How To Not Suck At Planning Your Wedding, Part 1: The Most Expensive Steps

Welcome to Wedding Week on How To Not Suck, a 5-part series on how to deal with all the things couples need to buy/rent/plan before they walk down the aisle. Today’s column focuses on those big-ticket items you need to get out of the way right away.

Maybe you’re one of the many, many couples who recently got engaged on Valentine’s Day (and judging by our Facebook feeds, this V-Day seemed to be particularly proposal-happy), or perhaps you’ve been engaged for a while but you’re spinning your wheels trying to figure out how to get started. Then let’s not waste any time.

From the invitations to the dress to the reception, there are a lot of ways to overspend when it comes to planning a wedding. So we’re bringing you a five-part series on all things related to money your wedding.

Today, let’s start with ways to not suck at booking some of the big-ticket items you’ll need book on the earlier side of your planning calendar.

THE RECEPTION VENUE
You may not be able to plan your wedding for a buck and change, but you can take steps to control the cost.

The first thing you will need to do is pick a wedding date, and the date you pick will ultimately determine the prices you’re quoted for the wedding venue and/or reception hall.

Let’s start with the day of the week.

Saturday nights are usually the most expensive time to book an affair, so you should expect the highest price then.

Fridays are less expensive. Just make sure to start things late enough so your guests have time to get home from work and prepare.

Daytime weekend dates are also less expensive (and offer very nice natural lighting for your photos), and weeknights are generally a bargain.

The time of the year is also important, especially if you live in an area that’s colder in the winter. June and September are peak nuptial months, and honestly any time from May through October will be on the higher side.

Bargains can generally be found from November through April, with two exceptions: Valentine’s Day (for obvious reasons) and the time around Christmas through New Year’s when reception halls are busy with parties.

Next, the type of facility you consider will dictate the price range.

Traditional wedding halls and country clubs can be among the most expensive venues (but if you have a friend that belongs to a country club and they receive a discount, it’s worth investigating), as are hotels (but if you will have overnight guests staying at the hotel, you could negotiate and ask for discounts based on the number of rooms that will be rented).

Instead, consider some less traditional wedding spots:
•public parks
•zoos and arboretums
•a beach
•a place that’s special to you as a couple (but remember the novel ideas of getting hitched in an IKEA or a Walmart have already been taken… same with KFC and Taco Bell.)
•a friend’s very large house, or a neighborhood farm

If you do choose a less traditional location that’s not set up for catering, remember to add the costs for food preparation and serving, tables and chairs, portable toilets and the rest.

Also make sure you understand the fine print of any contract you sign for your special day.

It’s possible you won’t get back any money if the event is cancelled too close to the date, and while we don’t hope that happens to you, try to see the brighter side if something goes wrong.

The food and beverage package you select will alter your per-head price. No one says you have to offer a seven course meal to your guests, so consider these options:
•Substitute a buffet (or even a pig roast) for a traditional sit-down meal. Or limit the menu offerings to less-expensive dishes, such as pasta or chicken.
•Only offer one entree, but make it a combo dish, such as fish and chicken. Fewer choices means a smaller price.
•Have a potluck reception and ask your guests to bring food.
•Forget the food and make it a dessert and drink event. Just remember to warn your guests before they arrive.
•Skip the cocktail hour. You’ll save on hors d’oeuvres and liquor.

When it comes to beverages of the adult kind, a top-shelf open bar will be the most expensive option.

Consider serving only wine and beer. Or have the bartender create a few special drinks for the occasion using the same hard liquor.

If you use an untraditional venue, you can buy the booze yourself, savings hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars by making purchases in bulk at your neighborhood liquor store. Many are happy to offer a 10-15% discount for your business.

Or, if you’re truly strapped for money, you could offer a full bar — but a cash bar — for which your guests will have to pay out-of-pocket for their own beverages. This tends to not go over well with some wedding guests who expect gratis booze, so it’s something you’ll want to tell people about in advance.

The one other big way to save on your venue bill is to invite fewer people. Yes, pare down that guest list. Do you really need to invite all of your co-workers, your sister’s best friend from elementary and your accountant?

THE CEREMONY LOCATION AND OFFICIANT
Lots of couples choose to get married in the church or temple they attended as a child or to which they currently belong. That could cost you several hundreds dollars — just for the bare bones ceremony and the officiant who will perform the ceremony.

Then there are costs for flowers for the location; a fee for the organist or choir to perform at the ceremony; additional hours for limousines; ceremony programs and more.

To save, consider having the ceremony performed in the same location as your reception. Or, ask one of your friends of family members to perform the service for you. That’s right — the price of getting ordained is way cheaper than a ceremony in a religious venue. (We aren’t favoring any one group over another, but a simple Google search will give you the lowdown on how to get ordained.)

THE MUSIC
A band or a DJ? Whichever you choose, you can visit showcases for performers in your area, but they’re sure to be among the most expensive to choose from.

Instead, get creative:
•Ask your friends and relatives if they know any bands or DJs willing to give you a price break.
•Contact local college music departments to see if the professors or students have interested musicians. (This is especially good if you’re looking for a string quartet or pianist for your cocktail hour.)
•Talk to your favorite bar band about performing.
•If you don’t want to end up with a potential Robbie Hart situation, or you fear a band will bomb your wedding song, consider creating several iPod playlists for the different parts of your ceremony and reception. Or, ask a special friend or family member to take care of the music for you.

PHOTOGRAPHY
This is one item on which it’s worth spending a little extra, or, it’s not worth skimping to end up with a crappy photographer or someone who goes out of business, or whose vendors shut their doors, before delivering your package.

Start by asking your friends for recommendations. Not only can they point you to good photographers, but they can advise you on what type of package you need.

And remember, while this day is important, lots of professionals may try to oversell you. Photographers offer packages with different price points: Some include a fancy album for the couple, plus mini-albums for mom and dad, and others will include a certain number of prints.

Instead, ask the photographer about getting a disk with all your photos, and then you can decide over time what you need. You can always order the fancy album later, and you can make up the prints you want after thinking about it and seeing what you have to choose from.

Instead of hiring a self-proclaimed “wedding photographer,” you could try a photographer from your local newspaper, or even contact a photography school and hire a student.

Make sure you also tell your guests you hope they will take lots of candid shots at the ceremony and reception, and ask them to e-mail them to you.

THE DRESS
Brides spend an average of $1,100 on wedding dresses, according to TheKnot.com. Those folks said that 58% of those brides did the buying at a specialty bridal salon.

In general, bridal salons will have the most expensive offerings, but if you think you can tell the difference between a $99 wedding dress and one that costs $1,800, think again.

Here are some ways to save:
Choose styles carefully: Dresses with lots of accents like beading and lace can get way more expensive than simpler dresses.
Wait for sample sales: Most bridal stores offer annual or semi-annual sales where they sell the gowns on the floor for a fraction of what they cost new.
Look for “trunk shows”: These are special shows that salons will put on to showcase certain designers. If you buy during the show, you can generally get a 10% discount.
Run with the brides: While Filene’s Basement is no longer with us, other stores sometimes have sale days for wedding gowns. Make sure to bring your toughest bridesmaids with you for this kind of outing.
Forget the bridal shop: Many retailers have entered the bridal market, including J. Crew, Urban Outfitters’, Ann Taylor and even Costco. Some costs thousands, but you can find others for a few hundred bucks.
Alter elsewhere: Bridal shops are notorious for adding hundreds to a gown price for alterations. Look for an outside tailor to take on the job for you.
Don’t buy new: If you’re looking for a deal, consider a used (or should we say previously-owned?) wedding dress. Check sites like WeddingBee.com, OneWed.com, WoreItOnce,com, PreOwnedWeddingDresses.com and RecycledBride.com to see what’s out there, and save as much as 90% off the original sale price.
Something borrowed?: Consider borrowing a dress from a special friend or family member. You could even pay a bunch to alter or change it, and it will still be way cheaper — and perhaps more meaningful — than a store-bought dress.
Seamstress-for-hire: If you know a talented tailor or seamstress, see if she (or he) would create a dress for you. They could copy an expensive design from a magazine, or you could start from scratch together.
Rent it: Yes, you can rent a wedding dress. At least you won’t have to worry about a wedding dress dry cleaning switcheroo.

Tomorrow, we tackle those other potentially big wedding expenses, including transportation, invitations, the cake… and his tuxedo.

Have a topic you’d like to see covered in How To Not Suck? Or maybe you’re an expert who would like to share your insight with Consumerist readers? Send us a note at notsuck@consumerist.com.

You can read Karin Price Mueller’s stories for The Star-Ledger at NJ.com, follow her on Facebook, and on Twitter @kpmueller.

PREVIOUSLY ON HOW TO NOT SUCK:
How To Not Suck… At Teaching Your Kids About Money
How To Not Suck… At Valentine’s Day Gifts
How To Not Suck… At Merging Your Money When You Marry
How To Not Suck… At Borrowing For College
How To Not Suck… At Saving For College
How To Not Suck… At Pre-Paying For Your Funeral
How To Not Suck… At Making Financial New Year’s Resolutions
How To Not Suck… At Last-Minute Christmas Gifting
How To Not Suck… At Saving For The Holidays
How To Not Suck… At Charitable Giving
How To Not Suck… At Disputing Credit Report Errors
How To Not Suck… At Lowering Your Utility Bills
How To Not Suck… At Home Inspections
How To Not Suck… At Understanding Credit Card Rewards
How To Not Suck… At Getting Ready For Tax Season
How To Not Suck… At Picking A Retirement Plan
How To Not Suck… At Deciding When To DIY
How To Not Suck… At Getting Out Of Debt
How To Not Suck… At First Year College Budgets

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