Hitched: Can You Throw A Cheap Wedding In The Age Of The Wedding Industrial Complex? We’re Trying

It sure doesn’t come as surprise to me that I’m getting married in a few weeks. After all, there was much to be done after we got drunk at the lake last Labor Day Weekend and decided to get married.

Patrick and I rented a venue, sent out save the dates and invitations, built a barfy-adorable “wed-site,” argued with our parents over the guest list, told grown-ass adults what kind of clothes to wear, created wedding registries and asked guests to donate to marriage equality organizations if they liked that instead, bought tablecloths, and arranged for a colleague to officiate the ceremony. I bought a dress, shoes, some really fun underpants and got my hair colored. All signs point to: wedding.

But I don’t think I realized I was actually getting married until I went with Patrick to get a custom shirt made for his wedding outfit. Why? Because that shirt cost more than my dress.

To be fair, my dress was on the exceedingly affordable end of things as wedding dresses go, roundabouts $150 from London’s Vivien of Holloway. Patrick, however, has admitted to a “blind enthusiasm” for free T-shirts. The man does not spend one dollar, let alone hundreds, on custom apparel.

Until he learned that he’s apparently got the arms of a (charming, doe-eyed, country-music-loving) orangutan. He couldn’t have known this before, because he’s the kind of plaid-pearl-snap-wearing guy who hasn’t buttoned his cuffs since Catholic school. Nary an off-the-rack shirt would fit him properly. So off we went to a fancy Austin clothier, and swipe went the credit card. As we left the store, my stomach actually jumped. We were really, seriously, for true and all, going to get married.

Since my excitement was triggered, in part, by sticker shock, I thought I’d take a look back at our budget over the past few months in hopes of giving brides- and grooms-to-be some cost-saving advice on where we decided to splurge and to save.

We started with a goal of spending $5,000 on a wedding for about 100 guests, which we thought we could reasonably be able to afford between the two of us. And believe me,  I don’t consider $5,000 a drop in the bucket. It is a lot of money. And I know couples have thrown great weddings for far less — but when the average American wedding costs $27,800, Patrick and I are definitely flying coach on Wedding Industrial Airways.

It was important to me to pay for the wedding ourselves as much as possible, because I can be the world’s biggest doormat if I feel at all beholden to anyone else. I wanted an individualized, secular celebration-of-love party, and I knew if someone else was signing the credit card receipts, I’d be churching it up before my subdued country-club cocktail hour reception — and most likely at thrice the price.

By sheer luck, our venue, a swimming pool and fraternal hall that we love to hang out at in the summer time, was incredibly cheap: $300 for a banquet hall rental on a Saturday night, plus access to the pool and surrounding property.

An open bar and delicious food were two things we prioritized after we found out how cheap our venue was — why not splurge for everyone to cut loose and eat well? Our caterer is a very talented local chef who worked a friend’s wedding, came highly recommended and told us she could definitely work with our budget: $10/plate. We’ll basically be serving Mexican food and brunch, our favorite (cheap!) things. And because neither of us much care for wedding cake, cupcakes are an affordable, not to mention trendy, alternative.

If you’re at all picky about music, the prospect of a run-of-the-mill wedding deejay can strike fear into your engaged heart, so I know many couples opt to make a great iTunes play list and plug it into reception hall speakers. Patrick and I are karaoke fiends, so we asked our favorite kay-jay to work our reception. She agreed. For a couple hundred bucks, we got Karaoke with Carmen, and by extension ours and our friends’ and family’s favorite music, for the night.

I discovered it’s far cheaper to buy linens than rent them — hundreds of dollars cheaper, especially if vendors have figured out that you’re having a wedding, which most seem to believe gives them license to up-charge you significantly. So for $200, I got napkins and tablecloths online that I can re-sell after the wedding if we don’t hold on to them. Same goes for décor — we raided Garden Ridge and Ikea’s outdoor décor section and ended up with all the tiki torches, floral centerpieces and candles we needed for about $250.

For invitations and save-the-dates, I used my passable Photoshop skills (and a lot of free fonts) to design custom tiki-themed cards. We printed our save-the-dates online ($70) and went to a local Austin stationery shop to print invitations ($300) on pretty paper, after which we assembled them ourselves to save more cash. I’ll design and print our programs, too, in a couple of weeks.

If you’re not a design whiz, or great at doing your own hair, someone you know might be. Can you ask that person to help you out as a wedding present? Some people like that way better than buying towels. We also budgeted to be able to pay two musician friends to provide music during the ceremony, which is much cheaper than a proper quartet or band and immeasurably more meaningful. And for photography, we hired a local photojournalist friend, not a pricey wedding photographer, to document our big day. 

I hated the idea of spending thousands of dollars on a dress I’d wear once. So I got the cute dress online, paid for affordable but minimal alterations, and focused on high-end wardrobe items I could wear in the future. Now, I’ve got two fantastic pairs of heels that I’ll wear forever. (Are you dead of these beautiful shoes? I am.) I have one pair for the ceremony and another for the reception and a corset that can go under any dress I dream of. At Nordstrom, I tried on $300 veils for shits and giggles. At Hobby Lobby, I bought tulle and a comb for $8 and my aunt helped me sew them into a big, fluffy custom veil. And Patrick’s crazy expensive custom shirt? It’ll be his go-to dress-up wear for years to come.

For the wedding party, I think couples that can afford to should help out their folks with clothing where they can, so we made that a budget priority. I was happy to buy an awesome sparkly gold mini-skirt for my person of honor and have asked my female persons of distinction to buy a green dress of their choosing that I’d pay for, in the hopes that they won’t be stuck with a bridesmaid dress that will haunt the back of their closets for years to come. We’ve asked the male persons of honor and distinction to wear black suits or jackets, and bought them some green skinny ties to match the ladies.

But even taking these cost-saving measures, it’s seriously hard to do an affordable wedding without help. Our parents, while not funding the whole shebang, have been terribly generous in helping us out with aspects they particularly cared about — outdoor seating, jewelry, an organized rehearsal dinner and a nice honeymoon. Letting parents pay for a few things they really want you to have is a good way to get them involved without accidentally having someone else’s wedding.

Right now we’re just under budget, and I think we may actually eke this thing out, provided no disasters strike between now and April 21st. But even if there were no pretty dress, custom shirt, karaoke reception, open bar and all the rest, as long as I wake up married to the guy I love on April 22nd, it’ll all be perfect.

Unless I get pink eye! Oh god, what if I get pink eye? I will pay $5,000 more dollars to guarantee I don’t get pink eye. I’ll just charge it.

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