The 5 Crazy Easy Steps to Creating Your Wedding Budget

Here's how to plan the wedding of your dreams — without going into debt

Updated 12/30/17

Photo by Cat Mayer Studio

Figuring out your wedding budget is no easy feat. Your wedding will likely be the biggest party you've ever hosted — and the priciest. The average U.S. wedding costs $26,522 for 135 guests, according to most recent Brides American Wedding Study. Nearly half of couples cover the entire expense themselves, while an additional 25 percent pay for at least part of it. But here's the kicker: One in three couples goes over budget! Make sure you're not one of them by setting a realistic wedding budget — before you start fantasizing about venues in Italy, booking expensive vendors, or trying on designer dresses.

To make a budget, you'll need to tally up your savings, maintain a detailed spreadsheet so you don't go over during the planning process, prepare for unexpected costs, as well as make meaningful cuts if you do exceed your total budget. It's hard work, we know, but putting in the time and energy now ensures you'll live happily ever after (wedding-debt free). Here's exactly how to set a wedding budget you can stick to.

Step 1: Count Your Cash

How much you have to spend on the wedding is directly proportional to three sources of money: you and your fiancé's individual savings; the amount you can set aside from your current income; plus any contributions from parents or loved ones. Here's how to approach each:

Your savings: This isn't as simple as checking your bank account. Ideally, you and your partner each have three months of living expenses set aside in case of a job loss or health setback (separate from retirement funds). Subtract that in-case-of-emergency amount from your total balance in the bank, and that's how much you could put toward wedding costs.

Your monthly income: After you've made payments for existing debts, like student loans, set aside up to 10 percent of your earnings each month. "Establish direct deposits into a separate account for wedding expenses so it isn't just leftovers that get saved," says Erin Lowry, a personal-finance expert and the author of Broke Millennial: Stop Scraping By and Get Your Financial Life Together.

Any contributions from your parents: "Never assume your parents or other loved ones are willing and able to help cover the cost of a wedding," says Lowry. "But it certainly doesn't hurt to ask."

Step 2: Track Your Spending

Create a spreadsheet with three expense columns: Estimated, Modified, and Actual. Amounts under Estimated will be driven by research of costs in your area (check sites like Weddingwire and Thumbtack to find local averages for venues and vendors), proposals from the vendors you choose will go in Modified, and the final amount you pay them will go in Actual.

Adjust your estimates after calling in vendors' costs. Start with the venue because it's the biggest piece of the wedding pie and a major factor in determining guest count. When vendors give you estimates, verify if tax is included. If not, do the math yourself with state and local tax rates to adjust the proposal.

Add a column for the estimated tip. Write "included" if gratuity is factored into the vendor's price. (For example, caterers automatically tack on 15 to 20 percent of the total, which you pay in advance.)

Add a line item called Extras that equals 15 percent of your total budget to cushion for things you'll likely forget (invitation postage, parking valets) or won't anticipate in advance (corkage and plating fees). Never spend this money up front; you'll need it throughout the planning process as incidentals arise. Trust.

Step 3: Prepare for Surprises

Before you sign on the dotted line of vendor contracts or start buying gift bag items, read the fine print, because expenses that seem small early on could add up quickly. If the total of the line item isn't in your overall budget, cut it!

Vendor Transportation: Hiring an out-of-town band or photographer? You might need to pay for a rental van or plane tickets. Double-check the contract to see what exactly is covered.

Set-Up And Breakdown Fees: Cleanup isn't always included, and you may have to pay overtime rates depending on what time your reception ends.

Custom Cocktails: Signature drinks and spirits can add $3,500 to a 200-person wedding, says Calder Clark, a top wedding planner in Charleston, South Carolina.

Digital Access: Some photographers charge as much as $1,200 to view and share your photos online.

Envelope Stuffing: Some stationers charge as much as $7 per invite. To save, call your bridesmaids over, drink some wine, and DIY instead.

Planners: A full-service event designer can charge as much as $25,000 or even 20 percent of the total budget for a Kardashian-scale affair, but a day-of coordinator costs an average of $1,500. Before you enlist a pro, know what you have to spend and factor in that rate. Many venues require you to contract their in-house wedding coordinator or bring in your own outside wedding coordinator.

Step 4. Charge Responsibly

No matter how tempted you are to boost your cash flow with credit cards, don't go overboard. "Never charge anything that you can't pay off in 30 days," says Torabi. That is, unless you qualify for a card with a zero-percent purchase APR, which lets you skirt interest payments as long as you pay your entire balance within a certain time frame (usually 12 to 15 months). Torabi advises mapping out a plan for how you intend to do that before swiping the plastic. For example, register for cash gifts that you can put toward a portion of the wedding and create a savings plan to cover the rest.

If you do use a credit card, choose one with a generous cash-back program. You can use the rewards earned during that zero-percent-APR period toward the honeymoon or to pay off any remaining wedding expenses. But try to avoid signing up for more than one card, which can damage your credit score.

Step 5: Find Ways to Save

Over-budget? These ideas will slash your spending in a meaningful way.

Change the venue: Raw spaces like barns and lofts seem like a steal, but you could spend a lot making them wedding-beautiful. "You may have to bring in tables, chairs, china, glassware, silverware, kitchen equipment for the caterer, even restrooms and AC or heat," cautions Sara Fay Egan, a partner at Jackson Durham Floral and Event Design in Dallas. Before you commit, estimate the total price of a wedding at that space versus one that includes all the basics.

Edit the guest list: Each attendee costs far more than his or her meal when you consider the invitation, welcome bag, transportation, slice of cake, and favor. "Never have a B-list, and be ruthless with your A-list," says Clark. For the average 135-person reception, shrinking the guest list by 15 people saves you approximately $1,300.

Go off-peak: Have a winter wedding. Choose a Friday or Sunday. Or celebrate with mimosas over brunch instead of hosting a four-course, wine-paired dinner.

Build in time: To save for the wedding they want, 57 percent of brides said they were willing to prolong their engagement. "Negotiating is a lot more difficult when vendors know you're in a time crunch," says financial expert Farnoosh Torabi, host of the So Money podcast.

Host the ceremony and reception in the same place: Doing so could save as much as $4,000 on transportation for the wedding party and guests.

Forgo a live band: The big-name ones can charge upwards of $30,000, while a DJ will cost a few thousand bucks.

Order all of your own paper items yourself: This means ordering or creating your own wedding invitations and appropriate inserts. Later, you'll be ordering place cards and table numbers and maybe programs and other things, too. Technology has made it easy to do a lot of this stuff on your own at home. The bride and groom choose the appropriate paper (most companies online will send free samples) and print them on their own printer, then assemble, stuff, and mail them. Even if you choose to order printed materials through a stationer, be sure to do it yourself.

When you have your wedding planner assist or do it for you, it will cost you more, whether through her markup or because she'll likely be getting a thank-you commission from the shop. Don't be afraid to have her proofread them; just do the creating, ordering, and assembling yourself.

Address your own invitations: Paying for calligraphy is not cheap. If you must have calligraphy on your invites, consider buying a calligraphy pen and practicing until you get it right. It's not that difficult. And only an expert would notice it wasn't done by a professional. As a starting point, there are tons of tutorials online.

Go to the salon to get your beauty services done instead of having the stylist and makeup artist come to you: Whenever you have stylists come to your wedding venue or where you're dressing, you pay a significant outcall fee, and the prices are usually higher too. You'll want to schedule it a little earlier in the day, but there's no reason why you and your bridesmaids can't get your hair and makeup done at a salon and then head to your venue to dress.

Say no to upgrades at your wedding venue: Another key strategy for how to budget for a wedding is saying no to unnecessary upgrades. Take what comes with the package, or the least expensive option you can stand. Brides and grooms sometimes add literally thousands of dollars to their budgets because they don't like the design of the white-on-white tablecloths, for example. Or they can't stand the chairs provided for the ceremony. Reality check: Nobody will be looking closely at the linens because they'll have a beautiful tablescape set on them with your centerpieces and the china, silver, and beveragewear.

Post-wedding, no couple has ever said "We wish we'd spent the extra $1,000 on fancier chairs."

Save money by using fewer vendors: If your DJ also offers lighting services for your venue or your cake lady also offers edible wedding favors, consider hiring that vendor to provide more than one service for your big day. You'll always get a better rate if you're getting more from one vendor, plus you won't be paying multiple setup or delivery fees, the way you would be if you had hired separate vendors for each individual task.

4 Budgets, 4 Weddings: How Real Brides Planned the Wedding of Their Dreams with Very Different Wedding Budgets

Curious how actual budgets break down? We talked to four real brides to get the skinny on how they spent their money.

A $3,000 Wedding Budget

The Bride: Caeli M.

Location: Ralph Thornton Centre, Toronto

Attendees: About 50

Amount budgeted: $3,000

Amount actually spent: about $2,000

Biggest wedding expense? Venue

How long did you have to save to afford the wedding?
We paid for it, and we didn't save for it because everything was paid for a bit at a time. It fit into our normal spending.

What was on the menu?
Potluck! We provided alcohol, satay skewers, and the dessert cupcakes. Other people brought everything else.

What is one tip you can offer other brides and families when it comes to wedding planning?
Chill. It's just a party. Focus on the marriage.

Did you use a wedding planner of day-of coordinator?
Nope. Had three great bridesmaids, though, and they were very helpful.

What is one thing you wish you knew before planning a wedding?
It goes by really fast. All the things you find to stress about don't actually matter at all.

What is an unconventional expense you encounter?
I guess the alcohol permit, but it was cheap.

Any other tips?
We did have a professional photographer, but she is my cousin and her photographs were our wedding gift. Big money saver there!

Photo by O'Malley Photographers

A $10,000 Wedding Budget

The Bride: Ali W.

Location: Stone Mountain Arts Center, Brownfield, Maine

Attendees: 99

Amount budgeted: $10,000

Amount actually spent: Just over $8,000 (+ $600 rehearsal dinner at a local pub)

Biggest wedding expense?
The venue ended up being our biggest expense, but that included amazing handcrafted, local food, an open happy hour bar, spaces for the ceremony, happy hour, and reception, a super chill sound technician, and a lot of loving support from the staff and owner.

Is there something you wish you spent more on?
Cake. I was the kind of kid who daydreamed about wedding cakes, not wedding dresses, so my expectations were high. When the time came to decide on dessert, several friends offered to bake us cupcakes as a gift. While they were yummy, they were definitely very basic and homemade. In hindsight, I absolutely would have dragged myself to as many tastings as possible (an experience I was sad to miss) and then splurged on my dream cake.

Is there something you wish you spent less on?
I spent way too much money on half a dozen different pairs of shoes that were either uncomfortable, awkward to walk in, or didn’t end up matching my dress. I ended up returning them all and wearing $3 clearance flip-flops from Old Navy, and couldn’t have been happier.

How long did you have to save up to afford the wedding?
We gave ourselves about a year and a half to save and knew that we were being given some money from our parents.

Did you have the money for the wedding as disposable income or did you have to hustle/cut corners in other areas of life to afford it?
We are both teachers, so saving up meant cutting some serious corners. We barely ate out, avoided any nonessential personal purchases, and got really, REALLY creative about how we sourced potentially expensive pieces of our wedding. We spent months of evenings at our kitchen table together, covered with super glue and paper scraps and ink, but that made everything even more wonderful in the end.

Did you use a wedding planner of day-of coordinator?
Nope! We are really lucky to have an extensive family friend who stepped up to delegate responsibilities on the day of, but having a really carefully designed and thorough wedding website helped a ton, too. We posted as much information as possible in advance, even a schedule of the day, so guests were able to self-coordinate. We also deliberately chose photographers with excellent crowd-management skills, and they helped make all of our transitions smooth and easy.

Did you include the honeymoon as a wedding expense or a separate expense?
A honeymoon was the single biggest expense we avoided, but for very good reasons. First, anywhere we really wanted to go (Japan, Tahiti, the UK) could easily have cost more than the wedding, and we thought it was more important to spend our money to invite all the people we wanted there. Second, we found out very soon before the wedding that I was pregnant! Anything we had envisioned for a quick getaway weekend included a lot of hot tubbing, beer tasting, and fancy foods that I wouldn’t have been able to enjoy at all.

What was on the dinner menu?
One of the biggest draws of our venue was their family-style service for dinner. Their chef must be some kind of fairy or wizard; she made lasagna and pesto-stuffed chicken absolutely magical. Before that came cornbread and a choice of a garden salad or this glorious cranberry/goat cheese/pecan/pear assemblage with fantastic homemade dressings.

What is one tip you can offer other brides when it comes to wedding planning?
Put your time and resources into the things that really matter to you, let them be exactly what you and your partner want, and then make the easiest decisions you can for the rest.

What is one thing you wish you knew before planning a wedding?
It’s completely possible for the day not to be stressful! I went into my wedding weekend expecting to be a hot mess, and I was nearly disappointed when I woke up that morning calm as could be. Throughout the whole day, there was no drama (which might owe substantially my sister-in-law and best friends, who are peaceful but fierce), and nothing was forgotten or screwed up. Pop culture teaches us to anticipate meltdowns and hurt feelings, but there is no reason it needs to go that way!

What is an unconventional expense you encountered?
We hadn’t budgeted for many of those little extras to make guests comfortable, such as gift baskets at their hotels, baskets of personal products in the venue bathrooms, spare flip-flops for dancing, etc...but were taken to task pretty bluntly by family who felt that not offering these things was rude. Everything we added (at the very last second!) barely cost $100, but I suppose that is a fairly conventional expense that most plan for.

Any other tips?
It really helps to ask what your friends and family might be willing to contribute to the wedding, especially if they have unique skills or resources that might add something special. One of our friends is a master calligrapher and designed a beautiful calligraphed logo that we used on everything from invitations and programs to matching tattoos. My classically trained guitarist brother played our processional music, and two talented musician friends performed the song for our first dance.

Photo by Jessica Bordner Photography

A $20,000 Wedding Budget

The Bride: Kristen S.

Location: Hayloft in the Grove, East Aurora, New York

Attendees: 175

Amount budgeted: $20,000

Amount actually spent: $25,000

The single biggest expense of the wedding?
Food/Bar

How long did you (or whoever paid) have to save up to afford the wedding?
18 months

Did you have the money for the wedding as disposable income or did you have to hustle/cut corners in other areas of life to afford it?
[We had] some saved; [we] hustled for the rest. I was lucky to have my parents be willing to split the cost with me.

Did you include the honeymoon as a wedding expense or a separate expense?
Separate expense. We haven’t even taken one yet because most was spent on the wedding. Hopefully for our one year!

What was on the dinner menu?
Appetizers were hand passed: mac and cheese bites, pulled pork sliders, caprese skewers. Dinner was buffet: Lemon pepper chicken, prime rib, mashed potatoes, field greens, and pies from a local bakery.

Are you pleased with how much you spent on your wedding, or do you wish you could have spent more or less?
This is twofold. Our wedding couldn’t have been more beautiful. Location, weather, people, details. It was perfect. Because of that, I wouldn’t have changed a thing. Yes, it was a lot of money, but it was worth it.

What is one tip you can offer other brides when it comes to wedding planning?
Start early. Weeks after you get engaged, get the big things done!

What is one thing you wish you knew before planning a wedding?
How big attention to detail is. I was lucky to have my mom, sister, and wedding party be so helpful. Not everyone has that luxury. I owe so much to them.

What is an unconventional expense or expense you didn't expect to pay when planning your wedding?
Videographer. Last minute, we decided to do it. We’re so happy we did.

Any other tips?
Your wedding day FLIES. No matter how much you spent, what hoops you jumped through, and what the weather is doing—take a minute to slow down and take it all in. Chances are, it will be the best day of your life.

Photo by Jasmine Lee Photography

A $30,000 Wedding Budget

The Bride: Ali W.

Location: The Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco

Attendees: 160

Amount budgeted: $30,000. We were naive.

Amount actually spent: Over $80,000.

Is there something you wish you spent less on?
My dress. I bought a relatively inexpensive dress that didn’t conform to normal bridal standards and then allowed myself to succumb to the pressure of being a bride, and got another (whiter) dress for well over what I wanted to spend. In the end, that first dress was beautiful on me, and the second one was unflattering in many ways, but looked the part of a wedding dress more.

How long did you save up to afford the wedding?
The wedding was paid for by all three sets of parents: my husband’s parents, and my two sets of parents.

Did you have the money for the wedding as disposable income or did you have to hustle/cut corners in other areas of life to afford it?
Part of the deal of having a wedding at all was that they would bear the financial burden, since we would have been happy eloping. Had we paid for it ourselves we would definitely have gone a low-budget route and probably used credit cards to afford that.

Did you include the honeymoon as a wedding expense or a separate expense?
It was part of the wedding expense until we were way over budget and couldn’t save anything for the honeymoon. We ended up using cash wedding gifts people gave us to afford the honeymoon, which cost around $10,000. We went to Belize for three weeks, and I got giardia, but we still had a great time.

Reception menu?
Our caterer was Straw, a carnival-themed restaurant in San Francisco that we go to for special dates. We were lucky that they did catering! We served a kale caesar, mac 'n' cheese with bacon and apples, veggie skewers, mashed potatoes, and meat skewers all family style for dinner. For dessert there was a cotton candy machine and of course, cake. The late-night snacks were a great addition, since people get hungry after dancing. These were bite-sized chicken-and-waffle skewers, and doughnut/hamburger skewers.

What is one thing you wish you knew before planning a wedding?
Planning a wedding will be the first test of your marriage. You need to know and agree why you’re doing it. Of course a budget is important, but if you and your partner, and anyone involved in the planning, aren’t aligned on the vision for the day, then there will be conflict. I’m not just talking details or designs: What are the philosophical reasons you want to have a wedding? What are you hoping to get out of it? Are you the person you need to be to make it work?

Marriage demands tough answers from us, and skirting around the questions isn’t an ideal way to start.

What is an unconventional expense or expense you didn't expect to pay when planning your wedding?
For us couples, tipping! Everyone forgets about tipping, including us. A giant team of people worked so hard to make sure our wedding was special, and they deserved their rates and gratuity for their excellence. That said, we didn’t factor the extra 10 to 15 percent per service (catering, hair and makeup, photographer, planners, etc) that it would add to our budget.

Any other tips?
Do your wedding your way. My husband and I wanted to elope, but it was important to our families that we have a big celebration, and it was important to us that we honor our families. Plus, there were at least 160 people who would have been extremely hurt that we didn’t include them after giving us 11 years of their support. Realistically, weddings don’t need to be $80K to be good—far from it. We made the case for doing a City Hall elopement with immediate family the day before the wedding, on our 11-year anniversary: April 1st, 2016.

Not only did this allow us to keep our anniversary date, but enabled an expression of our love in the way truest to ourselves. It was an essential way to begin our marriage, and cost almost nothing.

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