A few weeks ago, I got married in rural Wisconsin, in the backyard of the house in which my wife grew up. The following morning, after the parties had ended and the out-of-towners had left, I found myself taking a walk through the quiet streets of the town, past endless corn fields and quaint red farmhouses. I stopped at one point and looked out over the landscape of rolling hills and lush greenery, and I noticed the home of my new in-laws peeking out in the distance. I was moved to tears.
Not just because that was the house where I formed a sacred bond with the love of my life, but because I had a moment to reflect on the whole process, and all that brought it into existence. I was proud of the work my wife and I put in, for sure, but much moreso for our families and friends, whose tireless effort made it all happen. Without them, there is no way we could have had such a wonderful party with so many people for such an affordable price.
But, of course, there were some bumps along the way, some unexpected costs, and a desperate attempt to find a new pair of shoelaces minutes before the ceremony. Here’s how it all played out.
I can wax poetic about the twinkle in my wife’s eye while walking down the aisle, or the beauty of seeing our families meet for the first time, or the heartwarming toasts, but, let’s be real — those would all be just a smidge less satisfying if the party was costing us more than a year in rent (remember, the average wedding in the U.S. now costs over $35,000).
All those moments were enjoyed guilt-free because we miraculously came in just barely over our $2,500 budget. Here is the rough breakdown of how we got to our final number of $2,950:
We had generous support in this area. It’s hard to feed 140 people. One uncle’s employer ended up footing the cost of a massive cheeseboard (Wisconsin advantage!) and another bargained with a local butcher to get our meat at a steep discount. My wife also had a restaurant connection, which allowed us to purchase smaller ticket items at discounted prices.
- Total: $1,100
We only provided beer and wine. My mother-in-law spent eight months finding insane deals and stockpiling the goods in her basement.
- Total: $750
Since my in-laws’ house is in a fairly remote area, accommodations for out-of-town guests were about 15 miles from the party. We wanted to provide transportation to ensure all of our guests were safe in an area they were unfamiliar with.
- Total: $400
Decorations and Tents
There was a huge DIY aspect here, and we borrowed a tent from a member of the extended family.
- Total: $300
It was a casual wedding, but we both still wanted to look sharp. I purchased a new button shirt and slacks, and my wife bought a casual dress. The good thing is that these are staple clothes that we can use for years to come.
Catering, Setup, and Cleanup
Family and friends pitched in for all of this.
- Total: $0.00
The Community to the Rescue
You probably noticed a trend in the way we were able to keep our spending down. We had family and friends working tirelessly for us. It seemed like every time we hit a roadblock, there was someone from the local community helping us to find a solution. We didn’t get huge monetary gifts from anyone, but many people were beyond generous with their time and resources. We wouldn’t have had it any other way.
My wife grew up in a small, tightly knit community. And she has a lot of family and friends who still live there. As word got out about the type of wedding we were planning, we pretty much couldn’t stop people from helping. Saying no would have been foolish, and probably even offensive. Someone they loved was getting married, it was happening right around the corner from them, and they were going to pitch in whether we liked it or not.
Amazingly, none of this came with strings attached. There was no Aunt Linda demanding that she be able to give a 15-minute toast if she was going to help us string lights in the garage. Everything was done with a smile.
Instead of shelling out $400 for a second shuttle, we limited ourselves to one, and leaned on some aunts and uncles to pick up out-of-towners on their way to the party. Instead of hiring a catering crew, my brother-in-law painstakingly planned out every detail and recruited help from family and friends the morning of to get all the food in order.
Most amazingly, the cleanup crew was whoever was left at the end of the night. As the music died down, people naturally started to gather trash and clean off the tables. Chairs were rearranged and tables were stacked. It was like the college frat parties I used to go to, except the exact opposite.
I understand that, in some ways, I’m saying, “Rely on the support of an amazing family and community and you can have a cheap wedding!” That is not helpful advice. Some people are not lucky enough to have those advantages. But if you are doing a DIY wedding, and you are in any way tied into the community in which it is being thrown, I would just say to not be afraid to ask for help. You’d be surprised at just how generous people will be with their time.
The Planning Fallacy Strikes Back
In the previous installment of this series, I was discussing the planning fallacy, and how it had impacted wedding preparations for my wife and me. As a quick refresher, the planning fallacy refers to the fact that many things, from construction projects to getting ready in the morning, tend to take longer than people think they will.
Originally, tasks were taking a lot longer than I had anticipated, and I was determined to plan accordingly going forward. Essentially, that meant doubling the expected time I originally thought things would take. If we were going to pull off a frugal backyard wedding, we were going to have to put in a lot of sweat equity and block out extra time for even small tasks.
Unfortunately, I am proving to be pretty poor at combatting the planning fallacy. Despite knowing about it, despite bringing it up in talks with my wife, despite writing a whole article about it… I got bit by it.
There was no cataclysm, but the few days leading up to the wedding were a stressful whirlwind. I know, I know, that’s how everyone feels, but I think I was particularly slammed. Time was flying by so fast I got whiplash. One day I’m power washing the deck, the next I’m scrambling to the mall because it’s a day before the party and I don’t even have my outfit picked out.
If we had set aside a few more days for preparation, things could have run much more smoothly. Leading up to the wedding, people would tell me to take the amount of money I thought I was going to spend and triple it. “That’s what always happens,” they’d tell me. While we avoided that fate, I would give similar advice to the newly engaged, especially those who are not hiring a wedding planner: “Take the amount of time you think things will take, and triple it.” That might seem extreme, but it would have greatly reduced my stress if I just accepted the fact that things would take a whole lot longer than I realized.
I started this series in order to showcase our frugality. I wanted to show how my wife and I would optimize every aspect of the big day, finding unique and clever ways to save money while still having the party of our lives. That is still part of the intent, and I’m proud of what we accomplished in that regard. My wife was a DIY superstar, and we both worked hard on everything from creating labels for the buffet to setting up tents.
Most importantly, after seeing how it all came into being, I’ve seen that there is no “hack” that tops having family and community support, and building strong social ties. Despite a mad rush to get everything set up, and a passing rain cloud surprisingly dumping some water on our outdoor ceremony, the day was a total success. Coming in under budget, and having some leftovers to take home, was icing on the cake.