First, check out what other brides are spending.
Last year, the average couple spent $23,883* on their wedding. Here's the typical breakdown:
*Based on an average of 153 guests and total expenses for each respondent. All figures from the Brides American Wedding Study.
Then, figure out your budget.
Annie Lee, top New York wedding planner and founder of Daughter of Design, has your road map.
1. Get on the same page as your fiancé about wedding spending.
Decide how much of your own funds you want to use, and agree not to go into debt. Ideally, you'd have six months' salary in savings, untouched, for this purpose. If that's a stretch and you want a big party, consider opening a joint wedding savings account and prolonging your engagement so you can stockpile and pay as you go.
2. Draw up a realistic guest list.
If you have large families and/or tons of friends, divide it into an A team (musts) and a B team (optionals). Tip: If you're on a tight budget, it's okay not to invite colleagues and to get a little thrifty with your plus-ones.
3. Ask your parents if they want to pitch in and, if so, how much.
Add it all up and you've got your budget. (See next page for tips on how to broach that tricky conversation.) FYI, 75 percent of couples ignore traditional who-pays-for-what rules. A full 36 percent cover the entire bill themselves.
4. Once you have your figure, cut it by 10 percent.
This gives you room to go over, which many people do—especially for destination weddings. (Studies show that 40 percent of those couples overspend, as do 32 percent of those who marry locally.)
5. Get comfy with Excel.
Your spreadsheet should have three columns: Estimated, Modified, and Actual. Amounts under Estimated will be driven by research, vendor proposals will fill up Modified, and Actual will have your final expenses.
6. Use average percentages (like the ones on the previous page) to help you allocate your money.
Rearrange according to your priorities. (For instance, if you geek out to gold foil and letterpress, up the paper percent.) Then adjust numbers after calling vendors for costs. Ta-da! You've filled in your Estimated column. Make sure the total doesn't exceed your budget—and never delete your estimates, so you can always see where you started.
7. Book the venue first.
It's the biggest piece of the wedding pie, and it'll help you lock in your guest count, which is a crucial predictor of total budget. (For example, if your venue charges $200 a head, the difference between 200 and 250 guests is $10,000.) Side note: Book vendors like your stationer and florist later, but if you have a dream person, make sure he's available on your date before finalizing the venue. FYI, figure 10 to 20 percent of invitees won't attend, especially if you have guests coming from abroad. Anticipate a higher drop-off for a destination wedding.
8. Book the caterer second.
If your wedding will be at a hotel or country club, catering costs will likely be part of the deal, and your per-head costs will fluctuate based on your menu choices. If you're celebrating in a loft or a tent, your caterer will be a separate item and probably the second-biggest number in your spreadsheet.
9. Book everything else.
Before signing on the dotted line, always ask, "Have I missed anything? Does this number include everything everything?" If you're hiring a planner, she'll know the drill. If you're on your own, make sure vendors reveal every hidden cost, from cake-cutting and corkage to overtime and freight-elevator fees. If you're not sure, ask a friend who planned a comparable party and may have learned the hard way. FYI, the caterer's service-and-gratuity fee (often called "tax and tip" or "the plus-plus") can add as much as 30 percent to your bill. Ask your caterer to include it in the proposal so you can budget for it from the get-go.
10. Tweak your numbers as you go.
No bigs. It'll all work out! We promise.
Get the most bang for your buck
"Cut back on hard goods (flowers, favors), and invest in services (photography, music). That's what you and your guests will remember most."
—Alexa von Tobel, CEO of Learnvest.com
Ace the money talk
Pros weigh in on how to ask your folks to bankroll the party.
"Schedule separate chats (you with your parents, him with his) to save them from potential peer pressure or awkwardness. Note that these days, financing a wedding is usually a joint effort."
—Anna Post, author of Emily Post's Wedding Etiquette
"Ask for contributions toward specific purposes. For example, your dad may be excited to purchase your dress but less thrilled to pay for a $500 confetti cannon. Be flexible. Small compromises keep everyone happy."
—David Tutera, star of We TV's David Tutera Unveiled
"People who give cash think they have a say in how you should spend it. Well, guess what: They do have a say! Money means influence. That's just the way the world works. So keep that in mind."
—Emily Yoffe, etiquette columnist, Slate.com
Stay on track
These three apps keep you in the black
Wedding Planner for iPad ($9.99, iTunes) helps manage vendor payments and automatically updates what's left of the pie.
Wedding Plandroid (Free, Google Play) builds budget lists and searches and rates vendors.
iWedding Deluxe ($4.99, iTunes) "Budget assistant" categorizes purchases and compares them with industry averages.
Yes, you can work a deal. Just be nice, and avoid using a competitor's pricing as a bargaining chip. Below, our readers' best gets.
"Our photo-booth provider quoted $1,700 for four consecutive hours. I paid $800 for two hours before dinner and three after."
"We told our first-choice venue to call us if they had a cancellation. They did! Realizing they needed to fill the date, I got the price from $175 to $130 per person and an extra half hour for the party."
—Mary Twohig Novick
"I ordered a small show cake and negotiated to have an additional sheet cake that was sliced in the kitchen to feed most of the party. Total? $200."
—Natalie Morrison Coney
"I talked the caterer down $8,000 by having a more vegetarian menu."
Look for easy ways to trim
Make the 10 cuts below, says NYC event pro Josh Brooks of Fête, and slash your budget by a third
-Move three couples to your B list
-Get married off peak (e.g., a Friday in March)
-Buy your gown off-the-rack
-Decorate with candles and minimize the flowers
-Book a photographer for six hours instead of eight
-Eliminate food stations at cocktail hour
-Offer a signature cocktail, wine, and beer instead of a full bar
-Don't give a choice of entree for dinner
-Serve a vegetarian first course and a chicken main course