How to Have a Dream Wedding on a Practical Budget

For many couples, one of the most important days of their lives can quickly turn into one of the most expensive. Fortunately, it doesn't have to be that way: There are plenty of frugal wedding-planning strategies that can keep your "I dos" from turning into "I wish we hadn'ts."

Robert Eberhard's wedding was a financial flood that rose gradually by drips, rather than a deluge. He and his bride set an initial budget of $12,000, but ultimately spent closer to $25,000.

"Both my sisters got married in small ceremonies, and I thought mine would be like that," he says, "but then things run away from you like a freight train." The costs were so far beyond their means that Eberhard, now a graduate student at the University of Illinois, was still paying off the credit card debt from the wedding after the marriage ended 16 months later.

"We got to the point six months before the wedding when we should have called it off," he recalls, "but we were $10,000 into it, with nonrefundable deposits."

Meg Keene, author of "A Practical Wedding" and who runs a website by the same name, says Eberhard's tale is one she hears frequently.

"People get locked in by the idea of deposits," Keene says. "But if you've spent $10,000 in deposits, and you're going to put [down] another $15,000 in deposits, calling off that wedding and doing something smaller might be the sanest thing you can do."

Small, With No Regrets

In contrast, Leslie Bryant of Sutherland, Oregon, says she knew she never wanted a large wedding. She and her now-husband spent $2,500 on their big day, and paid for everything in cash. They invited only a handful of close friends and family, explaining to everyone else that they were only having a small wedding. "Some people were upset at first, but eventually understood, and even said they wished they had done a small ceremony as well," she says.

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They rented space from a local rancher who had set up a wedding pavilion on his property, and did everything from setting up chairs to hanging decorations themselves. Afterward, everyone pitched in to clean up.

"We went as frugal as we could, and even had enough left to take a cruise for our honeymoon," Bryant says.

Reframing Your Expectations

Keene says that you shouldn't try to re-create a luxury wedding on a smaller budget. "When you want your wedding to be a replica of an expensive wedding, but cost a lot less, that's when you end up with everything not being great," she says.

Caterers and other wedding service providers often have fixed costs, so trying to nickel-and-dime them isn't going to make anybody happy. Instead, Keene recommends picking one thing that is truly worth the investment and streamlining everything else. One client got married at City Hall in San Francisco and had the reception in a local Chinese restaurant -- but flew in a florist from New York, because amazing flowers were what she felt she needed to make her day feel luxurious.

"Don't make the mistake in thinking weddings only look one way," she says. "Most people think weddings are a ceremony, cocktail hour, sit-down dinner and reception with music. Rather than asking how to get a $100,000 wedding for $5,000, reframe it to, 'How do I spend $5,000 on a party where I'm getting married?'"

The most important thing is to make sure your vision of a perfect wedding doesn't put you into debt.

"Once the wedding is over, you want it to be over," she says. "If you're not able to keep things under control cost-wise, you won't look back on your wedding as a happy, tangible memory you carry with you into your marriage."

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