weddings

The wedding money diaries: Here's exactly how Caylee spent $40,000 on her big day.

I am learning that I love to operationalise things. Budget was something I was really laser-focused on ‘hacking’ (as much as I hate that term). It was so disheartening starting our planning process and learning the reality of wedding industry price inflation. Across the board, every detail can get out of hand and really blow your budget if you don’t keep on top of it. You’ve got to have the mindset of trimming every single expense where you can.

I started the budgeting process by finding a template online, and then immediately nixed a bunch of stuff from it (like ceremony programs, videographer, officiant fee, ring pillow, limo rental and a planning binder). Anything that wasn’t important to us was gone. I then did a bit of research and started to estimate what I think each expense should/would cost. From this, we could look over the first draft together and agree on a budget for our wedding.

We landed on “$30000-$40,000,” which I immediately changed to “$40,000” in my head, because I knew we’d push to the top of our range. Without the nauseating reality check of planning a wedding, this may seem like a lot of money. It is a lot of money! But in wedding standards, this is actually below average (the national average for a wedding in the US in 2016 was around AU$46,000). I had started the process self-assuredly thinking I could do it for under $25,000 because I’d planned a million events in the past and could piece it together without using wedding-specific vendors who’d overcharge. That thinking saved us a lot of money, but I was wrong about how easy it’d be.

As we started shopping around for vendors, I updated the budget with what we were willing to spend based on the reality of what things cost. If something went over the estimate we’d penciled in, I usually tried to trim back on something else. The wedding budget always stayed between $35,000 and $40,000 as we added and edited things because I stayed on it like a hawk.

Here’s a snippet of how I tracked estimates and purchases:

NOTE: These prices are in US dollars. Image: Supplied.
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The first column is where we originally had estimates (grey). As we made purchases, I update the estimate field (this is important!) and changed the text to black so I could keep a clean running total of money spent at the bottom. I also created columns for everyone that was financially contributing to the wedding and dropped every purchase into the purchaser’s column as well.

Every day leading up to our wedding, I knew exactly how much we had spent or were going to spend. It was never a mystery or a surprise. My parents wanted to help pay for things, but didn’t want to just write a check. I was able to give them a real-time number of how much they’d spent at any time, and stay respectful of their contribution budget.

This spreadsheet was really helpful to me and my husband. Hopefully, it can be useful to you as well! I created a clean version for others to use.

Alright, now that we’ve got the overview — the method to my madness—let’s look at some juicy details.

Where we really saved

There are a few very unique details that allowed us to save money. While they can’t always be replicated for other situations, the way we thought about saving money can be!

1. Free design skillz

First, I’m a designer, so we didn’t have to pay for anything visual. I designed our invites, our website, all our print materials, and had a vision for the style and theme of the wedding. I would recommend taking a look at your skill set, your future spouse’s skillset, and those closest to you, and see where you can ask for favors or do it yourself.

2. No venue fee

Second, we got married on the roof of our apartment. There wasn’t a venue fee, which saved us at least a couple thousand dollars (or $25,000+ if we’re comparing to NYC venues), but that also meant there weren’t tables, chairs or really any equipment. We had to re-plant all the planter boxes, do some repairs and small construction projects, install poles and strung lights, and rent every single piece of equipment/furniture (and pay the fee to have it lugged up to the roof). I’d say that overall we saved money here, but there was a lot of hard work and some expenses involved.

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Image: Supplied.

3. No day-of coordinator fee

Third, we didn’t have to budget for a day-of planner. My aunt really wanted to do it for us, and we are so lucky and grateful that she did!

4. We hacked the food and beverage budget

Finally, I grew up in restaurants and my parents (and brother) are food and beverage wizards. They have also run so many high-volume events and ended up being the real MVPs of our wedding day. So, this amazing resource was always in my back pocket as we were making plans. It’s unique to us, so some of the shortcuts below would likely be harder for others to pull off.

Since we were getting married on our roof and had so many folks traveling to our neighborhood from out of town, we decided to go hyper-local with all our vendors; a taste of the East Village. We didn’t speak to any other food vendors after meeting with Supper, an Italian restaurant a couple doors down from us. We just knew it’d work out so well because they have a takeout/catering kitchen and we wouldn’t have to set up any food prep on the roof or in the apartment.

We wanted four courses family style, but when I realised the first two courses were made up of foods like simple arugula salad, caprese, and charcuterie, I felt we could save a lot of money doing this ourselves. So, my parents bought all the ingredients at Costco and prepped the platters before the wedding.

Our four-course dinner (First: white bean dip and bread. Second: salad, charcuterie, caprese, olives. Third: bolognese fettucine and lemon spaghetti. Fourth: so many roasted veggies and chicken parmesan) came out to $4273, or $69 per person.

Additional to saving on food, we bought our own liquor (outside the city) and made our own mixers (homemade berry syrup, simple syrup, sour mix). Even with two expensive kegs of local craft beer, $15–23/bottle wines, premiums cocktails, and super fancy 2" hand-carved square ice cubes that I had to have ($190 on those alone) we spent about $25/person on booze. $94/person for four courses and a premium bar is crazy good; it would cost double at a venue.

Image: Supplied.

5. No formal cake

Another place we saved money is dessert. We bought an assortment of literally incredible cupcakes of all different flavors and sizes, chocolate chip cookies, and cinnamon rolls. In total we spent $260 on dessert and half of it was leftover at the end. I didn’t even touch the idea of a cake because I know how expensive they can be and it was not important to us. The assorted dessert table was perfect!

6. No wedding planner

We also saved money by not having a full-on planner. We consulted with a planner for a few hours early on, which I highly recommend. We had tons of questions about what to expect or how others usually handle certain things. Once we got comfortable and needed to just execute on decisions and put in the work, it wasn’t clear where a planner would fit in since I enjoy organizing things and wanted to be part of each decision.

Every dollar we spent

Below is a breakdown of every dollar we spent on our wedding. Our total spend of $40,000 includes everything — my dress, beauty treatments, our wedding bands, a marriage prep course, and the money we spent on our bachelor(ette) weekends. If you only count expenses for the day of the wedding, we are right at $30,000.

Planning

Wedding planner consultation: $320
Marriage prep course: $830

Invites

Invites, postage, envelopes: $230

Website

Squarespace year membership, domain name: $140

Print materials

Place name cards and menus: $44
Escort card display: $25
Photo frames: $64
Gold sharpies: $19

DIY, decor

Table number holders and table numbers: $40
Votives and tealights: $102
Marquee letters and tracks: $182
Strung lights: $232
Corkboard and thumbtacks: $20

Photography

Wedding photographer: $7665 (including travel expenses)
Fujifilm instant camera and film: $210

Dress

Bridal skirt: $2893
Custom bridal top: $1022

Bridal attire

Earrings: $64
Shoes: $300
Mani/pedi: $100
Hair styling: $127
Hair/makeup trails: $811
Lash extensions: $255
Facial: $127
Tanning: $191
Brow and facial threading: $51
Wedding band: $249

Bridal party

Bridesmaids dresses: $191
Hair for 2 bridesmaids: $319
Flower girl dresses: $104

Groom’s attire

Suit, tie and shoes: $228
Wedding band: $824

Groomsmen

Groom and groomsmen ties: $217

Floral

Bridal and bridesmaids bouquets, groom and groomsmen boutonnieres, arbor florals, reception table arrangements, flower girl petals and baskets, flower girl crowns, rosemary place setting sprigs: $3193

Food & booze

Self-purchased food for salad and antipasti courses: $1277
Catered dinner: $2995
Dessert: $332
Beer, wine, cocktails: $1660
Bartender & food service: $1814
Fancy ice cubes for cocktails: $191
Non-alcoholic beverages: $127
Farewell brunch room fee: $766
Disposable napkins, cups and plates: $140
Next day task rabbits for cleanup: $383

Venue and improvements

Roof repairs: $242
Plants: $587
Blankets: $108
Extension cords: $255
Hardware and small purchases: $255
That one uncategorized Amazon order (???? you caught me) with a bunch of roof and decor stuff: $479

Rentals

Tables, chairs, linens, glassware, plates, flatware, serving stuff, bar stuff, heaters, etc: $5110

Paperwork

Liability insurance: $127
Marriage license: $76

Entertainment

DJ and equipment: $990
Projector rental: $118

Wedding party gifts

Bridesmaid gifts: $383
Groomsmen gifts: $255

Other

Flights: $212 (used miles)
Bachelorette/bachelor parties: $881

Total: $41,407

Image: Supplied.

My recommendations: where to spend more or less

1. Spend the money on the DJ or a live band

When we first budgeted, I was factoring in a few thousand dollars just for the venue. So the budget was a little tighter. One thing I remember not wanting to spend money on (as a tradeoff) was a DJ. Many were in the $1916–2555 range and since we wanted to pick our own music, that seemed ridiculous. Once we ended up deciding to do it on our roof, that freed up some budget. So I went on GigSalad and found a DJ for a few hundred dollars that I envisioned bringing equipment and operating our playlist. Since he offered to set up the ceremony mic and speakers, he ended up playing a big role in the wedding. However, he wasn’t experienced in doing all of this and there were so many errors. For instance, people couldn’t hear our vows. As it ended up going over the original bid and actually cost $990, I would have happily paid another couple hundred dollars for a professional wedding DJ, even though we made our own playlists and had our own emcee.

2. Spend the money on day-of help

I was stingy about hired help up until the week of the wedding. I felt like with enough organisation, I could efficiently use the servers’ time for setup, the wedding, and cleanup. In reality, a million things were going on and it’s hard to give good direction in that setting. My documentation wasn’t enough, and I wasn’t available to clarify. Setup is a bigger task than I budgeted for. Thankfully, my family is incredible and did so much to get it all set up! Also, the next day we had a two-hour window between the farewell brunch and watching the Seahawks game with everyone. All we wanted to do was sleep, but we had to get the roof clean. Some of the easiest money we spent was hiring two Task Rabbits for those two hours to work side by side with us. It made it go so much faster. All in all, spend the extra ≈$63/hr to rest assured you’ve got enough hands to pull everything off smoothly.

Listen: The wedding listener question that has divided the Mamamia office. (Post continues...)

3. Spend the money on a marriage prep course

We loved our marriage prep course with Hope Mirlis. It was so nice to focus on us for each of the sessions. The course really reinforced the “why” behind the wedding (when the “what” — decisions, plans, hard work — can be so overwhelming) and got us really excited to be married. She took us through all the things you should talk about before getting married. It sort of felt like we knocked this part out of the park, that we’d thought through so much already and were on the same page with everything. That felt really good. Most of our sessions were us all laughing, playing games, telling stories, and enjoying our love. How amazing is that?

4. If you can help it, don’t spend money on officiant, live music or emcee

Tap your village! We never even considered hiring someone to marry us, for instance. We always knew we wanted it to be super personal, so we asked one of Jim’s (and my) best friends to do it. As we were planning the ceremony, we thought of one of our best friends who plays guitar and he generously accepted our request for him to play the processional. Every moment that you can make more personal will make such a difference. This point isn’t about saving money, just about making the day as “you” as possible!

5. Spend the money on your photographer. Do not think twice.

I will never, ever regret spending so much money on our photographer. We are in love with our photos and our photographer brought so much humour and joy to our day. It’s as simple as that.

This post originally appeared on Medium. You can find more from Caylee Betts on her Medium profile here.

Caylee Betts lives in New York City with her husband, managing product design at BuzzFeed by day and running Swipies by night.

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