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."

10 Painless Ways to Dramatically Slash Your Wedding Costs

Painless Ways to Dramatically Slash Wedding Costs
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How to Have a Dream Wedding on a Practical Budget
A novel and innovative option for the modern, time-strapped bride and groom is a service called BrideRush, which offers discounted, date-specific wedding deals. BrideRush bundles the search, inquiry, and booking processes for a simplified and streamlined solution with a possible 30 percent to 70 percent discount. Owner Anita Malik refers to BrideRush as the "Priceline of weddings."
The average wedding dress costs roughly $1,100, according to, so thinking outside of the box can yield big savings. Consider a pre-owned gown from a vintage or consignment store. offers hundreds of designer dresses, with many priced at less than $300. On top of that, after your big day, you can even sell your dress back to them. You can also find used veils, shoes and jewelry on the site.

Both eBay and Craigslist also offer thousands of less expensive gown options. sells gowns donated by designers, with all proceeds going to charity. Most gowns range from $100 to $800. Or consider borrowing a gown from a family member or friend.

- Shorten (or elongate) your wedding planning timeline to either nab last-minute deals or have the flexibility to lock in bargain rates at a later date.

- Consider a Friday or Sunday wedding instead of the traditional -- and expensive -- Saturday.

- Consider nontraditional venues, like city-run spaces, gardens, beaches and zoos, for inexpensive and beautiful wedding sites.

With the average cost of a full-service wedding planner clocking in at nearly $4,000, eliminating the planner is an easy way to shave money from your budget. Not having one will require legwork on the part of you and your spouse-to-be, but the savings are tremendous.

Avoid traditional evening sit-down dinners or buffets. You can save lots of money by hosting a daytime affair or cocktail reception. While you may hear some guests grumbling, you will save a healthy chunk of change.

Avoid an open bar and consider opting for wine and beer only. Or serve a signature cocktail instead. This lets you buy one or two types of alcohol, allowing you to buy in bulk and cut costs. Consider avoiding the pricey champagne toast altogether, and toast with your signature cocktail instead. It'll be more personalized and memorable.

The higher, larger, and more ornate the cake, the more money it will cost. Choose a lower, smaller, and simpler one for the ceremonial cake-cutting and photos, and stock the kitchen with a sheet cake. Guests will never know the difference, and it can save you a couple hundred dollars.

The average cost of wedding flowers is nearly $2,000, but by choosing one type of seasonal, local flower, you can take advantage of a cheaper, bulk order. Or consider using Costco or an e-retailer like, whose site allows you to buy wholesale flowers -- cutting out expensive middlemen -- for do-it-yourself centerpieces, bouquets, and boutonnieres.

You can find DIY ideas by perusing Pinterest or No one attending your wedding will remember -- or care -- that you had homemade favors as opposed to expensive, store-bought ones. Consider commissioning an aunt or grandmother with a unique skill to make the favors, centerpieces, or cake. It'll be special and that loved one will probably feel both pleased and honored to help.

The pre-ceremony aromatherapy massage, professional hair and makeup, pricey bachelorette weekend in Tahoe, and three bridal showers are all completely unnecessary.
Invest in your long-term relationship instead.

With so much focus on the wedding day, consider parlaying some money into services that'll build a great foundation for your marriage, like couples counseling and financial planning. These investments in your future together have magnificent potential for enhancing the quality of your marriage.

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