About a week ago, I was invited to respond to a questionnaire from American Public Media (you know, the folks who sponsor "Marketplace" and "A Prairie Home Companion") on the topic, "How much is too much to spend on a wedding?" I was delighted to have a chance to respond to this, because I've often thought that it was the experience of planning our wedding (nearly eight years ago now, yikes) that really got me into the whole concept of ecofrugality.
It really started with the rings; even before we officially became engaged, I had already decided that I didn’t want to buy new gold wedding rings because of the environmental impact of gold mining. And this decision was only reinforced by a copy I found online of a "Millennium Report" on wedding costs by Bride's magazine, which revealed that the average couple in 2000 had spent about a thousand dollars on the wedding bands—not counting the engagement ring, which usually weighed in at close to $3,000 all by itself. “Good grief,” I thought, “wouldn’t it make more sense for most couples to put that $4,000 toward the down payment on a house?”And so I began searching for sources of secondhand rings, and I eventually ended up buying a simple pair of white-gold bands on eBay. We got them resized by a local jeweler, and the total cost came to just under $100.
After that, I was off and running, determined to make every aspect of our wedding as frugal and green as this initial purchase. My goal was to avoid all the waste associated with the typical American wedding—or at least, the typical American idea of what a wedding should be. At least a month's salary for an engagement ring? A grand for the bride's dress? Upwards of $750 for flowers? Fuhgeddaboutit! In fact, seeing that I'd managed to buy the wedding bands for about one-tenth of what the average Bride's reader spent for hers, I decided that my goal would be to do the entire wedding for $2,000—roughly one-tenth of what the survey listed as the average cost of a wedding. I may as well admit right now that I did not meet this goal—in fact, I went over budget by about 35 percent. But the great thing about having a $2,000 budget to start with is that exceeding it by 35 percent means you only overspent by hundreds, not thousands. And simply having this goal, even if it turned out to be unrealistic, forced me to think much more creatively about the whole process. In the end, it helped us end up with a wedding that was (I think) much more beautiful, personal, and meaningful for both of us than yet another mass-produced white-satin-and-champagne extravaganza.
Here's a partial list of the decisions we made about our wedding, and what made them frugal and (in some cases) green:
- The invitations. According to the Bride's survey, the average couple in 2000 spent about $325 on invitations, announcements, thank-you notes, and so on. Some sources suggested sending out an e-invite as a way of cutting costs, but although I had to admit this was a green choice (hey, save a tree!), it just didn't feel right. A formal occasion deserves a formal invitation, I reasoned, and our society in 2004 still had not really reached the point at which any correspondence sent electronically could be considered formal. So we went instead with the second-cheapest method and printed out our own invites on our home computer. We picked up a set of cards and envelopes for 20 bucks at Staples, and the cost of the ink, since we refill our printer cartridges, was trivial. We didn't bother with special wedding-themed stationery for our thank-you notes but just used note cards we already had. The cost for everything, including postage, was just under $60.
- The location. We got married in a state park, in a private picnic grove that we reserved for $50. (We did spend an extra $130 to cover parking costs so our guests wouldn't be charged admission to the park.) The only shelter was a covered pavilion, and our only backup plan for rain was to buy some drop cloths to cover the sides of the pavilion and some bricks to hold them in place. Luckily, we didn't have to deploy them, or it would have been a pretty tight squeeze to hold the reception in there. Instead, we were able to eat at the picnic tables scattered around the grove, which we covered with disposable dollar-store tablecloths (admittedly not the greenest choice, but buying proper tablecloths, even secondhand, would have been prohibitively expensive).
- The attire. Our wedding ceremony was "after the manner of Friends" (which means "Quaker style"), so we didn't have a wedding party to outfit. Brian wore his "good suit" that he bought when he finished grad school; I bought a Renaissance-style bodice from a vendor on eBay, and my mother-in-law-elect made a simple A-line skirt to go with it. Both pieces are still hanging in my closet, and while I must confess I haven't yet had had another occasion to wear the skirt (though I've thought of dyeing it for future use), I habitually wear the bodice—usually paired with blue jeans—on my anniversary. Oh, and instead of a veil or headpiece—an item on which Bride's readers spent $166 on average—I wore a wreath of ivy, dried flowers, and ribbon that cost about $5 altogether. (I've still got the rest of the floral wire stowed away somewhere...)
- The flowers. I was especially proud of these. I've never been all that crazy about cut flowers anyway (a flower that's been cut is no longer growing, and what kind of symbol is that for a new marriage?), so I took a risk and waited until the Friday before the wedding to pick up live plants at my local farmer's market. One vendor had double impatiens that looked like miniature rosebushes, and I bought up every pot they had, at $1 a pot (!). Most of them became centerpieces for the tables, but some got repotted in larger containers to flank the entrances to the pavilion. After the wedding, we invited our guests to take them home, so none of them went to waste. So our flowers were locally grown and still growing—what could be greener than that?
- The food. We did, after some debate, decide to hire a caterer. A potluck was impractical because so many of our guests were coming from out of town, and doing it all ourselves would have been too stressful. But because we had an afternoon wedding, we could opt for a lighter meal—sandwiches (including vegetarian options), fruit, cheese, cake, punch, and coffee/tea. (No alcohol was permitted in the park, which made that money-saving decision an easy call.) It was our largest expense, but well worth it, especially the cake (which was, if I do say so, the most delicious cake I've ever had at a wedding or anywhere else. We now go back to the same bakery and get that same cake every year on our anniversary.) And we sent the leftovers home with friends, so nothing went to waste.
- The photos. We just got lucky with this one; some dear friends of ours—in fact, the very couple who introduced us—happened to have a side business doing wedding photos and provided ours at cost as a wedding present to us. But if that hadn't been an option, we'd probably just have asked our families to supply us with copies of any snaps they happened to take and satisfied ourselves with that. It's not as if we need a photographic record to remember the day.
- The stuff we didn't have. According to the Bride's survey, most couples in 2000 spent $393 on a limo; we drove to the park in our own car. They spent $830 on music at the ceremony and reception; we invited our musician friends to bring their instruments and jam. They spent over $3,000 on an engagement ring; we followed the Elizabethan tradition of wearing the wedding rings on our right hands during our engagement and then switching hands.
I provided the highlights of the list above in my response to the APM survey, and I was pleased to see that they chose to include my story (or at least a portion of it) on their website. (I was less pleased, however, to see that my description of our Quaker-style wedding was mistranscribed as "after the manner of 'Friends'," which makes it sound like we based our ceremony on the popular TV show.) The other responses on the site are interesting; they run the gamut from couples whose own wedding cost less than ours (though maybe not after adjusting for inflation) to a Utah bride-to-be who's hoping to keep her wedding costs down to $17,000 (and rejoicing that she's not holding the event in Washington, DC, where she used to live, and where she says hair and makeup alone can easily cost $400).