For me, the word proposal usually calls to mind visions of rose petals, dramatic declarations, tears, and this Celine Dion song. Things that are all, in a word, cheesy. But of course, every future bride (including me) swears that her proposal will be different—special and perfect and definitely not cringe-inducing.
But, just in case you're looking for a little extra security, we've enlisted the expertise of proposal planner Heather Vaughn of The Yes Girls, a company in the business of collecting yesses from unsuspecting fiancés in waiting. How can men (and women!) ensure they're coming up with authentic, creative ideas that fall in the sweet spot between "Did they even try here?" and "Hmm, no one likes a try-hard..."
"The whole reason I started this company nine years ago is my belief that a good proposal is about thoughtfulness and making it about your relationship," Vaughn says. "Rose petals are great, and they’re a little touch that you can throw in, but I always recommend really thinking through personalized elements that make the proposal unique to you as a couple."
Below, five inspirational proposals and their takeaway tips from Vaughn and her team to guarantee your own ask is cliché-, cringe-, and cheese-free.**
1. Stay Grounded (Overblown Is Overrated)
We get wanting to "blow them away," but you also have to think reasonably—lest your proposal itself blow away! "We had one beach proposal where he really wanted balloons, messages in bottles, and a lot of rose petals," remembers Vaughn. "Rose petals and the beach, in theory, are amazing, but in practice, they can be disastrous because of the breeze—especially when people want a shape."
Instead of agreeing to the initial idea of a heart-shaped petal arrangement and handing the fiancé-to-be a huge bundle of balloons on strings, Vaughn suggested repurposing those elements in a more practical way. "I was picturing her being knocked down by all these balloons," says the Southern California native who's seen many a windy beach proposal in her day. "And will she have to then hold them for the rest of the proposal? We didn't want that." For their sandy setup, the Yes Girls pitched a white tent and secured the rose petals to winding greenery around the four poles. Then they reversed the standard of balloons floating in the air by hanging them in clusters from the ceiling.
To avoid anything feeling overblown, the company kept the proposal grounded with personal touches—including a photo table and two huge balloons, decorated with the calligraphy of the couple's initials, that were anchored with—you guessed it—personalized messages in a bottle.
2. Build an Ask That's Meant to Last
You've probably always considered a proposal a one-and-done kind of deal, right? What if there were a way to keep reaping the benefits (beyond those of, you know, the rest of eternity with the love of your life)? "One of my favorite things to do as a company is to make couples some sort of future keepsake," Vaughn says. "Whether it’s a wooden sign, mirror, glass piece, wine glasses, wine bottle—anything that’s pretty and tangible that they can keep in their home or later use in their wedding is my goal." One of Vaughn's recent success stories featured a couple in Napa. "He wanted to propose during a wine tasting, but it was during the holidays so weather can be a little chancy," Vaughn recalls. The contingency plan took the couple to a wine cave. The YG crew lit two dozen tapestry candles and placed them in clear wine bottles to cover a wooden table in the middle of a long hallway.
Then they placed a custom wine box—created with the couple's proposal date and last name—off to the table's right side.
"Inside the box, we had some love letters, because he was always leaving her notes in their relationship, and then we had engraved wine glasses and a bottle," says Vaughn. "The idea is that on their wedding day, they'd drink the wine and replace it in this wine box. Then, they'd drink the new bottle on their first anniversary, and then so on and so forth. So this simple wine box becomes a durable, useful object that's going to be filled over the years for future memories."
3. Have Fun (and Maybe Get a Little Funny)
Sure, Romeo—your proposal is the ultimate grand romantic gesture, but don't forget to have a good time while you're proposing. Maybe even call out to your quirkier side! "I still think you can have fun with proposals," says Vaughn. "We also have some really interesting things they want to incorporate in the proposals—Star Wars, video games, elephants—and I actually really like that part of it. It's like, 'How do we do this in a way that’s cool and interesting?'" During a recent project at a Christmas tree farm (a very popular proposal locale as of late), the couple was really into tacky sweaters. After a proposal in front of a tree decorated with customized ornaments, the newly engaged lady was surprised by her family members coming out wearing tacky sweaters.
"We didn't have to downplay the romance, and still had the fun thing that was important to those guys," says Vaughn.
4. Don't Get Too Campy
As you're sidestepping the cliché trap, be careful you don't fall into the equally dangerous camp trap. If you take your personalization efforts too literally and to the extreme, you run the risk of producing a proposal that feels absurdly exaggerated, fake, and tacky (not in the good way mentioned above). A recent client of the Yes Girls met his fiancé while they were both working at a youth camp but worried taking her back to the actual campsite would immediately tip her off that a proposal was nigh. He needed to bring camp to her but wanted to do it in a non-campy way. "It became about bringing a piece of where it all began to a new location," says Vaughn. "So, it took her back to that place but still felt very grown-up." Vaughn and her client decided on a custom wooden sign that looked like a smaller version of the one at the entrance at the camp—a sign the couple could later hang in their home as "a cute rustic sign that's obviously super meaningful for them and that they can save forever," says Vaughn.
Behind the sign, her staff positioned tree stumps, candles, and branch clippings draped in twinkle lights around a watercolor forest backdrop. "It was such a cute story because while they were working at this camp before they were even dating, they joked with the kids that they were in love and going to get married because the kids went crazy for it," says Vaughn. "Fast-forward four years later and they're actually doing it."
And since the bride and groom had a habit of coming up with silly little songs together, the Yes Girls hired a professional guitarist to perform a funny custom song that talked about the fake and now-real proposals. "She was cracking up and crying and laughing and loving it," remembers Vaughn. "It brought that fun camp singing in, but in an updated romantic way—not like a bunch of kids are about to come out and demand s'mores and campfire songs."
5. But if You're the Type to Promise Her the Moon...Show Up With the Moon
For all our carping about avoiding clichés, for some future bride out there, maybe cheesy rose petals and cheesy Celine are her everything—and thus not cheesy at all! More important than the particulars is their presentation. "It’s pretty common that most guys want some kind of rose petal scenario," says Vaughn. "So, it’s more about trying to incorporate that without making anything that feels cliché the main centerpiece. Or, you can subvert the cliché by making a statement with it." And how does one do that? "Sometimes things can look cheesy if it's a small amount—like a small sprinkling of rose petals," explains Vaughn. "Like, if they’re going to use flower petals, really use flower petals, right? It's better to not even have small candles if you're only going to do a few. When everyone wants mason jars hanging in trees, you make the 'wow' statement by hanging hundreds of them. It doesn't have to cost a million dollars, but we try to get our clients to think about bang for your buck, and 'How can we both impress and make this as thoughtful as possible?'"
To impress and emotionally stir the fiancé of another recent client, Vaughn commissioned a massive wooden moon, cloaked it in greenery, and set it up with white hydrangeas underneath for a cloud-like effect. "Their special thing was 'I love you to the moon and back times infinity'" says Vaughn. "I was worried this one had the potential to be kinda cheesy with all of the decor out there, but we were able to get creative and 'go big' in a more abstract, beautiful way."
**[Ed note: This applies only in the corny connotation, of course. Queso would be a welcome appearance at my proposal.]