Saying "I do" doesn't have to mean saying yes to debt — or parting with every penny you've saved for a down payment on a home or car.
We know this because, back in 2008, blogger Sara Cotner, author of A Priceless Wedding: Crafting a Meaningful, Memorable, and Affordable Celebration, married her hubby Matt in front of 80 of their "nearest and dearest" for less than $2,000.
Both teachers dedicated a grand to their wedding — and actually came in under budget.
"We knew we could make it sincere without money," Cotner says. "Having a smaller budget enabled us to focus on the importance of this major life milestone. It wasn't about the dress, the flowers, the centerpieces. It was about community, connection, commitment, and old-fashioned fun."
The couple found incredibly creative ways to save, from booking a quaint, no-fee B&B to melting down old jewelry to create custom rings — for a total cost of $109.
So inspired by the challenge of pulling off a memorable — and very affordable — celebration, Cotner now blogs about it at 2000dollarwedding.com.
Here, she shares her tips for getting hitched in style — without "losing your savings or your sanity!"
1. Think of it as a party!
The minute you say the word "wedding," most people see dollar signs."Why not think of it as a reunion instead of a wedding?" Cotner advises. "Weddings tend to focus on surface things like flowers, attire, and centerpieces. Reunions tend to be about fun."
When you approach it as a gathering of your favorite people, it burns off the anxiety and refocuses the focus on what really matters — family, friends and a day worth remembering. "You're planning a one-day celebration," she says. "Yes, it's the official start of your life together, but it's not your one chance to have a party."
2. Look for wide-open space
Once you've decided on the vibe you're going for, hunt for a reception site — and consider venues that aren't wedding hotspots. Think about public areas like parks and historical landmarks or wide-open spaces owned by someone you know. Eliminate places that have prices and packages for wedding parties, because it's a near-guarantee you'll pay a premium. "Sometimes you have to go off the beaten path to stay on budget," Cotner says. She and her husband rented out a beautifully rustic B&B in the mountains of Colorado. Not only did that secure a complimentary breakfast for everyone staying there, but also they were able to exchange vows on the property at no extra charge. "They let us get married on their beautiful land for free because they don't typically do weddings," she says.
3. Break with tradition
Just because something has always been done — like, say, the bouquet toss or having a slew of bridesmaids — doesn't mean you have to. "Go off the list of American wedding traditions," Cotner says. "Some of these things are just ingrained in us, but they aren't traditions... they are all part of the wedding industrial complex." Instead, decide what you value as a couple and stick to that, regardless of judgment — or other weddings you see on the internet.
4. Go high-low
The good news about weddings is you needn't keep up with the Kardashians. One of the best ways to have a special event while keeping prices down is to go "high-low." Think a photo booth instead of a photographer. It's personal and fun, without the high price tag. Cotner bought her dress at Target, a sweet white affair that she then embroidered to make more special. Instead of a full plated dinner — which will cost a mint — do fun finger-food hors d'oeuvres that you whip up with friends (think sliders and mini milkshakes.)
5. Think inside the box
The more creative you get, the more rewarding the experience will be for you, your guests, and your checkbook. For example, Cotner brought in board games like Scrabble and set up homemade s'more-making stations at the reception. To cut down on liquor costs, she served boxed wine and keg beer. "People could access it themselves, which was unique," she says. "In the end, the boxed wine went over well." (If you think it wouldn't at your wedding, consider decanting it so no one will know.)
6. Spring for recycled rings
When it comes to big-ticket items like bling, there are surprising ways to save, whether you go directly to a dealer or a wholesaler like Sam's Club. But Cotner took it one step further with an unconventional approach and ended up spending just $109 on both rings. "We asked our friends and family to donate their old gold to an environmentally friendly jeweler, greenKarat," she explains. "The company melted the donated gold, credited our account with more than $1,000, and created new rings."
7. Get digital
Use technology to your advantage wherever possible. For example, rather than spending on fancy paper, printing and stamps, consider sending out electronic save-the-dates or being your own iPod DJ. "We saved a ton of money by playing music on our iPod," Cotner says. Matt made a special wedding playlist with their favorite songs, then connected the iPod to an oversized speaker borrowed from a pal in a band. It made it super personal."
8. Let them eat sheet cake
The price of a fondant-covered wedding cake masterpiece can range from hundreds to thousands of dollars. This is one thing Cotner knew she could do without. "We don't even like fondant," she laughs. Instead, they went to Whole Foods and selected six different desserts, including carrot cake and tiramisu, to create a dessert bar. "We only ordered it two weeks in advance, and it only cost $178," she says. They had budgeted $200, and because it was a special order, everything was made fresh the day of the wedding. In the end, Cotner says: "We had way too much cake."
9. Opt for edible centerpieces
When so many guests complain about large centerpieces being a conversation killer, an interactive tablescape may be the way to go. Cotner and her groom, both native Texans, went with prettily plated chips and guacamole to complement their festive homemade spread of fajitas, tamales, seven-layer dip, black bean and corn salad, and frozen margaritas. Tip: Vintage books and mismatched thrift-store plates and china can add charm to the table décor.
10. Pick paper flowers
Rather than put money toward pricey, short-lived blossoms, Cotner suggests alternatives like paper flowers — a huge trend for archways and even bouquets and boutonnieres. Whimsical elements like balloons and pinwheels also make fun aisle markers, "bouquets," and displays. If you want something living, consider dense bunches of baby's breath, a low-cost, all-white option, which looks chic in high volume — and it's making a major nuptial comeback.
11. Crowd-source your photos
A wedding photographer can account for thousands of your budget, but Cotner came up with a thrifty shortcut — without hiring a pro or pal. "We have three different friends with fancy cameras, so we asked each one of them to take photos of a different piece of the wedding," she explains. "That way no one felt like they were working." Taking it one step further, she asked other guests to upload their photos to the couple's Flickr account. This can be done the night of the wedding if you set up a computer station at the reception — or afterward, depending on your preference. The grand total for their photography was $25 for extra storage on the photo storage site.
12. Give thoughtful favors
As a final takeaway that tied into their theme, the couple gifted their guests with very personal and handmade wedding favors: "Cilantro seed packets with directions on the front, and our personal guacamole recipe on the back," she says.
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