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How To Plan a Frugal (Not Cheap) Wedding for Less Than $4,000
The average wedding and reception in 2019 (the most recent pre-COVID year for which data is available) was $28,000, according to The Knot Real Weddings Study. Given that the median American household income charts in around $69,000, (according to the Census Bureau), that means the average wedding devours nearly half a year’s worth of income.
Many people dream of a beautiful, unforgettable wedding, but not many long for the financial aftermath. The best solution is to take a serious look at all of the expenses involved with a wedding and find realistic, frugal ways to cut back on the expense without tinkering with the magic or the memories. The strategies below can collectively shave away 10s of thousands of dollars from the budget of an average wedding.
According to our calculations, a typical American wedding comes to about $28.5k, which we detail below. By paring down here and there, we got it down to $3,950, if you go with a guest list of 50. (The Knot Real Study says the typical wedding has 131 guests.) If you follow all of our ideas, you’ll reach under $4k in your final tally.
Different people look for different things in their wedding, so go through the list below and choose the ideas that work for you.
17 steps for a frugal (not cheap) wedding on a budget
Start planning early
The more time you give yourself to plan, the easier it becomes to identify bargains and help make them into a reality. Since so many wedding features are expensive, investing more time yourself can cut those costs down quickly.
Strategy: Give yourself an extra few months between the start of planning and the event
Savings: $0 directly, but it gives you time to implement the strategies below
Choose a location near your guests
Choose a location for your wedding that’s close to the largest number of your guests. While this won’t directly save you money, it will make the next tip much more likely to succeed.
Strategy: Choose a location that’s very convenient for most of the guests
Savings: $0 directly, but it enables some of the strategies below
Ask for wedding help instead of wedding gifts
Talk to some of the friends and family you’re inviting to the wedding and ask them if they would be willing to provide help at the wedding in lieu of a gift. This is particularly true if you have someone on the guest list with a particular talent.
Guests for your wedding might be able to help with photography, provide emcee services, tend the bar at the reception, or perform any of the other endless tasks that a wedding entails. While some guests may prefer not to do this, others will relish the chance.
Many of the roles at our own wedding were provided by family and friends. From our perspective, we felt that everything would be much more meaningful if people we loved were actually involved with the ceremony in some way, and many of them jumped at the chance. Some of them provided supplies as their wedding gift, while others provided discounts.
Getting even a little help can easily shave 5% off of the total cost of the wedding.
Strategy: Ask family and friends for assistance at the ceremony in lieu of gifts
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Hold the ceremony at home or outdoors
According to The Knot, the average wedding venue costs $10,500, adding up to around a third of the total cost of the big day. While trimming the guest list can certainly help reduce this cost, another approach is to think outside the box with your venue.
You might consider hosting the wedding at someone’s home, particularly if they have a nice yard or plenty of space. If your guest list is small, that’s much more feasible.
Strategy: Have the wedding and reception at a friend or family member’s property
Another approach is to see if you can use a public park for the wedding and utilize any structures the parks and recreation department may have for a reception. Many such departments have nice older houses near parks that can be used for events like this. Contacting local parks services in my area found that such venues were available with a range of $1,000 to $4,000, though there would be some additional costs to help set up some services. While there will still be a notable cost involved for this, it’s often significantly lower than paying for a full-service venue.
Strategy: Have the wedding and reception at a park
Do the catering yourself or hire a family-owned restaurant
While trimming the guest list saves quite a bit on catering, you can save more by finding a low-cost catering option. According to The Knot Real Weddings Study, the average cost per catered plate is $51, so if you have 50 guests, that’s $2,550 in meal expenses even with a reduced guest list.
For our own wedding, catering was provided by family and friends, who prepared and served the meal in lieu of (and in addition to) a wedding gift. This may work for you if you have someone who is interested in stepping up to that task.
Strategy: Have friends and family cater for you in lieu of a gift
If not, try asking a local family-owned restaurant to cater for you. They might be hesitant to cater a large event, but if your guest list is already relatively small, they may be willing to do this and work with you on a less expensive option. If a local family-owned restaurant can cater and save 25% per plate, that’s still a nice savings.
Strategy: Ask a locally owned restaurant to cater the meal instead of a wedding catering service
Buy a small cake or cupcakes from a grocery store
Brides Magazine reports that the average cost of a wedding cake is $350. This is an area where the cost can easily be trimmed by having something a bit more simple. Rather than heading straight to a wedding cake specialist, see what options are available for a smaller, simpler cake from a grocery store. In my area, the local grocery store chain, Hy-Vee, offered an enormous variety of cake options, ranging from very classy tiered wedding cakes that almost matched the $350 tag to much simpler options that would serve 50 guests for around $100.
Strategy: Look at grocery stores for cake options
Another option is to simply buy cupcakes. You can buy large numbers of cupcakes from many bakeries for as little as $1 each. Pair that with a $30 cake stand and you can provide 70 cupcakes with a beautiful display for just $100.
Strategy: Buy cupcakes and arrange them yourself
Go minimal with the flowers
Wedding Wire reports that the average cost of flowers at a wedding is $1,500. That’s a lot of money!
Keep the flowers simple! Stick with a simple bouquet and simple arrangements at the wedding, then reuse them as part of the reception. The bouquet itself averages $160, but you can drastically cut your floral expense in other ways by simply having minimal arrangements, relying on seasonal flowers, and using lots of greenery. Wedding Wire’s estimates for less-expensive floral setups range from $175 to $700, so if you simply get into that range with these tips, you’ll be doing great.
Strategy: Cut back on the flowers
Make your own invitations
Again, according to The Knot, the average cost for wedding invitations is $590. This cost can easily be trimmed, however, by getting a DIY wedding invitation kit and printing them yourself.
My wife and I did this for our own wedding after balking at the hundreds of dollars for more traditional invitations. We chose a nice DIY kit that cost around $70 for our guest list and printed them ourselves. If you have access to a professional-quality printer and can do basic layout, you can easily create a very classy wedding invitation on your own for $100, with another $50 for any extra inserts and $50 for postage.
Strategy: Print your own wedding invitations
Consider skipping attendants and have them involved in other ways
Rather than having several attendants for the bride and groom, consider trimming that number down to a single attendant for each, or none at all. This not only reduces the complications of the event, including hard choices about who to include, but can also eliminate small incidental costs such as bridesmaid bouquets. You can include people close to you in other ways, such as asking them to do a reading during your ceremony.
Strategy: Minimize your wedding party
Savings: Small, but helps with the next tip
If you do have attendants, go minimal with attendant gifts and make them personal
According to The Knot, the average wedding expense includes $400 in gifts, including party favors. However, most of that $400 goes toward gifts for the attendants. By keeping the wedding party small, you can cut out most of the cost, and with the smaller number, you can be more thoughtful and selective when it comes to a gift.
Strategy: Minimize attendant gifts and make them personal
Borrow stereo equipment or use yours from home
If you’re having a small event anyway, hiring a DJ might be overkill. Wedding Wire reports that the average DJ cost is $1,000, so you may be able to forgo that cost by setting up your own speakers attached to a computer for a small dance. For music, you are legally allowed to use a music streaming service like Spotify (but such events may violate the terms of service of such services depending on specifics). For emcee services, ask your most outgoing friend to help.
Strategy: Do the DJing yourself
Stock the bar yourself
A wedding bartender typically costs $35 per hour, but that doesn’t include the cost of the alcohol, which adds up to $2,300, according to The Knot. You can save a lot of money here by simply hiring someone to bartend and providing the alcohol yourself, provided the venue is OK with that (check with them). You can save as much as 50% by sourcing your own alcohol.
Strategy: Source your own alcohol and hire a separate bartender (or ask a friend)
Contact the local university
If you’re looking for live music for the ceremony or want a professional photographer, one approach to consider is to contact the local university. There may be music students or budding photographers who would love an opportunity to get started in the field and may charge a very reasonable price as they don’t yet have a large resume to lean on. Often, new people in a field are excited to prove themselves, so they’ll not only charge a reasonable price, but they’ll go the extra mile to perform well and build a reputation. Simply trimming even 20% off of the average wedding musician cost and the average wedding photographer cost adds up. There’s a risk, of course, when using a new person, but they’re also going to be very focused on the task at hand, as this is an opportunity for them.
Strategy: Contact the local university to find budding photographers or musicians who may want the opportunity
Split the cost of decorations – and consider buying used
Non-floral wedding decorations can cost $600. This can be a perfect opportunity to go minimal by looking for used decorations. If you know someone who is getting married, you may be able to split the cost of decorations with them so that you both use them, cutting the cost by half. If you know of any recent weddings, you can also contact them and ask what they did with the decorations.
Strategy: Split the cost of decorations or buy them used
If you’re getting married in a church, ask the auxiliary for help
If you’re getting married in a church or in the hall of a civic organization, ask if the auxiliary club associated with that venue has suggestions or ideas. While they might not be able to directly provide a lot of savings, they may be able to offer ideas and small services that can save a little, and they sometimes can point you to something unexpected that can be a huge savings.
Strategy: Ask the auxiliary club associated with the church or other organization where your wedding is being held for help
Savings: Small, but potentially big
Buy the wedding dress off the rack and on sale, or borrow and modify
The Knot reports that the average wedding dress costs $1,600, which is a tremendous cost for an item you’ll likely wear once. A much better idea? See if anyone in your family or among your close friends has their old dress and, if possible, see if you can borrow it. It may need some modifications to make it work well, but spending $200 on adjustments is better than $1,600 on a dress. If this isn’t an option, look for a used dress and modify it similarly — this will still be cheaper than buying a new one.
Strategy: Borrow or buy a wedding dress
Choose affordable, simple wedding rings
According to the Brides American Wedding survey, the average wedding ring pair cost $1,610. This is on top of the engagement ring, of course. A simple wedding band might be a great option, however. A simple band is low cost, understated, and won’t snag on clothing. If you go simple and simply cut 25% off of the cost of the rings, that’s a nice savings.
Strategy: Go with simple wedding bands
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