The Ultimate Guide to a Budget Wedding You’ll Enjoy


Planning a wedding is an exciting and often somewhat overwhelming season of life. I wanted to share guidance that will help you minimize the financial stress of a wedding so that you can find more joy and fun in the process.

There are lots of potential stressors, many out of your control, that can arise during the planning process. One major stressor can be avoided by setting a clear plan on the financial front early on in the journey.

If you develop a clear vision of your day with top priorities nailed down and have a defined budget to follow that works for your financial situation, your planning process will flow much more smoothly and your day can come together in the perfect way for you.

How Much Does the Average Wedding Cost?

Engaged couples often ask me, “How much does an average wedding cost?”

The Knot claims that an “average wedding” in the United States in 2018 costs just under $34,000.

Our clients are spending about $15,000 on average to hold dream weddings that rival those that cost more than double.

But I see beautiful, memorable weddings happen with budgets far under $10,000 . . . all of the time!

If no one has reassured you that your budget, no matter the amount of money you have, is enough to plan an amazing wedding, let me be the one to provide some reassurance.

You’ve got this!

If you are looking at the “average,” you are focusing on the wrong number.

If you were going to buy a car, would you ask what the average car in the U.S. costs before you go shopping?

Probably not.

You would likely start your search by calculating how much you can afford in cash and/or as a monthly payment . . . and then work from there to make a wise investment that suits your situation.

With this in mind, sorting out what you can reasonably afford for your wedding is the first step I recommend to every single couple.

Once you have a number that works for your financial situation, you can develop a plan for the big day in alignment with this budget.

How to Develop Your Overall Wedding Budget

You and your fiancé will likely contribute some savings to your big celebration of love and lifelong commitment. If you are lucky, some relatives may help with expenses, too.

While you might have a decent-sized savings account, spending a large chunk of your nest egg on a wedding may not be a priority for you and your future spouse. There are a lot of expenses pulling for your financial focus in your early adult years. You may be battling paying down student loan debt, saving for a home or car, or starting to build investments for your future.

With those factors in mind, you and your fiancé may be totally happy with skipping a traditional wedding to save a bundle, but that might not come without resistance.

There will likely be others around you who are very emotionally invested in seeing this event come together — parents, grandparents, and other family members. I suggest talking to these relatives early in your engagement about their contributions and expectations for your wedding.

Having this potentially awkward conversation about wedding finances and expectations with both families is critical early on in your engagement (before even looking at a single venue or vendor).

  • What do your parents and grandparents envision for your wedding day?
  • What are they planning to contribute financially? When will they give you the funds?
  • What are they imagining their involvement level will be in the planning?
  • Does their contribution come with any obligations (e.g., inviting all your mom’s friends from her quilting club)?

Each of you will find a different mix of responses.

If your relatives have been saving for years, have $40,000 set aside for your wedding, and will give you carte blanche on the planning . . . lucky you!

If your relatives imagine that they will contribute $1,000, but want you to have an enormous wedding with everyone they’ve ever known in attendance, you’ve discovered a challenging situation that sits in your future.

Direct and honest communication about this topic is key.

You’ll want to weigh the value of the contributions and the obligations tied to them. There may be situations where taking the money is not worth it and you can respectfully decline the contribution.

Once you have a clear idea of what wedding contributions are coming your way, you can now calculate an overall wedding budget that works for you and your future spouse.

What can you afford to spend on your wedding?

(Contributions from family)
+ (Money pulled from couple’s savings)
+ (Additional money saved monthly times the number of months of the engagement)
= Total maximum wedding budget

All of these numbers will vary from couple to couple.

In an ideal world, I’d recommend stashing as much money as possible in savings well in advance of your engagement.

Planning a wedding is a busy time and trying to stay on a strict budget to save rapidly during your engagement will make things more stressful.

If you are currently engaged, you can play with these numbers and these numbers only . . . do not take on debt to make your wedding budget bigger.

While a wedding is an amazing day to celebrate the start of your marriage, it is not wise or necessary to bury yourself in debt to have an amazing wedding.

If you are currently 20 years old and blissfully single, this may be an odd conversation to have with your parents. But thinking ahead is a smart decision and will help you avoid a large surprise expense from knocking the wind out of your financial progress when the time does come. Remember that there will be your future spouse’s relatives to factor in the mix, too.

Once you have this number, you will focus on building your wedding within these limits and planning your day with your priorities in mind.

Designing a Budget That Suits Your Wedding Priorities

With your overall spending limit in hand, you will now want to calculate how much you should allocate to all the varied expenses that make up a wedding.

For some people, a gorgeous, traditional wedding has been on their dream board since they were young. For others, this is an event they are planning to satisfy the cultural obligation.

Discuss what is really important about your wedding and what you value in the event with your future spouse:

  • What do you find enjoyable in a wedding?
  • What details are of little or no importance to you?
  • Are there some aspects of the event you’d like to scrap altogether?

There are many general recommendations online which outline percentages to spend on photography, venue, flowers, and more . . . but everyone’s priorities are different.

Over at The Wedding Hacker, we developed a budget creation tool that takes your wedding priorities into account.

You answer a few questions about what is important to you on your wedding day and it creates a budget template with suggested percentages for all the major wedding expenses.

Once you have this customized spreadsheet in your hands, you can fine-tune the expense category percentages to suit your fancy.

You should aim to keep your costs per expense category within the limits listed. Throughout the planning process, keep checking in with this budget. If you go over on a category, make sure to balance the budget so your overall cost does not balloon.

The crucial factor that impacts the budget most significantly is your guest list, so let’s take a look at that next.

Whom Should You Invite to Your Wedding?

For most couples I work with, creating the guest list is a big concern.

They worry about offending people, but I promise you, these fears are more in your head than in reality.

The reality is that this is your wedding. The only people that “need” to be there are you and your future spouse. Throwing a big party to celebrate is optional, so shake off the feeling of obligation.

Those who love and care about you truly just want you to be happy, so deciding to elope or have a micro wedding will not upset people as much as you imagine it will.

There is likely a relatively small group of people who you’d be willing to reschedule your wedding for. What I mean by that is that if they couldn’t attend, you would change your wedding date to ensure they’d be there to celebrate.

Those are the people who should definitely make the invite list.

Beyond that, you have the people that you’d love to be a part of the day. They are important to you and would make the event more fun. If you have the budget, I would invite these people.

After that, you pick where to draw the line:

  • There will be people that you’d like to invite, but you’d really barely notice their attendance.
  • There will be people you feel obligated to invite because they invited you to their wedding or they are friends with so-and-so.
  • There will be old friends that you’ve fallen out of touch with that were once important but have never met your now-fiancé.
  • There are extended relatives and friends of your parents.

Just remember that with every additional guest, the cost of your wedding goes up.

Remember that keeping the guest list small goes beyond financials. Keeping the guest list smaller will give you more time with the people who really matter most to you and your fiancé.

When you’ve locked in your budget and your estimated guest list . . . you are ready to begin your venue and vendor search.

For local guests, you can estimate that 83% of the people you invite will attend. Once you have a guest list, you can use this percentage to calculate your approximate venue needs.

Before You Buy, Consider the Four Bs

We are programmed to be consumers, but there are other options.

Before you start spending your hard-earned cash to plan your dream day, consider leveraging these other techniques:

  • Beg: Ask for help from those in your circle. Does your aunt do hair? Perhaps she’s willing to contribute that in lieu of a wedding gift. Crowdsource items from your local area through groups on Facebook like the Buy Nothing Project.
  • Borrow: Tap into the resources around. For decor and wedding day accessories, it is so simple to source these items by simply asking those around you. Rather than buying new earrings, ask your grandma to borrow a special pair. She’ll likely be honored to be a part of your day!
  • Build: Whether you are crafty or not, there are some exceptionally simple DIY projects you can do that will save a bundle. For example, you can use an online template from a site like Zazzle to create your invites and print them online or locally.
  • Barter: Trade your special skills for the skills you need for your wedding. If you are a graphic designer, your skills might be worth their weight in gold to a new photographer or bakery that needs help with their branding.

There are many savvy couples out there who have managed to plan their wedding in its entirety with these tools.

Be resourceful and creative and there are always solutions available.

The Search for Venues and Vendors

If you made your engagement Instagram- or Facebook-official, you’ve likely already noticed the onslaught of marketing from the wedding industry.

The wedding industry is made up of a bunch of small, local vendors and venues who are actual service providers to couples . . . and some major media hubs who sell these smaller companies expensive advertising packages.

The “wedding tax” comes in part due to all those advertising costs inflating the cost for the venues and vendors.

If the venue spends $1,000 on advertising to secure a single booking, this steep advertising cost gets passed on to you, the consumer. For this reason, I recommend avoiding any major wedding industry resource.

Vendors in their databases are paying a premium for that advertising space and, ultimately, you will pay more because of it.

It can be overwhelming to search for wedding venues and vendors because of the lack of price transparency. Often, no pricing is listed on the company’s website, so you need to schedule a call or have a long email conversation just to get a quote.

So where is the financially-savvy couple to look? I recommend avoiding the headaches and leveraging amazing sites like Peerspace, EVENTup, WedBrilliant, Thumbtack, and GigMasters.

These sites (and others with similar business models listed on our resources page) connect you with amazing venues and vendors with upfront pricing and minimal marketing costs.

This will make your life easier and save you a lot of money.

Crowdsourcing vendors is another wise approach. Ask your friends and family whom they worked with. Vendors will often give a discount to referred clients because they didn’t have to spend a truckload of cash to secure you as a client.

Renting out a whole gorgeous restaurant may be more affordable than securing a traditional venue and a caterer; most restaurants will not charge a venue fee at all. Most often, they will set a minimum amount of food and beverages you will need to buy for the event.

I recommend that couples consider restaurants that hold a special significance to them — holding your reception in the restaurant where you went on your first date or for a special anniversary; these are fun and meaningful options to consider.

Always keep in mind how much a wedding venue or vendor is spending to secure each client.

Spending more on a wedding vendor does not necessarily mean a higher-quality event.

An amazing, local florist who gets all their business from referrals may be far more affordable than a newbie florist who is heavily advertising with the major industry sites . . . more expensive does not always equate to better.

In The Wedding Hacker Planning Club, we teach our members to utilize resources outside of the “wedding industrial complex,” review negotiation tactics to optimize each contract, and steer clear of the major industry sites where the wedding tax is highest.

The key is to get outside of the wedding marketing bubble to find the hidden gems.

Wedding Day Wardrobe

What is the most you’ve ever spent on an outfit for a single day?

Maybe you went big for prom and spent $300 on a gorgeous gown . . . or perhaps you were invited to a gala and bought an awesome new suit for $450.

For most people, high-end fashion is not really in our wheelhouse, but for some reason, when it comes to a wedding, many people suddenly think it is necessary to spend a small fortune on a single outfit.

I can assure you that this is not the case.

If you want to live in luxury and wear a designer look on your wedding day, I recommend investigating our long list of pre-loved resources for a wedding gown.

If you prefer a new gown, then you can find a lot of lovely and reasonable options by thinking a little outside of the bridal shop.

Here is an article with our fave wedding dress resources for both new and pre-loved gowns.

For those looking for a tux or suit, I recommend tapping into the modern online resources of The Black Tux, Generation Tux, or Menguin. These online-based options are affordable, far simpler, and offer stylish options to suit any wedding.

The bonus with these online options is that they often offer a free suit rental for the groom with the rental of five other suits.

When it comes to accessories for your wedding day look, I suggest trying out the four Bs mentioned earlier in this article. If no amazing options come from these local resources, I suggest Happily Ever Borrowed, Etsy, or even AliExpress for bridal accessories.

All of these options offer amazingly gorgeous veils, tiaras, belts, and more for a fraction of the price you’ll see in a bridal shop. Always read seller reviews and pay attention to the delivery timeline before buying.

When selecting looks for your wedding party, be kind to their budgets, too. Wedding party members spend $1,500 on average to be a part of a wedding held locally. Ouch! That is a sizable hit to anyone’s budget.

Rather than picking a look that is going to push them to max out their credit card, check out options like the “multi-way” or “infinity” dress on Amazon. Sellers have these dresses for amazingly low prices, they come in every color under the rainbow, and they give the flexibility to suit every body shape . . . plus they can cost as little as $20.

If you envision a different style for your bridesmaids, browse options on Rent the Runway to snag the high-end style you want at a fraction of the retail price.

If you are having your bridal party pick their own style within a certain color palette, I recommend they explore Tradesy or Poshmark, where they can find bridesmaid dresses that have been worn once and are being resold.

My biggest suggestion is to be resourceful. Think outside of the bridal shop where prices are inflated and the sales pressure is highest.

Design and Decor (and the Dangers of the Styled Shoot)

One of the biggest issues in the wedding industry currently is styled shoots.

Styled or inspiration photo shoots are a collaboration of vendors to create a fantasy version of a wedding and capture marketing photos.

While these images can give couples tons of dreamy ideas for their big day . . . they can also be dangerous to couples and vendors on a few levels.

The danger comes from the fact that real weddings are complicated with a lot of moving parts and a tight timeline.

Styled shoots are photo shoots scheduled to capture optimal images.

  1. When these photo shoots are labeled incorrectly as a “real wedding,” they set an impossible bar for couples to reach. Unless you’ve got a mega-budget, achieving a styled-shoot look at your wedding is close to impossible.
  2. When photographers present these images as if they are a real wedding, they are not often representative of what their work looks like at a real wedding. Couples deserve to see a portfolio of real weddings so that they have a clear image of the photographer’s work on a chaotic, real wedding day.
  3. Once one vendor begins marketing with styled-shoot images, other vendors often feel pressure to do the same to compete.

Real weddings are crazy, chaotic, and oftentimes stressful . . . but they are dripping with raw, real, love-filled moments.

Styled shoots are akin to an editorial fashion shoot and blogs really should list the approximate cost for a wedding with this level of styling in the fine print so couples don’t dream about something way out of their realm of possibility.

Learn to look at photos of weddings on Pinterest and Instagram with the understanding that many of them are not real weddings at all.

Freeing yourself from the manufacturer pressure to keep up with an unachievable standard will take a large weight off your shoulders.

When it comes to styling a real wedding, remember that you don’t need to go over the top to make the event beautiful.

The sweetheart or head table and the ceremony backdrop are the central focal points of the camera and your guests’ attention, so put more effort into styling these areas.

The other tables can have a much more toned-back level of decor, and despite what Pinterest might tell you, every item at your wedding does not need to be monogrammed or personalized.

Be strategic about the items you personalize and have the intention to repurpose the item into home decor. If you make a gorgeous “welcome-to-our-wedding” sign without personalization, you can resell it and recoup some cash after the event.

Lighting is an affordable way to add a lot more drama and depth to a venue without spending a fortune. If you have access to a venue in advance, uplights and twinkle lights are a relatively simple DIY project that can be done with borrowed strings of Christmas lights from friends and family.

One last resource I highly encourage couples to check out is called the Buy Nothing Project. This is an amazing resource for borrowing and acquiring items from people in your neighborhood for free! There are also many great resale wedding sites and apps, like ONBB.

There are many, many other amazing sources for wedding decor over on the Wedding Hacker blog, but my last piece of advice is to avoid renting items — or at least be very strategic if you do opt for rentals. This problem with rentals isn’t the cost of the items, it is the extra fees and order minimums which will burn through your budget like wildfire.

Use the four Bs and get creative. Staple items like chairs and tables are available at churches, schools, and office buildings. It’s amazing how many resources are available if you start asking.

Leverage “Wedding Tech” to Plan Your Day Like a Boss

Over the years, the wedding industry has shocked me with how tightly it continues to cling to traditions that do not serve the couples.

One vestige of olden times that most couples still include in their wedding is a paper invitation and RSVP request. Despite the reality that these expensive paper goods will end up in a landfill, couples spend significant amounts of time and money on them.

If going the route of Paperless Post for your full invitation is too modern for you, I do highly recommend, at least, opting for digital RSVP requests.

WithJoy.com offers gorgeous (and free!) wedding websites with RSVP tracking integrated . . . and a personalized wedding app! I was suspicious of this “too-good-to-be-true” deal, but it is real and their offerings are amazing.

Some couples worry that their elderly relatives will not understand the digital RSVP requests.

Let me clue you in on a lesson about wedding RSVP requests: no matter what RSVP-request route you choose, a decent portion of guests will not reply. You will be calling, texting, and emailing a group days after the RSVP-request deadline.

Since that is an inevitable fact, at least by going digital, the wonderful guests who do reply to an RSVP request can add their own details to your spreadsheet. ; )

Another piece of wedding tech that I absolutely love is Timeline Genius. This is the tool used by thousands of wedding planners to dial a flawless wedding day schedule.

If you are planning your wedding without the guidance of a professional planner, Timeline Genius can help you organize a perfectly scheduled wedding day and communicate all the details to your wedding vendors, venues, and VIPs.

A wedding day timeline is often overlooked by couples, but I can guarantee you that it is something every single successful wedding planner swears by.

Financially savvy couples are wise to avoid local wedding bazaars and bridal expos since these events are packed with local vendors pushing to close sales.

Fortunately, the digital age is allowing a new version of these wedding industry events to develop. Virtual wedding expos are allowing couples to tap into resources from the comfort of their couch and learn from wedding experts.

The Wedding Hacker Expo allows couples to learn from experts in both personal finance and the wedding industry. The event is focused on providing couples actionable guidance to plan their wedding in a smarter way . . . and tactics from the event can save couples thousands.

Plus . . . it is free!

If you are looking for guidance about where to go next on your wedding planning journey, snag your free pass to the virtual Wedding Hacker Expo here.

Bio: Heather Loree Fier is a wedding and event planner, author, and the founder of The Wedding Hacker. Her goal is to help couples maximize their wedding budgets, saving thousands along the way. Heather enjoys staying active and getting outdoors with her husband, Joe, and her two dogs. When she isn’t busy helping couples save big on their weddings, she is investing her time helping her community. She has served on the board for several nonprofits and has welcomed six foster children into their home over the years.

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