Now, I realize there are those who would argue, "But it's not just a dress; it's your wedding dress! This is a day you're going to remember for the rest of your life! Surely those precious memories are worth spending any amount of money on!" And I might actually be willing to consider that argument—not necessarily to buy into it, mind you, but at least to consider it—if there were any evidence that costlier weddings actually lead to happier marriages. But in fact, studies seem to suggest that the opposite is true. For instance, a 2014 study by two economists at Emory University found that:
- Men who spent between $2,000 and $4,000 on an engagement ring were 30 percent more likely to end up divorced than those who spend between $500 and $2,000. (Rings cheaper than $500 were also associated with a higher divorce rate, but that could be because people with much cheaper rings were more likely to have low incomes, which are also linked to higher divorce rates. The study doesn't look at people like us, who didn't get a ring at all, so we have no way to know whether my refusal to wear a ring during our engagement made our chances of a successful marriage better or worse.)
- Couples who spent $20,000 or more on their nuptials were 46 percent more likely to end up divorced than those who spent between $5,000 and $10,000. In this case, the benefits of frugality apply all along the scale; couples whose weddings cost under $1,000 reduced their risk of divorce by 53 percent. (A recent story at NJ.com shows what happens when you take this case to extremes: a couple who had already spent $325,000 on their wedding never even made it to the vows, calling off the wedding after a fistfight broke out at the rehearsal dinner. The bride's brother is now suing the groom's brother for throwing the first punch, and the groom is suing the bride for the return of the $125,800 engagement ring.)
- Although spending more money increases the risk of divorce, inviting more guests actually lowers it. For instance, those who had between 50 and 100 people present to witness their vows were 69 percent less likely to divorce than those who stood in front of the altar (or the justice of the peace) all by themselves. Those who invited 200 people or more lowered their risk of divorce by 92 percent. Most likely, this is because couples who invite more guests have bigger social networks to support them when times get tough.
The Penny-Pinching Hedonist Wedding
I'll start off with the 1983 wedding of Shel Horowitz, the "penny-pinching hedonist," who blogs at FrugalFun.com. In a lot of ways, his wedding was very similar to mine. He and his wife married in a local park—just like me and Brian—and had all their floral arrangements provided by Mother Nature. They then adjourned to a synagogue social hall and served their 130 guests a catered dinner—"hors d'oeuvres before the ceremony, table decorations, three vegetarian main dishes, salads, and a great tasting chocolate-orange wedding cake"—for $11 a head. (Coincidentally, this is roughly the same amount we paid our caterer in 2004, but that was for lunch, not dinner.) Again, just like me and Brian, he had a friend take professional-quality pictures for a token fee ($50 plus the cost of the film) and another friend record the ceremony on audio tape (video being still in the future). And, like us, they splurged on a calligrapher for the wedding certificate, which was signed by all their guests. The only major expense they had that we didn't was $250 for a Klezmer band. The total for the wedding came to roughly $3,000—which works out to $7,314 in today's dollars. That's on the high-end for a frugal wedding, but on the other hand, they hosted 130 people for that amount—which, if the Emory study is to be believed, was probably a good omen for their future happiness.
The $4000 Backyard Wedding
Next up is my favorite blogger couple, John and Sherry Petersik of Young House Love, who have featured in so many of my budget decor posts. Their wedding, like their remodels, was a fun, casual affair that managed to be elegant and quirky at the same time. They hosted it themselves in their backyard, investing some of the money that would otherwise have gone toward a wedding venue to repave their "old jagged patio" and "treacherous gravel driveway" to create a nice, even surface for entertaining. Their 75 guests sat on folding chairs for the ceremony, then enjoyed a home-cooked backyard picnic complete with DIY decor. They decked the backyard with long strings of Christmas lights and dressed the tables with white muslin and yellow fabric runners, picked up cheap utensils and glassware from IKEA and Sam's Club, and accessorized with bowls of lemons and limes (much cheaper than flowers) and lots of votive candles. Place cards, favors, serving ware, invitations, and the bridal bouquet were all DIYed. Their one big splurge was a $1,200 photo booth to provide entertainment and souvenirs for the guests. All told, they spent $3,995 in 2007, which adjusts to $4,679 in today's dollars. (Oh, and the bride wore a $190 number from Arden B, which she later dyed so she could wear it to other people's weddings, rather than a $4,000 bridal-salon jobbie that would have doubled the cost of the wedding.)
The At-Home Christmas Wedding
Wendi and Jason Simpson received a "Wedding of the Week" award for their 1996 wedding, which they planned in just eight weeks. They got engaged on Halloween, and since they were already planning a Disneyland vacation at the end of December, they decided to get married right beforehand and make the trip their honeymoon. Naturally, with this accelerated schedule, they had to keep things as simple as possible. They married at Wendi's house, which was already decorated for Christmas, so they didn't need to do any extra decorating. She bought her dress and shoes off the rack and did her own floral arrangements with silk flowers. The groom, after threatening to marry in a T-shirt and shorts, bought a new suit—the single biggest expense, at $500—and the attendants picked out their own clothes. After some dithering, the bride hired a professional photographer, but she was able to barter her services as a website designer for his to keep the cost down. The reception was a dessert-only affair, originally planned for 41 guests but reduced to around 25 by a severe snowstorm; the guests who couldn't make it got a play-by-play of the 5-minute ceremony via IRC. The whole thing, including their silver knot rings, cost $1600, or $2476 in 2017 dollars.
The Renaissance Fantasy Wedding
Vicki Collins married the same year I did, 2004, and her Dollar Stretcher articles about her wedding plans helped convince me that a wedding for under $2,000 was possible. She wanted "an elaborate Renaissance style wedding" with 50 guests, but she aimed to do it on a $1,500 budget. To accomplish this, she sewed her own dress and the clothes for her two daughters, using sale-priced fabric and made-over yard-sale finds, spending about $320 on clothes for the whole family (including a sword for the groom) that could be reused for visits to the Renaissance Faire. She also did her own floral arrangements, using mostly dried flowers and home-grown ivy to save on fresh flowers, and made banners and crests for wall decorations. At the time she wrote the articles, she was choosing among several sites for the ceremony, including a real castle ($325 for the day), a public park with a large pavilion and an outdoor fireplace ($100), and a botanical garden. She hired a pro for photos, but had the music provided by a CD player concealed in a curtained "minstrels' gallery." She planned a period-appropriate menu of roast chicken, turkey legs, roast beef in chunks, bread, cheese, stewed veggies, whole fruit, individual cakes, fruit "grog," and ale; after some initial sticker shock dealing with a regular caterer, she ended up sourcing the meats from a BBQ place, petit fours from a local baker, and the rest of the menu from Sam's Club. I don't know whether she actually kept to her $1,500 budget (which would be $1,928 in today's dollars), but even if she ended up spending as much as $2,500, she still got a lot for her money.
The Community Potluck Wedding
Shel Horowitz, after describing his own relatively inexpensive wedding, goes on to describe an equally memorable wedding on an even smaller budget—probably under $500, or $1,219 in today's dollars. The couple was able to wed on this tight budget by calling on their friends for help with just about everything. They held the wedding in the hall where their dance collective met, donated by the manager for the occasion, and used their dance tapes for music. The food was all potluck, with all the local guests signing up to bring a specific dish for 10 people. The menu included sesame noodles, salads, hummus, and "a wide array of outrageous desserts," and Horowitz confesses it was "the only wedding I've ever been to where the food was even better than at my own wedding." The flowers were all hand-picked wildflowers, the officiant was a family friend, and even the photos were supplied by friends. This bare-bones wedding proved to be "a memorable event that captured the spirit of who they were" as no catering-hall event ever could.
The No-Frills Wedding
The barest-bones budget on the list is the 2011 wedding of Kerry L. Taylor, who blogs as Squawkfox. She spent just $591 total on the event—about $638 in today's money—but she achieved this low, low price by "ruthlessly" cutting the guest list. Because they wanted a "simple, afternoon wedding on the family farm," they refused to invite more people than they could seat at their kitchen table—so they invited only local friends and family members who had invited them over for dinner at least once in the past year. They ended up with a total of eight guests. Taylor tries to make this sound like they were doing all the people they didn't invite a favor, since "out-of-towners will likely have to take time off work and spend some cash to get to your nuptials," but I suspect Miss Manners would see it rather differently. And based on the findings of the Emory economists, whatever benefit the couple gained by spending so little on their wedding is largely offset by having so few people they cared about enough to invite them to attend.
So to be honest, I wouldn't actually recommend this means of cutting wedding costs. With the amount this couple spent on food—less than $5 a head—they could easily have set up a few extra tables in the back yard and invited all the people they care about while still keeping the cost under $1,000. (Unless there really are only eight other people in the world they care about, in which case, well, I wish them good luck, because they'll need it.) I heartily endorse all the other cost-cutting measures they adopted—secondhand wedding attire, digital invites, backyard setting, flowers from Costco, potluck meal, homemade cupcakes, dollar-store accessories, and photos supplied by friends—but I can't get behind the idea that the way to start a happy marriage is to be "ruthless" about excluding friends and family from your happy day. I know what made our wedding day so special was having all our friends and family gathered around, and if we had to spend a whopping $2,700 to achieve that, I think it was well worth it.
These are just a few of the many budget weddings I've seen described online. While researching my own wedding, I came across websites for several others, including a $1,600 wedding put together with the help of friends and family, a $1,400 DIY wedding in Vermont, and a full-out white wedding complete with catered meal, five bridesmaids, champagne toast, the works, for around $2,500. And since then, I've seen many more, which I've filed away for my own amusement and as a store of ideas for any friends and family members who have weddings to plan in the future. So there's lots more where these came from.
If I had to sum up what all of them have in common, I'd say it mostly comes down to three points:
- Think outside the box. Don't assume your wedding needs to include something—whether that's a limo, a bunch of attendants, or even a photographer—just because it's what everyone else has. And likewise, don't assume that if you do want these things, there's only one way to get them. Maybe you can borrow something, or buy secondhand, or make it yourself, or barter for it. Keep your mind open, and leave no option unexplored.
- Do it yourself—or with a little help from your friends. Relying on the wedding industry to arrange your special day is a sure route to big bills, and a good way to end up with a wedding that doesn't reflect your personality at all. Always look first for ways to make or do things yourself, from flowers to invites to food. And don't be afraid to turn to family and friends for help. Don't demand that your photographer uncle take the photos or your baker aunt supply the cake, but don't hesitate to let them know that you would love any help they can offer.
- Most of all, don't lose sight of what the day is really about. The clothes, the flowers, and the food are all just window dressing; the real point is that two people who love each other are committing to make a life together. Keeping the focus firmly on that can help you avoid getting bogged down in all the details.