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Figuring out your wedding budget is no easy feat. After all, your wedding will likely be the biggest party you’ve ever hosted—and therefore the priciest. To make a realistic budget, you’ll need to tally up your savings and any family contributions, maintain a detailed spreadsheet (outlining total expenses, payments made, and balances due), and prepare for unexpected costs. And even with all the prep work, it’s best to still be prepared to make meaningful cuts in the event that you do exceed your total budget.
It’s hard work, we know, but putting in the time and energy now ensures you’ll live happily ever after (wedding-debt free). Here’s exactly how to set a wedding budget you can stick to in five simple steps, plus expert-approved advice for saving.
Step 1: Count Your Cash
How much you have to spend on the wedding is directly proportional to three sources of money:
- You and your fiancé’s individual savings: This isn’t as simple as checking your bank account. Ideally, you and your partner each have three months of living expenses set aside in case of a job loss or health setback (separate from retirement funds). Subtract that in-case-of-emergency amount from your total balance in the bank, and that’s how the maximum amount you could put toward wedding costs. Depending on your other goals (are you saving for a home or new car?), your contribution from savings might be even lower.
- The amount you can set aside from your current income: After you’ve made payments for existing debts, like student loans, set aside up to 10 percent of your earnings each month. “Establish direct deposits into a separate account for wedding expenses so it isn’t just leftovers that get saved,” says Erin Lowry, a personal finance expert and the author of “Broke Millennial: Stop Scraping By and Get Your Financial Life Together“.
- Any contributions from parents or loved ones: Are either of your families planning to make a financial contribution to the big day? “Never assume your parents or other loved ones are willing and able to help cover the cost of a wedding,” says Lowry. “But it certainly doesn’t hurt to ask.”
Step 2: Track Your Spending
Create a spreadsheet with three expense columns: Estimated, Modified, and Actual. Amounts under Estimated will be driven by researching costs in your area, proposals from the vendors you choose will go in Modified, and the final amount you pay them will go in Actual. Adjust your estimates after calling in vendors’ costs. Start with the venue because it’s the biggest piece of the wedding pie and a major factor in determining guest count. When vendors give you estimates, verify if tax is included. If not, do the math yourself with state and local tax rates to adjust the proposal.
Add a column for the estimated tip. Write “included” if gratuity is factored into the vendor’s price. (For example, caterers automatically tack on 15 to 20 percent of the total, which you pay in advance.) You should also add a line item called Extras that equals 15 percent of your total budget to cushion for things you’ll likely forget (invitation postage, parking valets) or won’t anticipate in advance (corkage and plating fees). Never spend this money upfront; you’ll need it throughout the planning process as incidentals arise. Trust us.
Step 3: Prepare for Surprises
Before you sign on the dotted line of vendor contracts or start buying welcome bag items, read the fine print—expenses that seem small early on could add up quickly. If the total of the line item isn’t in your overall budget, cut it. Even after you’ve done that, it’s important to pad the budget. According to Roxanne Bellamy, founder and creative director of Roxanne Bellamy & Co., building in room for last-minute or unexpected expenses is key. “When couples are creating a wedding budget, I strongly suggest a buffer, or ’emergency fund,’ of 10-20% of their total budget. Anything can happen, right? The guest count could increase, perhaps at the last minute the couple decides to increase their photography timing from 8 to 10 hours, or maybe they’ve decided to add horns and strings to their band experience,” she explains. “By setting aside the ’emergency fund’ at the onset of the planning process, couples are better able to navigate unexpected costs or any must-have add-ons without experiencing additional stress.”
These common line items are the ones couples most often to forget to factor into the total budget.
Hiring an out-of-town band or photographer? You might need to pay for a rental van or plane tickets. Double-check the contract to see what is already covered.
Setup and Breakdown Fees
Cleanup isn’t always included in the costs outlined on your contract, and you may have to pay overtime rates depending on what time your reception ends.
Signature drinks and high-end spirits can add $3,500 to a 200-person wedding, says Calder Clark, a top wedding planner in Charleston, South Carolina.
Digital Photo Access
Some photographers charge as much as $1,200 to view and share your photos online. Ask about this line item early on.
Some stationers charge as much as $7 per invite to assemble and stuff your envelopes. To save, call your bridesmaids over, drink some wine, and turn this into a DIY project instead.
A full-service event designer can charge as much as $25,000 or even 20 percent of the total budget for a Kardashian-scale affair, but a day-of coordinator costs an average of $1,000. Before you enlist a pro, know what you have to spend and factor in that rate. Many venues require you to contract their in-house wedding coordinator or bring in your own outside wedding coordinator.
Service Fees and Taxes
According to Andrew Roby, founder of Andrew Roby Events, couples most often forget to account for service fees and taxes when tallying up their budgets. “One of the biggest things couples miss when budgeting is the impact service fees and taxes have on their [final numbers,]” he explains. “When catering states the food and beverage minimum is $40,000 it is key to understand that a service fee and tax is added onto that. They must also understand that the minimum does not mean the final cost.”
“Gratuities for weddings can be tricky,” Roby admits. “Who do you tip and who has already included tips in their fee can change. Traditionally, catering factors gratuity into the bill. Vendors who are present the day of your wedding should receive gratuity.” This includes wedding vendors who own their own businesses, Roby adds, like wedding photographers, florists, and planners. When in doubt, anywhere between 5 and 10% of the total bill, given directly to the business owner, is a good number to strive for.
Step 4: Charge Responsibly
No matter how tempted you are to boost your cash flow with credit cards, don’t go overboard. “Never charge anything that you can’t pay off in 30 days,” says financial expert Farnoosh Torabi, host of the So Money podcast. That is unless you qualify for a card with a zero percent purchase APR, which lets you skirt interest payments as long as you pay your entire balance within a certain time frame (usually 12 to 15 months).
Torabi advises mapping out a plan for how you intend to do that before swiping the plastic. For example, register for cash gifts that you can put toward a portion of the wedding and create a savings plan to cover the rest. If you do use a credit card, choose one with a generous cashback program.
You can use the rewards earned during that zero percent APR period toward the honeymoon or to pay off any remaining wedding expenses. But try to avoid signing up for more than one card, which can damage your credit score.
Step 5: Find Ways to Save
Over budget? These ideas will slash your spending in a meaningful way.
Change the venue.
Raw spaces like barns and lofts seem like a steal, but you could spend a lot making them wedding-beautiful. “You may have to bring in tables, chairs, china, glassware, silverware, kitchen equipment for the caterer, even restrooms and AC or heat,” cautions Sara Fay Egan, a partner at Jackson Durham Floral and Event Design in Dallas. Before you commit, estimate the total price of a wedding at that space versus one that includes all the basics.
Bellamy agrees, adding that selecting a venue with “serious aesthetic appeal (think gardens, museums, galleries, and private residences)” is her favorite unexpected way for couples to save money on the big day. “Selecting a venue based on its aesthetic appeal oftentimes means that you’re able to spend less on additional decor that would be needed to spruce the venue up,” she explains.
Edit the guest list.
Each attendee costs far more than his or her meal when you consider the invitation, welcome bag, transportation, slice of cake, and favor. “Never have a B-list, and be ruthless with your A-list,” says Clark. For the average 135-person reception, shrinking the guest list by 15 people saves you approximately $1,300. Bellamy adds, “By trimming the guest list, couples can typically spend less on catering, rentals, and centerpieces.”
Have a winter wedding, choose a mid-week wedding date (Fridays and Sundays are often just as expensive as a Saturday these days), or celebrate with mimosas over brunch instead of hosting a four-course, wine-paired dinner.
To save for the wedding they want, 57 percent of brides said they were willing to prolong their engagement. “Negotiating is a lot more difficult when vendors know you’re in a time crunch,” says Torabi. The same goes for when the wedding actually arrives. Roby says you can save a significant amount of money if your wedding venue will allow for setup at any point on the wedding day or even the day before the celebration. “Couples should always ensure the venue allows for a longer set-up window on their wedding day,” he says. “It costs more for chairs to be delivered at a specific time versus a four-hour window or the day before.”
Host the ceremony and reception in the same place.
Doing so could save as much as $4,000 on transportation for the wedding party and guests.
Forgo a live band.
The big-name ones can charge upwards of $30,000, while a DJ will cost a few thousand bucks.
Order all of your own paper items yourself.
This means ordering or creating your own wedding invitations and appropriate inserts. Later, you’ll be ordering place cards and table numbers and maybe programs and other things, too. Technology has made it easy to do a lot of this stuff on your own time from your computer. The newlyweds-to-be choose the appropriate paper (most companies online will send free samples) and print them on their own printer, then assemble, stuff, and mail them. Even if you choose to order printed materials through a stationer, be sure to do it yourself. When you have your wedding planner assist or do it for you, it will cost you more, whether through her markup or because she’ll likely be getting a thank you commission from the shop.
Don’t be afraid to have her proofread them; just do the creating, ordering, and assembling yourself.
Address your own invitations.
Paying for calligraphy is not cheap. If you must have calligraphy on your invites, consider buying a calligraphy pen and practicing until you get it right. It’s not that difficult. And only an expert would notice it wasn’t done by a professional. As a starting point, there are tons of tutorials online.
Say no to upgrades.
Another key strategy for how to budget for a wedding is saying no to unnecessary upgrades. Take what comes with the package, or the least expensive option you can stand. Couples sometimes add literally thousands of dollars to their budgets because they don’t like the design of the white-on-white tablecloths, for example. Or they can’t stand the chairs provided for the ceremony.
Be flexible on flowers.
Once you hire a florist to bring your vision to life, trust them to create a look you love that fits within the budget. “I know many prefer a specific flower, but ask for a less expensive alternative as well,” Roby says. “When flowers are grouped together, many cannot tell the difference between a pricey garden rose and something that tends to cost less. What you are going for is the look, which can be created by more than one flower type.”
Use fewer vendors.
If your DJ also offers lighting services for your venue or your cake baker also offers edible wedding favors, consider hiring that vendor to provide more than one service for your big day. You’ll always get a better rate if you’re getting more from one vendor, plus you won’t be paying multiple setups or delivery fees, the way you would be if you had hired separate vendors for each individual task.