How to have a dream wedding for 5k

Turns out you don’t need 30k for the “most important day of your life.”

While the wedding industry wants you to spend tons of money on that one special day in your life, I promise you that it’s possible to have a dream wedding for a sixth of the average wedding cost.

TL;DR: A destination wedding can be a much cheaper option than marrying at home. A hotel as a wedding venue has many benefits: low costs, way less workload, more quality time with everyone. Family and friends will want this. Involve them in the planning. Prices are always negotiable. Amazon is your source of cheap wedding stuff, including the wedding dress. Scroll all the way to the bottom for list of costs and bonus.

After my now-husband proposed in late summer of 2016, we decided pretty fast that we wanted to have the wedding by the end of the year. We knew it was more common to be engaged for about a year or so, as you need a lot of time to plan and get the funds for the wedding, but we decided to do things differently. We knew right away that we didn’t want to spend a fortune on our wedding, to instead use that kind of money for something more reasonable, like saving for a condo.

However, we faced the dilemma that, despite wanting to be cheap and spontaneous compared to the norm, we still wanted to have a beautiful, traditional wedding ceremony and celebrate with our family and dearest friends. This meant that we didn’t want to do the cheapest version, which is to only do a civil marriage with a nice dinner afterwards (this is a nice budget alternative though).

To make things more complicated, we are an international couple (I’m Dominican/German, and he’s American). We decided to do the civil marriage in Copenhagen, as Denmark makes it very easy for international couples to marry within three weeks (follow this guide).
However, we wanted to celebrate a symbolic wedding ceremony and have a big party with our friends and family, with food, music, dancing, etc. Being international meant finding a location that would be accessible to all parties. This turned out to be a blessing, as it opened up the option of not necessarily having the wedding where we lived, which at that time was in Berlin. Instead, we could look at the rest of the globe for options… especially cheaper options.

1 Pick an affordable, accessible location for the wedding (as in cheap flights available). It doesn’t have to be in your hometown, and you will be surprised how eager your loved ones are to combine going to your wedding with a vacation.

We quickly decided that the Dominican Republic was the best choice. It had the advantage that some of my family lives there, but it is also a sought-after vacation destination, and you can often find round-trip flights for just $400 (or less) from the US. Some of our German friends even got cheaper deals flying all the way from Europe for €350 round trip! TuiFly often offers these deals from Brussels, and my friends flew from different parts of Germany to Brussels with Ryanair for €20 (roundtrip).

Not only was the Dominican Republic easily reachable for our American and European parties, but it offers beautiful beaches as dream locations for a wedding. Even if you’re not into beaches and dislike tropical climate, there are also cooler areas on the island, such as Jarabacoa and Constanza.

Wedding ceremony options in paradise.

At first, we were worried, that our friends and non-Dominican family members might not like the idea of a destination wedding, especially since we were only telling them four months ahead of time (I definitely recommend giving your guests this information much further in advance.). However, because it was a cheap, very appealing, easy-to-reach destination (and because they are all soooo awesome), we received way more approvals than we thought we would. Many of our wedding guests combined going to our wedding with a vacation, staying longer in the Dominican Republic. Some of our family members and friends were especially excited, as this was their first time going to a foreign country.

2 Find a venue that offers reasonable prices. Tip: Many hotels specialize in destination weddings, and you can bargain for better prices on the hotel rooms for your guests and yourselves (step 3).

Finding the right venue was one of the harder things to pull off for our wedding. Luckily, my mom took it upon herself to dig through Tripadvisor in search for a nice hotel by the beach that was offering not affordable destination wedding packages. What you need to find is a good price-performance ratio. In our case, we decided that the BeLive Hotel in Punta Cana offered the most reasonable price for our not particularly high expectations. They offer the following wedding packages:

  • Caribbean Romance: $900 (or complimentary when booking five or more rooms for at least three days - intended for 10 people, including bride and groom, with $20 per additional guest)
  • Caribbean Forever Idyll: $1250 for 20 people ($30 per additional guest)
  • Caribbean Dream Deluxe: $2500 for 30 people ($40 per additional guest).

The packages include all the basics you need for the wedding and depending how many add-ons you want, it can actually be cheaper to go for the cheaper packages and pay the additional fee for extra guests. For example, if you pick the cheapest package, which is free as long as at least five rooms are booked for a minimum of three nights at the hotel, and have, let’s say 50 guests, you pay $800 for the wedding package.

BeLive’s free wedding package fulfilling the minimal requirements for a nice wedding.
The pretty-good-deal package.

The “Forever Idyll” package includes more decoration and a cocktail reception with appetizers after the ceremony. You can also add an open bar for the dinner for only $11 per person.

We ended up choosing the most expensive package, Dream Deluxe, since, due to our very tight timeframe, we wanted to be as uninvolved as possible in the organizing of the wedding and to just let the hotel do their thing. Also, to be honest, we wanted to spoil ourselves and our 68 guests a little bit. If we had picked the cheapest package, we would have paid $1200 (60 additional guests x $20) instead of $4100 ($2500 + 40 guests x $40). However, there would have been almost no decoration, no make-up and hairstyling, no live music, cocktail reception after the ceremony, open bar at the dinner etc.

The no-worries $2500 wedding package. All you have to do is be present.

I believe it was the right choice: it turns out that the most time-consuming job when doing a destination wedding is making sure that all of your guests get all the information required to attend the wedding.

For example, you need to:

  • keep track of them booking their flights on time
  • explain which airport to arrive to
  • organize a pick-up service to get them to the hotel
  • bargain a good deal with the hotel for room prices for your guests and make sure your guests don’t book some other, probably more expensive hotel, in which case they will have to buy a day ticket in order to access the hotel on the day of the wedding
  • make sure your guests book their rooms on time (before the discount expires or the hotel is booked out) and that they use the coupon code to get the discount.

All this took a lot of our time (though not even close to what a “normal” wedding planning takes) and I’m very happy I didn’t have to worry about the things the wedding package provided.

The best way I found to keep track of my guests, was building a shared Google Sheet with my husband, where we could write down who had already confirmed their attendance, whether that person booked their flight and room, and if they wanted the pick-up service.

We organized a pick-up service with Blue Travel to make it easier and cheaper for our guests to get from the Punta Cana Airport to the hotel. Due to the number of guests, we were able to negotiate a $10/person group pick up from the Punta Cana airport (taxis charge $30). Our guests were very happy with that deal.

Keeping track of the number of your guests is also critical since you have to inform the hotel how many additional guests will be coming to the wedding, in order for them to charge you the right fee.
Keep in mind that, while you should keep your wedding planner (provided by the hotel) always up to date on the number of the confirmed guests, you shouldn’t pay the additional fee per guests until preferably the day of the wedding. You will likely receive a last-minute cancellation (we received four), and it’s always a hassle to get money back that‘s already been paid.

3 Negotiate good room prices for your guests. Use the free market to your advantage.

If you visit the BeLive Punta Cana website, you will notice that the room prices are between $160 — $450 per person per night, sometimes more and sometimes less, depending on the season and the room category.
My wedding guests, however, paid between $62(standard) and $80 (superior deluxe with ocean view) per night/person, despite BeLive being a five star, all-inclusive (all food and drinks included) hotel.
The key to negotiating these prices is knowing the market. By googling “BeLive Hotel” we came across many booking companies, such as Vacation Store Miami, that offered rooms at BeLive for as low as $70 per night/person. Apparently, travel agencies pre-book rooms at a group discount rate and sell them off at prices below the rack rate, so they can offer lower prices while still making a profit. It seems like the best offers are found when booking around four months in advance. We called that booking agency and asked if we could get a better deal since we were going to bring many guests. They gave us a deal that was $2 cheaper than the one mentioned above. Armed with that information, we called BeLive and explained: we can either book the rooms through that agency for that price, or the room agent of the hotel gives us a better or equal offer and thus gets the commission. We already knew we were going to have around 68 guests, which meant around 35 rooms, which meant a very nice commission for whoever got to book our rooms.
Don’t feel discouraged if you have a smaller guest list any number above 10 rooms should do the trick.
Two days later, I received a very competitive offer by the BeLive hotel with the room prices mentioned above. Doing it through the hotel made it easier for our guests to book their rooms as all they had to do was use a discount code while booking through the hotel’s website.

We also negotiated that the discount code we would receive from the hotel would not only be valid for booking rooms for the day before and after the wedding, but for four days before and up to a week after the wedding. This meant that our guests could arrive earlier and stay longer for a very cheap price and enjoy a nice vacation at the hotel. Some of our guests took advantage of this and stayed up to nine days! My husband and I also stayed for a few more days, which was great to recover from the wedding party and enjoy the special amenities from the wedding package, like the couple’s massage.

Since we could not pay for the hotel rooms for our guest, we told our friends and family that, due to the costs of attending our wedding, we did not want any wedding gifts. We considered their presence the best gift we could receive.

4Get cheap decorations.

So now that we had the geographical location, the venue, and the wedding package down, the next steps were dealing with the details, such as decorations, clothing, photographer, food, and music.

It’s important for this part of the wedding planning to get into the right mindset in order to keep the costs low: don’t be picky and/or detail oriented. Remember: the most important thing on your wedding day is that you are surrounded by the people you love. Everything else is just noise.

You would think a wedding requires more details than those mentioned above, but it honestly doesn’t at least not when you are marrying at a hotel. For example, you don’t have to worry about renting furniture, cutlery, dishes etc. for the wedding dinner, as the hotel will reserve an entire restaurant for that part of the wedding as well as provide the necessary staff for the service. All of this and much more is included in the wedding package. I only had to send out a few emails picking the colors, flowers, cake style and menu items, and the hotel wedding planner took care of everything else. It was so easy.

We decided not to send out fancy “Save the date” cards, because everyone has Facebook and WhatsApp (even my cool grandma), and they can receive the information of the wedding through there without costing us either money or time. To keep them up to date with all the information, we created a Facebook event page.

We already had our wedding bands from our civil marriage.

Regarding the decoration, we did as little as possible: the hotel wedding package already included a minimal amount of decoration: chairs with ribbons, flowers at the ceremonial table, cute lanterns along the aisle, and elegant drapes on the gazebo. We could have added more luscious decorations by purchasing add-ons to our wedding package, but we didn’t. 
Instead, we bought some cheap decorations in a hobby shop (about $20 total for some glitter, heart-shaped confetti, and white paper poms) and asked family and friends to bring and lend us decoration material. My stepsister brought a bunch of crystal tea light holders that she still had from a previous event. My cousin’s wife had just handcrafted a bunch of cute vases by covering cans with jute and lace for her daughter’s birthday. She brought them to the wedding, and all we had to do was add some flowers.

Two days before the wedding, we went to a nearby local flower shop, handed them the 11 jute vases so that they could add the flowers and do a special arrangement for our table. Total cost: $200, and as you can see below, it turned out really nice. Together with some glitter and silver heart-shaped confetti, that was all we needed to decorate the tables.

“Second-hand” handmade jute vases, tea light holders, confetti and flowers from the local flower shop.

We also bought two packs of 36 bubble wands* for our guests to blow bubbles at the ceremony. This turned out to be a very wise $30 investment, as bubbles make photos look magical and everyone had a lot of fun.

*If you purchase anything through that link, 0.5% of the purchase price will be donated to code.org thanks to smile.amazon.com. I do not receive any compensation.

5 Find a cheap wedding dress. Guess where: on Amazon*.

My husband decided he didn’t want to marry in a wedding tuxedo, which I thought was fine. Instead, he wanted to wear his best suit jacket and pants, combined with his best shoes. Luckily, they had good colors for a tropical wedding (blue jacket and light grey pants). He didn’t have a nice white shirt, so we ended up getting him a tailored one for $75 in Berlin (if you happen to live in Germany: http://www.dolzer.com/ offers tailored dress shirts starting at $63; order one and a half months in advance).

I, on the other hand, didn’t happen to have a wedding dress that I could use, so I actually had to buy one. At the beginning I naively went to a few wedding dress shops only to discover that all the nice dresses costs $3,000 or more, while the meh-dresses still cost at least $1,200. Even second-hand dresses cost around $800. I was pretty shocked. There was no way I was going to spend that much money on something I would only wear for one day or actually more like half a day. Plus, the chances were pretty high of me damaging the dress when taking photos at the beach due to the sand and salt water, which meant I would not be able to sell it after the wedding (not that I even wanted to deal with selling it). 
I definitely wanted photos on the beach. There had to be a market place where I could buy a cheaper wedding dress that I could destroy on my wedding…

Turns out there is: Amazon*. By searching for “Beach Wedding dress”,* I came across numerous cheap-yet-gorgeous wedding dresses. I ended up paying $90 for my dress* and I could have paid even less, since Amazon Germany didn’t offer as many choices as Amazon US.

My $90 wedding dress and me destroying it at the beach.

The catch? You don’t have the chance to see the dress on you like in a wedding dress shop. Therefore, you do run the risk of ordering it and then finding out it doesn’t look good on you. Rule of thumb: the simpler the dress, the higher the chance it will look good on you, and also, the easier it will be to alter it if it doesn’t fit perfectly. Also, if you pick a dress which uses lacing at the back, the dress is already very adjustable to a variety of shapes.

A good trick for buying a wedding dress online and receiving something that actually fits you is sending the seller all of your measurements. Some dresses list up a “custom” option in their sizes, but even if they don’t (like in the case of my dress), if you ask the seller for this option, they will most likely say yes, as long as you give up your right to return the dress. It is a risk, but it’s a risk that will cost you very little money compared to what a wedding shop would charge you.

I made this graphic for the seller and put in my measurements to get the dress as tailored as possible. Feel free to use it!

Amazon dresses are obviously mass produced in China, so no, you will not be wearing a unique dress (but seriously, who cares?) and you have to order the dress at least two months ahead of time. Then again, even if you buy your dress at a fancy wedding dress shop, you must order it at least three if not four months before your wedding, because, guess what, they also produce them in China, but add a huge profit margin on the dress for you to pay.

I was really nervous about getting my dress on time, since we were going to get married relatively soon, which gave me only one shot at ordering the dress. I wrote down all of my measurements on the graphic shown above and sent it to the seller.
To my surprise, despite having ordered a custom dress, it arrived just one month later and fit perfectly! The only thing I had to do was shorten it by half an inch, and I decided to get rid of the straps, as the corset made them unnecessary. My local seamstress did the job for $20.

I also ordered bridal hair pins* for my hair on Amazon. I combined two cute starfish pins* with a more classical pin* and ended up paying about $15. You can also find very cheap wedding jewelry*. I bought something similar to this necklace and earrings set* and this bracelet* and paid $16 total.

My glamorous $31 wedding jewelry and hair pins.

Wedding shoes can be very expensive and, just like the wedding dress, you will probably never wear those shoes again, unless you buy very simple ones that match any other party dress. I found my shoes on Kleiderkreisel, a second-hand clothing marketplace in Germany. They had been used once and only cost €20, instead of €89. The US version of Kleiderkreisel is vinted.com. Tradesy.com and poshmark.com are similar sites.
I highly recommend buying the wedding shoes second-hand. They’re normally in a pretty good shape and, even if there are some scratches or spots, they will be covered by your dress anyway. Plus, they are more comfortable than new ones, as they’ve already been softened by someone else. Gel pads can compensate and add some comfort if the shoes are a bit too large.

I spent a total of $161 on my wedding dress, shoes, jewelry and hair pins. Not bad, right? Therefore, I had zero worries while jumping around at the beach, stepping on my dress while dancing until my feet were smoking, and sitting at the pool after the party while still wearing the dress. To my surprise, Chinese polyester is quite durable and, despite how ruthless I handled it, the dress still looked great after the wedding: the sand washed off, didn’t leave stains and there were no rips or holes. I was able to donate my dress to a local aid organization the very next day. Alternatively, any hotel staff member would have also gladly taken the dress to pass it along to a family member or friend.

6 Ask talented friends and family members to take photos and videos. Alternatively/additionally: find a cheap photographer.

If you have friends or family members with a talent for photography, ask them to take photos and videos in turn during assigned parts of the celebration, so they can still enjoy the wedding, but you have full coverage of the celebration.

In our case, my cousin is a film director and took care of filming a lot of the beautiful moments during the wedding. Another cousin brought along his friend to the wedding, who is an amazing Dominican wedding photographer (Gregory Martinez: Instagram, FB) and was willing to cover the wedding as a favor. We paid for his hotel room ($140), so he also got a nice weekend stay at the hotel from it.
Bear in mind that if you order an external photographer (as in not provided by the hotel), many hotels ask you to pay a $500 fee unless the photographer is also staying at the hotel and a guest at your wedding (*hint*).

Even if we hadn’t been lucky with the photographer, the hotel offered a few photography packages, which would have been more than enough to cover the wedding.

Affordable photography packages.

The trick of getting a good deal here is not getting prints (just print them yourself at any store offering photo printing) and, if you know your way around Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom, even ask to get the photos unedited, in exchange for a higher number of digital photos or more time the day of the event. As for the coverage options: I found that my “bride preparation” only became worth photographing towards the end, when I already had makeup on and was adjusting the dress. So the photographer should capture a bit of those moments, the pre-ceremony (as in the bride getting to the aisle), plus the ceremony, which only lasts about 15 minutes. The rest of the time should be dedicated to the after ceremony sessions (aka, when the fun begins). Imho, the two hour package combined with the photos taken by all of the guests should be enough. There’s always someone with a good camera.

7 Choose a normal wedding dinner menu. No extravagances needed.

Just to give you a heads up: the wedding couple barely gets to eat at their wedding. They’re too busy talking to their guests, taking photos, making sure everything is ok, and so on. I think my husband and I ate about 30% of our food — and only because we forced ourselves to. I was also under the impression that even for the guests, the food was the less interesting thing at the wedding. Everyone was too distracted getting to know our friends and family they hadn’t met yet, catching up with people they hadn’t seen for a long time, dancing, hearing my brother sing, and giving speeches. That’s why I was soooo happy that we picked the dinner that was already included in the wedding package and didn’t add any extras to it. It would have not been worth it. I honestly don’t remember any of the food from any of the weddings I have gone to so far. It’s just not that important.

The cake, however, is more important, simply because it’s a decoration as well as the the highlight of the dinner. That doesn’t mean you have to spend a lot of money. I am very happy how our cake turned out, and it was already included in the wedding package. We picked guava and vanilla as its flavor, which I highly recommend if you are planning to get married in the Caribbean. I wanted something typical from the Dominican Republic for the non-Dominicans to experience, but I also picked that flavor because local specialities are always a safe bet. And I was right: it was delicious.

Delicious and beautiful guava-vanilla wedding cake. Local specialities are always a safe bet.

8 Organize the music for the wedding party yourself. You don’t need a DJ, just a big speaker, a Spotify account, and someone who can sing, play an instrument or recite a poem.

Hiring a DJ for the wedding would have cost us an additional $600. We, however, didn’t think it was really worth it: the restaurant, where the dinner was taking place, already had speakers available, which were good enough for the background music. Additionally, my cousin brought a good speaker that we connected to our cellphone, so that we could use our Spotify account to play the bride-groom, father-daughter dance songs and dance music for everyone else. I recommend creating a shared Spotify playlist a few weeks before the wedding, where your friends and family can add music they like to dance during the wedding party.

The combination of bringing our own good speaker (plus a good playlist) and using the restaurant’s speakers proved fully sufficient for our wedding.

If no one can bring a speaker to the wedding party: most higher-end rooms are equipped with a tower speaker. We had one in our hotel room, which was our plan-B in case my cousin couldn’t bring his speaker. It was quite powerful and would have done the trick too. Ask your hotel if there will be one in your room.

Our room at BeLive Hotel, equipped with a powerful tower speaker.

If anyone in your family or any of your friends can sing, play an instrument, recite a poem or dance, ask them to perform during the party. Again, I’m lucky to have a talented brother who played and sang two songs on his guitar while my friend accompanied him on the piano. Some of my family members surprised us with a dance flash-mob. It was great!

Towards the end of the wedding party, some friends and family members grabbed the microphone and told funny stories about our past, bringing us to tears expressing how much they loved us and wishing us all the best for our future. It’s these moments that build the essence of a beautiful wedding, showing how blessed and lucky we are to be surrounded by these amazing, lovely people. These personal acts don’t cost money, yet give so much joy and stay in everyone’s memories.

My brother rocking it, everyone joining the dance mob and a friend bringing us to tears.

9Some cons, but mostly pros.

As much as I want to sugar coat it, there will always be something that won’t go perfectly if you are doing a destination wedding. It’s just impossible to have full control over the situation when you are planning things remotely. One thing that could have definitely been better at our wedding was that the ceremony master the hotel assigned to us was terrible. I had asked for someone who spoke English, but we didn’t get a chance to meet that person before the moment we got married. So while holding hands in front of the ceremonial table, we found out that the guy barely spoke any English, mispronounced our names, and - instead of delivering the wedding speech from memory - he was read (or stuttered) everything from a piece of paper. If I had known his English was going to be that bad, I would have simply asked a friend to read the ceremonial speech. All my husband and I could do was try not to laugh out loud and to hope that he would finish swiftly. We accepted our fate with humor and, when the ceremony master finally asked my husband in very broken English if he wanted to take me as his wife, and my husband responded with “I do,” I swiped my forehead with relief, which made everyone laugh.

Little hiccups are bound to happen at any wedding, but it’s important to just go with the flow, enjoy everyone’s presence, and focus on the fact that you are marrying the love of your life. Having a destination wedding proved to have many more pros than cons. In addition to the low cost and handing over the wedding planning work to the hotel, it was really great to bring friends and family to spend not just the wedding day together but also at least the day before and after. It gave us the chance to really enjoy our time together, catch up, have walks by the beach, meet at night to chill at the terrace of our hotel room, play music, look at the stars, have long conversations, and so on. You don’t get to experience these things during a “normal” wedding. Spending those days together gave us more opportunities to have beautiful moments with the people we love the most.

Last survivors: After the wedding party, cooling down our burning feet at the private pool in front of our hotel room.

10 The breakdown

Here is the breakdown of how much our wedding cost. I also added a cheaper option to show you can get an even better deal, if you pick a cheaper wedding package and have fewer guests, as 70 guests is an unusually large number of people for a destination wedding. That option even includes a photography package and more expensive flights, yet is still almost $1k less. The price can obviously go lower if you pick a cheaper dress, if the groom already has a decent suit and dress shirt, etc.

It’s not about the moneyz.

We got a pretty cheap flight with Spirit airlines from the US ($120 per person), so we could still stay in the $5k range. Depending on where you’re flying from, you might even be able to stay in the $4k range as shown above.

So don’t think you need a ton of money to have a beautiful wedding. What’s most important is that you are making a vow to the love of your life of being there for each other in the good times and bad and that you are doing this surrounded by the people you love most. Everything else is just noise. And that noise doesn’t have to cost you $30k.

11 Bonus suggestion

Here’s another example of what you can do that is totally free but makes your wedding unforgettable:

Wedding Mannequin Challenge

Thank you Breanne Boland for your valuable help editing this article!

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