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Thrifty Bride's Guide to Staying on a Budget: Where to Start

There are lots of posts out there on how to plan a wedding without completely blowing your budget. But, most are written by industry "experts" who scour how-to guides for tips and advice they can regurgitate. This post is coming straight from a bride-to-be in the wedding planning trenches. Hi, I'm Jessica, and I'm here to give you real advice on how to get the most bang for your bridal buck.
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Bride holding bouquet
Bride holding bouquet

There are lots of posts out there on how to plan a wedding without completely blowing your budget. But, most are written by industry "experts" who scour how-to guides for tips and advice they can regurgitate. This post is coming straight from a bride-to-be in the wedding planning trenches. Hi, I'm Jessica, and I'm here to give you real advice on how to get the most bang for your bridal buck.

A little about the future husband and I.
My fiancé and I are both very budget-conscious, so it's no surprise that we agree wedded bliss and a mountain of debt should never go hand-in-hand. We're paying for most of our wedding ourselves, so to avoid falling victim to outrageous industry markups, we carefully crafted a budget before we started planning our nuptials. We also committed to a monthly savings plan that's going to allow us to pay off a majority of our big bills before our big day.

But enough about us -- let's talk about how you can plan your debt-free dream day.

First and foremost, you have to decide what kind of wedding you want.
It's vital that you and your sweetheart agree on the style, size and feel of your wedding, so you need to have that conversation before you do anything else. This is important because an intimate wedding with 25 guests is going to have a significantly different price tag than an elaborate affair with 300 of your closest acquaintances.

In my case, the goal was not to plan a run-to-the-courthouse-and-spend-less-than-a-grand event. I wanted to build a realistic wedding budget that covers a ceremony, reception and all the standard wedding costs for approximately 70 guests in San Diego, California.

So, how much does a "thrifty" bride spend on a wedding?
According to The Knot, the average cost of a wedding in the United States reached an outrageous all-time high of $31,213 in 2014. Yeah, you read that right. And to make matters worse, estimates the San Diego sunshine tax raises those costs by $6,386, meaning the average San Diego couple is shelling out a whopping $37,599. Ouch.

Rather than accepting the "average" cost as insane but inevitable, my fiancé and I chose to take it as a personal challenge -- and to prove that we can do better. We decided our wedding would cost a reasonable $10,000. Unfortunately, we quickly realized that was going to nearly impossible to pull off in San Diego, so we adjusted our budget up to $15,000. Then, with a dollar amount in mind that is well under half the average cost of a wedding in our area, we started to line-item our budget.

So what's your next step?

It's time to figure out how much wedding you can afford.
Before you get swept up in a planning tornado (thanks Pinterest...), it's critical that you talk about the dreaded B word -- your budget. Agree on a max spend amount with your soon-to-be-spouse, then talk to your families and see if they are able to help out in any way. If you do get some financial help, say thank you and incorporate that money into your total budget.

Next, make a spreadsheet that lists out every detail; dress, accessories, flowers, etc. -- and include a column where you can type in costs for each item. To make sure you don't miss anything, look up a few templates and use them to build out the bones of your budget. I also strongly recommend you allocate 3-5% of your total budget to a miscellaneous category that can absorb any hidden costs you encounter along the way. Trust me, you'll spend it. Once you have all your items listed out, it's time to start adding in real costs.

Before you start shopping, you're really just guessing on prices. So rather than blindly plugging in numbers, use a wedding cost estimator like this one to figure out what percent of your total budget you should allocate to each item or category. There are lots of estimators out there, so try a couple and average out the costs to come up with semi-accurate placeholders.

Once you have a good starting point, work with your fiancé to make adjustments based on what's important to you. For example, if you are convinced that your food, booze and DJ will make or break your wedding, allocate a larger portion of your funds to those three items. If, on the other hand, you really want a designer dress and high-end details, dedicate a bigger portion of your budget to those two things.

Time to figure out where that wedding money is going to come from!
Now that you have an idea of what you're wedding is going to cost you, it's time to figure out how you're going to pay for it. I suggest coming up with a monthly savings strategy that you can commit yourself to. You'll feel a lot less of the financial impact of the wedding if you pay it off as you go, and that's a very good thing.

As you think about your savings plan, figure out if you have any money set aside that isn't committed to anything (a tax refund, perhaps?). If so, you can use that money as a starting point. Just make sure you resist the urge to move cash from your long-term savings accounts or emergency fund over to your wedding savings. It may seem like a good idea right now, but if you need that money later, you're going to be mad at yourself for prioritizing creme brulee over a critical car repair.

Next, it's time to analyze your monthly spending. If you have a personal budget, scrutinize it and figure out how you can move things around to build up your savings. If you don't have a personal budget, analyze your bank statements or use a free app like Mint to help you see where your money goes and how you can juggle it around to help fund your big day.

Be prepared! You may have to cut back on your "fun money" spend to meet your savings goals. That is to say, you may have to reduce the amount of cash you normally spend on bi-monthly Target shopping sprees, trips to Starbucks, weekend getaways and date nights. It can be kind of a bummer sometimes, but it's a small price to pay for what will be one of the most memorable days of your life.

You should also decide how much debt you want to pay off before your big day and consider your financial situation as you think about your wedding date. If you can only set aside a little bit of money per month, think about having a longer engagement so you have more time to save. There's no rule saying you have to get married right away and you definitely don't want to put yourself in a stressful situation as you try to meet your money goals.

Couples who math together, stay together.
My fiancé and I crunched some numbers to figure out how much we collectively needed to save in order to pay off 85% of our wedding debt before the big day. Once we had that number, we divided it by the number of months we had to come up with that money to figure out what our monthly savings goals needed to be. Next, we each signed a blood oath committing to meeting those goals. Kidding! We just verbally agreed (please don't tell Judge Judy).

Once a month, we use the money we've stashed to make a big payment on our wedding credit card, and it's been a great system for us. We're still over two months out and we've already paid off more than half of our total wedding debt. Go us!

If you take the same approach and you're consistent, you'll make a huge dent in your debt before the wedding arrives and you won't be left with a giant bill to worry about on your honeymoon. Nobody wants to be sipping on a mojito on a beach somewhere, worrying about mounting interest charges.

Reap the rewards of financing your wedding.
One last tip. Find a credit card that offers fantastic rewards and use it to finance your wedding. This accomplishes two things. One, it makes it much easier to track all of your spending. Two, it allows you to cash in your points for vacation miles (hello honeymoon!) or statement credit. As an added bonus, we were able to get a rewards card that was also offering 0% APR for 12 months. More savings!

Hopefully, these tips give you a good starting point for building a budget and savings plan for your perfect day. Keep an eye out for my next post with advice on how to choose the perfect venue for your budget. Happy planning!