There's no doubt about it: Weddings tend to be hugely expensive affairs, recently costing an average of $33,391 (with an average cost per guest of $268), per the folks at theknot.com. Just being a wedding guest can be costly, even driving some attendees into debt.

Fortunately, you don't have to give up on your big financial goals simply because you want to get married. There are lots of ways to keep wedding costs down by a little or a lot. Here's a bunch of great ideas for your consideration.

Guests Throwing Confetti Over Bride And Groom As They Run Towards Camera

Image source: Getty Images.

The case for eloping

Let's start with the easiest way to shrink those wedding costs: Don't have a wedding and elope instead. Yes, there are some downsides to this, but there's considerable upside, too. First, the case against it: You won't have the experience or memories of a traditional wedding -- walking down the aisle on a parent's arm (or standing at an altar), being surrounded by loved ones, dancing at the reception, and so on. And your family and friends might be sad or mad that they don't get to be at your wedding.

Here's why you might elope anyway:

  • There's a lot less stress if you don't have to plan a wedding.
  • You'll save a lot of time and energy, as weddings involve many, many details.
  • You won't have to make painful choices, such as deciding whom to invite and not invite.
  • You''ill avoid offending anyone who would not have been invited to the wedding.
  • You can avoid potentially contentious issues such as which church or clergy you'll use and who will be maid of honor, best man, and so on.
  • You can save a lot of money!
  • You can spend more on your honeymoon -- or just put your savings toward a down payment on a home, retirement savings, debt repayment, or any other purpose.
  • You can focus solely on your partner, your relationship, and your upcoming life together, making the elopement potentially more romantic.
  • You can always celebrate with loved ones another way, such as with a party.

You may consider the pros and cons above and decide that you nevertheless want a wedding -- along with all, or most, of what that entails. That's fine, because it still doesn't have to cost you an arm and a leg.

two gold rings sitting on a credit card

Image source: Getty Images.

Saving for a wedding is easier if the wedding costs less

A little creative thinking can help you spend a lot less on your wedding. Below are 10 ideas to consider. The more of them that you use, the more money you can save. The smaller your expected total cost, the less you'll have to save for your wedding.

1. Go for a buffet

One way to shrink your catering costs is to have food served buffet-style, with guests helping themselves to food instead of being served sit-down style by waitstaff. This strategy can shave some big bucks off the total tab. And if you're so inclined, you can use those savings to upgrade the menu; you may only be able to afford chicken if the meal is served by waiters, but switching to a buffet could make roast beef affordable. Depending on the size of your wedding and your food choices, opting for a buffet over a sit-down meal may save you several hundred dollars at a minimum.

Alternatively, you might consider having just lots of hors d'oeuvres and some stations scattered around with cheeses and other treats. You can get away with this if you have a mid- to late-afternoon wedding or a post-dinner one. By serving a variety of hors d'oeuvres instead of a meal (which often includes starters), you'll have plenty of food, but without the hefty cost of a full dinner for each guest. You can give guests a heads-up about your food plan by including a line such as "light refreshments will follow the ceremony" in your invitations.

Just how much will this strategy save you? Well, the cost of wedding food can vary very widely, depending on what you serve and which company you hire. Many caterers serving a wedding meal in the traditional manner will charge between $50 and $150 per guest. To get an idea of what else is possible, here are some prices from a caterer that does a lot of weddings in Rhode Island:

  • $13 per guest for a "cocktail reception," which features six different hors d'oeuvres chosen from a long list of possibilities (including mini crab cakes, scallops in bacon, toasted ravioli, and stuffed mushrooms). They plan for six pieces per guest.
  • $15 per guest for a raw bar with oysters and shrimp cocktail.

That combo would come to just $28 per guest, which, with a 15-person wedding, would save you $22 per guest over a $50-a-head dinner -- for a total savings of $3,300!

2. Get bids for big jobs

Instead of approaching bands, photographers, and other wedding service providers and asking what they charge, consider exploring your options via sites such as thumbtack.com, where you can specify what you need and have pros bid for your business. Be sure to check out their work and their references, of course. While many photographers, for example, charge upwards of $2,000 to photograph a wedding, you might solicit bids for the job online and end up with someone who will do the job well for $800. Similarly, you may be able to snag some good musicians or a DJ for a few hundred dollars instead of a few thousand. 

3. Enlist friends

If you have some talented friends, see if they'd be willing to offer their services for your wedding either as a gift or at a discounted rate. For example, they might provide music for your ceremony, be your videographer, bake your cake, or do flower arrangements. As an example, videographers tend to cost between $1,000 and $2,500. If you have a friend who is handy with a video recorder and is willing to document your special day as a wedding gift to you, you can save a lot of money.

Don't enlist just anyone for specialized tasks, though, or the results may be disappointing. Perhaps review a photographer friend's portfolio carefully before approaching him or her, and ask someone who has impressed you with their flower-arranging skills instead of a well-meaning good friend who might not be so good at the task. When in doubt, go with a well-reviewed professional -- this is your wedding, after all!

A friend could even be the one to marry you if he or she is ordained by your state or local government. If not, there are inexpensive paths to quick ordinations online. Just check with your secretary of state or town clerk to find out what credentials are required. Many friends or relatives of marrying couples around the country have gotten quick ordination credentials from entities such as the Universal Life Church or the American Fellowship Church, which charge $50 or less for what you would need to perform a wedding.

4. Don't be so traditional

It's easy to start your wedding planning with traditional images in your head -- big wedding party, fancy venue, sit-down dinner, and so on. But that scenario might not reflect your budget or your personality. Don't be afraid to buck some norms and have things your way -- or just a different and less expensive way.

For example, many couples want to be married on a Saturday in, say, June or September. Due to the simple rules of supply and demand, that makes weekends during "wedding season" an expensive time to get married. You can save some big bucks by getting hitched on a weekday, during the off season, or both. Venues will typically charge much less at non-peak times, and many wedding professionals (such as photographers, musicians, and possibly even some caterers) will have no bookings on, say, a Thursday in January, so they may be happy to take your job at a discounted rate.

The folks at valuepenguin.com offered this example of just how much you might save: "To rent one historic building in Seattle for your wedding, you'd pay $625 if you held your wedding on a Thursday evening or Saturday morning in November; while you'd pay $1,750 for the exact same space and number of hours if you chose a Saturday evening in August. That makes the on-peak event 2.8x the cost of the the off-peak wedding."

See if you can think of an inexpensive yet lovely and meaningful venue for your wedding -- perhaps a friend's yard, a beach, the park where you and your partner went on your first date, or any other place that has special meaning to you. You might even have a potluck instead of a catered affair, which can save thousands of dollars. Brides often buy their dresses at bridal shops, but you might instead find a special $250 dress online instead of springing for one that costs $1,000 or more. You might look into finding service providers at local schools, too. If there's a photography school near you, you might hire a talented student for your photography needs for much less than a seasoned pro.

5. Skip the favors

Your guests probably won't mind that you didn't spend $300 or $600 on little favors for everyone. After all, they're showing up for you, not for free goodies. If you think they will mind, or if you want to give your guests some token of your appreciation, then come up something inexpensive, such as seed bombs, customized key rings or magnets, homemade cookies, or lollipops. A little searching online will turn up gobs of ideas, some of which will likely appeal to you.

6. Downsize your invitations

Skip paying for custom calligraphy and gold engraving. Some couples pay invitation preparers more than a thousand dollars -- sometimes several thousand -- for 100 to 300 invitations. That might include $500 for a design and then many hundreds for inner and outer envelopes, ribbons, embossing, and so on. You can find lovely and inexpensive invitations or invitation designs on Etsy.com and elsewhere, saving a lot of money. For example, you might find a design you love, and the designer might personalize it with your names and wedding information and then send you a printable file of that for just $50 or $100. Then you just take the file to a printer or do the printing yourself at home, if you can.

Alternatively, many designers will order the printed invitations for you, perhaps charging $1 to $5 each. You could even make your own invitations, perhaps with the help of a crafty friend. You might use rubber stamps for a nice effect, and you can buy nice, thick papers at office supply stores or online. Printing on linen can look extra fancy. You can address the envelopes yourself, too -- maybe even making a party of it with some friends. You could also see whether anyone in your circle is good at calligraphy and willing to help out.

7. Buy your own liquor from a store that will take back unopened bottles

You don't want to run out of booze at your wedding reception, which is why you (or your wedding planner, or the liquor store you're buying from) should estimate generously, ordering more than you need. That's all well and good, but after the big event, you don't want to end up with costly leftover cases of alcohol that you can't return. Fortunately, many liquor stores will deliver alcohol and later refund you for unopened bottles. If the alcohol provider you're working with won't do that, consider looking for one that will.

8. Cut the cake early in the reception

Here's a money-saving trick that many people never think of: Don't put off cutting the cake at the reception. Why? Well, getting to it early in the reception can allow the photographer and/or videographer to wrap up their work earlier and thus charge you less. Otherwise they may be hanging around for an extra hour or two simply to document the last major event. If your photographer is charging you $200 per hour, you might save $200 to $400 with this tip.

9. Invite fewer people

This one might make you wince, but you could save many thousands by making some tough decisions and inviting fewer people to your special day. For example, imagine that you're planning a wedding with 200 guests and your fixed costs (dress, limo, musicians, photographer, cake, etc.) are about $10,000. Meanwhile, your cost per guest (for food, favors, rented chairs or table settings, etc.) is $100, totaling $20,000 for 200 guests. That's a total of $30,000. If you can shave that invitation list in half, your total will be only $20,000 -- $10,000 for fixed costs and $10,000 for variable guest costs. That's a hefty savings of $10,000!

Even trimming the list by 50 might save you around $5,000. Spend a little time thinking about how many people really have to be at your wedding. Don't assume you have to allow every adult to bring a "plus one"; you may be able to trim your list significantly by only inviting known couples and having single folks attend on their own.

10. Skip the wedding planner -- or don't

Many couples hire a wedding planner or coordinator to do much of the work for them. This can save you a lot of time and aggravation, but their services don't come free. They typically cost between $1,500 and $3,000 or so, though some can cost much more or less. If you take on this role yourself, you may be able to save hundreds or even thousands of dollars.

That said, if you're terrible at organizing and multitasking (they're not skills that everyone possesses), or if you simply don't have the time for wedding planning, then you might do well to skimp elsewhere and to hire a pro. After all, your time is worth something, too. One survey of folks occupied or recently occupied with wedding planning found that the median time spent on it was about 10 hours per week. If you earn just $12 per hour, spending 10 hours a week on wedding planning for 50 weeks is worth about $6,000 of your time. A wedding planner might be well worth it. Also remember that while a good planner will cost money, he or she will likely save you some money, too, by knowing where to find reasonably priced goods and services.

on a blackboard, wedding budget is circled, pointing to costs such as honeymoon, reception, ceremony, etc

Image source: Getty Images.

Save aggressively for your wedding -- and minimize financial pain

The average engagement period is about 14 months, per theknot.com. If yours is in that neighborhood, too, you probably have about a year or a little more in which to sock money away for your wedding. (Of course, you might be quick about it, going from engagement to wedding in just two or three months or less -- or you might be engaged for several years, too.) Come up with an estimated total cost (and perhaps add on an extra 5% to 10% for unexpected expenses), subtract from it the amount you already have socked away that you can spend on the wedding, and divide the remainder by the number of months until the big day: That's how much you'll need to save each month.

For example, imagine you're expecting to pay $20,000 for a wedding that's 18 months away, and you have $5,000 in the bank that you can spend on the wedding. That leaves a $15,000 shortfall. Divide that by 18 months, and you'll see that you'll have to aim to save about $833 or more per month. If that's an alarming sum, you might look into trimming the cost of the wedding -- or delaying it while you save more money. Delaying until you can really afford the wedding you want can be better than going into debt for it. (Be sure to plan for the fact that some expenses, such as deposits for rentals and caterers, will need to be paid in advance.)

How to afford the wedding you want

If you need to accumulate many thousands of dollars for a wedding next year and you find yourself hyperventilating at the thought of it, know that it can be done. Here are some tips that can help once you know how much you need to save.

Crunch numbers and have a strategy. Figure out where the necessary savings will come from. If you need to sock away $800 per month, spend some time studying how, exactly, you spend your money and see where you can cut back. Two common and effective suggestions are brown-bagging lunches and skipping fancy daily coffees. If you cut out $10 per weekday, you're looking at savings of $50 per week and $200 per month!

Here are a few more of many ways to save money:

  • Quitting smoking can save you more than $2,700 a year if you smoke a $7.50 pack a day.
  • Taking on a part-time job can be tiring but effective: If you work 12 hours a week at $12 per hour, you're looking at gross additional income of more than $500 per month.
  • You might save $1,000 or more over a year simply by calling around and finding a cheaper car and/or home insurance policy.

Get organized -- and maybe automated, too. You might set up one or more separate accounts for wedding savings. There might be one account for the entire affair or one for your venue costs, one for catering costs, one for photography, and so on. Having a set of accounts can help you prioritize, as you can fill up the most important ones first. If you only fill the photography account with half of what you wanted, you can always go with a photographer who will charge less. You might automate the process a little by sending fixed sums from your paychecks directly into your wedding savings account(s). Your employer may be able to set that up for you.

Consider getting a loan. This can be a dangerous option if you (and/or your spouse-to-be) are not good at repaying debt. It can also be unhelpful to start a marriage off with a heaping dose of debt -- especially if you're already saddled with some student loans. Still, borrowing for a wedding can make sense if you're sure you'll be able to pay off the loan. A personal loan may give you several years to pay off the balance so you don't have to come up with all the money up front.

You might consider getting an online loan from a business you trust. Upstart.com is one example, and some googling will turn up others. A home equity line of credit can also work if you have a home and some equity in it. Understand that simply charging wedding costs on a credit card is essentially taking out a loan, as you're borrowing money -- but typically at very steep interest rates.

Consider crowdsourcing. You might be able to get friends and family to pitch in by setting up a fundraising page at gofundme.com or a similar site. You may want to tell people that contributions can be made in lieu of more traditional wedding gifts.

Your special day should be just that -- special -- whether you elope or host a grand affair. Just remember that you can have a fun, elegant, and memorable wedding without going into debt or giving up on other financial goals.

Selena Maranjian has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends eBay and Etsy. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.