The question is popped, the engagement ring is on, and you're looking forward to a lifetime with your partner—now what? With a lengthy pre-wedding to-do list and so many details to arrange, the idea of planning your ceremony and reception can seem overwhelming, but it doesn't have to be: If you give yourself enough time to plan and sort all of your tasks into a structured wedding-planning checklist and timeline, the job becomes much less stressful and a lot more fun. “By breaking down the year month by month, you are taking on the planning process in bite-size pieces and it will be far less overwhelming," says Tessa Lyn Brand, the creative visionary behind Tessa Lyn Events. "You can enjoy each step.”
Meet the Expert
Tessa Lyn Brand is the founder of Tessa Lyn Events, a wedding planning agency based in southern California. Brand has worked on over 300 weddings to date.
Though 12 to 14 months is the ideal length for an engagement, every couple’s timeline is different. In fact, brand once planned a wedding for a couple in a mere seven weeks! If your engagement length is shorter, her best advice is to condense the wedding schedule. “If you’re getting married in six months, try to complete all the wedding-planning checklist tasks designated for month 12 to six in that very first month, and then you’ll be right on schedule with everything else,” she says.
Here, Brand shares her expert insights and helped us create a 12-month wedding-planning checklist and timeline to help couples chart a stress-free path to “I do!”
12 Months Out
Insure the Engagement Ring
While this is technically a pre-wedding-planning activity, it deserves special mention. We suggest purchasing insurance for that precious new bling as soon as you come down from that post-proposal high—unless your fiancé already took care of it before the big debut, of course.
Determine Your Budget
It's time to do the math and crunch some not-so-fun numbers. Before you can start anything, you have to figure out who's paying for what and determine your wedding's bottom line. From there, you'll want to break down said budget—what's a priority and what's not?—and start allocating funds accordingly. (A little market research here comes in handy.) And since these numbers will change as you plan, it's smart to start a detailed spreadsheet from the get-go. This will help you keep track of spending and make it easy to adjust numbers along the way.
Make a Guest List
If only you could invite any and everyone, right? Chances are, you can't, which is why you have to put a cap on dishing out invites. When deciding your headcount, consider your budget (how many guests can you really afford to host?) and your venue (how many people does it fit?). Also, who's paying for what? From there, figure out how you're going to divvy up the list. If you and your partner are footing the bill, assume that you'll get 70 percent of the invites while both sets of parents will split the other 30 percent. But if mom or dad is contributing, it's the protocol to give all involved parties—your parents, your partner's parents, and you as a couple—one-third each. Next comes cutting, negotiating, and cutting some more until you reach a final number.
Hire a Wedding Planner
Again, this will depend on your budget (fair warning: most everything will), but if your funds allow, now is the time to hire the manager of your big day. A wedding planner will be your right-hand person throughout the process, and they will guide you in all decisions, from selecting a venue to tracking your budget and handling all the logistics.
Decide Formality and Overall Theme
Now's the time to sit down and have another heart-to-heart convo with your significant other. After all, the vibe of your wedding needs to be a mutual decision between the two guests of honor. To get the conversation flowing, pour a glass of wine/water/tea and ask yourselves: What’s important to us and why? What do we value? Also, know that your venue—more on that below—is going to affect all of this.
Select the Venue
You know who you're marrying. Now the real question is where will you two tie the knot? Trust us: Choosing the venue is one of the most important decisions you'll make right now. The location affects almost everything else, from how many people you invite to what kind of flowers go on the table. Chances are, it's also the biggest chunk of change you've put paid for anything before (unless you two are already homeowners). That's why you want to explore your options, visit the top contenders, and ultimately select a place that fits your guest count, style, and budget.
While selecting your venue, throw out that pros and cons list and trust your gut—this decision is about how you feel when you're there.
Buy Wedding Insurance
Throwing a wedding is a major financial investment, so err on the side of prudence and purchase special events insurance to protect yourself from damage and liabilities on the big day. You can apply for coverage as soon as you start planning or once you have a venue secured, but some agencies will even write up a policy the day before.
Select the Caterer
Your wedding is the best (and largest) dinner party of your life, but how do you feed 150 of your nearest and dearest? Well, start with hiring people you trust to deliver—whether that's the venue's in-house caterer, a preferred caterer recommended by your planner, or even your favorite taco truck. And don't be afraid to get creative with the menu. Guests will enjoy tasting your favorite cocktail just as much as Grandma's famous blueberry pie.
11 Months Out
Choose a Color Palette and Start Thinking of Your Overall Design
Pull up your Pinterest boards, people. It's finally time to gather inspiration, select a color palette, and create a mood board. There are so many ideas out there, so take your time with this part of the process—and don't forget to take a step back if you feel overwhelmed.
Hire Vendors Who Book Up Quickly, Including Your Photographer, Band, DJ, and Videographer
These are the people who will make your night fun—and all those memories last forever. Do your research before you hire, ask all the right questions, and maybe even date your photographer by having them take your engagement portraits. Seriously, this could be the start of a beautiful friendship.
10 Months Out
Start Shopping for Your Wedding Dress
You may know exactly what you want or you might not, which is okay, too. To get you started, here's check out our ultimate guide to dress shopping. Also, consider visiting these places in Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, and New York City—because finding a gown may be a matter of trial and error, but finding a salon shouldn't be.
Book Hotel Room Blocks for Guests
It's a thoughtful gesture to block out rooms (and secure a discounted rate) for your guests. Before you create a room block at random, check out our comprehensive guide on the subject to ensure your family and friends have the right accommodations.
Create Your Wedding Website
Get your site running now because you'll need to put the URL on save-the-dates next month. Follow our top rules and make it pretty using one of our favorite wedding websites.
Take Engagement Photos
Now is a great time to practice being in front of the camera, especially since most photographers include a session in your package. But don't fret: We have exceptional tips for the camera-shy.
Start Looking at Invitations
The wedding invitation is a guest’s first impression of your big day. That’s why you want to put your best foot forward with a personalized preview. If you're going custom, start working with a graphic designer or stationer now to create your dream suite. If you're going for a less involved route, you can wait until the six-month mark. (Invites will be sent out six to eight weeks before the big day.) Here are some of our favorite sites to look for invites.
9 Months Out
Buy Your Wedding Dress
It's time to say "yes" to the dress if you want to avoid rush fees. If you can place your order even earlier, that's preferable.
Let everyone officially know when and where you're making it official. And remember: Everyone who gets a save-the-date gets a wedding invite. No exceptions.
8 Months Out
Register for Gifts
Involve your better half in this one—after all, you two are building a life (and home) together. When registering, it's smart to ask for staples—like sheets, pots, pans, and so on—but it's even more genius to think about what you really want. Are you adventurers? Aspiring chefs? Charity givers? Consider your hobbies and tailor the registry to your soon-to-be-married lifestyle.
Select the Bridesmaids' Dresses and Bridal Party Accessories and Schedule Fittings Within the Month
After browsing for initial research, invite your bridal party to come shopping with you—assuming they live close by, of course. It will be helpful to see them in the attire, and you could even ask how they feel in the options you're considering. They have to wear it in front of a crowd of hundreds, after all. Keep accessories in mind while you're at it.
Meet With Potential Florists
Much like hiring other vendors, you want to be in tune with your florist, as well. To find the right professional, we suggest polling friends for recommendations, scrolling through Instagram inspiration, and asking your wedding planner or venue coordinator who they recommend in the area. It's important that you find someone who is able to deliver on your vision and budget.
7 Months Out
Book the Rehearsal-Dinner Venue
Traditionally, the groom's family pays for the rehearsal dinner so treat this as an opportunity to oblige your future mother in law if that's the case. With that said, you still have say in the theme of this party and where it should happen (an that's especially true if you're footing the bill yourself). We love the idea of hosting a family-style dinner at your favorite restaurant or opting for a casual celebration like a clambake or backyard BBQ. Read this before you start hashing out the details.
Hire the Ceremony Musicians
If you're hoping to enlist the talents of a three-piece band, now's the time to make it official. As for the actual music, we say the more personal the songs are to you, the better.
Order Rental Items, Such as Specialty Chairs, Linens, Draping, Lounge Furniture, and the Dance Floor
You may think of these as extras, and we beg you to change this way of thought. Great rentals essentially act as the bones of your wedding-day decor. Conclusion: Don't skimp on upgraded chairs and cozy lounge furniture (your guests will thank you) if your budget allows for it.
Hire an Officiant
If you aren’t marrying in a house of worship, you’ll need to hire someone to make it official. Couples can use a professional (check local listings online on Thumbtack) or take a more intimate approach and ask a close friend or family member to do the honors.
6 Months Out
Hire a Lighting Technician
The most important detail couples often forget about is lighting. Seriously, the bulbs and candles you select are what will ultimately light your perfect venue, make your photos just right, and keep the party going—even after the sun sets. Here are some bright ideas and picture-perfect candle displays.
5 Months Out
Book Transportation for Guests, If Needed
How do you know if it’s needed? Consider your venue’s parking situation, guests’ access to car services or public transportation, and the cost you’re asking them to incur. A good rule of thumb: If it’s going to run them $20 or more—especially if you’ve already asked them to travel for a destination wedding—consider a shuttle bus. Or, some car services, such as Uber, allow you to book rides on others’ behalf.
Book the Newlyweds' Transportation (Like a Limo or Specialty Car)
Time to think about you two. Whether you’re into getting into a stretch Escalade limo, or all about hopping on a tandem bicycle—get around in a style that’s all your own with these creative transportation ideas.
Book the Honeymoon
Traditionally, wedding etiquette states the groom plans a surprise honeymoon for the bride, but if you're tag-teaming the honeymoon strategy, try to have things semi-sorted out by this five-month mark. That means being on the same page about budget, timing, travel arrangements, and a semblance of an itinerary. You don’t have to schedule every minute, but each of you should share the most important takeaways you want from this trip, and act to ensure those activities will happen. Then, grab our top tips to create the trip of a lifetime.
Buy or Rent the Groom’s Tuxedo
The groom walks out first, remember? Make sure that first impression on your guests is a good one. Step one is choosing between a tux or suit, based on the formality of your wedding, and then deciding whether to buy or rent. When selecting the actual ensemble, focus on fit and function. A well-made outfit will be flattering, but also allow your groom to show off any and all embarrassing dance moves without fear of splitting seams. Finally, if you’re going the rental route, avoid these mistakes groomsmen make when renting a tux or suit.
Begin Premarital Counseling
Premarital counseling has worked wonders for countless couples. (The experts say so, and so do the couples.) It’s helpful to have an objective third party encourage you to address issues that haven't come up yet in your relationship. And, counselors can provide healthy conflict resolution tactics so you’ll be ready when the inevitable disagreement does present itself.
Some states offer a discount on the marriage license if you undergo counseling.
4 Months Out
Have Your Final Tasting With the Caterer
At this point, you’ve asked your caterer to talk through the most important planning questions. Now it’s time to taste what they’re really made of. The tasting has become increasingly important as more and more couples choose to customize everything from their signature cocktails to their desserts. If you’re nervous about heart eyes obstructing your taste buds’ judgment, bring your planner or consultant. They’ve likely attended dozens of tastings and will be your clear-eyed troubleshooter, paying attention to the detailing of the food and the attentiveness of the service.
Choose Your Cake
We’ll hit you first with the inspiration: Check out these gorgeous photos and delicious flavoring descriptions. Now, you and your partner should settle on a look and flavor profile that you both love. Don’t stress about pleasing every one of your guests. This is your cake as a couple. (You can also consider a groom’s cake.) Got the cake(s) decided? You need a baker. Find a reputable one who’s available on your date, and happy to take on your dream design for an equally dreamy price. (Ask them these questions.)
Buy Wedding Bands
Does your fiancé (or you) know the difference between an engagement ring and a wedding band? Read up, and then look through some of our favorites. (And don't forget to purchase insurance for these, too.)
Select the Groomsmen Attire and Schedule Fittings Within the Month
Do you want the groom and his crew to be matchy-matchy? How can you ensure the entire entourage gets fitted on time if they live all over the place? What else could go wrong? Breathe. You’ve got this, and don’t be afraid to get the groom involved. He may be able to pull rank and get his people in line—a very neat, orderly, and well-dressed one, at that.
Have Your Hair and Makeup Trial
Help the pros help you by researching some particulars before you go in for trials. Look back at old photos of yourself to find something that’s worked before and ensures you still look like yourself. Next, feel free to search social media for other inspiration; just don’t delude yourself with highly-filtered Instagram expectations. Bring the photos and be as specific as possible with the stylist about what you do and don’t want.
3 Months Out
Order the Invitations and Hire a Calligrapher
There are a few ground rules when it comes to ordering wedding invitations: Order enough of them to account for some mistakes, make sure they will arrive in time, set up a system to record RSVP replies, and confirm all addresses and spelling. When it comes to design and wording, the options are endless. Need a little advice to rein it all in? Keep reminding yourself that the theme of your invites should match the vibe of the wedding and express you as a couple.
Create or Plan Your Menu
Once you’ve undergone a successful tasting, you’ll have a good sense of a caterer’s style and offerings, so you're ready to finalize the food. Maybe you’re the couple who’s hand-selected every hors d'oeuvres, main, side, dessert, and drink situation. Or, perhaps you just told the chef to “handle it” and called it a day. Either way, now is the time to stamp your approval on a completed menu that fits your budget, tastes, and timing.
Brainstorm Guest Favors and Gift Bags
You don’t have to do favors or gift bags, but now’s the time to decide. Here are some of our favorite options for favors.
Book a Photo-Booth Rental
Photo booths have become a reception staple, but if you’re hoping for something with a little more pizzazz than the standard step-and-shoot, check out these creative alternatives.
Write Your Vows
If you’ve opted to write your own promises to one another, start thinking about what those should sound like for you two as a couple. Traditional? Feminist? Pop-culture inspired? We’ve got guides for them all.
Bible verses are often an obvious choice here, but there are plenty of nonreligious options, too. If you’d prefer designated readers to choose their own, make sure to give them as much guidance as possible.
Meet With the Officiant and Invite Them to the Rehearsal Dinner
Lots of things to consider when asking someone to marry you, but your main concerns are availability, eligibility, fee, and fit. Can your officiant of choice lawfully, affordably, and meaningfully help you two become one? Once you've chosen, make sure they are on the same page as you about expectations and the overall tone of the ceremony. And if you’ve recruited a recently-ordained friend or family member to head up the charge, here’s an article on how to officiate a wedding ceremony to share with them.
Start Crafting DIY Items If You Haven’t Already
Whew! Let’s hope you were able to control yourself scrolling through our DIY inspiration and only have a few projects to tackle at this point. Get to crafting—and make it anything but lame with good friends, good music, good food, and good breaks regularly.
2 Months Out
Send the Wedding Invitations (With RSVPs Due One Month Before the Wedding)
You already did the hard part—the selection process. Now, just print and assemble. Be sure to include a self-addressed, pre-stamped envelope for those RSVP cards to come back in!
Send Out Rehearsal-Dinner Invitations (These Can Be Included With the Wedding Invitations If You Like)
If your partner and their family are handling the rehearsal dinner, make sure you give them an accurate list of addresses and feel free to discuss the design and overall aesthetic of the rehearsal dinner. You don’t want it to be an exact replica of the reception that will follow the next night, but you may also want to confirm you don’t show up to a BBQ buffet in black-tie.
Have Your First Wedding Dress Fitting
Your first wedding dress fitting should be anywhere between two to three months after ordering, and your second fitting should happen about six-weeks before the big day.
Purchase Wedding Dress Undergarments
After the first dress fitting, you can purchase the undergarments needed to set the foundation. It's best to wait until this point as the first fitting will illuminate what type of underpinnings—from shapewear to lingerie—the design will require.
Pick Up Your Marriage License
Ah, the fine print. When getting your marriage license, it's important to know where to go, what to bring, how much it’ll cost, how long it’ll take, and how long it’ll last.
Every state has different laws and requirements, so Google yours. If you’re having a destination wedding, whether domestic or international, you’ll need to research those paperwork requirements as well. Then, make sure you as a couple, your witness(es), and your officiant sign it. (Here’s what to do if you lose it.)
Buy Wedding Party Gifts
How much you spend on the wedding party gifts is determined on an individual basis, but no matter your price point, the goal should be to gift something that’s as thoughtful, functional, and personalized as possible. Here are some suggestions!
Do a Floral Mock-Up With Your Florist
Floral samples vary depending on the florist and your own wedding decor choices, but most of the time they’ll include a mock reception table setup, centerpiece, and bouquet. Now is also the time to talk tweaks and finalize your delivery and care strategy.
Give the Song Selections to Your Musicians
Now is the time to tell your musician what you want to hear at the wedding. If you need suggestions, start by considering the most popular wedding songs of all time, then think about tunes you and your soon-to-be spouse love. We've got suggestions on ceremony music, too.
Buy All Necessary Small Items
Just off the top of our heads, those include table numbers, toasting flutes, a cake topper, a cake stand, a cake knife, the guest book, a card box, ring-bearer accessories, flower-girl accessories, a cute hanger for your dress, and a garter (if you choose to wear one). Also consider purchasing pashminas, flip-flops, and/or sunglasses for guests to change into at the reception, as well as baskets to hold them. Then, don’t forget your signs (“Welcome,” “Guest Book,” “Dancing Shoes,” etc.).
1 Month Out
Assemble Gift Bags
Follow the same guidelines as you did for DIY projects to ensure this task is fun, not frustrating.
Pay Vendors in Full
The last awkward situation you want to deal with right before your wedding day is a vendor chasing money. Avoid that by keeping careful track of when and how much you pay each vendor. If there are some vendors who must be paid the day-of, or you’re distributing tips, give your most trusted bestie or relative a heads-up that come wedding day, you’ll be counting on them to handle the labeled envelopes you’ve put together.
Create a Seating Chart
You thought the guest list was a pain, and now you’ve arrived at the seating chart challenge—another daunting balancing act of relationships, egos, potential, and crisis management. You’ll want to think about your venue’s floor plan, whether or not you’ll have a head table and who will be sitting at it, and choosing a cool design. Here is a digital planning guide, in case that helps, too.
Order or Make Escort Cards and Place Cards
First, you should know the difference. While both place cards and escort cards designate where each guest will be seated at a wedding, place cards are more specific—and also more formal—than escort cards. A place card not only directs guests to the table where each will sit during the reception, but also points each guest to their particular seat at the table. Whichever you choose, you’ll want the cards to complement the overall wedding theme, but again, the possibilities are unlimited.
Have a Final Venue Walk-Through
Make a list of questions beforehand, and take your planner or another close friend or family member to bring up anything you forget.
Put Cash in Tip Envelopes for Your Planner/Delegate to Distribute
Remember those labeled envelopes we talked about for last-minute checks or tips? (By the way, here’s a complete tipping guide on how much to give and to whom). Primarily, you don’t need to tip people who own their own businesses—such as photographers, videographers, and florists. It’s customary to tip the following vendors: Musicians, DJs, hair stylists, makeup artists, drivers, bartenders, and servers. Many couples tip the wedding planner, as well.
Break in Your Wedding Shoes
Strut down your hallway. Dance in the kitchen. Do everything in your power to avoid painful blisters on the wedding night.
Congratulations! You've made it all the way to the final week of wedding planning. Deep breaths now, most of the hard work is over at this point. Now all that is really left is the nitty-gritty details. Take care of things like:
- Having a massage (why not make it a couple's massage?)
- Final dress fitting (a friend or bridesmaid should come with you so they can learn how to bustle if your dress requires it)
- Pack your bags for the honeymoon (don’t forget your passport if leaving the country), and confirm travel arrangements (if you're leaving right after the wedding)
- Clean your ring (head to your jeweler to get your engagement ring professionally cleaned so it’s extra sparkly on the wedding day)
- Chase any RSVP stragglers and deliver the final headcount
- Clear your work to-do list so you can only focus on wedding festivities and take it all in
- Practice your vows out loud
- Write your partner a note
Night Before and Morning of the Wedding
The big day is finally here. All that careful preparation and creative planning have come to fruition, and it’s time to enjoy the wedding. Here’s what to do:
The Night Before:
- Eat a healthy meal
- Pack a clutch or small bag of personal items
- Drink water
- Get a good night's sleep
- Put any boxes, suitcases, bags, and survival kits to bring to the ceremony or reception in the car (you'll thank us tomorrow)
The Morning Of:
- Stay off your feet as much as possible
- Eat breakfast
- Drink even more water
- Take your dress and veil out of the bag early on and have someone steam them if needed
- Lay out all the items (rings, invitations, etc.) that you want the photographer to capture
- Exchange notes with your partner
- Say thank you to everyone around you