When my husband and I got engaged in 2010, I felt simultaneously thrilled and like I needed to brace myself for an oncoming wave.
The engagement wasn’t a surprise — being mature, rational adults, my then-fiancé and I had discussed marriage, finances, child-rearing and other important topics before agreeing to be legally bound for life — and I had already been looking at wedding websites and blogs.
My heart dropped into my stomach as I looked at people’s budgets. From outdoor weddings where tent rentals ran up to $20,000, to hotel affairs that cost $175 per person, I knew that a conventional wedding wasn’t for us. We're in our mid-twenties and have savings, but we certainly didn't want to spend them on a one-day event.
While I would have been happy to run off to City Hall and cover dinner for a few close family members, my husband's big family expected a wedding. So we gave them one, on our budget.

The Surprising Thing We Booked Sight-Unseen

After examining our finances, and considering our spending priorities, we thought about what kind of wedding we could agree on — and came up with relaxed and simple. That is, lacking expensive details that would stress me, and by extension, him, out.
The venue needed to be somewhere we could hold both the ceremony and the reception. A full meal was out of our budget (given that we would likely host about 100 guests), so we decided on a dessert reception. We also considered flowers and photography, as well as necessities like an officiant and invitations, and decided on a budget of $4,000.
A lot of crafty wedding blogs feature weddings where everyone involved seems to have some kind of incredible talent.
I know my limitations. I am not even a little bit crafty. I can repair buttons and socks, poorly, and that's about it, and I felt uncomfortable outsourcing details to my friends and acquaintances.
But we found our perfect (and fantastically inexpensive) venue in Southern Virginia, where my husband is from. My mother-in-law had suggested looking at local parks for venues, and one option had a beautiful lakeside gazebo for a ceremony, and an indoor facility with a wraparound porch that would be great for the reception. We booked it sight-unseen for $1,000.

Flowers, Food and More

Another recommendation led us to a local florist who took the few magazine photos I’d torn out and put together 12 beautiful mason-jar centerpieces with hydrangea and delphinium, and a bouquet and boutonnière for $400. She also very politely listened to me say “No” to just about everything — “No, we wouldn’t be having a bridal party”; “No, we don’t need flowers for the gazebo”; etc.
I found our photographer on Craigslist. Her photos looked lovely, and she was just starting her business in the area, so when I asked her if she could photograph our wedding day for $600, she agreed. Knowing that wedding photography can start at $2,000, I was incredibly happy to have found someone willing to work with our budget (and the photographs turned out beautifully).
Especially since our reception was dessert-only, our most important expense was the cake and pie, as well as the drinks (an open bar was a non-negotiable). We found a local baker who makes wedding cakes as a hobby; she charged us $200 for three delicious tiers. We picked up a dozen pies the night before the wedding, and we bought beer and wine from a wholesale liquor store, bringing our total food and drink cost to $650.
A wonderful friend made pennant flag bunting for the reception venue as her wedding gift to us, and it was the perfect (and only) decorative detail, in addition to the flowers. My mother bought my wedding dress, which was $750, because she knew I would buy something cheap rather than something I loved, and wanted me to be happy with what I was wearing.
My mother-in-law anticipated we’d need extra hands on our wedding day, and found a few local students who served drinks and cake (and kept it all replenished) for $100 each. We rented the cheapest chairs available for $316 because I reasoned that people wouldn’t be paying much attention to what they were sitting on. They didn’t.
When we started planning, I kept things simple. In the end, the simplicity made our wedding lovely, and kept us under budget.

The End Result

I did my own hair, a friend did my makeup and I felt perfect.
Once we threw in the incidentals — the official’s fee of $150, the invitations I found at an online press for $275, the $40 guestbook, the $30 marriage license, and the quirky $70 cake-toppers that sit on our mantle now — we came in a few hundred dollars under budget.
Most importantly, the things we’d said “no” to didn’t matter. Guests commented on how much they’d enjoyed the wedding, and no one seemed to notice that we didn’t have a DJ (we used an iPod and speaker system), or that a professional hadn’t done my hair, or that my husband wore a navy blue suit he’d owned for years.
We even ended up in the DC/Maryland/Virginia edition of The Knot, and our photographer threw in a CD of our photographs to thank us (for which some photographers charge extra).
The wedding industry constantly attempts to up-sell brides and grooms, and it was reassuring to realize that none of those (expensive) superfluities mattered.
We have photographs we love, memories of delicious cake and happy friends, and the relief that we could throw a party without drowning ourselves in debt or liquidating our savings.