Brides on a Budget

When Deb Lee and Bill Banford got engaged in January, all they knew was that they were in love. They wanted a traditional, beautiful May wedding with all of their friends and family there to celebrate.

They also didn’t want to spend more than $10,000.

“It was a number we thought we could pay back without sacrificing eating out or seeing a movie every now and then,” says Lee, a professional organizer who lives in Upper Marlboro with Banford, a landscaper. “We like to take road trips, and we wanted to be able to still do things and not have our life disrupted by, well, one day. A very important day, but it’s just one day.”

Banford and Lee ended up pushing their wedding date back from May 2009 to May 2010 because of their difficulties finding a venue that would fit their budget.

The couple are among a growing number nationwide who are scaling back their weddings in light of the economic downturn. As many as 75 percent of couples this year are expected to cut costs on their big day, according to a recent survey by David’s Bridal.

Saving money on weddings can be difficult, given the sometimes extravagant nature of the bridal industry. The average cost of a wedding in 2008 was $29,334, up by 5.2 percent from the year before, according to The Knot’s annual survey of more than 18,000 couples. The average cost spent on a reception venue was $13,667, up by 7.4 percent from the year before.

“It can be done, but brides have to put down the magazines and turn off the TV and get in tune with what is truly most important to them,” says local wedding planner Vicky Johnson.

Lee and Banford are in talks with a venue right now, and they hope they’ll get it nailed down soon so they can plan the rest of their ceremony.

“I’ve gone to a few bridal shows, but right now I feel like I’m pretending,” Lee says. “It’ll feel more real to me once we get this venue. On the other hand, I think there’s a conversation every day about eloping. We joke about it.”

If they don’t elope, they expect to have a big wedding—both have large extended families, and Banford is the type of person who has maintained his friendships from kindergarten, Lee says.

“My first thought was to elope and do a destination wedding,” Lee says. “He was like, ‘No, no, no, no. I’ve been to a lot of weddings, and I want everybody that we know and love to be there.’ I don’t know, I must have caught his bug, because then I thought I wanted to do this. We weren’t talking about it in terms of money back then. It was more emotional and less practical. We thought, ‘We’re in love, and we’re going to do this.’ ”

Here are other stories from Washington couples who have or are planning to have their perfect wedding day—while reigning in costs.

Erica Nielsen and Craig Conrad
Wedding date: September 18, 2009.
Estimated budget: $10,000.
Location: Outer Banks, North Carolina.
Their story: The couple, who live in Reston, got engaged last November. Right away they knew they wanted a beach wedding outside of Washington. They also knew they didn’t want a costly wedding.

“We’re paying for 90 percent of the wedding ourselves,” says Nielsen, a senior human-resources generalist who works in Dulles. “We firmly believe that we don’t want to go into debt for a wedding, so we don’t want to put much on our credit cards. We have a joint account that we’re both putting money into.”

Why it works: Nielsen and Conrad, a recruiting manager who works in the Tysons area, are planning a small wedding, with no more than 75 to 80 people, which will save them money on catering costs, Nielsen says. The wedding party will include only Conrad’s father as best man and Nielsen’s sister Maria Cooke, a local wedding planner, as her matron of honor, to cut costs on bridal-party gifts.

The wedding will also be very family-oriented: Along with Nielsen’s sister, who has been helping with the planning, most of their families will be involved in the wedding in some way. One of Conrad’s sisters, a photographer, will be taking photos and Nielsen’s stepmother, an artist, will work on the flowers. Instead of a cake, several members of both of their families will bake a variety of desserts.

“It really does help make people feel more connected, and it gets more people involved,” Nielsen says. Her large family includes her sister, two married stepbrothers, her mother, her stepmother, and family friends whom she considers her aunts.

Conrad’s family includes two sisters, a stepsister, his mother, and his stepmother.
“Everyone wants to do their part,” Nielsen says. “We’re definitely blessed in that area.”

Amanda Henderson Carroll and Akeem Carroll
Wedding date: January 10, 2009.
Estimated cost: $5,000.
Location: US Navy Memorial Museum in DC.
Their story: The couple, who are from Detroit, considered having their wedding in Michigan to be closer to family and friends. They didn’t entertain the thought for long.

“We struggled with that,” says Amanda, who recently graduated from Howard University and works in the government, as does her husband. “It would’ve been logical to have it in Michigan. But then we thought, why move backward? This was our wedding, this was about us, and this was where our life was.”

As it turned out, a wedding in the District probably saved them thousands of dollars. Destination weddings are an effective way to cut down a guest list, and while the Carrolls technically didn’t have an out-of-town ceremony, it was far enough away from loved ones that their list shrank enormously.

“If we had the wedding in Detroit, I’m telling you, there would have been like 600 people,” Amanda says. “Our goal was not to eliminate people, but I can’t imagine what our wedding would have looked like.”
Why it worked: The 125-guest wedding took place at a unique, elegant, and budget-friendly, location: the US Navy Memorial Museum.

“You have to do some nontraditional research for your venue,” says Vicky Johnson, who served as the Carroll’s day-of coordinator (a less costly alternative to hiring the full services of a wedding planner). “Amanda was reasonable. She wanted to be married in DC, but that was really her only request. She also was willing to have a January wedding. Getting married was more important to her than getting married in the sunshine.”

The Carrolls, who paid for the wedding themselves, chose a few things to splurge on, such as getting the dress Amanda wanted and hiring a nice photographer. But on things such as invitations and the venue, they researched until they found deals they were comfortable with. Amanda realized that her job offered a deal to get 40 percent off wedding invitations, and they managed to find the perfect location that would reflect their level of sophistication but that didn’t break the bank, she says.

“I know a lot of people who are still paying for weddings they had five years ago,” Amanda says. “We have better things to put our money toward. I don’t want to look back in ten years and think about the per-head count. The purpose of a wedding is to marry who you want to marry.”

Tips on saving money for your wedding from wedding planner Vicky Johnson of the blog DC Nearlyweds:

• Collaborate with other brides. “Split the cost of flowers with brides getting married the same day,” Johnson says. “Or if you want to spend a lot of money on flowers during your ceremony, talk with florists to make sure the same flowers can be used during the reception.”

• Be open to creative caterers: “The rule of thumb is that seafood is more expensive than beef, which is more expensive than chicken, which is more expensive than vegetarian. Be open to other options. Of course, keeping the number of guests down is the easiest way to save money.”

• Keep down the cost of alcohol: “Think about what’s important to you. Maybe skip the alcohol or use house liquors instead of name brands. Or, say you really like Grey Goose vodka—substitute the house brand of vodka with the name brand, and keep all the other house brands. That way you can have your favorite drink, really great martinis, and they probably won’t charge you extra for the one name brand.”

• Negotiate, be specific, but be reasonable: “The best thing to do to cut costs is to ask, ‘Can we do this for a better price?’ But be specific. I have so many brides who want to slash half off their price for a venue. You have to be reasonable. Ask for complimentary valet parking if that’s important to you. Ask them to cut out things that don’t matter to you—like maybe you don’t need ivory-colored seat covers. Have a clear idea of what you want and what’s important to you.”

For more tips on throwing a budget wedding, check out the Frisky’s Tips From a Recessionista.

Got any more ideas for saving money for your wedding? Post them below!