Happy Bride: How I Dumped the Wedding Industry

An image of the groom and bride.

Anyone I’m working with on planning our wedding says the same thing, “You seem really calm about this.” They’re right. I am. But in the earliest stages of planning my wedding to my longtime boyfriend and now fiance, I was stressed. And it was all because I had a budget that was less than a third of the average American wedding and, unfortunately, I’d interacted with wedding industry.

I walked out in tears, an hour into a wedding show. My eyes welled up after talking with dozens of vendors, only to find their prices as steep as their condescension. $4,000 photographers, venues that bait-and-switched on pricing, several thousand dollar cakes, wedding boutiques that body-shamed and price-gouged, and a whole industry that seemed to enjoy making me feel like crap for being a middle-class, size 14 bride who, after years of wanting to get married but not being able to (thanks, USCIS database errors), was finally getting married. I almost convinced my fiance to elope, just to avoid plunging us into debt on a wedding. But that didn’t feel right. It wasn’t what we wanted. I wasn’t about to be bullied into financial burden or a wedding that didn’t honor our love or our families.

So, I dumped the wedding industrial complex. My wedding wasn’t the problem, the vendors and wedding venues were. Fortunately, I founded and ran conferences as a nonprofit executive director, creating big-scale, fun events on small scale budgets. So, I went back to who I was, not what people thought I should be as a bride. As a result, I’m saving us tons of money while taking joy in planning our wedding — all without going bridezilla.

Here’s how I’m building our wedding with apps, creativity, style, and a fierce adherence to budget. You can, too.

Everything is À la Carte

  • Decouple venue from everything else. Venue+catering=rip off. The venue will probably a compromise on food quality and quantity, since they’re probably upcharging on food to increase profitability and pay for staffing. We selected a nonprofit’s venue in Seattle, Center for Wooden Boats, because of it’s lovely venue on Lake Union but also because we could self-cater and could bring in our own wine and beer, saving us approximately $7,000. Instead of a hotel we’d stay at, we rented a nearby historic boat with five hotel rooms onboard. Owned by a nonprofit, the MV Lotus Foundation, we got hotel rooms, a place to prep, and a post-wedding brunch spot for a fraction of what they would have cost at a hotel or resort. Bonus: our venue payments goes to support each nonprofit’s mission and educational programming, reinvesting our dollars back into the community we love.
  • Select a caterer or restaurant who can prepare and drop off food. I’d suggest going with a restaurant, because a big catering order is a pleasant budget surprise for them, and they’re more likely to give you a discount. (More on food selection below.)
  • Everyone will worry about staffing for your wedding. If you’re like me and don’t want to enlist your all your wedding guests into wedding staffing, separate event staffing resources can be a skilled alternative to expensive catering contracts. Which brings me to my next point…

Vendors Should See Your Wedding as “Bonus Business”

What do I mean by that? Well, a caterer or a known wedding venue, a mainstream florist or event staffing agency will upcharge a wedding. “An undercover investigation… has discovered that brides are routinely charged more for services than other customers, with vendors charging up to $8,000 more if they know the event they’re catering was a wedding,” reported the Daily Mail in the UK. If you find businesses and resources that meet your needs, but aren’t wedding-focused, they’ll see your business as a pleasant surprise and value your business more. So, how you avoid upcharging and expensive wedding industry rates is the following:

  • Search out venues, food services, staffing resources, transportation services, floral resources, etc. whose main business isn’t weddings. These include nonprofits, restaurants, public venues like parks and publicly owned buildings, etc.
  • Restaurants, especially the emerging number of fast-causal restaurants, can be a fantastic resource for reception food, especially if you’re going with a buffett. I’m vegetarian, and didn’t want a meat-heavy dinner, so we went with Veggie Grill, modified the catering menu a bit, and have a hearty wedding buffet for 110 people at around $1,000. (Drops mic.)
  • For wine and beer, consider going with kegs. With wine and beer taps, it’s easy to cut a bartender from your budget, go with self-serve (if you think your wedding can handle that) and use keg’s 135-glass capacity to serve drinks. Wine kegs are available through a growing number of wineries. We went with Alexandria Nichole Cellars in Woodinville, Washington. By being a part of their wine club, we got 20% off already well-priced wine kegs. Two wine kegs, with 270 servings of wine are about $250 each plus rental of a wine tap for $200. Just $2.60 per glass of delicious wine is a very good deal.

Staffing without Staffing Companies

The gig economy can be criticized for many things, but, there are definite upsides for brides and event staff. In comparing catering companies’ rates event staffing take-home rates with freelance event staff rates, I found that what the staff “took home” for hourly rates was about the same, but I would pay two to three times in total event staffing. But questions of management and organization come up. Here’s how to address them:

  • Use a service like TaskRabbit to find event staff. You can review their staffer’s event experience and reviews. Select one person with more event experience who is paid higher than the others to manage the team.
  • Create a venue layout, event timetable, and packets with instructions for each part of the wedding.
  • Use these packets and information resources (keep it short and simple), in a pre-wedding (paid) training with your event staff. Then, stay after with your event manager to go over more details.
  • Organize your event supplies by each phase of the wedding, and label them accordingly.
  • Have your wedding supplies and rentals delivered. I used Seattle and Portland-based Livible to pre-pack all my wedding supplies, from set up to reception to tear-down, in Livible’s plastic storage boxes, picked up from my home and delivered to our wedding venue in the hour before we got into the venue. By organizing by wedding event phase, I helped event staff work more efficiently with less oversight.
  • By leveraging an event rental company for chairs, coolers, tables, etc. I also leverage their staff to organize, clean, deliver and take away big, bulky wedding items, cutting down on event staff time.
  • Friends-as-staff have worked out with mixed results, so I’m happy when a friend offers to help, but I wouldn’t recommend pursuing a friend to volunteer. Happily take friend’s offers to help, but only if you think it won’t distract from them (or you) enjoying the wedding.

Get Appy: Technology is Your (Budget’s) Friend

Weddings are full of ritual, and some of those rituals are ripe for disruption. I chose rituals that had a commercial element to them to modify with apps and technologies, saving money and a lot of headache as a wedding organizer. I’ve added in friend referral links to give a discount for trying them, too.

  • Wedding invitations. It doesn’t matter how much paper invitation companies swamp your Facebook feed, they’re just not necessary. I used PaperlessPost as invitation and RSVP management service. While some might worry that older guests might not connect with an emailed invitation, my 86 year old grandmother RSVP’ed without a hitch.
Zola.com’ simple wedding registries.
  • Simplify the wedding registry process by syncing multiple lists with Zola and selecting registry basics from Zola’s list of goods. Gifts ship whenever you want, so you guests don’t need to haul or mail gifts, and you don’t end up with a pile at your door during your honeymoon. The link here gives new registries a $50 credit.
  • AirBnB is a great alternative to a wedding hotel, especially for groups of friends or families. We recommended nearby houseboats and condos that gave guests a great view of our city while saving them hundreds, and offered them a $35 discount for AirBnB newbies. Best part: no hotel blocks to worry about or hotel minimums to pay if your guests stay somewhere else.
  • FancyHands is your new wedding assistant, finding options for services and venues, researching travel itineraries, or calling through guests lists if you need to make a last-minute change or nail down the last of the RSVP’s. I’ve been using FancyHands for years, and suggest going big for your first month of tasks, where the extra tasks will roll over, and then dial down on your tasks to 5 tasks a month, based on what you need.
  • Manage your event staffing through TaskRabbit’s app and use it to communicate with your staff beforehand and set expectations, share event to-do lists, etc.
  • Manage your to-do lists with WedHappy’s simple interface, thoughtful reminders, and budgeting tools.
  • For your full budget, recording products you’re using, linking to wedding resources, etc., AirTable, an ideal alternative to Excel for managing multiple elements of the wedding in a spreadsheet.
  • Rent the Runway for coordinated or matching bridesmaid’s dresses, engagement party and rehearsal dinner dresses, bridal accessories, and even wedding gowns. My earrings and wedding dress sash are from RTR (and saved me $1,000).
  • Slack or WhatsApp for group communications — I’m creating Slack groups for event staff and my bridesmaids.

Happier Wedding Planning

Since I took back wedding planning from the wedding industry and started breaking traditions that didn’t serve our wedding or ourselves, wedding planning has become almost zen. Sure, there’s a lot to do, but I’m not overwhelmed, I’m not worried about if we’ll go into debt on the wedding, and I don’t feel embarrassed about our budget. Our wedding is going to be joyous, fun, and a reflection of us as a couple. I hope that other brides and grooms can break the ball and chain of the wedding industry and take ownership of their weddings, too.

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