The Art of Darkness

El Cheapo Weddings

April 28th, 2009 by Cobwebs

Wedding Skulls recently posted a question from a reader about getting married on a very tight budget. I got a little long-winded in the comments and thought of five or six other things afterwards, so I may as well turn it into a post of my own. (Be sure to check the original post for Steff’s suggestions and other commenters’ ideas as well.)

The key to a low-stress wedding is to remember that the whole point is to formalize your commitment to each other. The only thing you have to have for that is some legal paperwork. Everything else is optional. Take that to heart. Repeat it to yourself every morning in the mirror. Tattoo it on your wrist if necessary.

Your first step is to look at each element of a wedding–flowers, favors, invitations, dresses, yadda, yadda, and yadda. Decide what you absolutely can’t live without. Discard everything else (be ruthless). Then look at what’s left and figure out the cheapest way to accomplish it. Make a virtue of necessity: View this as an opportunity to make your wedding truly unique and personal instead of expensive and “cookie-cutter.”

Now…the reason that you’re having an actual ceremony and/or reception instead of eloping is because you want to include friends and family in your special day. So by gawd, include them. Tell them that in lieu of a gift you would really appreciate their help with planning and execution. This is the “Hey, kids, let’s put on a show in the barn” approach to weddings, but it really works. Many people will jump at the chance to add a little personal touch to the wedding of a loved one, particularly if you sell it to them that way. Emphasize how meaningful their help will be, and how grateful you are that they want to be included.

A couple of caveats: If a friend or relative doesn’t have time or inclination to help out, don’t try to guilt them into it; it creates hard feelings and you’ll get lousy help. Make sure that you aren’t asking too much; a friend who’s an awesome seamstress may love helping you alter a wedding dress…but may feel taken for granted if you ask her to make six bridesmaids’ dresses. Finally, give your friends plenty of notice that you’d like their help. Popping up a week before the wedding and saying, “Guess what! Instead of a gift, I’d like you to make 150 cupcakes for the reception!” is not going to endear you to anybody.

A good way to divide up the work is to have “wedding task parties.” Have a few friends over, pop in an old movie, and spend the evening addressing wedding invitations. Set up an assembly line to make favors or nibbles for the reception. Giving everyone an assigned role not only makes the work go faster, it also helps prevent last-minute surprises when somebody doesn’t follow through on a necessary item.

The last thing to realize is that you’re going to wind up doing a good bit of the work yourself. Take a deep breath. This is possible. Start by getting organized. Make a list of the things that you need to do, and the order you need to do them in. Break tasks down into small chunks that you can tackle whenever you have a little free time: Don’t obsess and spend an entire weekend addressing invitations, do a few each evening in front of the TV. If you’re going to be preparing food for the reception, concentrate on items that you can make in advance and freeze.

Some specific suggestions for a budget wedding:

The cheapest option for the wedding party is “wear something nice that you already own.” You can create a sense of theme by asking them to wear the same colors (all black, for instance), or coordinate their outfits by having them all wear ribbons or bandanas in your wedding colors. If all of your bridesmaids have dresses from previous weddings lurking in their closets, have an Alteration Party to make them a little more match-y (cut them all to a similar length, make them all sleeveless, or just distress them artfully and have a retinue of Zombie Bridesmaids).

Time is your friend. If your wedding is a year or two away, haunt eBay, Freecycle, and Craigslist. Formal dresses and even bridal gowns show up with great regularity, and if you aren’t in a hurry you can usually get one cheap. Make friends with the staff at the local thrift shop and ask them to alert you when they get wedding or prom dresses in. Be patient and slowly collect the items you need as you have time and money.

Your computer is your other friend. Use it to design and print your own invitations: A clever handmade invitation is much more interesting and memorable than a bland, professionally printed card. Print place cards, thank-you notes, decorations (such as treasure maps for a pirate theme), and so forth. Compile the recipes for the food at your reception and make little cookbooks to give away as wedding favors.

Dig through your local fabric store’s bargain bin for remnants of bridal-type fabric like tulle and brocade. Use it for DIY accessories like a veil, tie it into little bags for favors, or use swags of it to help decorate the room.

Ask the local florist about discarded flowers. Anything wilted gets thrown out and can usually be had for free. Choose good-looking blooms, hang them upside-down in a warm place to dry, and make your own dried-flower bouquet.

Look for free outdoor venues for the wedding, such as a public park or the grounds of an historic building (you may need to make special arrangements for a large group).

Rather than hiring a professional photographer, give all of your guests a disposable camera and ask them to snap photos. Collect the cameras as they leave, and have a couple of rolls of film developed every month. Getting each set of photos back is like a little surprise present, and your guests can capture many more angles and shots than a single photographer can. If you know someone who’s a good photographer, ask them to take some formal photos of you and the wedding party. (If you don’t, it’s really not the end of the world. My “formal” wedding picture was actually taken on our first anniversary, when we had a little more money. We dressed up in our wedding attire and posed in a graveyard.)

If you want to serve food, consider a dessert-only buffet. An array of massed sweets looks impressive and is relatively inexpensive (very inexpensive if you or friends do the baking).

Decorate your own cake. If you have your heart set on a multi-tier cake and don’t have the chops to bake one yourself, plain iced cakes are less expensive than you might expect. If possible, check around for a baker who does wedding cakes “on the side.” (For my wedding, I found a local woman who worked out of her home; a two-tiered iced cake with plain piping was $75.) Check the bakeries of large supermarkets, and also ask at small local bakeries. You can often find a good deal if you just go for the basics: Plain cake with no weird fruit filling and no-frills frosting. Pick it up a day or two before the wedding and finish the decorating yourself. One cute idea for the icing-challenged is a Host of Ghosts: Pipe sweetened meringue into tall mounds with a little swirl on top. Let dry, then paint eyes and mouth on each one with a dab of melted chocolate. Arrange the “ghosts” in ranks all over the cake. You can also use piped chocolate shapes (which is what I did), sugar cookies cut with thematic cutters, or even pre-made icing shapes.

Consider a “trick or treat” theme. Encourage everyone to come in costume, emphasizing no-sew and raid-your-closet ideas (hobo, cowboy, etc.). Carve pumpkins (cheap if the wedding is in autumn) for decorations. Favors could be popcorn balls, caramel apples, or small treat bags filled with candy.

Instead of a formal reception have a “scary movie” party. Set up two or three borrowed televisions and play a different movie on each TV. Serve popcorn.

Another idea would be a “Victorian parlor game” reception. Print out the instructions for various vintage party games–Forfeits, Fan-Tan, etc.–and create “game stations” that guests can visit. You might also ask a few friends to act as entertainment, perhaps reading guests’ tea leaves or telling their fortunes with tarot cards (see my guide to bluffing your way through the tarot for a crash course in fortune-telling).

Above all, don’t stress out. Even on a very tight budget, the options are almost limitless (google “budget wedding ideas” and see how many zillion sites come up). With time and a little organization, a wonderful wedding can be created for very little.

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