Posted on February 14 2020
Updated July, 2022
My husband and I had two weddings, one in the US and another in Shanghai. Knowing we would have a big party happening in Shanghai (sort of a cultural requirement), we wanted to plan a small, intimate wedding in the US that cost less than $15K. Here are some tips to hopefully help you achieve your dream vibe on a budget.
Here is a budget and planning breakdown for our intimate wedding in California.
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Why Budget Your Wedding?
As with all big ticket items in life (buying a house, planning a dream vacation, etc), setting a budget is an essential first step for your wedding planning. It forces you to do the following:
- Set the tone for the type of wedding you will have: We wanted to keep the budget of our California wedding under $15,000 (less than half the national average, according to Business Insider.) With such a small budget, we know we would have a short guest list, and likely wouldn't have any of the bells and whistles such as a band or taco truck.
- Know your priorities: What are things you can compromise on vs. not? Once you start to actually go line by line on your budget, you will find yourself having to make some really hard, but necessary decisions. I was willing to compromise on a no-brand wedding grown, but the venue for the ceremony was non-negotiable. We were ok with minimal decoration, but wanted to have great food for the guests. You need to sit down with your partner to figure these things out, so you can find ways to stay within budget.
- Set boundaries to not overspend: Ever gone into a shopping mall without any goal in mind, and left at the end of the day spending way more than you should have? It's ok to occassionally go on a shopping spree, but you sure don't want to go way over budget on your wedding. I was staring at a gorgeous wedding gown with a price tag of $4,000. But when I comb through our budget, there was simply no room for that and I convinced myself to let it go.
Wedding Budget Breakdown
Tip #1: Keep the Guest List Small
Your cost and planning efforts are directly proportional to the size of your party. We decided to cap our US wedding at 40 people. It's a lot harder than expected to narrow down the invite list. After splitting the number in half, my husband and I each got 20 people to invite, including family members. We inevitably had to make some hard decisions. But as we would later find out, even with a larger guest count, you would face the same dilemma of who to invite.
On the other hand, there are true benefits to keeping your guest list small. For one, we managed to plan the entire wedding by ourselves without hiring a professional planner. Having a small wedding also meant we could keep it very simple and intimate, without all of the bells and whistles. Lastly, we also had the chance to actually spend quality time with all our guests on our wedding day.
Tip #2: Pick a Festive Time
Stanford Memorial Church (Venue: $2,800; Organist + Pastor Tip: $600)
Our big splurge on the budget was the venue. Fortunately, our wedding was right before Christmas time, so the church was fully decorated and we didn't need to do any additional work. I bought some nicely designed invitation shells on Amazon, and printed our programs at Fedex.
Tip #3: Do a Lunch Reception
Zola Palo Alto: $65 per person + drink + tax/tip = roughly $100 per person in total
We decided to host our wedding reception at Zola, a quaint French bistro in downtown Palo Alto. It also happened to be our first date spot, so we thought it would be a cute throw-back with a personal touch. The advantage of hosting the reception at a restaurant is we didn’t need to worry about renting furniture, plating, or cutlery and we LOVE the food there. To put my cursive writing skills to use, I also hand wrote all of the table cards. Again, with 40 people, it wasn’t a daunting task.
When I looked on the restaurant's website, I also realized there was a striking difference between lunch and dinner. On a Saturday, the food & beverage minimum for dinner would have been $10,000, whereas the minimum for lunch was $1,000. Since our church ceremony was 11AM, timing worked out perfectly. In addition, for two introverts who are nervous about attention and big parties, doing a lunch reception also gave us the excuse of not doing a first dance, or hiring a band or DJ.
The team at Zola did a fantastic job. The restaurant printed out custom menus for us, and we ended up serving all the dishes family style to keep things casual. The crowd-pleaser of the day, however, was the red velvet cake we got from SusieCakes. Nothing fancy, but super yummy. My friend Melody provided home-made granola as our wedding favors.
Tip #4: Buy or Rent Your Dresses Online
Imagine when your bouquet flower is more expensive than your wedding gown. As a fashion lover, of course I care about how I look on the big day, but I couldn't justify the price tag of $1,000+ for something I would wear once. I stumbled upon an eCommerce website with beautiful designs and decided to give it a try. The only downside is I couldn't try on any of the dresses, but I thought, if things don't work out, I could always return the dress. When the dress arrived four weeks later, I was impressed by the quality of the garment.
My second secret weapon was a great tailor. I went to Alteration Specialist in NYC. Pro tip: make sure you decide on your shoes before going to your tailor, so they can customize the dress length accordingly.
For my reception dress, I rented a little white dress from Rent The Runway, as part of my monthly subscription service.
Fun fact: my own wedding was actually the source of inspiration for ALLY’s bridal collection.
- I knew I had to stand and walk all day, but struggled to find white heels that were both stylish and comfortable. I ended up wearing our Prowess Pearl heels from the Five Shades of Nude Collection for the main ceremony, and the Gutsy Garnet for the reception.
- For brides who hate spending money on a pair of shoes you won’t wear again, you are not alone. I’m starting to see more and more brides wearing non conventional colors. A few additional recommendations from me: any color in neutral tones to match your skin tone, navy as your “something blue”, or a fun sparkle in silver or rose gold. The advantage of going for a non-white color for your wedding shoes is you can wear them again, to work, events, or holiday parties!
- But if you are like me who really wanted a pair of white heels to feel special, a classic pair of white leather or lace pumps are great options, and can be re-purposed as well for every day wear. (e.g., I love a white t-shirt + jeans + white heels look)
Tip #5: Project Manage Your Event Planning
I will admit, as a former management consultant, I was slightly excited to apply all the PMO skills I learned in my own wedding planning. Google Doc was my best friend. I had three tabs: schedule, to-do list, and contact list.
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- The schedule helps me keep track of the run of the show. I shared the day-of timeline to all the parties, including the wedding party, photographer (Michaela Joy Photography) / videographer (Two4Tea Weddings), and makeup artist (Fiona from Urban Beauty Loft). I made sure everyone was on board with the timeline so there was no confusion.
- The to do list helped me organize every little thing that needs to be done and/or delegated. It’s important to divide and conquer. For example, I assigned my amazing maid of honor to source photographer / videographer in the area, and put my husband in charge of food & beverage and email communications with guests (I call that customer support). As with everything else in life, it’s a team effort.
- Lastly, I kept a list of vendors' and wedding parties’ contact info on the google doc, and emailed out a copy beforehand to everyone, so people weren't all calling me on the day of.
- Get help: Planning a wedding is a lot of work. However short your guest list is, there is still a fixed amount of effort that needs to be put in. If you can afford to hire a planner, it's a smart investment. At the very least, I would recommend hiring a day-of coordinator so you can actually relax on your big day.
- Minimize your guests' investment: Since this was a budget wedding for us, we thought it was only fair to minimize our guests' investment as well. Since most of our friends and family are in the San Francisco area, we tried to keep our guest list local and also instituted a no-gift policy.
- Wear comfortable shoes: If you decide to wear heels, you should go for ALLY (because I'm obviously not biased) If you feel more comfortable with flats or even boots under your dress, go for it. It’s your big day, so you should feel at your best.
- Enjoy yourself: The planning process can be stressful, but it’s a celebration of you and your SO. Have fun! Things won’t go perfectly, but everyone will still have a good time, so relax.