How to Plan a Wedding on a Budget

planning wedding on a budget

If only every wedding you’ve ever been to had a massive price tag hanging on it so you could see how much it all cost—a 250-person party in a fancy downtown Philly hotel would look a lot different from the intimate 50-person affair in the Rockies…or would it?

If you’re wondering how to plan a wedding on a budget, understanding the main tenants of event planning will be key in helping you stay in your range. For example, you might be thinking that an intimate affair with incredible food, music and ambience will be way more cost-effective than, say, a 400-person soiree at an event hall—but since your tiny little restaurant doesn’t do weddings that often, it was never discussed what type of wine was on the menu and your Uncle Phil ordered a bottle of a vintage Cab that added, hmmm, $1,000 to the bill. 

So, what goes into a “typical” wedding budget? We checked in with New York City event planner Jennifer Brisman, aka the Wedding Planner, to learn about the average wedding budget and ways to cut it down so you can make the most of your money.

How A Wedding Budget Usually Breaks Down:

1. Officiant fee (1% of the budget)

Whether you get married in an orthodox church, have your buddy Chad sign up to be a minister online or self-unite (yep, you can marry without a third party in certain places, like Pennsylvania), there will be some sort of cost—like the marriage license fee. If you’re using a clergyperson, Brisman notes that “your officiant may give you a choice between making a donation to their house of worship or a fee for their services. Should you do the former, it may be tax deductible.” Duly noted.

2. Bridal party gifts (2% of the budget)

While not absolutely necessary, it is very nice, especially if your bridal party chipped in for a bachelorette and shower. Brisman suggests, though, to tackle this at the very end of the planning journey once you have checked off the big-ticket items. This way, you’re not using any capital you might want to put elsewhere.  

3. Tips and gratuities (2% of the budget)

It’s easy to forget that this should be a part of your budget—so note it early (and remember it often). “Think of it as a proper thank-you,” Brisman tells us, “not just for a job well done, but for going above and beyond. If someone works for a company, it's appropriate to tip them; if they work for themselves and you are paying them, directly, this isn’t as strongly advised.” Also, in this case, gratuity is not a percentage of the total cost—so do not feel obliged to pay a 20 percent tip on a $5,000 photography bill. Tip what you feel is appropriate!

 4. Invitations and paper goods (7% of the budget)

All the custom stuff adds up, so Brisman recommends that her clients make sure they know what they’re in for and that they have choices: “There are so many cost-effective options for stationery and paper goods, both printed and digital. Do your homework and really ensure you know what you want and need and that both are in budget. It doesn’t make sense to go over budget on items that people tend to throw away.” 

5. Bride and groom attire and accessories (5% of the budget)

“This is one area people go wildly out of budget,” Brisman relays after seeing bride after bride try on a $10,000 dress “just for fun” and then fall completely in love with it. If you’re trying to save in this category keep in mind: You only wear it once.

6. Photography and videography (10% of the budget)

If there’s one thing not to scrimp on, it’s this category, says Brisman: “This is one area to really invest. Photos last a lifetime! And videos are really the only way to capture the magic and energy of the day and enjoy it for years to come, hopefully with your kids and grandkids.” 

7. Music and entertainment (12% of the budget)

There’s no hard and fast rule that every wedding needs to turn into a dance party, but if you want to break out the moves, good music is key. Worried about your bottom line? If your budget can’t afford a band, an amazing DJ will know how to read the crowd and play the right music at the right time.

8. Florals and decor (13% of the budget)

All those peonies will probably cost more—a lot more—than you thought. Heed Brisman’s warning: “Don’t plan on Pinterest. Get inspired there. Those images of wedding decor are probably ten times more than what you are planning to spend.”

9. Reception venue, food, beverage and staffing (45% of the budget)

Ahhh, the fun stuff. This is the mothership of your budget and will have a huge impact on the actual party. Brisman recommends hunkering down and executing a smaller selection of food and drinks really well instead of spreading yourself too thin because it will show. “Think about what’s most important to you and work backwards,” she says.

There you have it—your nine-tiered wedding cake budget. It may seem less appetizing than it did when you were just daydreaming, but being realistic about spending will keep you from any major surprises down the line. That’s why we also asked Brisman about the frequent budgeting missteps she sees and how to avoid them.

Common Wedding Planning Mistakes That Will Blow Your Budget:

1. Your guest list is a moving target

The most common mistake couples make is underestimating their guest list. So take your time building it before you plan, because a guest list can and should take weeks to zero in. “Oftentimes,” Brisman finds, “you start off with a really tight list. Then, you go about your workday, your social weekends and weeknight calls with family only to realize that there are more people you thought that need to be on the list. So, you grow the list to see how it feels when optimized, only to find that you need to shrink it back down. Finding that happy medium is key. The solution here is to see how small you can make it while isolating a B list.”

2. Avoiding the hard conversations

One of the simplest ways to move past common pain points of wedding planning is to have those uncomfortable conversations up front in the planning process—whether they’re about family, religion or, of course, budget. When you don’t talk about these things early, they will come to haunt you when you already have a million other things to worry about.

3. Not building in a contingency cushion

Repeat after us: “No matter how much I plan or how thorough my Excel spreadsheet is, I will have unforeseen costs.” You can’t plan the unexpected, but you can plan for the unexpected by creating a safety cushion in your budget. (Mic drop.)

4. Planning your wedding on social media

Social media is a great place to get inspired, but it’s also aglow with beautiful wedding imagery without a single reference to any dollar signs, and Brisman has seen the effects: “Our eyes are essentially bigger than our stomachs. Remember that these glamour shots are meant for clicks, likes and comments. They do not show a path to a well-executed wedding on budget. And they do not define ‘happy couple.’ Use social media and other digital comments as reference points to communicate with vendors about the style and vision you have for your big day.”

We’ve gotten more than enough useful advice from a person who plans weddings for a living, but what about real brides and grooms who’ve actually gone through it recently? We asked around for money-saving and smart-budgeting tips from our friends who’ve lived to tell the tale. Here’s what they told us.

Budgeting Tips From Real Brides And Grooms

1. Skip the fancy save-the-dates

Look, we love hand calligraphy and raised lettering as much as the next person. But printed save-the-dates will cost you a few hundred bucks (at least) on something you then have to do again for the wedding! Sure, they’re nice and pretty, but they’re also redundant (and kinda wasteful, right?). Instead, send a beautiful digital save-the-date through a site like Paperless Post. There are also tons of upsides to going digital: You can collect emails, send reminders, sync up to calendars and have easy access to your wedding website.

2. Build a free website

Yes, you should have a wedding website so your guests can easily access all of the information so they’re not texting you day of, “where does the bus pick us up, again?” But there is no reason to pay for a wedding website these days—and yes, that includes the domain name and server! Sites like Zola and Minted offer free wedding websites that are customizable, sleek and easy to use.

3. Make a general rule that cuts the guest list down

Your list number is everything. It informs the menu, the venue and your overall budget. So, a genius friend informed us that making one rule like “21 and over”
 or “no plus-ones unless it’s really serious” is an easy way to cut down on your number without hurting feelings.

4. Borrow your veil

Spend $300 on a veil? Or…ask a friend who recently got married to borrow hers. Chances are, she’ll say yes.

5. And your jewelry

If you’re trying to budget, do not blow money on fancy jewelry. You probably have an aunt or grandma who would gladly let you borrow a pair of diamond or pearl earrings for this important day in your life.

6. Shop alterative options to high-end wedding boutiques

Like BHLDN, Floravera and Modcloth.

7. Do not forget alteration costs

“My dress was $900—so I thought I was coming in under budget on it…until I got the alterations bill for $400. Make sure to consider what alterations you might need when you’re trying on dresses,” warns Tanya, a recent bride.

8. Get married on a weeknight

Anna, a PureWow bride with a wealth of wedding-budgeting intel, had her fete on a Thursday and told us, “it cost 60 percent less than the same venue on Friday, and 80 percent less than Saturday. Sure, it felt funny to say my wedding was on a Thursday, but it was awesome! Most of my friends were grateful I didn't monopolize their weekends and they could still go to work the next day if they really wanted.”

9. Ask your photographer what their hourly rate is

And then figure out which hours are most important for you. “Maybe you don't need to have the getting ready pictures. That could save up to $1,000,” advises Anna. 

10. Consider alternative options for the ceremony

“If the ceremony bumps up the cost astronomically at your dream party venue, find an alternative space for your ceremony. Parks are always fair game, and just require a permit, which is usually only a few hundred at most. Central Park is $500 and that's Central Park,” one bride told us.

11. Ask if your vendors will accept cash instead of paying tax

Not to lure you into the black market, but when tax in a state like New York is 9 percent, this could save you a good heap of money. You didn’t hear it from us. 

12. See if your vendors will let you finance

“Finance with any vendor that will accept it,” another bride tells us, “and most are open to it. Instead of giving my photographer a huge lump sum the morning of my wedding, I spaced it out over three small-medium payments. I paid in-full with months to go and felt amazing to just completely check that off my list.”

13. Open a credit card with a big sign-up bonus

And pay for the bulk of your honeymoon with points (here are some of the best cards for racking up major rewards)—or the entire vacation!

14. Barter your engagement photos for a wedding album

Do you absolutely need engagement photos? A lot of photographers lump these into their rates. Who knows? Maybe you can barter engagement photos for rehearsal dinner photos or even a wedding album.

15. Host it at a restaurant

Holding your wedding at a restaurant means that the food, bar and staff are already onsite. It can also (probably) help you avoid space rental fees. Two things to note, says our budgeting guru Anna: “The restaurant will likely ask that you hit a food and beverage minimum—which is usually reasonable. And you should make sure the restaurant has done this before. You don’t want to be the guinea pig in their wedding experiment.”

16. Learn to love Excel

Per future bride Rachel: “I'm getting married in one month so I've basically been living inside an Excel spreadsheet. We have every single thing out in a spreadsheet with the estimated cost of each item, the actual cost, how much we've paid to date, tips for all of our vendors, etc. so we can easily keep track of all the expenses. I highly recommend having a cushion to fall back on because there are a million little things that pop up that you probably won't account for, like buying breakfast (and lunch) for your bridal party while you're getting ready and taking photos.” 

17. Make a splurge vs. scrimp list

Another recent bride (also named Rachel) advises future couples to prioritize where they are OK spending and OK scrimping, “For me, it was the dress (I was fine shelling out for this), but that meant that I couldn't have a band (we had a DJ); for him, it was a photobooth (he was ADAMANT that we have this), so that meant we cheaped out on guest favors (we did custom M&Ms, but they got a photo strip memento, too, so that's cool?). Bottom line: It helped us focus our spending by prioritizing costs together up front.” 

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Executive Editor, Frazzled Mom, Bravo-Holic

Dara Katz is PureWow's Executive Editor, focusing on relationships, sex, horoscopes, travel and pets. Dara joined PureWow in 2016 and now dresses so much better. A lifestyle...