6 steps to figure out what your wedding will (really) cost

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Editor’s note: Rick Webb is the author of “Man Nup: A Groom’s Guide to Heroic Wedding Planning.” He is raising money on Kickstarter now to fund its publication.

Close your eyes and picture your dream home for a minute or two. If you're like most Americans, the dream home you pictured was probably relatively modest. Maybe it had the white picket fence and everything. Maybe it was a cabin in the woods. Whatever it was, I suspect that for most Americans they're not dreaming of a condo at the Plaza. They're picturing something modest, reasonable and–dare I say it–attainable.


Take a pause to clear your mind. Then, picture your dream wedding for the same amount of time. Open your eyes. Welcome back. What kind of wedding did you see? If it was in a church, it might be in a cathedral, 100 year old-vaults launched towards infinity. Or perhaps it was in the French countryside, a tropical island or Napa. There were probably, like, 150 people there, all dressed to the nines, and you and your spouse were probably wearing clothes that cost more than a Hyundai.

If we thought of our dream home the way we think of our dream wedding, all of us would be dreaming of living in Aaron Spelling’s mansionOur very image of a picture perfect wedding is, quite probably, more than we can ever hope to afford. This is a huge part of why wedding planning is so challenging. We go into it with completely overhyped expectations.


Blame the wedding industrial complex. Blame the movies and TV shows we watched as a kid. Blame whoever you want, but the damage has been done for most of us. And unless there's something of a confrontation with these (dare I say it) childish dreams, up front, before we ever plan our wedding, we're setting ourselves up for disappointment.

How, then, do we avoid this? Here are six simple steps to keep things under control.


First: Adjust those expectations. Start picturing beautiful, small, affordable scenes in your head. Banish thoughts of aisle runners, flying buttresses, exotic locales, and custom-made Vera Wang. Maybe some of those things will make it into your dream wedding in the end, but we need to re-set expectations. Small small small.

Second: Set a budget you can afford. Pick a number—and don't just pick it out of the air. Pick one you or your family can truly afford. If the money's not in your bank account, right now, know exactly where it's coming from. Get the contributor(s)—be it your parents, a helpful grandparent or your future father-in-law—to commit the dollars up-front. Know the number before you even start. Do not start planning with hopes that you'll get a bonus or Aunt Frieda will come through. Have that money locked down.


Third: Now, cut the number by 25%. Everything is going to go over budget, so adjust your budget at the outset, and tell no one your real number. Repeat after me: everything is going to go over budget. When something inevitably runs over budget, you’ll be happy you set aside the extra cash. If your wedding budget is $25,000 tell everyone you can't go over $18,000. You'll still be lucky to stay under $25K, but at least you'll have a fighting chance. Take half of that money and dedicate it to food and drink. Partition the rest out—venue, dress, flowers—about 10% each. The remaining 20% should cover everything else.

Fourth: You can have your wedding awesome, cheap, or last minute. Pick two. Agree with your spouse. Any endeavor to pull off all three will end in tears.


Fifth: Make a list of the three things that are most important to you, and the three that are most important to your betrothed. Maybe you want all your friends there, a taco truck and an open bar. Maybe she wants a designer dress, a destination wedding, and six bridesmaids. Rank them. Everything else needs to be thrown out. Everything. Else. You'll be lucky to get all six. But if you get all six, your wedding is going to be awesome, and nothing else will have really mattered. If you cant afford all six, you know where to cut. Work up the list, or go back to Step 2 and get more money.

Sixth: Finally, take your budget and figure out how many guests you can have. Do this by getting price estimates. Research online and call vendors, especially those that pertain to your list of Most Important Things. This budget will change, but you need to do a rough draft before inviting anyone. Work it all up in a spreadsheet and then—only then—decide on a number of people. Work up a guest list and rank it. Look down the ranked list, and cut it off where you hit your budget.


As a footnote to No. 6, keep in mind that anyone who's committing money to the wedding gets a say in the guest list. If they're not ponying up, they should not get a say. This is controversial, but it works. And once you’ve already had those conversations, you can remind annoying Uncle Frank he had his chance to have a say.

If you do all of this perfectly, you might even come in UNDER budget. If that happens, THEN you can go back and start figuring out what else you can add in. Make a list of the "nice to haves," rank them, and budget them in one by one.


Importantly: do all of these steps before you tell a soul they're invited. If you fight the big battles early and set your expectations in the right way, you'll end up having less to do as your big day gets closer. Once it arrives, you can focus on what matters: enjoying it and celebrating with your loved ones.

Good luck.

Rick Webb is author of the book "Man Nup: A Groom's Guide to Heroic Wedding Planning."