This is a particularly interesting topic for me, personally. I have worked as a photographer and filmmaker in the wedding industry for the past nine years, experiencing just about everything there is to experience in the matrimonial realm. I’ve seen it all: From a courthouse elopement to a 500 person multi-day destination experience. Leanne has also been involved in the wedding industry for a number of years (she now specializes in maternity, newborns, and family photography). This is to say that, more than most, we began our planning with an intimate perspective of the entire wedding industry.
Specifically, we were aware of what a wedding typically costs and where couples generally allocate their wedding funds, vendor by vendor. Now, to be clear, I don’t take issue with the decisions people make for their weddings. I think that you should do what YOU want to do when it comes to planning your wedding and that you should also know that you can make the experience whatever YOU want it to be.
There aren’t many hard and fast rules, but there ARE a lot of guidelines and suggestions. Those suggestions come from a variety of sources — wedding blogs/magazines, social media, friends, family — and it is quite easy to begin to think that there is a template in place for how you ought to plan your wedding. There’s an endless sea of options for your wedding day and it is super easy to be overwhelmed by the non-stop vendor carousel: Ceremony Venue, Reception Venue, Wedding Dress, Wedding Planner/Designer, Food, Drinks, Rentals, Florals, Photography, Videography, Stationary, Wedding Cake, Transportation, Band/DJ, Invitations, Wedding Website, Accommodations, Gifts, Thank You Cards, Bridal/Bachelor Party, Officiant, Musicians, Lighting, Tents, Mobile Restrooms. A LOT OF STUFF. And many of these categories have subcategories and further decisions attached, for example: Florals. That category encompasses bouquet, boutonniere, ceremony flowers, reception flowers, installations (think flower walls or a floral chandelier), and anything in between. I think the sheer size of the wedding industry is alarming to most newly engaged couples and their families. All that volume adds up too. It is not hard AT ALL to spend quite a bit of money on your wedding day.
The national average wedding cost is $33,391 (and this doesn’t include the honeymoon). Below are some additional statistics on the average cost of the typical vendors involved in a wedding:
Reception Venue: $15,163
Ceremony Site: $2,311
Wedding Planner: $1,988
Wedding Dress: $1,509
Groom’s Attire: $286
Reception Band: $4,019
Ceremony Musicians: $761
Wedding Cake: $540
Food (per person): $70
Pretty serious numbers. And, admittedly, we were nervous about beginning to plan our own wedding. It actually took us five months to decide on a venue and set our date. The delay wasn’t necessarily due to a lack of planning. We spent a lot of time deliberating different options and asking ourselves a lot of questions about our priorities and what we truly wanted our wedding to be. We narrowed down our top objectives and began planning in earnest with our compasses calibrated on what mattered most to us:
AN EXPERIENCE FOR US AND OUR GUESTS
INTIMACY AND PERSONAL MEANING
Once these priorities were set in place, we felt a greater liberty to make some decisions. After looking at a few options in our hometown of Wilmington, NC, we decided that we would rather focus on a destination wedding. Our rational was that by choosing to have a destination wedding, we would definitely be creating an experience for the two of us and our guests. We would also be limiting our guest list and creating a more intimate event.
The guest list is really hard; The hardest part of wedding planning, for us, at least. It was hard when we were considering a 125 person wedding in Wilmington. And it was excruciatingly difficult when that number was reduced to 27 (including us). We both have large-ish families and a healthy number of friends that we genuinely love. The thought of some of our favorite people in the world not being able to attend our wedding was sad, which brings up a crucial element of healthy wedding planning: Sacrifice. So many decisions influence other decisions and you absolutely have to compromise. So we swallowed hard, had some tough conversations, and moved forward knowing our wedding would be a smaller, more intimate event.
This is when the spending started. (And, as best I can tell, it doesn’t end!)
We decided to have our wedding in Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica. And I will take this moment to acknowledge that getting married can be done much cheaper. Technically, all you need to do is get a marriage license and have the magistrate marry you at the courthouse. (In fact, that’s actually what we did, namely because of legal logistics for being lawfully married in Costa Rica.) That’d run you $70 in NC and you’d be legally married.
We found two incredible villa-style houses that would accommodate our entire guest list as well as serve as the reception site for the wedding day. This is where most of our budget was spent. Once we had these houses confirmed, though, we felt relatively comfortable with the rest of the planning.
We knew we were asking a lot of our guests. Attending a wedding is always a bit of an ordeal in the first place, but traveling to another country with a large group of people (some of whom you don’t know) and staying with all of them for a week -- yeah, that’s a lot to ask! We wanted to ease the travel burden as much as we could, so we paid for the house we all stayed in for the week. The additional house was split, equally, between the guests that stayed there, which included our parents.
A wedding planner wasn’t in our thoughts, initially, but because we were planning from a different country, we felt it was important to work with someone in the area that could coordinate and communicate on behalf of us and connect us to local vendors. I don’t regret this expense at all and it made planning run so much more smoothly. We discussed our budget with her before we moved forward and she assured us that we could make our wedding dream happen in a range that we were comfortable with. That gave us a tangible number to work towards: This is the amount you’ll need to save to make this happen.
This is a great plug for Emergency Funds. Having a fully funded EF in place gave us a prevailing sense of calm in the face of a major purchase. Granted, I wasn’t intending on spending any of the Emergency Fund on the wedding, but it was so comforting to know that, if things got out of hand, we would still be OK.
With this data in hand, we spent a night or two crunching numbers and making projections. We knew how many months we had before the wedding and we had an approximate total cost. So we simply set a monthly savings goal. Of course, I went a little overboard and created some spreadsheets that listed out every vendor, the costs, the payment schedule, etc. The point is: We had a plan and we gave ourselves enough time to save for the wedding of our dreams.
Full Disclosure: We had a bit of help from family and friends and it was much appreciated. Approximately 30% of our budget came in the form of gifts and we are so very grateful. We also enjoyed the benefit of several “friend-ors”, AKA guests that were also super talented wedding vendors that eliminated our costs for photo/video, linens, hair, make-up, ceremony musicians, and officiant services.
As a side-note: I would generally be careful with hiring friends as wedding vendors as that could lead to disappointment and regret on both sides. Do not try this at home.
Without further adieu, here’s what we spent our budget on, as indicated by percentages:
Housing/Reception Space: 39%
Wedding Planner: 10%
Wedding Dress: 8%
Groom’s Attire: 3%
Ceremony Arbor: 2%
Reception Florals: 2%
Delivery Fees: 2%
Wedding Bands: 2%
Ceremony Space: 1%
Rose Pedals to Toss: <1%
Ceremony Chairs: <1%
Ceremony Sound System: <1%
The total cost of the wedding was approximately $23,000 and we funded approximately $16,000 of that. Again, weddings can be done for far less. This isn't what this post is about. What it IS about is coming out of your wedding debt-free (while also creating a special moment in your life and the lives of your guests).
According to the averages I shared earlier, we came in about $10,000 less than the average wedding costs. It was still a ton of money to spend on a wedding, but the real story here is WHERE we spent the money.
The percentages are not completely exact (lots of categories were less than 1% of our budget), but this is, more-or-less, how it shook out. As you can see, nearly half of our budget (48%) went towards our housing arrangements and travel to Costa Rica (as well as transportation to and from the airport). This was our #1 priority. We wanted to take our closest family and friends to an amazing place and extend the wedding beyond the normal “itflysbybeforeyouevenknowwhathappened” wedding day. If you count the percentage of the budget that went towards a wedding planner (because of our decisions to marry internationally), ~58% of our budget was directed toward the trip and experience.
After that, most things fell into place, as you can see by the 1% and 2% line items. We didn’t go crazy on anything else and because we had a smaller guest list, the costs for catering, rentals, staff, etc. were much lower than “normal”. If we wouldn’t have had photo and video services graciously donated by my business partner (and a number of our guests who shot at various times throughout the day), that would have been a significant expense for us too, because we’re picky about that sort of thing. There were also several items that are normally a significant expense that we just didn't prioritize, like a wedding cake or the added expenses of having a wedding party.
Personally, one of my favorite elements during the planning process, was the creation of our wedding bands. My father passed away, unexpectedly, this past November. That obviously stopped us (and everyone else in our family) in our tracks and we had a pretty rough holiday season. I kept his wedding band and had a jeweler melt the gold down and create our two bands from it. We wear those bands everyday and we also had a special moment during the ceremony to acknowledge both of our fathers and I think they were absolutely there with us.
Planning a wedding can be stressful. It’s stressful before you even get to the finances. Having a game plan and actually budgeting for the expenses made the planning so much easier. It alleviated a ton of stress knowing that we would be able to start our new lives together free-and-clear without a debt hangover from our wedding. Granted, there were a few sacrifices to make along the way (namely the guest list), but we ended up with the wedding of our dreams AND the trip of a lifetime! And we cash-flowed the whole shebang.