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My Big Fat Cheap Wedding

Got $18,874 lying around that you could afford to blow in one day? Then you can afford the average wedding.

That's how much the standard nuptials cost these days, according to Bride's magazine. That's more than the cost of a four-year degree at an average-priced state college. That's almost as much as the average price of a new car. And it's definitely more than what my wife and I could afford to pay for our wedding almost four years ago.

You've heard that necessity is the mother of invention. (No one knows who the father was, since DNA testing wasn't around when that cliche was born.) In our case, however, it could be said that penury was the mother of un-convention. There was no way we could pay for a catered, sit-down meal in a hotel ballroom with a live band. What we could pay for was a cookout in a barn with a square-dance caller.

And it was a blast.

It was the best wedding I have ever been to, and I'm not just saying that because I left with all the gifts. Lots of people -- even the sober ones -- have told my wife and me that our wedding was one of the most fun they had ever attended. It was a great wedding.

Now, don't get me wrong -- I love traditional weddings. But "traditional" also means "popular," and something that's "popular" can also be "ridiculously expensive." So, if you want to cut your conjugation bill, think non-traditional... think memorable... think laser tag. Here's how.

It's all who you know, and who they know
We relied on a lot of help from family and friends for our big day. The barn belonged to my wife's sister. The fellow who served as bartender was her friend. My mom (who used to be a florist) took care of all the flowers, with some help from my sisters and an aunt. My cousin, a restaurateur, took charge of the cooking. The wine came from another cousin's vineyard. A college friend lent us his convertible Mercedes for the "Just Married" drive. You get the idea.

As you plan your wedding, think of all the talented and stuff-owning people you know. Would they mind lending their creativity, expertise, raw materials, culinary skills, expensive cars, yachts, hotels, or Port-o-Potties (for those of you who want to hold your reception in a forest)?

But don't stop there. Perhaps the people you know know some people. You'll find that most folks like to help out friends of friends.

Expand your locations
You don't have to rent a pricey hotel ballroom for your reception (or your wedding ceremony, if you're not church-inclined). Tables and chairs can be set up in all kinds of places.

When contemplating where you'll have your celebration, think of places that are important to you, perhaps a park, beach, restaurant, zoo, museum, roadside attraction, or tattoo parlor (think of the wedding favors!). They might not advertise themselves as wedding locations, but it won't hurt to ask. You might find that the owner of the old 1920s theater house -- the one where you and your betrothed had your first date -- would be honored to host your reception.

Another strategy is to think of places you and your friends and family have access to. Does someone you know own (or have connections to someone who owns) a hotel, restaurant, country home, farm, high-rise rooftop, waterfront property, country club, warehouse, or Disney (NYSE: DIS  ) theme park? Actually, you don't have to know the owner -- just someone who can get you in the door (so to speak).

You can rent a lot of cool stuff
We rented the tent, tables, chairs, and giant grill for our reception. But we also came very close to renting a moonbounce. Which just shows that there's a lot of fun out there, waiting to be temporarily under your control.

We're talking popcorn machines, cotton candy makers, lighting, dance floors, town facades, painted backdrops, Elvis impersonators, karaoke machines, Velcro walls, mechanical bulls, hot-air balloons, and most congresspersons.

OK, so not everyone wants their wedding to be a carnival (so forget the congresspersons). But if you're worried that the location of your ceremony or reception lacks a little flair, or color, or ambience, or plumbing, chances are you can rent some -- especially if you're saving a huge chunk of change by choosing your employer's spacious meeting room.

Other tips
We found many other ways to save on the wedding bill. Here are a few of them:

  • Buy in bulk from one of the deep discounters such as Costco (Nasdaq: COST  ) or Wal-Mart's (NYSE: WMT  ) Sam's Club. These places sell everything a do-it-yourself wedding planner would need: beer, food, soda, decorations, booze, vegetables the size of lawn tools, tents, lighting, liquor, gifts, desserts, hooch, snack trays, bridesmaids, disposable cameras, and much, much more -- in large quantities and at low prices. We also had luck at Big Lots (NYSE: BLI  ) , where we bought all our tablecloths (much cheaper than renting, and we'll have them for years).

  • Rather than pay for a $500 wedding cake, we set up a dessert table, featuring a multi-layer cheesecake (made by my wife's sister) and a variety of treats from a local bakery. We saved a bunch of money, and received many favorable comments (especially from kids and people who don't like cake).

  • We hired an amateur photographer, and put friends in charge of the videorecording. Some people will say that this isn't a place to cut costs since you'll have these images forever, and to some extent, we agree. But professional services are very expensive. If you go the amateur route, just make sure you get samples and references, and choose friends who really know what they're doing.

  • With the sophistication and affordability of desktop publishing software -- and the ability to have the product emailed and printed by your local FedEx (NYSE: FDX  ) Kinko's -- it's easy to produce your own invitations and programs.

  • We held our rehearsal dinner in the cafeteria of the elementary school where my wife and I met (as teachers -- we aren't first-grade sweethearts). A tasteful friend did the decorating, and each table was covered in pictures of everyone at the dinner. The good time everyone had while sharing old photos was only matched by the trans-classroom laser tag that followed.

The "I do" do-se-do
Perhaps the best decision we made about our wedding was hiring a square-dance caller. My wife and I hadn't square-danced since grade school, and I'm not quite sure where the idea came from. But a wedding squeezes a whole bunch of people who don't know one another into a small space. Square dancing was a great way to get these strangers to bow to their partner, bow to their corner, and promenade. Butch Adams, our professional caller, did a fantastic job of teaching everyone the moves, and he was much cheaper than a band that could play "The Electric Slide" and "The Macarena."

So, in the end, it wasn't the food or the decorations or the booze that made our wedding so memorable. It was what people did, and how much fun they had with each other. That's something to keep in mind as you plan your own big day.

For more on getting the most bang for your wedding buck, see Five Money-Saving Wedding Tips. And once you've said "I do," sit down with your new better half and plan your financial future. If you need help, check out TMF Money Advisor.

Robert Brokamp and his wife -- who do not own any of the companies mentioned in this article -- spent just a few thousand dollars on their wedding and didn't have to trim the invite list. Not a single guest complained. The Motley Fool is investors writing for investors.


Read/Post Comments (5) | Recommend This Article (25)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On February 23, 2009, at 12:53 PM, CheapWeddingTips wrote:

    This is a really great list of practical advice for people planning weddings on a tight budget!

    I wanted to let you know about another cheap (but classy) wedding tip that would benefit your readers. The Wedding Lens (http://www.theweddinglens.com) allows couples to create an online wedding album, filled with photos from their guests. All guests upload their photos into one album which is only accessible by the couple and their guests. From there, everyone can download or print whichever photos they like (regardless of who uploads them).

    The Wedding Lens allows couples to get the same photos that they would get by having a disposable camera on each table -- but without having to buy disposable cameras or print a ton of blurry photos. Couples see everything from their guests perspective but only print the best photos. It's a great, cost-effective service (and it's eco-friendly!) from which everyone - couples and guests - will benefit.

  • Report this Comment On April 07, 2009, at 3:30 PM, nikahsekeri wrote:

    thanks for great post. I love the colorful quality of this.

    web:http://www.nikahsekeri.net.tc

  • Report this Comment On October 11, 2009, at 1:49 AM, ikkyu2 wrote:

    What a wonderful post. I am taking notes!

  • Report this Comment On October 12, 2009, at 1:14 PM, pulpgirl01 wrote:

    Two years ago, the average wedding was $28,000, so couples have become much more practical!

    DIY wedding invitations are super popular right now and do not have to look cheap flyers. There are amazingly cool options that are really tasteful, eco and classy, like these wedding invitations: http://www.invitesite.com/weddings/All-wedding-invitations.p...

    The designs are sold as kits that couples print and assemble.

    InviteSite has specialized in DIY invites and programs for 15 years now. There have always been really practical couples :)

  • Report this Comment On August 25, 2011, at 12:56 PM, TungstenRings wrote:

    There are many ways to save money on the wedding costs. This article offers many great suggestions. I saved a few hundred dollars on his wedding band at http://www.savorystone.com

    It is a tungsten carbide ring that I saw at the mall for about 5 times the price.

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