Ten tips for planning a simple wedding

My husband and I tied the knot in Washington, D.C., just weeks after the 2001 attacks. Many of our guests canceled because they were afraid to travel, and a few of our vendors even lowered their rates because we didn’t back out of our reservations. As a result, we were able to throw a much more extravagant celebration than what we had initially planned. And, honestly, we needed a big party. There were tanks on the streets, people rarely went outside, and everyone was afraid. We were all longing for a celebration focused on life, love, family, and friendship.

I mention this back story because I felt it would be hypocritical not to. I’m about to dispense advice for how to plan a simple wedding when ours wasn’t. Most of the advice listed below we followed (1, 2, 5, 8, 9, 10), but not all of it. I loved our wedding day and don’t regret the choices we made at that time, but if we were getting married now, we would certainly do some things differently. For starters, I would ditch my 12′ veil and the heavy, wet, velvet rose, flower-ball bouquet nightmare our flower girl carried.

Ten tips for planning a simple wedding:

  1. Set your budget with money that you already have in a bank account. No one, under any circumstance, should go into debt for a wedding. If you only have $500 to spend on a wedding, then plan a $500 wedding. If your parents are paying for the wedding and say that they have $5,000 for your wedding, then plan a $5,000 wedding. Best case scenario, spend less than you have budgeted.
  2. When choosing bridesmaids dresses, remember that the dresses will only be worn the day of the wedding. (No matter how many times a bride tries to convince her bridesmaids otherwise.) Asking your bridesmaids to spend hundreds of dollars on a dress and matching shoes might not be the best way to treat your friends. Consider letting them choose their own dresses, or buy them matching floor length skirts and ask them to buy coordinating tops in any style they want.
  3. When hiring a photographer, work with someone who will shoot your wedding digitally. You won’t have to pay for printing proofs.
  4. When choosing groomsmen tuxedos, consider letting them wear their own if they have them instead of forcing them to rent.
  5. Be sure to ask your wedding venue their policy on flowers and musicians. Many churches require that you leave altar flowers after your ceremony and pay for their staff musicians even if you don’t use them. We coordinated with the other couples who were getting married on the same day at our venue and the three of us split the costs of two large arrangements that worked with all of our flowers.
  6. Be willing to think outside the box. You and your future spouse are unique individuals and your wedding should reflect that. Just because everyone else has their wedding a certain way, doesn’t mean that you have to. Be sure to manage guest expectations, however. If you’re getting married on the side of a mountain in ski gear, your guests won’t appreciate it if you forget to provide this information. No one likes to ride a ski lift in a dress.
  7. Consider having flowers that are locally grown and in season — you’ll save a lot of money if they don’t have to be flown in from the tropics.
  8. Remember that your marriage is what is most important, not your wedding day. Keeping this in perspective will save you time and stress when it comes to making decisions about minute details.
  9. If you choose to have party favors, consider something edible or consumable. (We made chocolate lollipops in the shape of maple leaves for our fall wedding for our guests.)
  10. Keep in mind that even if your cake is destroyed or your friends start a fight or your organist doesn’t show up and everyone has to sing a cappella that at the end of the day, you’re still married.

The points I’ve made barely cover the tip of the iceberg on the topic of planning a simple wedding. I’d like to open up the comments to everyone to share your tips on how to plan a simple celebration!

77 Comments for “Ten tips for planning a simple wedding”

  1. posted by Raisin on

    @Anne – Yes, disposables are a great idea. In fact, one of the limitations of any photographer is that they can’t be in all places at once.

    Two things that I have seen that are also great ideas are a polaroid camera along with the pen for signing in on the guest book. So, instead of the guest book becoming yet another unitasker, it becomes a self-portrait album of all the people that attended your wedding.

    The other is a photobooth. There are photographers that add a photo booth for weddings. There are also companies that rent out photobooths for events. In most cases, all the guests get instant photobooth prints, and the bride and groom get copies of all the photos on DVD.

    @Chris – Make sure that the family member that you pick doesn’t need to be IN the photos.

  2. posted by Red on

    Things we did to keep it simple for our May 2006 wedding:

    1. Rented a pavilion in a local park and used leftover prom supplies from the local high school to decorate it very simply (a few strips of gauze and twinkle lights). Cost $25 for our location and it allowed us to have over 100 guests comfortably.

    2. Had my best friend marry us under a tree in the woods.

    3. Encouraged people to be comfortable to the point where shoes were optional.

    4. All invitations/save the date/etc were done at home using recycled papers from local stationers. Our invitation & RSVP was actually just one piece of paper where the bottom tore off into a postcard to mail back. Maps, etc were all done via our website and phone calls to the relatives who are less tech-savvy.

    5. As for photography, we did hire a local photographer for the formal shots though there were four others around taking photos. Between the five of them we have the perfect digital photographs of our weekend (it was a three day event).

    I wanted nothing more than a simple party to celebrate the joining of our families. I think we succeeded merging the formal and informal on a fairly tight, simple budget.

  3. posted by Alex Fayle on

    As a gay man from Canada living in Spain (two countries where I can get married), when I think of my wedding (whenever it happens) I feel hugely grateful that I’m not tied to a gazillion traditions that “everyone simply must do.”

    I agree that it’s a very important day, but City Hall and a big party with friends and family sounds about right to me.


  4. posted by ChristineB on

    Some friends of ours had their wedding at the local farmer’s market. It is a covered structure and right on the water. Just about everything was done by friends-the DJ, flowers, cake, photos, lights, bar tending, and my husband did the invitations. I think they catered the food. It was wonderful! It was like a giant collective party. One of the best times I’ve ever had at a wedding.

  5. posted by Sasha on

    Don’t invite people from far away. I found that contributed a lot to making our wedding more complex… although of course, it was worth it for us.

    We had the reception on a nice-ish boat, so that was fancy-ish and complex, but the ceremony was in a beautiful park. It cost me about $30 to reserve the “picnic” space in the park, and we set everything up in a clearing nearby. A bonus is that now, every time we go to the park, my husband and I get a little excited and say “We got married here!” and laugh.

    I had all the bridesmaids and so on pick their own clothes, after being told what I’d be wearing and the color theme. It worked perfectly.

    Don’t buy wedding favors unless you have a special idea for them. Nobody really cares, usually, and people don’t like useless stuff unless it’s got some redeeming feature. In fact, most people don’t care about most finicky traditions and details about weddings. Just do whatever appeals to you.

    Sometimes, to be honest, the expensive choice is the simpler one. I hired a wedding planner (a great one). I was in an new city, with lots of faraway guests coming, and a mostly unhelpful spouse-to-be, mostly nobody else to help out. Not only was it worth it, she probably paid for herself (or at least close) with the money she saved me in different ways. And some of the other expenses were damn fun.

  6. posted by Sue on

    I am sure some of my ideas are duplicates but here goes:

    1. I ordered my dress from JC Pennys and added a few lace and beaded embellishments. Cost: $150.

    2. Sister made our cake–it was her gift to us.

    3. Bridesmaids were given a color sample and found dresses that coordinated with that.

    4. When sister’s 4 daughters each were planning THEIR weddings, sis and her DH stated a $$ amount; anything over that–the couple had to pay, anything under that–sis would write a check to them for a house down payment. Worked really well!

    5. Basically, if the groom, the bride, the officiant and the license are there, you are set; anything else that happens becomes part of your wedding “legend”, and you are still married.

  7. posted by Kristin on

    $492.50 total in jUne of 2000.

    Married on the mall in DC (the old marble gazebo off the reflecting pool), cake was a gift from my mom, champagne flutes (I refused to use plastic) were $1 each on sale at Crate&Barrell, my dress was originally $225 off the rack (second marriage… I wore periwinkle) but it had as snag so I got it for NINETY PERCENT OFF. Yes, you read that correctly. I fixed the snag. My flowers were from the grocery store and wrapped with florist tape. My husband wore his ‘interview’ suit (black) …. and that was it. Our cost was primarily the JP. Met at our house in Alexandria, VA; carpooled to the location, said the vows, kissed, pictures, bubbles for the kids and then back to our house for champagne (another gift), cake and then off to the local club to hear a live band.

    And people, to this day, tell us it was the best wedding they’ve ever attended.

  8. posted by MB on

    One more photography idea…

    We were married in a college town so we looked up a recent art major that worked mostly with photography. We paid an hourly rate and at the end of the day he turned over the film…pre-digital. Along with the hourly rate we gave him a certain number of prints.. his choice as to which ones, to use in his portfolio.

    In general we too went small and inexpensive and still say it was the best wedding ever!

  9. posted by lexie on

    I’m a florist, and do a lot of weddings where I live. One good option for alter arrangements is to buy some really wonderful looking potted plants, then put them in the urn or other nice container. Its less money than buying a floral arrangement ( usually the altar arrangements take a good chunk of money since their so big) and if you get a plant that can easily grow in your climate, you can have it to remind you of the big day. You may also want to look into buying them from a good local nursery instead of a chain store, they cost a bit more but their taken care of better and everyone will be staring at them while you take your vows.
    Another tip would be if you wanted flowers in your centerpiece but not a whole arrangement, try floating large flower heads like gerbera daises, sunflowers, or lilies in clear vases. It’s less costly but still has a nice touch.
    An interesting idea I’ve always liked, though not really something that saves money, is finding different ways to wear flowers. Their a great things to do like flower pins in your hair, garlands, arm wraps, even attatching them to a plain pair of shoes! It adds a great personal touch.

  10. posted by Kat on

    For our give-aways, we had potted seedlings, and even now we get comments from guests on how tall their plants have grown. Another friend had seeds. Bear in mind that if you have overseas/interstate guests, they might not be able to take plant material home.

  11. posted by Dana on

    We’re eloping to Vermont, where a very nice B&B has a whole package including 2 nights stay, the JofP, a small cake, dinner, etc for $800. We’re taking the dog — she’s the only attendant and since this is my second marriage, I decided to forgo the traditional wedding dress and look at evening dresses. To my surprise, of all the things I tried on, a scarlet ankle length gown with one seed pearl flower on the shoulder picked me!

    My fiance is wearing a dark suit, we’re putting a red ribbon on the dog (she’s a black Lab mix) and only getting a bouquet and boutonniere. The photos will be digital and up online within a matter of days, and when we come back, we’re having a very small lunch with our parents and siblings. No invitations, bridesmaids gowns, centerpieces, etc to mess with, and my hair will be the same as it is on most days (it’s short in a bob, so there’s not much to do to it anyhow).

    I feel so good knowing most of the planning is done (we’re going in September — I always wanted a fall wedding) and we’re doing exactly what we want.

  12. posted by M on

    We had a very small celebration with about 25 of our closest family and friends. The dinner at our favorite (inexpensive) restaurant cost about $300. Since we didn’t hire a photographer, buy flowers, party favors, etc., the dinner was the main cost. I bought an ivory-colored cocktail dress for $40 at the department store which worked perfectly for this occasion. An acquaintance who is in the bakery business provided the cake, which was an unconventional and delicious one. I’m sure this is not everyone’s style, but we’re low-key people, and couldn’t imagine a better way to get married.

  13. posted by steph on

    I am the most offbeat of my large Southern family and my husband WAS an older confirmed bachelor. Clad in “Bride” and “Groom” caps, we were married at the courthouse witnessed by a few friends. Lunch followed at a favorite BBQ restaurant, which was offering free red velvet cake for their anniversary. The owner picked up our tab and later catered a casual reception at the museum where my husband worked (free). We used evites, I wore a $5 vintage dress from a yard sale and friends chipped in for most of the rest. Favors were MoonPies for Midsummer Night.

    The best parts — winning the office pool on our wedding night more than paid for the wedding AND returning to eat cake last night on our anniversary!

  14. posted by Susan on

    Pick a wide assortment of acceptable “little black dresses” and let the bridesmaids pick from that spectrum a dress that they’ll wear again. (Don’t just send them out to pick their own unless you REALLY trust their taste and have low sib-rivalry levels. I started out with “pick your own” and learned my lesson when I found that my drama-queen sister was planning to up stage everyone (me included) with a cashmere sweater over an extravagant ball gown skirt–when all the other bridesmaids were wearing narrow-skirted little black dresses.)

    Calculate EXACTLY what you can afford to spend per guest, and post it on the front of your planning notebook. That way, if you/fiance/parents get tempted to invite “just one more” person, look at the cost. I found that politely telling my “more the merrier” mom that if she wanted to add more guests to her 20-person quota would cost $65 per person up-front to even send the invitation was the most efficient way to stop the head count from climbing beyond limits.

    An elegant midnight wedding with champagne and little nibbles is the most elegant and inexpensive way to go. AND you don’t have much trouble with people showing up with uninvited munchkins.

  15. posted by Becky@FamilyandFinances on

    I totally agree with nixing the traditional bridesmaids dresses. I hate wearing them and am so frustrated with how expensive they are. I found dresses for my bridesmaids that were $36.

    I also didn’t have centerpieces or favors. To me, it’s fluff and then you have useless stuff sitting around your house. I really doubt anyone even noticed :)

    Lastly, I did splurge on the photographer since my hubby is known for not being very photogenic. The photos are awesome! (married 9 months ago) I opted for film since it’s better quality. The photographer gave me all of the prints and rights. She also agreed to have the developer make cd’s of the prints when they were developed. I got the best of both worlds – the quality of film and the convenience of digital – for $1300.

  16. posted by Laura on

    One option for wedding and bridesmaid dresses is Ebay! I was in a wedding last winter and found the exact dresses the bride wanted (David’s bridal, apple red, strapless, a-line, full length) for $40 or less. There are literally hundreds of worn-once or never-worn wedding gowns and bridesmaid’s dresses.

    When I get married, I want to have the wedding in my parents’ backyard, which is both beautiful and free! No tuxes, no fussy dresses, no bloated guest list, no honorary this or that, no $200 calla lily bouquets, just a simple ceremony with friends and family and then a big party.

    But I would agree about spending money on a photographer. The pictures are all you have besides memories! Art students are a great idea — just take a close look at their existing portfolio. And in any case, sit down and talk with the photographer about your vision for the photos. Do you want mostly posed, formal pictures, or do you want to capture the more spontaneous moments of your big day? Do you mind if they hunch down in front of the first pew or would you rather they take more inconspicuous shots? If you’re going to do the photos after the ceremony but before the reception, does he have a plan for getting through the necessary shots in a timely, efficient way?

  17. posted by amy on

    He proposed yesterday!!! How did you know I needed this article Unclutter?

    /me saves this url to send to mother when she starts getting over-wedding-y ;-)

  18. posted by Tiffany on

    We had a reception of 50 people at our favorite restaurant that we’ve been going to for years. All the staff knows us, the managing partner is a family friend. Including the open bar with our brunch reception and tip, we paid about $2500. We bought 5 dozen cupcakes from Cakelove on U St. for $120 instead of a wedding cake. I bought invitation paper at Target and printed it on our workhorse, inherited HP laser printer- they looked fabulous and I spent $50. We had people RSVP by email (no extra postage cost). We got married DURING Sunday morning church services (this will only work if you’re part of the church community normally) on Church Music Sunday- use of the facility was free, the choir had already paid for some additional musicians, and we paid for a couple more since my husband is a musician himself and it was important to us ($600 well spent). We had one attendant each, my brother and my husband’s best friend, who wore suits they already owned with no ties. I paid $100 for white bridesmaid separates instead of a wedding dress. I wish we had been able to hire a photographer, but since we had to change our wedding date 7 weeks beforehand due to a string of venues falling through, there was nothing I could do. We got the digital photos our friends and family took and turned them into a wedding album through iPhoto.

    No one cared at all that we didn’t do favors, or a bouquet toss, or any of that unnecessary crap. We had good ceremony music, good food at the reception, and our friends are all interesting people who entertained each other at the reception. It was awesome, and we had everything that was important to us. :)

  19. posted by Rachel on

    This is a great post. We got married in October 2006, in a combination Day of the Dead/Halloween wedding. Some ideas that simplified our day:
    1. We rented a building that now houses a local non-profit but was a private residence (mansion) when it was built in the 1800s. We had both wedding and reception there. It cost $300 to rent for the whole day, and I spent another $200 on wedding insurance (a good idea if you’re worried about Uncle Dave getting sauced and breaking something). Since this wasn’t a licensed venue, I also had to get a liquor license to serve beer and wine, which only cost $50 but was a paperwork hassle. Still, the venue was absolutely perfect, and they let us bring in whatever caterer we wanted. That was key, because what we wanted was a kickin’ chicken BBQ. Total cost for 1/2 chicken per guest, roll/butter, potato salad, roasted veggies, corn and a couple of other sides,and drinks (including service, on-site BBQ, all plates, utensils, napkins, etc.) was $8 per guest. We had about 125 people, so we spent another $1000 on food.

    2. Got my dad- a former actor- certified online to perform the ceremony ($25).

    3. Bought my dress on eBay for $125. It had never been worn before and- amazingly- needed no alterations.

    4. Rather than flower centerpieces, we did bowls of candy in the middle of each table, and one guest at every table won the centerpiece at the end of the night. Each one was different- I just bought glass bowls at thrift stores and garage sales and hot-glued fringe around them.

    5. No seating charts- people sorted themselves out quite well and wound up sitting where they wanted.

    6. Rather than asking people to be bridesmaids and groomsmen, we asked people to contribute in ways that showcased their talents. For example, one friend designed the image on our (self-printed) invites. Another sang a song as we entered the ceremony. Another played violin during the ceremony. Another organized a quilt-making (guests were asked to contribute squares before the wedding and the finished product was displayed on the day). Another did a slide show of me and my partner. Some family members helped make decorations (sugar skulls and an altar).

  20. posted by Deja on

    My husband and I eloped in our kayaks on an overnight river trip. It was surprise to me (but we had been dating for 7 years). So, I already knew he was the one for me. It was very sweet. He leaned over and asked me if I was enjoying the river. Then, he said, “What is that floating on the water?” I picked up this beautiful basket that contained a ring! He proposed to me right there on the water. So, the next day, our best friend married us on the side of the river. Then, we flew out of the canyon in a very small bush plane (kayaks and all). We called our family and friends and told them the next morning (which was a delightful surprise to all of them). A week later, we had a big BBQ and all came to celebrate in the park with us. Very low key and it cost us less than $300. No wedding dresses, bridesmaid dresses…or family disputes over how they expected the wedding to be! It was just perfect for us considering that we met on the river. Sort of like the “confluence” or place where two rivers join!

  21. posted by Linda on

    Another alternative is the Registry Office/ Justice of the Peace/ Civil ceremony. If you are ultra trifty it can be done locally or it can be a great & romantic getaway.

    My husband & I combined a trip to the UK with our wedding and we were married in the Registry Office in Glasgow this past July (2008). There was a bunch of paperwork to submit and we needed to give 6 weeks prior notice, but the internet and a fax machine makes the process very simple (about $20 in overseas phone calls and faxes). Marriage license & related fees $200, marriage visa was $ 150 per person. (Only my husband needed a visa since I am still a UK citizen).

    My dress was simple & bought off the rack with a silk scarf to fancy it up ($70). Hired a local photographer via the internet for $600 total (including a book of 5X7 prints and a larger portrait for the wall) and a small bouquet of flowers locally for $30. Afterwards we had a small reception at a local tearoom for ourselves and my UK relatives (ten people $150 total).

    I imagine there is a similar process to be married in other countries. The trip itself was our honeymoon and the most major expense (Our flights were $2000, hotels were $1000 and meals/incidentals another $1000 for a ten day trip). Our finances are intact and our minds filled with happy memories.

  22. posted by Wedding planning in the news | Wedding Decorator Blog on

    [...] have to take it just from me! I stumbled across this great post from Unclutterer — Ten tips for planning a simple wedding. Hey, you brides could use all the help you can get in this day and [...]

  23. posted by bonnie jean on

    My fiance and I are both in our 40’s and have been married before. BUT, we have waited a very long time to be together, so, while we both want something simple, we want it to be very special, too.

    We are planning for this July. Here is what we have come up with thus far:

    1) Wedding will probably be at his sister’s farm. She is one of my best friends, and has lots of space…so depending on weather, we can be outside (what I have always wanted) or inside.

    2) I bought my dress years ago at a flea market. It’s vintage ivory lace, that needed some TLC. I have repaired it, and have a beautiful classic dress for a whopping $10!!

    3) My daughters (22 and 18 at the time of the wedding) are going to be my bridesmaids, and they are planning on just getting some nice sundresses that they can wear at other times.

    4) I do not give a rodent’s heiney what my fiance and his son’s wear. Why be uncomfortable? Wear jeans, I don’t care!! I’m debating whether or not I will even wear shoes, if we are outside!!!

    5) I have already asked 2 friends to sing a duet…that is their gift to us.

    6) My fiance is in a band, along with his entire family. He said “music won’t be a problem.”

    7) My best friend is a photographer who is just building her portfolio, and is happy to do our pictures.

    I love the wishbowl idea…gonna steal that one!! I also want VERY simple flowers…after all, my faves are violets!!

    Any other suggestions on keeping the cost down are GREATLY appreciated!

  24. posted by Jennifer on

    When looking at venues for your wedding ask to see their banquet packages — don’t mention that it is a wedding! We didn’t have the longer table cloths, ice sculpture, etc that came with the wedding packages but no one noticed or cared and we saved thousands. Instead of one big cake we had a cake on each table as the center piece. Beautiful and cheaper than one big cake. Also, we didn’t do flowers as we had the cakes which was another huge savings.

  25. posted by Lisa on

    We managed to do our wedding with 165 guests (very large, close families) for under $5000, including the honeymoon. The service and reception were in our church, which is walking distance from my parents’ house. A buffet lunch with salads and a variety of breads and toppings, with punch and pop, was perfect for the hot, humid day (yes, the church was air conditioned!). We asked musician friends to do the music (yes, we paid them, but it was reasonable), a reader’s theatre of the scripture reading, and we commissioned an artist friend to hand wood-stamp our invitations. We still have one framed and hanging on the wall. Our flowers were local, in-season and multi-coloured, put together by an aunt. Mine were in a basket which was easy to put down when I needed both hands. My dress was an ivory cotton brocade, which I have shortened and worn again. I worse a hat, and have used that again as well. My husband borrowed a suit, and the other guys could borrow, wear what they had, or rent: their choice. Our families were our “attendants”, with close friends as witnesses. My sisters and best friend did want to have matching dresses. I picked a few patterns out, and several cotton fabrics that I liked. They all, individually, picked the same pattern and fabric!! And wore those dresses again and again and again.
    We splurged on excellent, although not traditional,cake, which was served for dessert. We also hired a well-recommended photographer, who also did both my sisters’ weddings, and has done some family portraits since then. He has been able to see our famlies grow.
    Our table decorations/favours were little violets in a wicker basket. There are still aunts who point out the “wedding violet”, and offspring plants.
    Our focus was much more on our marriage. We spent weeks writing our vows and ceremony, and had the pastor review it to be sure it wasn’t too … anything… which personally written vows tend to be.
    We love remembering that amazing day. Not much that I would change, and there was so little stress, and no arguing or disagreements with our families. I think advanced planning, good communication with family members, especially parents, contributed to the smooth day. I guess people can’t control who their families are, but the whole process made me realize how blessed I am.

  26. posted by The Elegant Budget Bride - LuxeBudgetBride.com on

    [...] General Tips Budget Bride Tips from Bravo Bride General Tips on How to Plan a Wedding, but Not Go Broke from FrugalBride.com Fabulous $5,000 Weddings from Bridal Guide.com Tie the Knot without Busting your Budget from MSN Ways to Save Money on Your Wedding from About.com Wedding Budget Articles ♥ Wedding Budgets from Squidoo 25 Ways to Save Money from Real Simple 75 Ways to Create a Luxury Wedding on a Budget ♥ 13 Ways to Keep your Wedding as Simple as Possible from zenhabits.net Ten Tips for Planning a Simple Wedding [...]

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