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

Updated 04/05/17

Photo by Haley Sheffield

When it comes to weddings, no two ‘dream weddings’ are the same. With venues, menus, dresses, and floral arrangements having essentially infinite options and combinations, it’s no surprise that no two wedding budgets are the same either. We talked to four real brides, to get the skinny on what they really spent their wedding budget on. Read on to find out.

Caeli M

Location: Ralph Thornton Centre, Toronto, Ontario
Attendees: About 50
Amount budgeted: $3000
Amount actually spent: about $2000

Biggest wedding expense?
Venue.
How long did you have to save up 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

Sarah K

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 non-essential 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

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

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 3 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 donut/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 10-15% 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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