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How I Threw a Budget Wedding in New York City

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.

Cantor

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).

After-Party

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.

Hotels

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.

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{ 12 comments… add one }

  • avatar Wolvie_girl February 7, 2011, 12:25 pm

    I also was married on a budget (the marraige wasn’t so great, I’m now divorced, but the wedding was great, and wouldn’t have changed a singal detail)

    I spent a total of 3,000, using many of the same tips as you Wendy: I worked in a flower shop in high school, so I too bought all my flowers whole-sale and made all the boutineers and bouquets myself. I decided on geometric-shaped vases filled with vibrant green grapes and limes, and pinned variing-width blue ribbons to the white table cloths to serve as “runner” The effect was light, airy, unique, and CHEAP!

    I hit up Carolina Pottery (whole-sale type warehouse) for all my vases and ribbons, and the price was really affordable.

    I had an afternoon church wedding with a cake and light appatizer reception after, and did all the food (other than the cake) myself. It was light finger foods, nice cheeses, fresh fruit and homemade candy.

    My brother made the playlist, and everyone involved in the ceremony (singers, pastor, etc) were dear friends and I gave them all small thank-you gifts.

    The day went perfectly, and I (nor my guests, as far as I can tell) certainly didn’t miss any of the expensive “finery” of other weddings I’ve been too.

  • avatar Peachy86 February 7, 2011, 12:57 pm

    First, a photographer that cheap is unbelievable, and the pics are beautiful.

    That said, I’m commenting to share my one caution with the amazing, budget-friendly job you did. For those planning a wedding, I really, truly believe that every butt needs a chair at the ceremony. First, no matter how short your ceremony is, people arrive early, delays happen, high heels hurt etc. Second, if you’re 5 feet tall and stuck behind Yao Ming or something, you’re screwed.

    Anyway, that’s my only advice that differs from the article, really.

  • avatar PFG-SCR February 7, 2011, 1:03 pm

    Thank you so much for sharing, Wendy! I’m already married, so while I won’t be needing your budgeting tips, I thoroughly enjoyed reading all of the details about your wedding day.

    Everything was gorgeous!

  • avatar Anne (I Go To 11) February 7, 2011, 1:31 pm

    Love it! :)

    When my husband and I were married 16 months ago, we found a number of ways to save money on the wedding. One way was with our flowers. I couldn’t find reasonably priced live flowers near me that offered what I was looking for, so I turned to the web to find silk ones. I went with Kimberly Renee Creations; not only did she do a beautiful job, but she has great prices and is flexible in her packages (for example, instead of ordering a toss bouquet I ordered 2 additional mothers’ corsages.) When my dad got remarried last year, my stepmom used Kimberly Renee for her flowers, and one of her cousins ordered from Kimberly’s site for her wedding, too. The website itself isn’t anything to marvel over, but trust me, her products speak for themselves: http://www.kimberlyreneecreations.com/index.html

    • avatar Anne (I Go To 11) February 7, 2011, 1:44 pm

      Shoot, forgot to add some of my other money savers…

      -We got married in the church we belong to; this meant a lower fee to use the facilities, and as a gift to us, our pastor waived his officiant’s fee.
      -I did my own makeup, too. I ordered Smart Cover cosmetics to hide some of my tattoos, and it worked really well.
      -I found a beautiful set of vintage-style hair combs to use in place of a veil…I think I paid $6.99 for them at my local Icing store.
      -We got our wedding bands on Amazon. Seriously. Since we just wanted simple gold bands (my engagement ring is a solitaire diamond on a plain gold band; didn’t get that one from Amazon, though), we didn’t need anything fancy. And if something were to happen to the bands themselves, they’re easily replaced. I think my band was $70 and my husband’s was $90.

  • LK7889 LK7889 February 7, 2011, 2:31 pm

    The picture of your wedding are absolutely gorgeous, Wendy!

    I really enjoy reading about what people have done to have budget weddings. It helps with my stress level of planning a wedding. I hate planning social affairs and the idea of planning a wedding gets my stomach turned up in knots. I wouldn’t just mind going to the courthouse but my fiancee (Brian) wants a “real wedding” (talk about role reversal!).

    A couple of my good friends just got married too and used many of these same tips. One thing that they did that I really liked was that the ceremony and reception were at the same location. They saved a ton of money on that alone! Also, they had many of their friends help out with the wedding as gifts to them, such as the photographer, cake designer, and DJ. They even had Brian officiate for them! And they have offered to do catering for my wedding at the cost of the food as a wedding gift to us since he’s a professional cook. :)

    • avatar Wolvie_girl February 7, 2011, 5:21 pm

      LK7889, it is such a great idea to ask friends to lend thier particular talents to your special day in lieu of a gift – and if said friends are cash-strapped, they will jump at the chance to show their support for you without shelling out for an expensive gift WIN-WIN!! Almost everything for my wedding was done by me or a close friend, and it actually made the day more special and personal! (not to mention cheaper)

      • LK7889 LK7889 February 7, 2011, 5:54 pm

        Yeah, I felt that their wedding was very personal and sweet. Everyone helped out and I think that made everyone feel like part of a community of participants instead of a group of observers.

        She’s an excellent planner and she offered to help with that for our wedding too. I love good friends. :)

  • avatar ArtsyGirl February 7, 2011, 3:11 pm

    I had a bit of a blow out wedding (over 200 guests) but I come from a family with 42 first cousins so you can imagine it wasn’t going to be small no matter what I planned. That being said I also worked hard to make sure it wasn’t a budget buster.

    1. We ordered a none traditional meal from our caterers and had it buffet style instead of having it served. We actually served Chinese food (a chicken, a beef, a vegetarian, and a couple of sides along with egg rolls and crab rangoon with the signature cocktail hour) which went over really well and was a fraction of the cost of wedding fare

    2. My caterer (who was amazing but…) said that they were going to charge me $2 per person just to cut the cake even though I said I had a family member who could do it. It was a standard price which was on top of the price of a cake so instead I found a new bakery in my city which specialized in cupcake which only cost $2 total. I had 8 different flavors and they colored the frosting and added sparkles based on our wedding colors. I had the cupcakes set up on a big table along with a dozen unique glass vases filled with different kinds of candy. This table doubled as our favor since I included Chinese takeout boxes for guests to take come cupcakes and candy home. People loved it and called it a Willy Wonka table and multiple friends have used this idea in their weddings.

    3. We also bought all of our own alcohol including cases of wine and 3 kegs of beer along with bar basics such as vodka, tequila, scotch, whiskey, etc and mixers. Then we paid 3 bartenders provided by the caterer each $25 per hour. This made sure we weren’t liable if someone got in an accident but made sure we weren’t spending $15 per person for wells drinks (ICK!) We also had a stocked bar for months after the wedding.

    4. When we blocked out rooms at a hotel we got them to include a room the next morning for a bridal breakfast with free coffee, tea, and juices. My parents picked up fruit and coffee cakes/pastries for people so we weren’t paying for a hot breakfast which was very expensive.

    There are a lot of money savers out there – the best way to go about saving money is to prioritize the most important parts of the wedding: is it the dress, photographs, food and alcohol, or music etc. This will allow you to figure out where you want to spend the most money. Also always shop around!

  • avatar thefierycrash February 7, 2011, 4:40 pm

    i love this! i’m not engaged but gosh i love looking at wedding stuff! the thought of ever planning a wedding gives me a headache (i’m not much of a planner at all), so i see myself having a small, more intimate wedding with close friends and family and just having a great time celebrating. i wouldn’t mind heading to napa or somewhere beautiful to do it either! :) this was so great to read and see that it will be possible if (and when?…hopefully…) the time comes for me! thanks wendy!

  • avatar KateHC February 8, 2011, 7:33 am

    When my husband and I married, we were dead broke and rather young so we did our wedding (for about 20 people) for less than $400. I think I was proudest that I broke my mom’s cheap wedding record (and she got married in 1963!) What frugality takes is TIME–if you have the time you can figure it out, if you don’t, then you pay.

  • avatar Jessica @ The Budget Savvy Bride July 2, 2013, 2:08 pm

    Love this post! You were a budget savvy bride, indeed! I think that a necessary requirement for having a wedding on a small budget (or smaller than the average American budget) is not being a diva bridezilla. You have to be realistic, prioritize, and keep your head focused on what matters most. Seems like you did just that! Cheers :)

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