Wedding planning on a budget
UPDATED with more tips in November 2022
It's wedding planning season! Wedding shows all over the shop, enquiries flying in from left, right and centre, and I am totally here for it ALLLLLL.
I love a wedding, me. I'm probably catering more weddings than I'm being invited to as a guest these days, but I am no less in love with the whole thing. When I married my best friend almost 10 years ago (already?! gaaah!), we were paying for everything ourselves and had to streamline our guestlist down to just north of 100 people for the day and around twice that for the party. Bear in mind that my family is Jamaican and his is Nigerian. In both our cultures, 100 wedding guests is a small, small wedding. The first shortlist I wrote for just my side had 250 people on it. Drama. We would still have been trying to pay it off now.
Determined not to financially cripple ourselves before our married life had even begun, we made the mother of all spreadsheets. Everything went on that sucker. and we budgeted the bejesus out of everything. We called in favours, haggled like pros and relied on a lot of good friends, advice and lateral thinking to get the wedding we wanted. And we had a BLAST.
All that to say, I have some wedmin tips to share with anyone who might be scrolling dreamily through Pinterest and Instagram, with the big day of their dreams on one side and their screaming credit card bills on the other. Time for some real talk, people.
1. Get real about money Calculate your total available budget, ignoring any attempt to decide what to spend it on at this stage. Be realistic - this is not about how much money you have in the world, rather what both of you can pull together to put aside each month and still have room to pay your rent and other essentials on a monthly basis. Be sure to include at least 10% (preferably 15%) for expenditures you won't see coming and mentally set it aside as off limits to general spending.
2. Work out what you actually want from your wedding day
Believe me when I say this is going to make your planning so much easier, the earlier that you figure it out. Close your eyes and briefly imagine scenes from your ideal wedding. Do you see something traditional, infused with your cultures' ceremonies and rituals? Would a festival be more your speed? Is the reception actually all about the live music singalongs, or is the DJ laying down tracks while you dance up a storm? Wedding fairs are the perfect way to get inspiration - and even if you're someone who can get a bit too much sensory overload at big supplier events (me too!), I promise you'll be able to find one that suits you, especially if you're looking a little further than the beaten path. Having exhibited at both Most Curious and The Un-Wedding Show , my experience is that these smaller, curated fairs are designed to be inclusive, representative and fabulous. Go in with an open mind, and you'll be golden.
3. Establish your mutual red lines
Discuss thoroughly and agree firmly on where you're both prepared to spend your budget, excluding your venue and celebrant/whichever licensed authority will be performing the ceremony. Be as dispassionate as possible, because oh WOW, there can be some disagreements you didn't see coming on this bit. And if you're lucky enough to be getting some financial support from your family, be very clear on what you're willing to accept if there are certain expectations (like guest list space) that come attached with it!
Traditionally, other big areas of expenditure are:
- the rings
- the outfits
- the cake(s)
- venue/table dressing
- the food & drink
- the photographer and videographer
- the music
- the hotel
- family flights/accommodation
Prioritise where the money will go, compromise wherever possible and find every way of saving money you can. And stay coordinated with each other! The biggest areas for that coordination and unity are likely to be on the overall budget and on your guest list. You may receive a lot of demands from a lot of angles but be clear with yourselves about what you can - and cannot - afford to absorb. This planning is for a day of celebration for you two and an acknowledgement of both of your people - it's not meant to stress you out or make you broke, so don't let other people's preferences for your day push you beyond your means.
4. Do your venue research
Scout venues in your preferred areas, looking for somewhere that costs no more than 30-40% of your total budget (ignoring your emergency 10-15%). If you're getting married in London and other popular spots, get on the case well in advance. Sites like BrideBook and My Afro Caribbean Wedding are very, VERY handy for this, keeping track of all the suppliers you're checking out, and even planning your wedding guest list. Be pragmatic as to your specific needs and ask a lot of questions as to where you might make economies. A single venue where you can do both the wedding ceremony and the reception may be the most convenient, but if you have a local funky venue you both like, why not check if you could throw the reception there too? You'll probably find that you can make a saving by having your wedding on a Friday or a Sunday too - weekdays will be cheaper still, but you'll likely lose some guests who can't get the time off work and/or are unable to travel mid-week.
Most hotels will have some kind of block booking discount, so it's always worth giving nearby hotels a shout to work out a deal for overnight for both the wedding party and out of town guests. Some venues make it wonderfully simple to bring your own booze, while others take you to the cleaners on corkage: check, and if it's the former, companies like The Calais Wine Superstore might make a wine run to France worthwhile for you, even post-Brexit. Make sure the final prices you're given include VAT and that there are no hidden extras!
5. Hustle. And ask yourselves a million questions
Do the wedding outfits have to be designer, or can you find a local tailor/dressmaker you like to tailor an existing design you like to your measurements?
Can you pay for your wedding crew's outfits but ask that they look after their own shoes, hair and make up?
Can you pick a simple colour scheme and ask your wedding party to match it from their own wardrobe?
Can your wedding party wear their own dark suits and you just provide coordinated ties & pocket squares?
Can someone from your regular hair salon/barbers do your wedding hair instead of a specialist wedding hairstylist?
If there's another wedding at your venue on the same day, can you coordinate with the other couple and offer to split the payment for sharing floral arrangements? If there isn't another couple to split the cost with, do you really need floral sprays on every table or might a potted plant better fit the bill?
Can you stay in season and local on your flowers for any bouquets & buttonholes to avoid paying more for imported/hothoused exotic blooms? (which works out better for the environment too, just sayin')
And while I don't advocate scrimping on cake, OBVIOUSLY, ask yourselves whether you need to have both a massive wedding cake and to serve dessert at your wedding meal. I mean, let's love food and cut waste, right? For example, can you have a smaller wedding cake just to cut and have platters of dessert table items, instead of silver service dessert AND a wedding cake? Other options are to have series of smaller cakes to serve up post photos, or a coordinated wedding dessert table or platters where guests can grab whatever cake canapés they want - which is 100% what we would have gone for if we were planning again now.
6. Make a payment plan
Once you're both agreed and clear on how the budget is being carved up, figure out what you can pay for and when. Bigger outlays will likely be deposits for the venue & catering, photographer and the rings, but map out on a calendar which payments have to correspond to which month and try not to spend beyond your means in any one month. For instance, I can book in wedding cakes up to 18 months in advance and take a 50% payment as deposit, but you don't actually need to settle your balance until 6 weeks' before the big day. I'd suggest you give yourself a minimum of 6 months' planning & payment time.
7. Consider using a wedding planner
If you're having a sizeable wedding (and by that, I mean more than 50 guests), and you have specific and personal elements you want represented on the day, I do think it's worth seeing if your budget can accommodate a wedding planner. Planning an event of this scale features a lot of moving parts, and it can turn into what feels like a full time job on the side. If you can afford it, why not see if there's an available expert whose full time job it actually is to support you in bringing your wedding dreams to life? That also means access to their years of knowledge and supplier network, which can save you a lot of legwork and stress. I saw up close what Zuza, planner extraordinaire at A Whole Lotta Love did to create this festival style wedding, and WOW, there's no way such an event could have happened without her input,
That's it! Save the dates should give people at least 4 months' notice and demand an RSVP at least a month before you have to give and pay for your final number of guests.
Last tip: always bear in mind, this is probably the only massive party where everyone is happy to do whatever makes you happy, AND you both get to be at the centre of, that isn't your funeral - make sure it's built around what the two of you want and what will give the two of you a wonderful day to remember forever.
And drop me a line when you're ready to talk cake!
*Ridiculous photo of me turning up late and getting told off by the priest courtesy of the talented photographer Jamie Bott, who also happens to be a completely lovely human you'd want to have at your wedding as a guest anyway.