Planning a Wedding on a College Budget

My wife and I recently threw away our pile of bridal magazines.  You know the type from the checkout aisle: pictures of fancy things you can’t afford, lists of impractical tips, and ad after ad featuring stern, frowning women vamping in white dresses.

It’s not that they were useless in planning our wedding.  It’s just that they were good for a laugh, especially when they attempted the obligatory “Planning Your Wedding on a Budget, You Poor Sap” feature.

Both of us being notorious cheapskates, my then-fiancée and I balked at the price tags they put on things like catering, photography and wedding rings.  Our parents had offered to pitch in, but we weren’t about to spend $20,000 in a single day, no matter whose money it was.

So, in the summer of 2010, we set out to tie the knot on a shoestring budget.  Here’s how two college students working for just above minimum wage can (and did) plan the best day of their lives:

1. Get your friends involved. This was easily our number-one money saver.  We attend a huge state school with a lot of liberal-arts students, so we had no shortage of creative friends to ask when it came time to pick our photographer, DJ, singer, pianist, and wedding planner.  In fact, all of those shoes were filled by our close friends and family members, who offered their services either discounted or free.

Of course, this can also go horribly wrong.  It’s important to realize that, just because you support your friend’s dream of becoming the next Elliott Smith, he’s not necessarily your best candidate for wedding singer.  Practice a little discernment.

An old friend offered to DJ at the reception. Another friend took this picture. (photo by Pat Wright)

2. Do it yourself. “Easy for you to say, Mr. Didn’t Have to Address 300 Invitations,” my wife said when I brought this point up to her yesterday.  It’s true, I wasn’t the one teaching myself calligraphy and writing ‘til my hand seized up.

My hypocrisy aside, we discovered we could do a lot of things ourselves rather than pay a professional.  We ordered sunflowers, baby’s breath and ferns from a local wholesale florist, and a bevy of aunts and cousins helped my bride-to-be arrange them on the night before the wedding.  I designed our programs and printed them at home on cardstock.

We found mason jars, hurricane lamps, ribbon, and tulle at craft stores, and we (read: she) created most of the decorations with a little help from a glue gun and a friend’s sewing machine.  After the ceremony, we reused bouquets for centerpieces at the reception.

Yeah, my wife's a genius. (photo by Pat Wright)

3. Go for a smaller diamond. If you’ve done any engagement ring shopping, you know that the most important factors in determining price are the size and quality of the diamond.  So if your fiancée doesn’t require a big ol’ rock — and bear in mind, this is one “if” you must know with absolute certainty before proceeding — then you can go for a smaller diamond and a fancier ring setting.

The setting I saw most often in jewelry stores was the solitaire, where the diamond juts out like an iceberg.  The one I ended up picking took design cues from the Depression era, when folks couldn’t afford 4 carats’ worth of glistening carbon and opted instead for an ornately engraved ring with maybe a half-carat diamond.  It looks a lot like my grandmother’s.  And yes, my wife loves it.

We opted for a smaller diamond in a unique setting. (photo by Pat Wright)

4. Host the wedding and reception in the same place. It might take some logistical finagling to make this happen, but the payoff is twofold: You save money, and you’re less likely to have guests bailing before the reception and leaving you with twelve pounds of leftover asparagus crostini.

We ended up picking a park near our hometown with a conference room and an adjoining kitchen that served as the caterers’ staging area.  We had chairs set up in rows for the ceremony, and as soon as it was over, we had a couple of friends spring into action to clear the dance floor and push the chairs under tables.

With the seats pushed aside, the hall we rented for the ceremony became a combination dance floor-dining room. (photo by Pat Wright)

5. Don’t like it?  Skip it. As we considered the possibility of eating leftover asparagus crostini for a week, we had an epiphany: Hors d’oeuvres suck.  So we didn’t have any.  The reception dinner was pork barbecue with mac ‘n’ cheese and salad.  Best meal we had all week, and certainly a better deal than baked brie én croute.

Remember that nothing is mandatory.  The marriage still counts, even in the absence of chocolate fountains and ice-sculpture swans.

A friend recently pointed out — and I think she was right — that the only people paying attention to the details are the ones planning their own weddings.  Everyone else just wants to see you.

What a day. (photo by Pat Wright)


About Paul Bowers

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5 Responses to Planning a Wedding on a College Budget

  1. Lynn Kidman says:

    Thanks for the wisdom Paul! These are some good things to keep in mind as we start our planning!

  2. Renee B says:

    ‘Twas simple but so beautiful. You two are such a good example!

  3. shadowsmith10 says:

    It’s great to see that good sense still goes into wedding planning these days. I’ve been to a score of over-produced, overly-expensive weddings and I think I’d prefer to attend a wedding like yours anytime. It looks like a fun and festive occasion. I’ll be definitely taking some tips from your post when I plan my wedding.

  4. akeelah says:

    I really enjoyed that Paul! Way to go! So refreshing to see that it’s not about money like all the tv shows want you to think. Be blessed!

  5. Paul Bowers says:

    Thanks, Akeelah. It’s never about money for us — except when it comes to the electric bill.

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