Yesterday, in addition to being Superbowl Sunday, was also the second anniversary of the day Drew proposed to me (we’ve decided to make it our own Valentine’s Day, since it’s so close to the 14th anyway). Because February is a month of higher-than-average proposals, I thought this would be a perfect time to re-post a popular article I published on my personal blog in August 2009 called “How I Threw a Budget Wedding in New York City.” In my seven years of writing online, I’ve received more feedback about this article than any other, and I’m hoping by giving it a larger audience here on Dear Wendy, it will help other newly engaged couples — especially those on a tight budget — navigate the often scary roads of wedding planning. The article below is posted in its entirely, unedited since I wrote it in 2009, so please keep in mind that services and prices have probably changed since then. — Wendy
The following is meant to be a guide for anyone planning a budget wedding, particularly in New York City. Though these aren’t exactly tips, but more a detailed list of exactly how we did things (with an itemized list of expenses, which I would have KILLED for when we started planning), I hope this post will provide ideas, inspiration, and resources for others planning a big-city wedding on the cheap(ish). Here’s my story:
I got engaged in February and had roughly 5 1/2 months to plan a wedding in New York City. It had to be in the summer since that’s the only time of year my parents come back to the States, and since I certainly didn’t want to spend a year and a half stressing over planning a wedding, it had to be this summer. It also had to be a budget wedding because, well, we’re not rich. We’re not poor, either, but we didn’t want to drop a huge chunk of our life savings on what amounts to a fancy party.
When some people say they threw a budget wedding in NYC, they mean they spent 40 grand on the affair. We did not spend 40 grand. We didn’t spend 30 grand or 20 grand, either. Those don’t seem like budget amounts to me, though I can appreciate that for some people they are. For us, 7-10 grand was an amount we were more comfortable with. While we ended up spending closer to the latter amount (a little more, actually), we could have skipped some of our splurges and ended up with a figure closer to 6 or 7 grand, which, for a wedding of 65 people in Manhattan, is practically unheard of.
Sure, we could have skipped the wedding completely and gotten married for free at the courthouse, but we wanted to celebrate the occasion with a party. We wanted a fun — maybe even elegant — affair with our family and friends. We wanted great food, good music, fantastic photos, lovely ambiance, comfort and convenience — and we wanted all those things without spending a fortune. This is how we did it.
Venue — $400
This was probably the toughest part of the planning, upon which every other decision hinged. In the beginning — the first couple weeks after the initial excitement of engagement passed and we realized that, “Holy crap, now we have to actually plan a wedding,” we researched a host of options, from raw spaces to catering halls that take care of every detail. After some tears (me) and hair-pulling (both of us), we settled on the Conservatory Gardens in Central Park, which ended up being the perfect choice for us. Yes, it meant worrying about weather and making sure we had a plan B in case of rain or terribly hot temps (we were blessedly spared both), but it also meant getting a beautiful backdrop for a fairly intimate wedding at a fraction of the cost that ever other place we researched would have charged.
Permits for the Conservatory Gardens (there are three spots to choose from) are $400, but there are several other areas in Central Park to get married where permits are as low as $25 (space is limited, so those spots would be perfect for very small weddings -— like under 20 people). Our guests raved about how beautiful the location was, and our pictures turned out so pretty with the all the trees, flowers, and lovely natural lighting.
Invitations — $150 + $75 for postage (included postage for response cards, too)
We found these great invitations from Etsy vendor, Evapaul. We loved the modern simplicity, and though they customize color and font (and info, of course), we went with the color and font pictured. Invitations are $100 for a set of 50 (comes with response cards, too). We got an additional 5 and paid a little extra to get rounded edges. We used the same color and font to print addresses on clear labels and affix them to the outside of the envelopes. We sent email Save the Dates about 4 months before the wedding.
Marriage License – $35
Obtained at City Hall.
Officiant — $600
We splurged a little here because it was important to Drew, who’s Jewish, to have a Rabbi who’d create a religious ceremony that was respectable but not, like, over-the-top. Drew remembered this particular Rabbi when he married friends of his ten years ago. We were SO PLEASED with his ceremony for us and thought he was worth every penny.
In addition to a Rabbi, we had a Cantor (singer), as well. This Cantor was special because he Bar Mitzvah’d Drew 26 years ago. Obviously, this was another splurge that wasn’t necessary, but added to personalizing our wedding. His singing was probably the most memorable part of the ceremony. This was a pay-as-you-wish service, so there wasn’t a set fee.
Musicians — $275 plus tip
We went with New Bards Music who were very professional, listened to our requests, offered helpful suggestions, and played lovely music at the ceremony. Per our request, they played Canon in D for the processional, and New York, New York for the recessional. We paid $275 for a violin-cello duo, but in retrospect, I wish, for $400, we would have gone with a trio, which would have made a greater impact given the size of our wedding.
Chairs — $260 plus tip
We rented ten chairs from Atlas Party Rental for those guests who needed to sit during the ceremony. We paid $260 (plus tax and tip) — delivery and pick-up was included in the price. We kept the chairs through the weekend so we’d have extra seating at our after-party.
Photographer — $700
I found Naheed Choudhry on Craigslist and couldn’t have been happier with her work. She was very reasonably priced, very professional, and did a wonderful job capturing the joy of the day without being the least bit intrusive. She does documentary-style wedding photos, which is what we were after, but set aside time to take plenty of posed shots, too. She offered a variety of packages at different price points. We paid $700 for our package, which included an online gallery and two disks of hundreds of photos. Eventually, we’ll have to print our favorites at our expense, which will increase the amount we’re spending on photos, but we’ll worry about all that when we get back from the Honeymoon!
Rings — $1400 plus tax
I inherited my great-grandmother’s engagement ring, which, of course, was free for us. We went to Little King for custom-designed wedding rings after I read a review on Yelp that called them the anti-Tiffany’s. We were beyond impressed with them and SO happy we didn’t go anywhere else for our rings. Not only are they true artists/craftspeople, they listened to what WE wanted and designed rings that were exactly what we’d hoped for (my ring, for example, perfectly matched my vintage engagement ring despite being made 82 years later!). Best of all, they were far more reasonably priced than every other place we looked at. We paid about $1400 for two custom-designed rings — a fraction of what other stores were charging for mass-produced jewelry. Love, love, love Little King.
Dress — $125
I bought a new-with-tags J.Crew dress on eBay for $125.
Dress Cleaning – $38
I had my dress cleaned at a regular dry cleaners for $19 before the wedding. In fairness, I actually had it cleaned twice because I got lipstick on it when I did my own “dress rehearsal” two days before the wedding, so I guess I truly spent $38 on dry cleaning…
Flower clip — $25
I ended up skipping the veil (cant stand the feel of anything on my face), but wore a pretty flower clip in my hair that I got from Etsy vendor, Tessa Kim, for about $25.
Shoes — $95
I wore Vaneli Modesta shoes I got from Zappos. They were seriously comfortable and I wore them from early morn. til late-night without a single ache. Drew wore dress shoes he already owned.
Purse — $10
I found the perfect fan-shaped vintage beaded purse in mint condition on eBay for $10.
Jewelry — $61
I love the Prehnite earrings and necklace set I got from Etsy vendor, Hampton Jewels, for a total of $61.
Tux — $500
Drew already owned a tux, but needed a new jacket. He waited until there was a 20% off sale at Brooks Brothers and then bought one for $500. This was also a splurge, as he could have rented one, but now he has something to wear to all those black-tie events we’re always getting invited to (ha ha).
Undergarments — $30
The only thing “special” I wore was a this Flexees thigh slimmer under my dress. I also bought a couple of Spanx products (a slip and some “power panties” — ugh, hate that term), but skipped both in favor of the Flexees, which slimmed just as well, but wasn’t as bulky/didn’t show seems and lines under my thin dress like the Spanx did.
Hair – Free
Bride Hair scares me, so I did my hair myself.
Makeup — Free
I wanted to look like myself on my wedding day, so I did my own makeup, too.
Wedding Party — Free
The only wedding party we had was a ring bearer and a flower girl, and we only had those because Drew’s little niece and nephew were perfect for the parts (and our nephew already had practice as ring bearer in his aunt’s wedding last fall). They came with their own darling outfits (and ring pillow), too!
Wedding Favors — $80
We thought it might be hot in the park (it wasn’t!), so we got colorful paper folding fans for all our guests from Pearl River in Soho. Since we bought in bulk, I asked for a discount and they took 10% off the price.
Reception — $50 per person, all inclusive, plus tip
I can’t say enough good things about Becco, where we had our reception. They’re fabulous to work with — totally accommodating, very reasonably priced, with excellent food, perfect service, and a “relaxed elegant” ambiance (we rented the back room, which sits up to 100, and had a mahogany wine wall and two big sky lights). They didn’t try to oversell anything or charge extra because we were a wedding reception. They offer several group packages, and we took the $50-per-person package, which included delicious appetizers (including grilled octopus salad), three all-you-can eat pastas, three entrees per person (swordfish, lemon chicken breast, and rib eye steak), an assortment of wonderful desserts, and endless wine, beer, champagne, coffee, and other beverages.
Music — Free
Drew put together a fantastic playlist — which included Fats Waller, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Count Basie and the like — on his iPod. We borrowed a friend’s speaker dock.
Cake — $75
We skipped the traditional tiered wedding cake and had Becco make us a fantastic cannoli cake that was out of this world. It only fed about 30, but there were so many other delicious desserts, no one went hungry. We used the wedding topper that sat atop Drew’s parents’ wedding cake over 40 years ago.
Flowers — $250
This was another DIY project I took on (I have floral design experience…and I had help from two friends who also have professional experience). The morning before the wedding, I hit the wholesale flower market on 28th street and bought enough flowers for about ten centerpieces, seven boutinneires, 5 corsages, and two bouquets. I could have definitely gotten away with spending less (I had about $75 worth of flowers leftover that I didn’t know what to do with), but I’m like a kid in a candy store when it comes to flower shops and I went a little overboard. You don’t need a wholesale license to buy from the shops in the wholesale market. Just get there early, play it cool, and say ‘no’ when they ask if you have a wholesale ID; they won’t hassle you. You can also find all kinds of vases, baskets, ribbon, and any supplies you might need (I recommend strippers, clippers, corsage pins, floral tape, and floral wire). Tip: check out Youtube for floral design video tutorials if you want to try designing your own flowers.
Place Cards — $39
We bought a pack of 50 of these place cards for $39 from Fine Stationery. I wrote guests’ names and their table numbers by hand.
Transportation — $510 plus tip
We rented three comfy, air-conditioned shuttle buses from Shuttle Bus Plus to transport everyone from the park to Becco, about a 15 minute drive away. This was another splurge that added convenience, set the tone for a relaxed, fun reception, and (we hope) made the guests feel special (as opposed to all of us fighting for cabs or taking the subway).
We could have left things with a nice ceremony and reception and called it a day, but we were ready to party! So, a few hours after the lunch reception ended, we hosted a small after-party at our apartment. This is approximately what we spent:
Booze — $125
Wine, gin, vodka, champagne, beer, etc. Guests also brought additional libations.
Food — $515
A friend of ours, who’s a wonderful cook and baker and is responsible for the good eats at another friend’s coffee shop, catered the affair as our wedding gift. We paid for the ingredients, but she put in the time and effort to shop and create an exquisite spread. Her menu was awesome and included: salmon and wasabi tea sandwiches, white bean artichoke and roasted pepper dip, three different kinds of gourmet cheese, lemon bars, and madeleine cookies (among many other delicious items).
Disposable plates, cups, napkins, and utensils — approximately $125
We hit Paper House on the Upper West Side for all this stuff — they had a good selection and were the most reasonably priced of anywhere we looked.
Dress – $188
I kept on the same shoes and all the same jewelry for the party, but changed into this dress from Nordtrom, which I LOVE, and which is now on sale for only $75.
Entertainment — Free
Drew put together another playlist — similar to the reception playlist, but, like, with Feist and stuff — from his iPod. He also entertained everyone with the premiere of his newest short film!
Thank You Notes — $50 plus $25 for postage
We’ve sent roughly 50 thank you notes, which we spent approximately $50 on, plus about $25 for postage. We found our thank you notes at Paper Source.
Since we had less that 25 people coming in from out of town, we skipped reserving block rooms at one place and let guests choose their own accommodations based on their budget and wants. I ended up checking out rooms in several hotels and based on my own observation and our guests’ feedback, I’d recommend the Hampton Inn (I stayed there in my sister’s room the night before the wedding — it was very spacious and comfy…and breakfast was included in the price), the Hilton Garden Inn, and the Edison Hotel to anyone looking for good deals in Midtown, Manhattan.
All in all, the wedding day was pretty near perfect. Everyone seemed to have a great time (some people even said it was the best wedding they’d been to), and there’s not much I would have done differently…except maybe not stressing out so much beforehand.
* Wedding and reception photos by Naheed Choudhry.