How to Plan a Big Wedding on a Small Budget

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Bride and groom sit on wedding ceremony chairs against the backdrop of an arch and the sea

According to The Knot, the average cost of a wedding in 2020 was $19,000, down considerably from the 2019 average of $28,000. That drop is likely due to pandemic-related restrictions, as COVID caused many couples to scale back their wedding plans. Still, whether the average is closer to 20K or 30K, that’s a lot of money. For couples who would rather spend their hard-earned wages on a down payment for a house or a luxury vacation, learning how to budget is essential.

These tips will help you plan a wonderful, memorable, successful wedding at a fraction of the typical cost. Trust us, it can be done! And don’t worry if you’re planning a big wedding and can’t bring yourself to cut even a single cousin — these tips are specially designed with those big weddings in mind.

Rethink Your Catering

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Appetizers and cocktails on buffet table decorated with flowers.

Figuring out your catering budget involves some simple math. Some experts say food and drink should be about 40% of your total wedding budget, but obviously that number depends on several things. Primarily, how important is food to you and your soon-to-be spouse? If you’re more into décor or music, you might want to spend a larger portion of your budget on flowers or a live band.

Whatever your catering budget is, you must figure out the breakdown. Say you have $2,000 to spend on food and drink. You can theoretically feed 100 guests a $20-per-plate dinner, or you can feed 300 people a meal that costs just under $7 per plate. You can imagine the difference in food quality and quantity when you subtract more than $13 per meal. But that’s not to say a $7 plate can’t be delicious.

To save on catering, consider:

  1. A potluck. This only works if you’ve having a very casual wedding, but it could be a great way to bring together family and sample some favorite dishes your guests prepared.
  2. A food truck. BBQ, burgers, burritos — you can get almost anything delivered via food truck these days, and using food tickets can help ensure all guests eat before you run out of food.
  3. Breakfast. Serving up fresh squeezed juices and hiring someone to run pancake and omelet stations can be surprisingly affordable.
  4. A picnic. If you’re planning a more casual wedding, why not turn it into a picnic? Consider it: blankets and pillows strewn across a beautiful lawn, lemonade and juice boxes for everyone, and brown bag lunches filled with artisanal sandwiches and yummy kettle-style potato chips.
  5. Choose signature drinks. Having a full bar is expensive. The more options you give people, the more options you must pay for. Instead, have a mixologist create a few signature drinks for your big day or choose a couple classics on your own. Be sure they can be prepared in batches, then pour them into a punch bowl or drink dispenser and you won’t even have to pay for a bartender during the reception. Galvanized metal tubs filled with non-alcoholic drinks take care of everyone else.

Look at Non-Traditional Venues

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Bride and groom surrounded by plants in a botanical garden.

Booking a fancy hotel ballroom for 300 guests is going to strain even the most generous budgets. If you’re running a tight ship, financially speaking, it’s time to look at venues that won’t cost such a pretty penny.

Some options include:

  1. A working farm
  2. Rooftop of an urban apartment building
  3. Airbnb rentals
  4. Zoos
  5. National monuments
  6. Rec centers
  7. Public parks
  8. College campuses
  9. Smaller concert venues
  10. Campsites, campgrounds, or cabins
  11. Planetariums or museums
  12. Movie theaters
  13. Libraries
  14. Airplane hangers

Each of these venues carries oodles of potential in terms of fun and a memorable aesthetic, but there are some things to consider before signing on the dotted line. Non-traditional venues are not typically set up for weddings, meaning you might have to rent shelters, furnishings, lighting, and sound systems separately. You may also have to pay for your own insurance and get permits for catering and live entertainment.

It’s crucial you discuss these components with the powers that be at each potential venue so you can estimate the final cost and not get caught unawares.

Save on Your Wedding Attire

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Wedding dresses in a shop

The average cost of a wedding dress in the United States is $1,631, which includes alterations. Men have it a bit better, paying an average of $350 per tux, assuming a black-tie wedding is in the plans. That’s a big chunk of change, but there are plenty of ways to save.

For brides, retail shops, vintage stores, and resale clothing apps like Poshmark all present tons of opportunities to buy pre-loved dresses that are still in fantastic shape. Much like a new car, wedding dresses lose a significant percentage of their value once they’re worn, so you can potentially find a designer dress at a fraction of its original cost. Sometimes the discount is so steep, you can buy a dress that’s a size or two too big, pay for alterations, and still be within your budget. The same goes for buying a simple dress and paying to add embellishments, straps, and other accoutrement that help make the gown your own.

If you really want a new dress, switch your focus from the bridal section to event gowns. These dresses come in all shapes, sizes, and colors, so you can get a white or ivory dress that isn’t technically a wedding dress but will work brilliantly for your big day. These dresses cost less and are available that day compared to wedding dresses, which can take months or even a year to arrive once you’ve placed an order.

Of course, no one says the bride has to be in white. Not in the 21st century at least. You may risk annoying your in-laws or that one super-traditional aunt, but if you love floral gowns or want a red dress, you can potentially save even more money by shopping for special event dresses instead of bridal.

DIY Your Décor and Flowers

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Woman tying together wedding bouquet of different flowers.

Flowers are expensive. The average couple in the United States spends about $1,500 on their wedding flowers. That number can soar exponentially if you decide to bring in out-of-season blooms or pricey varieties that must be imported from abroad. But the flipside of the coin is that you can drastically lower your flower budget by doing the arrangements yourself.

The easiest course is to pick a venue that’s already decorated. Get married in a botanical garden, for instance, and you won’t have to purchase a single rose. But if you have a venue that needs extra color and romance, you can save money by buying your flowers directly from a wholesale venue that sells to florists. No mark-up means nicer prices.

Also look for in-season flowers and keep an open mind as to which blooms you ultimately choose. Wildflowers are going to be more affordable than orchids any day of the week. You can also mix in less costly greenery or boughs of evergreens and pinecones if you are planning a winter wedding, and sparse flower arrangements look fuller if they surround pillar candles (themselves a cheap buy at dollar stores).

Follow the same ideas to take care of wedding décor. Look at online marketplaces to buy bulk décor sold by other DIY brides and grooms who have already had their big day. Craft stores are also value-packed spots to hunt for ideas, and you can visit thrift stores to stock up on vases, plates, pictures, and other foundational items to use as-is or for crafting decorations that are more on theme. You can even pick up scrap wood and evergreen trimmings for free if you know where to look.

Buy Your Wedding Stationery Online

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Computer on home office desk.

Save the dates, wedding invitations, wedding programs, RSVP cards, place cards, table numbers, coasters, napkins — custom wedding goodies are so exciting. But if you fill your virtual cart to the brim, you might get sticker shock. However, buying from MagnetStreet means maximizing your budget.

Operating solely online means less overhead, and those savings get passed on to you. Then there are options like all-in-one wedding invitations that give your guests tons of info and look great while remaining affordable. In fact, the more invitations you buy, the less the per-piece cost. And because you can order free samples of your custom wedding stationery, you can approve of every detail before committing to the final print. That means no costly mistakes.

For more help figuring out the financial side of your big day, check out our Wedding Budget Guide.

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