How Much Should We Budget for Our Wedding?

The gorgeous dress, the blooming bouquets, the first dance, the “I Do”s … when couples dream of their wedding day, they envision all the beauty and happiness their hearts can handle. What can bring them back to reality? The cold, hard foundation of event planning: the budget.

Weddings are notoriously expensive, for various reasons (some fair, some quite the opposite). As for budget, well, even the word is ugly. But the wedding budget is the most important governing document, and creating and maintaining the budget is a primary task of planning a wedding.   

Creating the wedding budget can be difficult. Couples traditionally receive money from their families; increasingly they are footing their own bills. Regardless, many couples still do not know how much they have to spend, and have even less of an idea of what the wedding might cost. In this case, the total budget has to be calculated backwards by estimating or pricing the wedding expenses and then totaling those costs. Once the big picture is established, it is easy to trim the budget and manage expenses – and when it comes to savings, the target is on the biggest ticket items.

An excellent way to begin the budget process is to ask a simple question: what matters most? Another way to ask is: what do you think makes for a great party? Perhaps it is food, perhaps drinks. Maybe the couple is passionate about live music; maybe they just want to dance all night in a club-like scene. Atmosphere, flowers, gorgeous attire, decorations: each item has a price. Unless their funds are truly limitless, every couple will face hard choices about what they can and cannot afford, so it’s vital to establish priorities at the outset.  

The most surprising budget item for most couples is the staggering expense of the venue and the catering. As with any party, it simply costs a lot of money to feed and provide drinks for a lot of people – a cost which accounts for approximately 40-50% of the overall budget. Nearly half! Of the average wedding cost of about $30,000, approximately $12,000 - $15,000 is for catering alone. While catering costs vary across the country, they can easily reach $150 or more per person in major cities.

Despite the large cost, brides and grooms should not make the mistake of skimping too much on the catering budget. Guests expect food at the reception, particularly at an evening reception when a full dinner must be served. How can the catering costs be efficiently pruned? One way is to reconsider cocktail hour. Passed hors d’oeuvres can be expensive, so many caterers offer alternatives such as unmanned stations. Beer and wine in lieu of a full bar (never a cash bar if it’s avoidable) is perfectly acceptable and can save a bundle. Offering fewer entrée choices also cuts costs, as the caterer has fewer dishes to make and ingredients to purchase.

If the budget needs to be cut drastically, couples should consider the timing of the ceremony and reception. A mid-day event allows for a lighter meal at considerably lower costs, particularly if the venue or caterer can do another event in the evening. Even larger savings are possible if the wedding is on a Friday, Sunday, or weekday instead of a Saturday. In fact, couples who opt for a non-Saturday wedding will enjoy cheaper costs all around. Finally, the simplest way to cut catering costs is also the hardest: cut the guest list. At $100 a head, cutting just ten guests saves $1,000.00.

The venue or location of the reception is another potentially large expense. If the venue provides catering then the rental cost of the space is often included in the package, with little way to get around it. If the venue rental is separate, it is vital to review what is included in the cost. Simple logistics can render a dream location into a very expensive nightmare. Chairs, tables, tenting, power, additional restrooms, transportation, and so forth – these and several other costs depend entirely on the venue.

Décor, and especially flowers, is another big ticket item of any wedding. With their inherent connotations of beauty and romance, flowers are de rigueur at most weddings and – like catering for a large party – something that most couples never deal with in their regular lives.

Ways to save money on wedding flowers? Be flexible. In-season, local blooms are significantly less expensive because they don't have the added cost of shipping and special care. In fact, the difference between the cost of in-season flowers and the alternative is so significant that if flowers are truly important to the couple, then they should consider that when they select their wedding date. It's not a fluke that so many weddings are in May and June when flower season is at its most varied and robust (of course the wedding industry has caught on, and early summer is now the most expensive time of year to be married).

Other ways to save? Use a good florist who sticks within a budget and can advise on the best blooms and quantities needed. Finally, the couple should consider which flowers matter most to them. The bouquet is often a keepsake, but what about the centerpieces? Most of those end up in the trash by the next day.

For décor bang for your buck, few things have as much impact as lighting. Surprised? Don’t be. Special lighting – whether it is colored washes on the walls or simple string lights and candles – entirely transforms a space and instantly creates a mood.  Dramatic lighting also minimizes the need for other big décor elements. Single flowers in bud vases and votive candles on the table are plenty in a room filled with colorful paper Chinese lanterns.  

Many couples will try to save money by having friends or family perform services in lieu of professional vendors. This can be fine – as long as the friend or family member has some equivalent experience and is reliable. An aunt who loves to bake may not be up to the task of creating a three tier, intricately decorated cake, especially under the time constraints required by a wedding. Etiquette and family politics can be complicated, but couples must make the choice based on what matters to them. If Auntie wants to make the cake and the bride and groom don’t care about the cake (and could stomach disaster), then why not?  

There are a handful of other vendors where skimping is ill-advised, such as the photographer. Wedding photography can be expensive, but most couples agree that the expense is beyond worthwhile. The photographer is creating the best record of the event – one that will last well beyond the fading of the memories – and there is NO chance to recapture those moments. It's a very bad idea to ask a guest to act as photographer, even if they offer or have some talent. Not only would they rather be celebrating, but they cannot be truly objective about who or what they photograph. Professional photographers understand budgets and typically offer different packages and price points; it's worth negotiating with a photographer rather than deciding the pictures can be handled by your cousin Louise.

Catering, location, décor, and photography are some of the biggest expenses of any wedding budget, but they can be managed. Couples must start the budget process with a clear understanding of what truly matters to them to make a special and memorable day, and keep this focus in mind. Armed with those priorities and a little creativity, the budget process can be easy. And the wedding? Perfectly well-priced.


This article was reprinted with the permission of the Sheffield School. Are you interested in planning weddings and advising brides on their wedding budgets? The Sheffield Wedding & Event Planning course teaches everything you need to know to orchestrate a memorable event, from creating a guest list to hiring vendors to creating a beautiful wedding design.

Jay JohnsonComment