should be able to trust them to execute it well.

Take notice of how a vendor communicates as you try to feel them out. If their particular style of communication isn't a good fit or they seem unreliable or disinterested at this stage, it won't be a right match for the real work. You should never feel bad about reaching out with any along-the-way questions.

15 of 42

Read Every Contract—Closely

People reviewing contracts


Before you sign on any dotted lines, be sure to closely review every detail of any contracts you arrange with your wedding vendors—including date, location, times, deposits, additional fees, colors, quantities—everything has to be in the contract because if it isn't, or is written incorrectly, you will not be protected if it's not executed properly. Be wary of clauses that prevent you from reviewing the vendor after their service (red flag), extreme cancellation policies, or if the terms seem one-sided. For example, a contract should outline what happens if either party cancels, not just the client. Carefully read any policies regarding changes in the scope of service, which means that rates could be revised if there are any significant changes made. Such policies are standard practice in this industry, but you need to ensure you are aware of the terms. For example, if your contract requires catering for a guest list of 50 people but you later decide to invite 100, you would be responsible for paying an increased rate. Similarly, a venue might have a minimum guest count required, which can be problematic if the RSVP total is lower than the original estimate.

16 of 42

Choose Your Wedding Party Wisely

Wedding Party

Second Shots Photography

The friends and family you ask to join your wedding party are there for emotional and tactical support throughout the wedding planning process and on the big day. Consult with your partner to decide what size wedding party works best for the two of you—keeping in mind the expenses that come along with this special responsibility. Consider who you really want standing next to you during this monumental occasion and if they are capable of performing the duties required of their position throughout the planning process.

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Book Hotel Room Blocks

Groom and groomsmen standing on hotel balcony

Photo by Amber Gress

Whether you're having a destination wedding or a local celebration, chances are some guests will need a place to stay the night of your nuptials. It's a thoughtful gesture to take this into consideration and set up a hotel block for them at one or several choice establishments. This will ensure all your wedding attendees are in the same general vicinity, and many hotels can even provide a discounted rate depending on the number of rooms requested.

There some benefits for couples, too: Some hotels offer incentives like a free room to the couple, included breakfasts, or spa credits, so be sure to inquire about an extras.

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Shop for Wedding Attire

Bride hanging up wedding dress


Finding the perfect wedding dress is a process all its own. We recommend starting your search right after you pick your venue and complete the purchase nine months before the big day, as this will give you enough time for fittings and alterations. Shopping for wedding party ensembles should begin about seven to eight months before the wedding date, whereas groom and groomsmen attire can be scheduled around the five-month mark. Don't forget that you will also need outfits for any pre-wedding events like brunches, showers, and rehearsals.

19 of 42

Make a Wedding Website

Girl on laptop

Westend61 / Getty Images 

Avoid getting endless emails and text messages from guests by putting up a simple wedding website where they can check out the details of your wedding. Include important information like dates, times, locations, dress codes, registries, transportation and lodging, a day-of itinerary, and health and safety requirements. Everything that appears on the invitations should be present on the welcome page of the website.

20 of 42

Build a Registry

Build a Registry


You and your partner should begin creating a wishlist of potential gifts you'd like to receive from guests very early on. If traditional gifts aren't quite your thing, you can opt for more creative registry ideas to fund things like your honeymoon or a downpayment on a new house, or opt for a charitable contribution instead. The registry information should be displayed on your wedding website or on an invitation insert, never on the wedding invitation itself.

21 of 42

Recruit More Hands on Deck

Hairstylist helping bride get ready


Don't forget: You’re not in this alone. Your bridal party, family members, and your soon-to-be spouse are all ready to help in ways that suit their strengths. But you have to ask—and sometimes, delegate. One very important time to delegate is on the big day when you'll need some extra hands to attend to tasks that you won't be able to, like dispersing checks to vendors. You should never feel bad about asking as long as you're also understanding of their choice to decline, should they choose to.

22 of 42

DIY Strategically

Welcome bags

Photo by Cassandra Castaneda

DIY wedding decor elements can be cost-effective and can add some incredibly personal touches to your wedding day. But a word to the wise: Don’t go overboard, or you’ll end up with more work than you know what to do with. Plenty of DIY projects can be done well in advance, including favors, welcome bags, etc. For things like wedding day florals or food, professional help is best.

23 of 42

Take Some Time Off—Together

Couple laughing in robes

DaniloAndjus / Getty Images 

For the sake of your own sanity, make sure you schedule some time for the two of you to just be together and do anything but wedding plan. Trust us, you’ll need the break. If you can, taking the week before your wedding off from work helps to ensure that all last-minute details are completed and makes the days leading up to the wedding that much less stressful.

24 of 42

Pick Invitations and Save the Dates

Invitations suite

Photo by Erich McVey; Event Planning by Paper Diamonds; Paper Products by Kartoe & Veronica Halim Calligraphy

Start planning your wedding stationery as soon as you know your wedding style and have confirmed the venue. Save-the-date cards typically go out nine months before the wedding date for a destination wedding and four to six months prior for local nuptials. Invitation suites follow six to eight weeks before the big day. You should request that RSVPs be returned no later than one month before the celebration so there are no last-minute hiccups.

25 of 42

Hire an Officiant

bride and groom with officiant

Photo by Juan Manuel Núñez Méndez Photography

Finding the right officiant to preside over your nuptials can be a deeply personal journey for couples. Whomever you choose will not only dictate the event but also usher you into your union, setting the tone for the rest of your lives together. If booking a clergy member or justice of the peace (rather than having a friend or family member officiate), it's important to thoroughly do your research, obtain reviews or recommendations, and ask the right questions like if personalizations are allowed, how disruptions would be handled, and if they are involved in obtaining a marriage license.

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Add Some Personal Touches

Nuptial ceremony

Photo by Erich McVey; Event Planning by Alise Taggart

Whether it's familial or cultural wedding customs that have a special meaning or if there's a tradition that the two of you want to start for future generations, don't be afraid to incorporate some heartfelt, personal touches into your wedding day festivities. Remember, this is your day!

27 of 42

Organize Transportation

Newlywed getaway in red car

Photo by Biancca Wallace 

There are three categories of wedding transportation to take into consideration. Depending on the venue, you may require transportation for yourselves and the wedding party to the ceremony. You will then need a getaway car to take yourself and your new spouse to the reception, while the wedding party takes the aforementioned transportation. If your venue is a remote location or you have guests attending from out of town, it is thoughtful to also book group transportation to take them between the ceremony, reception, and their hotels (this is where those hotel blocks come in handy). For a personalized touch, get creative with types of transportation that really speak to the surroundings.

28 of 42

Purchase Wedding Bands

Wedding rings

Photo by Chris & Ruth

Take a moment to just enjoy what's left of your engagement and fiancé(e) status and go shopping for your wedding bands. If you haven't already, this would also be the time to insure your engagement ring and add the wedding bands to the policy.

29 of 42

Account for Pre-Wedding Events

Reception guests outside

Photo by Henry + Mac

Engagement celebrations, showers, brunches, bachelor/bachelorette parties—there is no shortage of pre-wedding events to take place in the months leading up to your wedding day. While most of these festivities are traditionally hosted by a close friend or family member, you will need to participate in a small portion of the planning. At the very least, the guest lists for these events will need to be created by you and passed on to the generous hosts.

30 of 42

Understand What You Don't Want

Newly married couple holding hands


Your wedding should be all about the two of you as a couple. If certain traditional aspects make you uncomfortable, feel outdated, or simply aren’t your style, then just don't include them on your wedding day. Traditions are lovely but only when they're meaningful to you.

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Don't Forget the Rehearsal Dinner Details

Dinner reception in the tropics

Photo by Tida Svy

Much like other pre-wedding festivities, the rehearsal dinner may or may not be hosted by someone other than you. Regardless of the fact, you will need to partake in the planning process. Much like for the wedding, the rehearsal dinner will need a venue, guest list, catering selection, and invitations. If you are having a destination wedding or wedding weekend, this can either be tied into the welcome party or remain completely separate.

32 of 42

Consider a Day-Of Coordinator

Wedding reception

Photo by Erich McVey; Event Planning by Alise Taggart 

Even when a full-service wedding planner isn’t in the cards, hiring a professional to oversee the day-of details can be a game-changer. They'll keep track of vendors for you, keep an eye on the schedule, and help with any last-minute details and on-site tasks you simply won’t have time for. Just don't leave the booking until the last minute, even though this is a day-of coordinator they are typically hired six to eight months in advance.

33 of 42

Create a Social Media Strategy

Guest taking photos on phone

Photo by Juanlu Real

Whether you want your guests to share moments of your wedding day with the world or prefer to have an unplugged wedding, strategy is key. Hashtags, signage, and photo booths are a great way to get guests posting on social. On the other hand, if you don't want your guests snapping shots or taking videos during the ceremony, have the officiant make a quick announcement before proceedings begin.

34 of 42

Make It Legal

Signing the marriage contract

Photo by Liz Banfield 

In the midst of all the crazy planning and endless small details, don’t forget to actually plan the time to get your marriage license. Start researching and gathering the necessary documents early on, but keep in mind that marriage licenses are typically only valid for a couple of months—and destination weddings often have their own stipulations—so plan accordingly.

35 of 42

Postpone Honeymoon Planning

Couple with globe

Westend61 / Getty Images 

Simultaneously planning a wedding and a dream honeymoon is not only expensive but also very time consuming. Especially if the two of you are doing everything yourselves. It may be a good idea to postpone honeymoon planning just a bit. Many couples recommend spacing out the wedding and honeymoon to really appreciate everything, rather than being too drained from the wedding planning to fully enjoy the post-nuptial getaway.

36 of 42

Allocate Toasts and Readings

Giving a toast

Photo by Roey Yohai; Event Planning by JZ Events

Wedding toasts are typically reserved for select VIPs and are traditionally distributed between the rehearsal dinner and reception, though some couples choose to have everything take place at one event. You are responsible for notifying toast-makers of their responsibilities, accepting requests to speak, and organizing the speaking order. Including readings in the ceremony, whether traditional, cultural, or literary, is a great way to honor important people in your lives that aren't part of the wedding party. As with toasts, you assume responsibility for choosing the speakers and defining the speaking order.

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Finalize Setup Details

Industrial reception space with flowers


As your wedding date approaches, check in with your venue to find out when your vendors can arrive for setup. The earlier the better, but in some cases, venues may have other events going on the same day. Be sure to pass along the information to your vendors so everyone is on the same page.

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Build a Playlist

Bride and friends dancing

Photo by Joey Willis

Regardless of if you are having a live band, DJ, or manning the turntables yourself, you will need to outline all of the key songs that absolutely must be played during the nuptial festivities. Just as important: Don't forget to also create a list of the songs you definitely don't want to hear.

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Write Vows

Vows between couple

Photo by Joey Willis

Take off your wedding planner hat for just a moment and don your to-be-wed headdress. Indulge yourself in a few moments of solitude to gather your thoughts and put pen to paper as you conceive the declarations of love and nuptial pledges you will make to your spouse-to-be as you are married. Make sure to include some actual promises in your notes rather than just creating a love letter to your beloved. They are called vows for a reason, after all.

40 of 42

Produce a Schedule of Events

Bride and bridesmaids

Photo by Addison Jones 

Creating a comprehensive wedding day schedule ensures everyone is on the same page about timing and location(s) and helps to make sure the day's events run smoothly. Include things like hair and makeup appointments, when vendors will arrive, timing for transportation to/arrival at the ceremony location, timing for the couple's arrival to the reception, speeches, and the first dance, when the cake will be cut, etc. Print out (or email) copies to your MC, photographer, maid of honor, key family members, all vendors, and anyone else that should be in the know.

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Say Thanks

Bride hugging friend

Photo by Juanlu Real 

Gratitude goes a long way. Be sure to arrange for small gifts for your wedding party and anyone else who played a big role in your wedding planning journey—including friends who pitched in to help with all of your wedding DIY projects and, of course, parents or other family members who have been there for you and supported you along the way. Don't hesitate to give them a special little shoutout during the wedding toast, too.

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Focus on the Big Picture

Couple kiss with wedding party in background


Be present in the moment and feel the love—you’re getting married! Don't worry about the minutiae and if some things aren't perfect. What will guests most definitely notice? A stressed-out couple who's overwhelmed with last-minute details. By the time your wedding day rolls around, try to relax, enjoy all of the special moments with your loved ones, and remember to eat. Ask any married couple—it will zoom by.

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