A Nice Day for a Cheap Wedding

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My sister is three years younger than I am, but she got married four years before I did.  This was back in 1994, and from what I can tell, wedding planning hasn’t changed ALL that much since then.  Of course, the trend now is for a more “experiential” wedding versus spending money on traditional wedding expenses like flowers, favors, and elaborate wedding cakes.

The fact is people want a memorable day, and additionally, people want a memorable day that looks great on social media.  No judgment here, really.  Ok, maybe just a little bit.  But I’ll share my own wedding story and you can see how it fits the frame of the “Frugal Frannie” persona I have developed over the years.

“I’ll pay you to elope …”

My sister, Jen, had what was probably a medium-priced wedding at the time.  She and her husband graduated from Duke University, and she wanted to get married in the university’s chapel.  After the service, they had professional pictures made in the Duke Gardens, and then rode in a limo to the hotel where the reception was held.  I have never queried my dad about how much this entire shindig cost, mostly because I’m honestly afraid to know.

The ceremony and reception were lovely, filled with the usual accoutrements.  My favorite take-away, however, happened in the limo ride from the ceremony to the reception.  My dad looked at me and said, “Dawn, I’ll pay you to elope.”  I laughed it off at the time, but I remembered this offer.

Small Weddings Can Still Be Expensive

Fast forward to 1998 when my parents came to town to help me plan my own wedding.  By this time, I was already pretty frugal, but I was struggling mightily with this wedding plan.  Our intention was to have a small, inexpensive wedding.  But between catering, a dress, flowers, and a venue, the estimated costs were adding up to more than I wanted to spend.  After a meeting with the caterer that left me feeling dejected, we went to lunch, and my dad said, “Dawn, the offer is still good.”

Of course, I knew exactly what he meant, and this was a timely reminder.  I didn’t want to spend more than $5000 on the entire wedding, but at this point it appeared we weren’t going to get by for much less than $10,000.   I went home and discussed it with Greg.  We talked about how having $5000 to go towards fixing up the home we had bought would be nice, or we could save it for a down payment for our next house in a couple of years.  Finally, we talked about how the pomp and ceremony associated with a wedding didn’t matter to us at all.

A Practical Joke and A Crisis Averted

So, this is what we did.  That fateful lunch with my parents was on a Tuesday.  My sister was scheduled to arrive on Wednesday (for dress shopping, of course!), and Greg’s family lived only a couple of hours away.  We set up a time to get married at the courthouse on Thursday morning, followed by a brunch at a local fancy hotel.

As an aside, in my family of origin, practical jokes are part of our DNA.  My parents, Greg, and I decided not to tell my sister what was up.  As far as she knew, she and my parents were meeting me Thursday morning downtown at my office (she’d never been to my office), and we would leave from there to go dress shopping and have lunch.  I wore a floral skirt and top, Greg wore a shirt, tie, and trouser combo. It was all clothing that we already owned.

The morning of the wedding was nearly a catastrophe.  This was July, and it was hot.  I loaded the cake we had ordered from the local grocery store into the car, but I fretted about it sitting in the hot car for the hour or two until we got it to the reception.  We decided to risk it.  Just as we were about to get in the car and go, our dogs slipped out of the fenced yard.  Cue an insanely comedic scene of us scrambling around our little neighborhood to round up the dogs.  We were late for our own wedding.

Meanwhile, my parents, Greg’s family, and a few of our friends had assembled at the courthouse.  My sister wondered about the metal detectors at the entrance of the building, but my mom played it off brilliantly. “Oh, Dawn’s office is on the tenth floor, but there are some governmental offices in this building, too,” she explained to my sister.  When the elevator opened on the tenth floor, a man greeted them with, “You must be here for the wedding!”  Boom.  Sister shocked.  Even though I wasn’t there for her reaction, it was still a favorite part of the day for me.

After the ceremony, which took less than ten minutes, a few of my other friends, having been clued in to the new plan, assembled outside the courthouse to toss birdseed and hold signs of congratulations.  Extra fun!  On to the reception.

Despite the heat, the cake made the trip intact.  Being a weekday, the amazing brunch buffet spread at the hotel was only $10 per person.  The restaurant was gracious and lovely, and they took our store-bought cake (which was delicious) and cut and served it.  Our group was small, just family and a couple of friends, and the restaurant was uncrowded. The view was spectacular.  It was perfect.

Frugal Day, but Memorable

If you are keeping tabs on our expenses, you know that so far very little money was spent on this celebration.  I do not recall the precise final tally, actually, but I do know that after the fact, my dad crowed about how after brunch, he and Greg played a round of golf.  The golf cost more than the entire reception!

How shocking that my newly minted husband took off after the reception to play golf?  Well, his newly minted bride had other plans.  (I will just admit right off that I’m not terribly proud of this part of the story.)

My mom, sister, and I left the reception and headed over to the bridal shop.  I had stopped dress shopping after narrowing my choices to two dresses.  I wanted my sister to see the dress I favored.  We went in and I tried on the favored dress, and we took pictures.  So, technically, I have wedding-day pictures of myself in a wedding dress.  They just don’t include the groom!

I am confident that the price tag on the day was well under $1000, including a round of resort golf.  My dad made good on his offer, and Greg and I had $5000 to help us with our house projects.  Since we were struggling to make ends meet at that point in our lives, this was a helpful injection of funds.  Best of all, the day — even with the morning drama and my less-than-perfectly ethical dealing with the dress shop — was fun and super memorable and didn’t break the bank.

My apologies if you thought this post would be about how to save on your wedding day costs.  You can easily find all sorts of “how-to-save-money-on-your-wedding” tips online. My hope is that my story will encourage some of you to think outside the box for a simpler, less expensive plan for your wedding.

What about you?  Did you max your credit cards to pay for a wedding, or did you find a frugal way to celebrate?  Please share your memories and strategies.

4 responses to “A Nice Day for a Cheap Wedding

  1. This is a fabulous story! Loved the contrast of two sisters getting married and the different approaches that were true to their values and life situations.

    Dawn, you are such a fun and engaging writer! Keep these fun and informative posts coming!

  2. We had two weddings – one at the courthouse in October with just the bride, groom, and witness and then in April (after purchasing a house) one at our home with Friends and family (who could not have made it in October). I bought an outfit for the courthouse, and Art wore his regular clothes, and for the April shindig I had a dress made, paid for a nice wedding cake, and Art rented a horrendous baby blue tux! And I actually went to have my hair done before the ceremony. I think it all cost less than $400. 32 years and we’re still together, so I guess it took! 🙂

    1. Thanks for sharing your story Renee! I love stories about inexpensive wedding celebrations. I wish more people could get past the romantic notion of what a wedding “should” be and dig down to what really matters. Sounds like your celebration was a good investment, indeed!

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