Your budget is the most important element in your planning, setting the stage for every other decision you make. So it pays to set a firm number right away -- and to stick to it, even when that entails making difficult decisions.
Who's going to pay? How much can you comfortably afford? What are you going to shell out the big bucks for? How are you going to spend wisely?
Breaking Down the Budget
Whether you're throwing a celebration that's bare-bones or blowout, here's how Washington, D.C.-area planner Carol Marino, of A Perfect Wedding in Fairfax, Virginia, suggests divvying up your budget. Just remember to include sales tax in your calculations.
Reception: 40 to 50 percent
Flowers: 10 percent
Photography and Videography: 10 percent
Bride's and Groom's Attire: 5 to 10 percent
Music: 5 to 10 percent
Planner or Coordinator: 10 to 15 percent
Miscellaneous (Invitations, Officiant, Favors, Etc.): 10 percent
Cushion: 5 to 15 percent
Five Budget No-Nos
1. Never -- and we mean never -- go into debt to pay for a wedding. Consider having an intimate gathering and putting off the big reception for a year or two so you can save up for it.
2. Don't put your wedding bills on plastic unless you can pay off the balance in full as soon as you get each statement. Credit-card interest rates and finance charges can add hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dollars to your bill -- even if you carry a balance for only a month or two.
3. Don't agree to any upgrades (colored table linens, fancy chair covers) without first asking if they cost extra.
4. Don't spend more than you'd anticipated in one area unless you can cut back by that amount in another area.
5. Don't budget for fewer guests than you invited. It's better to overestimate.
Five Ways to Save Money
1. Pare your guest list. It's the best way to trim costs across the board. If you're having a $100-a-head reception and you invite 25 fewer guests, you'll instantly save $2,500. For help deciding who should stay and who should go, follow Marino's rule of thumb: "Invite only the people you think you will know and be friends with in five years."
2. Take the show on the road. You're from a big urban metropolis; your fiance is from a small city or town. As long as it doesn't unduly inconvenience any one side of the family, consider having the wedding in the smaller city. Weddings in Portland, Oregon, for example, average about $25,000 -- about half the price of a San Francisco shindig.
3. Hire a planner. Here's a case where it might pay to spend a tad more money. A well-connected insider can often get discounts by negotiating with vendors. At the very least, the cash you save may well pay for her fee. Just be up-front about how much you can afford before enlisting a planner.
4. Trim a bit here, a bit there. A little scrimping across the board can add up to big savings overall. Besides, your guests likely won't notice -- or care -- if you skip the printed programs, shorten the cocktail hour by 15 minutes, or forgo elaborate altar decorations.
5. Seek out unexpected sources. If you are very close to family members outside your immediate family, you may be able to ask for their help. Your grandmother, for instance, might be willing to pay for your wedding cake or your gown in lieu of a wedding gift. "Don't put anyone on the spot," says Marino, "but do get creative."
To arrive at a realistic budget, start by researching the price of weddings in your specific area. The U.S. average is almost $29,000, according to the Wedding Report, a bridal-industry market-research firm. But that number can be misleading because the average varies wildly across the country -- from around $20,000 in Little Rock, Arkansas, for example, to $75,000-plus in the ritzy suburbs of Chicago.
At the Wedding Report's sister site, costofwedding.com, you can enter your ZIP code and get a snapshot of costs in your area. (If the average is beyond your means, don't fret -- there are plenty of ways to have a beautiful celebration on a super-tight budget.)
If you have your heart set on a specific site, florist, or band, call that vendor to get a sense of their fees. During this preliminary planning stage, you'll also need a ballpark figure for the number of guests you'd like to invite. "How big the wedding is going to be, the style -- formal or informal -- that's the initial discussion," says Alan Fields, coauthor of "Bridal Bargains: Secrets to Throwing a Fantastic Wedding on a Realistic Budget" (Windsor Peak Press; 2006). All this early deliberation and fact-finding will give you a more accurate estimate of how much your fantasy wedding will cost you.
Armed with this information, it's time for you and your fiance to have an open, honest, respectful talk about how much you can actually afford. Whether to include others in this conversation depends on who will be contributing to the wedding. Though more and more couples are paying their own way, experts say, it's still common for the bride's and groom's parents to take care of at least some of the expenses. If your families are willing to open their checkbooks, it's crucial to get their input up front
And, of course, if you are not footing the bill, do be ever-mindful of your hosts' limits and gracious about their choices. When Los Angeles writer Megan Johnson's parents offered to cover her March 2008 wedding, "I didn't make any decision without clearing it with them first and suggesting other options," she says. "And every day, I thanked them." She knew her parents' financial involvement made their desires every bit as important as hers and her fiance's. "I really did feel that it was their party as much as, if not more than, mine," she says.
Once you've settled on a hard number, the next step is setting your top priorities. "The first thing I ask my clients is, "What's most important to you?" says Marino. Perhaps it's a gourmet dinner, a breathtaking location, or mind-blowing live music. "If you can determine that," she says, "it tells you where you should put most of your budget." Keep in mind that you and your groom may not agree on what's most important, so you'll both need to come to an understanding.
You also may find, as couples often do, that your dreams may be far bigger than your pocketbook, and you'll need to ratchet back your expectations. But, though it's always tough to realize you can't have everything, "there are all kinds of creative ways of saving money that don't look like you're saving money," Fields says. Some of them are sneaky and simple, like cutting down on the number of tables at your reception, which translates in-to fewer expensive centerpieces. Some of them aren't quite so pain-free.
"There are also hard choices to be made," Fields says. For instance, if, after negotiating and bribing and debating, you still can't whittle your guest count to under 200, you may have to resort to serving chicken instead of filet mignon. If you want a live band -- and not just any ensemble, but a 20-piece big band -- you may have to scale back their play time. Making concessions is to be expected, but be sure to keep the elements of your wedding at a similar-looking level of luxury and formality.
Remaining within your budget also means staying organized. Track your expenditures by saving receipts and recording your spending in a notebook or on a spreadsheet. (The interactive budget planner on our website, shown at left, will help you get a handle on your finances.) File copies of every vendor estimate in a folder so you can refer to them if need be. And remember to keep a cool head and just say no to things you can't afford.
But no matter how vigilant you are, there will still be unexpected costs. Experts recommend adding into your budget a cushion of 5 percent to 15 percent to cover such surprises. And always include the sales tax as well, which, in some states, is close to 10 percent.
Above all, stay flexible. "Budgeting is about compromise," Marino says. Just like any good marriage.
Take a tour of our wedding planning and budgeting tools.