Today, my wife and I have been married for a year. So, we’re marriage experts obviously…no. But the EHD team was impressed by the fact we had a 70-person wedding for $10K when the current average cost of a wedding in California is $32K(!?!). To celebrate LGBTQ Pride month, I’m sharing my wedding (with a few of our budget-friendly tips that Emily is obsessed with), so today, I’m a wedding blogger who’s never read a wedding blog. “The big day” just wasn’t on the list of daydreams for my wife or I growing up. Despite marching and voting for the right since 2003 (thank you fighters who came before me), I never really “needed” marriage myself. Then there was Katie.
I married an old friend. The details (and the relationships-turned friendships-turned new relationships-turned friendships that only queers seem to pull off that surrounded us and brought us together…then back together) are enough to fill another post (or two), but a clip: In 2013, I bonded instantly with this quick-witted, unconventional thinker over the invisibility of bisexuality, a joint love of camping and a shared, life-long crush on the X-Files’ Gillian Anderson. We double-dated, camped and rang in 2014 together. Then we lost touch. Two years later, she missed an exit on the freeway near my house and ended up turning around on my street. She texted. When we met up to grab a drink a week later, I felt nervous, despite easy and unlimited conversation. I suddenly noticed the crease in her bottom lip and the freckle in her eye. She’d later confess to a 3-year-long crush. But until we reunited, I was clueless. Now, I had to escape to bathrooms when she was around, fearing I might actually vomit. What was happening to me? So much fear preempted shifting from friendship to…more…I didn’t want to lose my friend again. But I also knew if she felt the same, I was done. For good. And I’m a pragmatist. So again, what was happening to me???
My. God. If kissing a friend always went like it did for us, I’d advise everyone to go kiss a friend (bad advice). The weeks that followed that first kiss, we were smitten. It was hard to form words when together. Katie spilled soy sauce all over the table every time we went for sushi. I was gushing to a journal and any friend willing to listen. “I’ve lost my heart and sanity to my friend. Send help.” It was disgustingly adorable and we just belonged. Then, three weeks later, my mom got diagnosed with stage 4 ovarian cancer. And shit got real.
Avoiding the ins and outs of cancer (always fun to include in a wedding blog), I’ll say this: Katie’s embrace, dry-morbid-ish-humor and ability to ground me by sitting outside, playing Gin Rummy (and other such retirement home-appropriate entertainment) kept me laughing through a dark year. She was my vessel (term of endearment from a stylist!). And as my mom said when she met Katie for the first time, in a hospital room upon getting diagnosed, “I knew instantly she was family.” At the end of that year, I proposed fireside in our backyard. And a year and a half-long engagement brings us to the point of this post: The budget wedding.
Having never really dreamed of a wedding, it was time to plan one. Neither of us had a family with funds or a church affiliation to provide a venue. What we had was a lot of friends and a house with enough yard space for 60ish people…we thought. We really hoped.
Without unlimited resources, we homed in on what mattered to us and where we wanted to spend. And when it was all said and done, we looked back on what worked, what was necessary/paid off…and what didn’t. And now, I can form the list of “budget-wedding advice” I needed then—and maybe you need now. Having done this once (or at least that’s the story I tell Katie), here is my expert advice, given the hindsight:
1. Invest in What Matters and Lasts*
(*like, dog tutus)
Your guests won’t leave a bad Yelp review if they don’t get monogrammed napkins (which end up in the trash). Splurge only on a few limited details that last and keep the rest simple. For us, it was our bar sign, which now hangs on our wall and a Polaroid book for guest memories ($280 total for book and film, we had the camera).
Prioritizing what lasts, we spent most of our flower budget on potted plants. Our jasmine/bougainvillea wedding “backdrop,” the table succulent boxes and the plant walls (which we made with wooly pockets) are all flowers we’re still enjoying today. Plus, we filled in slightly-neglected window boxes and hanging planters since some needed home improvement with florals. These lasting plants cost $570 and completely transformed our yard…still! Only $350 spent on “fleeting flowers” that were used for bouquets (gorgeously designed as a gift from our friend Melissa). That’s still a lot for something that doesn’t last, and you could consider some sort of wooden flower instead.
2. Rethink the Sit-Down Dinner
This was obvious for us because we had zero room for lots of tables/simultaneous eating and are the proud owners of the tiniest, galley kitchen ever! We didn’t even have space for a catered setup. Our solution: a food truck! They provided several hours of food, starting with “tray-pass apps,” which THEY SERVED, and ending with really great tacos/side options. It cost us $2,500. For 70 people! And this is LA.
Instead of a cake, we opted for donuts (Pinnable trend of the year, I know, but we’re obsessed with our local vegan donut place and Katie is severely allergic to dairy).
Donuts have the added bonus that they’re easy to grab and require less plating/utensils. As avid campers, we opted for s’mores for late night treats. Any excuse to be fireside…and there ain’t nothing cheaper than a marshmallow.
3. Forego Gifts and Opt for Favors/Services
Hands down the reason our budget was low (and our wedding even possible) was that we have insanely talented friends! We made a list of roles our friends could fill based on skillsets and then made calls (okay, texts) asking, “instead of a gift, would you help us…DJ (Mike Kopelow)… do our hair and makeup (Kelly and my sister, Paige)?” Honestly, many friends came out of the woodwork to help and it was just a matter of delegating.
(Side note, we almost forewent having a DJ but were advised to not skip that role and would pass along that advice!)
Y’know how everyone you know seems to get married in the same year? It’s the perfect opportunity to BORROW. No shame. Our Yelp rating remains intact despite being the third wedding that year to use the same sign stands.
…and the second within the month to feature these collected goblets:
The “year of weddings” is also a chance to trade services. Darci, who served as our day-of coordinator (required!) and handled everything bar-related asked us to do design/floral arrangements for her wedding the year prior as an exchange. Boy did we come out ahead on that one…suckahhh!
(Bonus budget bar tip from her to us to you: Pick 1 or 2 signature cocktails and otherwise stick to beer/wine, which is to be purchased during Bevmo’s 5 cent wine sale!)
4. Choose a Location Where You Can BYOB & Caterer
Avoiding a venue’s upcharge on catering and bar services/alcohol can save hundreds to thousands. Many venues mandate such services, but more flexible locations can definitely be found. OR, avoid the venue fee entirely ($$$$$) and find a backyard. We were lucky to have that piece in place, though it meant being a slave to our yard/house projects for the entire lead-up year (we built this deck!).
If you opt for the route of a backyard wedding, don’t forget you’ll need host insurance, possibly a permit, and patient neighbors. We groomed ours by dropping a bottle of wine/note on each porch within immediate proximity. The note gave an end time, several phone numbers to call instead of the cops, and a preemptive “thank you!”
5. Keep It Small
This is hard to do! But more people = more money. Mind-blowing, I know.
This tip is so obvious, I almost nixed it, but one of my very favorite things about our wedding was how intimate it felt. We not only easily engaged with every guest there, but Katie and I were also able to stay present with each other because there was no need to “divide and conquer” to cover ground. “Controlling the flow” was easy, too, due to limited space and people, so the night remained a sequence of group activities (ceremony, toasts, Bingo!, dancing). No risk of the party spreading out too much and, therefore, dying early. It was a night of intimate, shared experience from beginning to end, from pre-bar to the last dance. (New Rule #1: Opening the bar early—required!) If you can endure the pain of cutting that list down, I’m here to say it’s worth it.
6. Avoid the Rack for the Dress(es)
But…don’t miss the fitting experience. I had two best friends (and soon-to-be brides) by my side for several appointments as we did some dress research. We did the shopping. We drank the champagne. But ultimately, there wasn’t a single dress that looked good on me below $1,250. And yet, I discovered through this process what style I was drawn to (and realized, to my surprise, I had a desire for a two-piece). Ultimately, both my and Katie’s dresses came out of our friends’ closets (insert obvious gay joke).
Katie’s friend had changed her mind about a dress during her own wedding process, so Katie bought it at half price ($600). One of the two friends I was shopping with, Autumn, who happens to be a stylist, MADE my dress from one she already owned, a designer dress SHE had found SECOND HAND (final design sewn by her go-to seamstress Faith). Total cost: $100. My backup plan was to shop vintage or get a pretty non-wedding dress. If you’re on a budget, don’t pay for the “wedding” part of the term “wedding dress”!
7. Pick (& Plan) Your Pics
Photographers, videographers and photo booths are each SO expensive. $1-7K each, easily. On a truly snug budget, you can’t have it all…okay, sorta. But you’ll definitely have to assess your priorities. Ours fell in this order:
1. We wanted the best-quality photos we could afford since we planned to frame them/would “have” to look at them every day. Katie found The Dream Choice through a Facebook group. Siouxzen was highly reviewed and fit within our budget ($1,300) because she was doing a summer sale. And she made us so, so happy! BUT, we couldn’t afford her the whole night, so we also had a couple incredibly talented “amateur” photographer friends bring their cameras as their gift to us. (Thank you Steve Agee and Laura Spencer.)
2. We wanted the experience of a photo booth as an activity for our guests, but were happy to make a homemade backdrop/iPad setup suffice. We asked our cinematographer friend Mike and muralist friend Eve (clearly, make a lot of talented friends before planning a budget wedding) to be in charge of this D.I.Y—okay, They.I.Y—and they went above and BEYOND…like, WTF, this shouldn’t be what DIY looks like?!:
3. We decided we could totally forego a professional, edited video. BUT we wanted someone (anyone) to at least record the ceremony. In 20 years, a video will look dated no matter the camera chosen today, so we were okay with something basic. We weren’t okay missing the record/something to watch/rewatch for years. Katie called on an old college friend who owned a decent camera and we paid him ($300), not expecting too much. Yet somewhere between college and wedding, he’d apparently become a professional. I mean we got footage edited…raw…we had it all. Regardless of budget, assign someone to video. You’ll want it.
We opted to do all professional photos before guests arrived so that we never had to “kill” the party once it got rolling, but I don’t care how and when you decide to do pics, PLAN them. Make a list of all the shots that are important to capture. Which we did. AND think through where you want them to be. Which we did not. After an entire year, there was one dumb project we didn’t find time for…cutting down an ugly, old partial retaining wall in our carport/driveway. “Ah well, nobody will notice it.” Well, guess what made it into every. single. family. photo that. day?
8. Limit Paper (Save the Date… and The Trees)
We put together a Paperless Post save the date announcement AND a Paperless Post invitation for almost everyone and it cost $12 instead of a few hundred for printing/mailing. We did this for everyone we thought might open, enjoy for 2 seconds, then toss. Anyone we assumed would want to save the commemoration, (or who we assumed didn’t understand the digital world/had a 0% digital signature)…got a hard copy. Regardless, it was all the same design and homemade. The save the date, I pulled together with my at-the-time new Illustrator/Photoshop skills. And the invitation was our gift from graphic designer friend, Jen.
9. Pick Your DIY Moments
The DIY trap! Guys, Pinterest helps wedding planning so much…but it can also hurt. Don’t buy into believing you need to show your creative genius around every corner! We kept asking ourselves, “does this enhance the experience for all?” For the most part, we did a solid job of being super selective/asking for help. My main advice would be don’t save a single ounce of DIY for the “day-of.” It’s too late and/or you’ll be distracted from what’s important by that time.
The DIY I think paid off the most for us was hanging our own (permanent) heavy-duty string lights in both the front and back yard from $4 electrical conduit pipes! It took one afternoon. I wish I could take credit for the idea, but it all came from here.
The DIY I still question:
Aiming to “only invest in what lasts,” we decided to forego renting anything. So instead of renting any chairs/tables, we found (via Craigslist) a restaurant that was closing down and selling their tables. We kept some intact and cut others in half, throwing on $25 hairpin legs to turn them into benches. They looked cooler than the cheapest chair/table setups (to which the price would’ve equated), BUT we weren’t able to resell them as we had hoped. And, while we’ve enjoyed them outside for the last year, they’re wearing down now. Worth it? Can’t decide. But definitely still grateful to our friends (Maura and John for embarking on this DIY venture with us).
10. SPEND A TON…of Time
Like in design, with a wedding, you can’t have good, fast and cheap. You pick two. So, if you want “good” and “cheap,” you’re looking at sacrificing some “time.” But doesn’t time mean the most?
We put in lots of time thinking through personal details that were 100% free. For instance, as Bingo prizes, we pulled together “gift bags” from random things nobody would want that we found around our house. It either meant something or was attempted hilarity for the people that knew us best. Example, one gift bag included a “survival kit” complete with items such as half a box of bandages and a flashlight and another was a “Badass Bag,” which included a Ruth Bader Ginsberg coloring book (already half colored in) and a “Future is Female” Christmas ornament.
We also spent a lot of time deciding ceremony details. My brother officiated, my mom ‘gave me away’, our friend Allie and a sister, Meg, sang us down the aisle both ways and a best friend re-read the Andrea Gibson poem that I had read when I proposed… the same one she had read to me the night we first kissed. (Thanks, Laura!)
I’ll say the two time investments I would NEVER undo. We wrote our vows early. I mean, it’s what everyone came for, right? Yet, it’s so easy to postpone. AND we planned a moment immediately after the ceremony to be alone. I like to think of it as our “holy shit!” moment. While everyone else herded into the backyard for toasts/got a second drink, we stowed away to take in the fact we were married.
I have to go back to #1 on the list…invest in what lasts and what matters. I got really overwhelmed as a bride who never hoped to be a bride. This woman meant so much to me, yet I found myself caring about things I hoped to never care about…table runners! Try to remember it’s not about the table runner…
In January, my mom passed. Just seven months after one of the best days! My WIFE got/is getting me through. And because of the simplicity of our wedding and all the support we had, that celebratory day wasn’t consumed by utensils and balloons. We got to truly invest in/experience what mattered.
For me: the dichotomy of fear and trust; utter vulnerability in my wife’s face as she heard my vows:
The friends who are family and made the whole thing possible:
And my mom’s dance face:
Having done this wedding-thing once, I’m now the EHD trusted expert. And I’m here to tell you, your budget doesn’t matter. NBD!!!! What matters costs more than paper. So, keep fighting the fight…and then go dance!
***unless otherwise noted, photography by The Dream Choice