Money Health

How to Budget for Your Debt-Free Wedding

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Congratulations on your engagement! Now that you and your partner have decided to tie the knot, it’s time to sit down and start planning your wedding. But before you start, you should know that the average wedding in the U.S. costs around $25k.

You may be tempted to put your wedding expenses on a credit card and just deal with them later. But starting your marriage out with a heavy load of debt could put undue pressure on your relationship. Here are some steps you could take to make sure your special day doesn’t leave you in the red.

1. Decide What Kind of Wedding You Want to Have

The first step is to for you and your fiancé to put your heads together and create a vision for the wedding you both want to have. Do you imagine an intimate affair in your parents’ beautiful backyard, or are you more of a dramatic-hotel-chandelier type of couple? Do you want a full live band playing all night, or would you prefer a playlist you made yourself on an iPod piped through rented speakers? Would you like to invite every person you’ve ever met, or keep it to a select group of friends and family? All of these factors come into play when creating your budget, and it’s very important to get on the same page with your future spouse so you can effectively prioritize and allot money for each of your budget items.

The location of your wedding typically has the biggest impact on your budget. Wedding venues in major cities can be expensive, as each vendor is priced at the going local rate. But smaller, more remote places can be pricey too since travel and accommodations costs could add up quickly.

In addition to deciding where to have your wedding, deciding when to have it can impact your budget. You might be itching to get hitched, but having a longer engagement allows you to save up more money. While you may want a giant bash with 300 people 6 months from now, you might realize it’s more realistic to do something smaller if you can’t wait. Or, you can push out your gala another year to give yourself enough time to save up for the elaborate affair of your dreams.

2. Determine How Much You Can Spend

The next and most crucial step in the process is figuring out the numbers. How much do you and your fiancé actually have to spend? Have you been socking money away in a “future wedding” account for the last decade, or are you just starting to save the moment of your engagement? How much can you realistically save between now and your anticipated date? You and your future spouse can view this as the first series of financial choices you’ll make together as a married couple.

Are your families going to contribute to your wedding costs? Now is the time to sit down with each of them to discuss what, if anything, they are able to contribute. Sometimes they can give you a lump sum that you can factor into your budget, and other times they will contribute to cover a specific budget item, say, the venue, or the catering. Or, your parents may not be able to contribute anything at all. Regardless, it’s important to be clear about what you and your fiancé can expect from them when you sit down to make your budget.

Having the money conversation with your parents can be intimidating, but once it’s out of the way, you will have a much easier time of creating a realistic budget you can actually stick to. Once you’ve totaled up all the numbers: what you have already, what your families can contribute, and what you can reasonably save between now and then, you’ll have your working budget.

3. Figure Out How You’re Going To Spend Your Money

Once you know how much you can spend, you can figure out how you’re going to spend it. Start by making a spreadsheet that accounts for every single item, large or small, that you will need to pay for. Then, allocate realistic amounts to each of them. The obvious large expenses are the venue, catering, flowers, etc., but other smaller expenses can add up, so it’s important to be aware of them and try to account for them as best you can. Inevitably there will be a number of small things that arise unexpectedly, so it’s also good to allocate a portion of your budget for these miscellaneous items and fees.

This is where you need to start setting priorities. Maybe you have your heart set on a specific venue, and don’t care so much about what the food is like, or maybe food is the most important thing for you, and you’d be happy to just set up in a park somewhere with a minimal permit fee. These options are important to weigh, and doing so will be helpful in determining how much to budget for each category. If you’re an expert planner with a lot of experience, you might be totally comfortable planning everything yourself, but if you’re not, hiring a wedding planner might be worth the cost in order to save yourself some stress.

Only you and your future spouse can decide which elements of your wedding are most important to you. Below is a breakdown of possible budgets at many different price points.

Budget$5000$15,000$25,000$30,000$50,000
VenueMom’s backyard : $0Hip local art gallery : $1000The church you grew up in : $500 + historic local house for reception:$3,000= $3,500Catholic cathedral in town: $1,500 + all inclusive restaurant for reception:
$12,000 = $13,500
All-inclusive hotel/resort venue: $20,000
CateringBuffet from a local café, for 60 people: ($15/person = $900) + disposable dinnerware ($200) = $1,100Full service catering for 100 people: $50/person = $5,000Buffet catering for 150 people (caterer has dining ware): $25/person = $10,00Included in the venue expenseIncluded in the venue expense
BoozeFrom local discount store, served by your cousins: $400Catered open bar: $1,200Catered open bar: $1,800Included in the venue expenseIncluded in the venue expense
PlannerD.I.Y.: $0Day-of-coordinator: $1000Wedding planner: $2000Wedding planner: $2500Included in the venue expense
InvitationsCustom e-vites: $50100 D.I.Y. laser printed: $250 for type, paper, envelopes, & ink150 Print-on-demand service: $350200 Pre-designed letterpress: $1,000300 Custom designed letterpress: $2,500
PhotographyA dear friend, as a gift: $100 for thank you giftLocal art school student: $500Less experienced photographer: $850Professional photographer: $2,500Premium professional photographer: $7,000
MusicIpod + rented PA system: $200Mid-level part-time DJ: $450Jazz quartet: $1,300A local band: $1,200Experienced professional DJ/MC: $2,000
AttireSecondhand dress + alterations: $600 + suit: $350 = $1150Sample sale dress + alterations: $1500 + suit: $500 = $2000Vintage dress + alterations: $1000 + suit: $400 = $1650Dress + alterations: $2000 + suit: $500 = $2500Dream dress + alterations: $10000 + rented tuxedo: $400 = $10400
FlowersPurchased at local wholesale florist, assembled by friends and family the day before: $250A florist friend who gives you a deal: $600Paid for by your sister as a gift: $0Local florist: $1200 Venue’s premium vendor: $2000
RentalsTables, linens and chairs for the backyard: $300Tables & linens (the gallery has chairs): $250Cocktail tables & linens (available existing seating): $300Included in the venue expenseIncluded in the venue expense
Hair/MakeupDo it yourself: $150 for suppliesA friend who will give you a deal: $200Department store makeup counter: $150Professional hair & makeup: $300Professional hair & makeup: $500
Miscellaneous$600$1,200$2,500$4,000$5,000
Total$4,300$13,650$24,400$28,700$49,400

4. Get Quotes

Once you’ve made your initial budget and allotments toward each spending category, it’s time to get quotes from vendors. There are many resources online for finding appropriate vendors in your area. The Knot has many sorted by city and budget price point. Having your budget in-hand allows you to know what sorts of amenities are realistic. It’s also best-practice to get multiple quotes from a variety of vendors in order to ensure you’re getting the best price. Knowing the range of what’s available can help you avoid overpaying or getting swindled.

It’s also important to consider outlying factors when getting these quotes. Does the caterer provide silverware and dinnerware, or do you need to buy your own? Does the venue already have tables and chairs, or do you need to rent them separately? Do you want a full-service florist, or do you want to buy flowers from a wholesaler and spend the day before your wedding making your own arrangements with your friends? D.I.Y. solutions can be appealing, but sometimes the labor involved is too exhausting, and other times they don’t really end up being cheaper than hiring a professional. Make sure you’re fully aware of what you’re taking on when you decide to do it yourself.

5. Re-Adjust Your Plan

After you do the legwork to get quotes on different aspects of your event, it’s time to reevaluate. Have you found a caterer you love, but the per-person-price is over your budget? Maybe it’s worth it to cut your guest list down a little in order to afford the food you really want. If you’re clear on your priorities, you can find the right spots to trim back, and there are always creative ways to do that. Communicate with your chosen vendors and make sure you made all the necessary adjustments before you sign any contracts.

Budgeting Doesn’t Have to Ruin the Fun

Budgeting for your wedding might feel scary to begin with, but doing it ahead of time can save countless headaches, as well as precious funds. Not having a clear picture of how much you can afford can lead to overspending or even leave you open to being manipulated by expensive vendors. Sticking to your budget is worth it, as money trouble is a contentious topic in any relationship, and a large load of debt can burden your relationship with years of added emotional stress. If you and your future spouse approach your wedding budget with transparency, you can start your life together on the right foot and have a great time on your big day.

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Kate Robinson Beckwith is a freelance writer who loves to use her way with words to help people get a better understanding of their finances. She lives in the Bay Area where she spends her weekends taking in culture, making books, and hiking with her husband and her goofy three-legged pitbull mix.