It was our initial sticker shock over venues that motivated and spawned my bartering and this, The Bartering Bride blog. It seemed impossible -- upon seeing that the food, drinks and rental of various venues cost our entire budget -- to even have a wedding. We are self-funding for the most part, save some much appreciated, generous help from my mom, and we were determined then, and remain so now, not to burden ourselves with loads of debt for one day's material details.

Those who are my friends on Facebook know this, but this is the question that started it all. I spent 30 consecutive days asking wedding-related question after wedding-related question because I was determined, for Steven and me and our guests, to learn as much as I could before making decisions about things I've never purchased before and likely won't again for some time -- linens, flowers, entertainment, etc.

Generic online budgets too often assign a blanket percentage that people should spend: say, 10% on the gown, 10% on flowers, 30% on food. But not everything is as important to everyone, and one's budget should follow one's priorities. So, if your fiancé and you love karaoke, maybe spending $250 (or bartering) to have it on your big day is well worth it to you. (Like us!) If not, maybe you'd spend $250 on something else, such as a photo booth or chocolate fountain.

If you know the theme you want, consider doing what we did. We chose an inexpensive venue that fits the rustic theme we were after, which minimizes how much decoration we have to add, which saves money. See what I mean?
The jars, tree trunk slabs and burlap fabric are ours, which brings up a cost consideration to be had when renting venues: Some include everything -- chairs, linens and centerpieces, in-house caterer and baker, uplighting and sound system. Everything.

Others like ours leave a lot to be quarterbacked by the bride and groom. Our venue has chairs and tables, but has left the responsibility for centerpieces, flowers and linens, uplighting and on-site catering, to us. My advice: Pick a venue such as this if you have the time. It can take a while to find and/or make everything you need.

According to my Facebook friends, here are questions to ask of a venue, or ways to find the right one:
  • Find a place that allows you to BYOB. Then, when you do go to buy the alcohol for your party, find a distributor that will sell to you "on commission." That's code for "will accept back any cases of beer and wine that are unopened." That way, if you buy too much, you can return some if you desire.
  • If there's a catering company you really like, ask them for venues they recommend.
  • Ask about climate control. Some of my friends said that neglecting to ask about air conditioning made for sweaty conditions in hot churches and venues. It's also not a bad idea to ask when your venue/church will turn the air on. 
  • University banquet halls apparently will discount prices for alumni.
  • Ask any venue whether security fees will be incurred if you serve alcohol, or for other reasons.
  • Don't forget that pavilions and gazebos at local parks often cost a nominal fee or nothing. Make sure, though, that you reserve the space for your party. Contacting the local parks and recreation department is a good first step.
  • A sorority sister of mine recommended considering the aisle width: When she walked the aisle with her parents, they were stepping on her dress because it was so narrow.
  • It's personal preference, of course, but we also chose a venue where we could host both our ceremony and reception to keep navigation simple for our many out-of-town guests.
 
 
Thus far, in our year of wedding planning, I'd say we've done pretty well in keeping wasteful spending to a minimum. In fact, with the exception of a blue sweater I bought for our engagement shoot that I didn't end up wearing more than twice, I'm not sure we have wasted money. 

People who've been there, done that, certainly had viewpoints on which wedding expenditures are a waste. Favors were cited most often. And one friend replied: "Speaking as a server, imprinted cocktail napkins, matches, etc. Anything that gets thrown out anyway. And really think about whether people will actually take your favor home and do something with it. When the favors are flimsy, people leave them and we end up throwing them out at the end of the night."

The only wedding favors I still have serve as jewelry storage on my dresser, so I guess they're serving a purpose. But, I hope no one paid an arm and a leg for them.

The husband-to-be and I decided early on not to do favors. In lieu of favors, and right along the lines of others' suggestions, we will donate to the Cleveland Animal Protective League. It would have been enough that we're both animal lovers. But, not long after Steven moved in with me, we adopted this ridiculously sweet cat -- whom we renamed Cora -- from the organization:
Can you stand it?! She even fetches her toys. Like a dog.

Our thinking: If we can help ensure that other animals are cared for until they find their forever homes, it's a much better expenditure than favors.

And, she's not the only adorable animal inspiring this donation. This is Charlie, whom I adopted five years ago from a Pennsylvania farmhouse. When it's cold outside and the radiators are hissing, we know where to find him, lol.
Back to the topic at hand: Where else have others realized that a wedding expenditure was a waste of money? One woman said hiring a limo (because she just found it to be unnecessary), and another journalist friend of mine called the sit-down dinner a waste.

It surprised me how many people chimed in to say they agreed. Here I was, thinking we'd be lepers if we dared have buffet dinner service, and here they were, saying nix dinner altogether. They said this namely based on what they say their friends' preferences are (to get up and mingle, rather than wait for dinner to be served) and they said this because from their perspective, the typical rubber chicken, vegetable and starch isn't memorable and isn't worth the price you pay.


After a lot of thought and deliberation, and a big change in our plans, Steven and I have chosen our caterer and decided our menu. More about that on the blog soon.

I've learned that a lot of wedding planning follows the old adage, "to each his own." If you don't want to serve dinner, don't, but make sure you say so in your invitations, my peanut gallery advised. Guests who show up hungry for dinner only to find finger foods may end up hungry later, and leave earlier. (To that point, you also should include it in your invites if your event is adults-only and if it's outside so guests can plan accordingly, I'm told.)

Another Facebook friend of mine said that spending a lot on invitations doesn't make sense to her because most will throw them away. I've been lucky to have a sister who's a designer who crafted my invitations as her gift to us, and I've ordered them on Vistaprint using Groupons. Keep your eyes out: Vistaprint Groupons are offered fairly frequently.

Other former brides also noted that they purchased their gowns at David's Bridal rather than potentially spending more at private boutiques, and a few urged me not to overspend on a veil because a person can make one pretty cheaply or borrow one. One man also suggested we make our own decorations (in the works!) and host our ceremony and reception at one venue (presumably because it saves on transportation and because it's more convenient for guests). We're doing that, too.

One of my favorite responses was this one, from a former colleague of mine who actually threw a surprise wedding when she married: "The good news is that guests really appreciate anything that makes the wedding unique."

What was the most unique touch to a wedding you've ever seen?
 
 
If I had to summarize the 44 responses to this question in one sentence, I would do it this way: Do not skimp on your big day's photography. Just. Don't. Do. It.

Many of the people who gave an opinion either regretted not spending more money themselves, or knew someone who did. "You can skimp on everything else, but those pictures are forever," one of my friends wrote. Another noted she hadn't even ordered digital proofs because she's so disgusted by the work her photographer delivered. (Word to the wise: Negotiate, or try to negotiate, so that you receive a disk of digital images and have the right to print the images.)

Photography is one of the biggest reasons I turned to bartering. I knew I couldn't bear to not have gorgeous, candid images of our day (I've worked for years with fabulous photojournalists, so I know how striking photography can be when done well), but I suffered from some serious sticker shock. Then, I met Ken Cavanaugh at Cavanaugh Photography, who did want to barter, and my mind was set at ease. We would have a professional behind the lens, and I would work to earn it.

Others, in responding to this day's question, said they wished they'd hired a videographer, and one said she would hire a DJ if she could have a do-over.

I liked this advice: Spend more on what's more important to you. If you dig live music, this person wrote, hire a band. If you're particular about food, splurge a little on a top-notch caterer. For one former bride, having a string quartet was worth the extra $400, while spending more to have live flowers simply was not. 

One former groom said he regretted pinching pennies on tuxedos because the shop they used did an awful job tailoring and actually delivered some of the tuxes to the wrong places.

Here's what I've learned generally in my own wedding planning: You get what you pay for, in most cases. If you want a fantastic photographer, said fantastic photographer will cost more. If you want a newspaper journalist to write your love story, it will cost more than hiring your friend to do it for you (shameless plug, I know). The husband-to-be and I are paying more than we initially expected for our caterer, and I'm glad. They serve a tasty chicken piccata, mashed potatoes made from scratch and a lot of other delicious food, and they're a third-generation company -- tried and true.

Another of my Facebook friends said her husband and she ran out of booze, which reminds me to share with you what I've learned: You can find distributors who will sell alcohol on commission. That means that if Steven and I buy more alcohol than our guests end up consuming, and if any cases and bottles are unopened, the distributor will take the alcohol back and refund us that money. When it comes to purchasing for our party, we'd rather over-purchase, and we're glad to know that we can potentially return some of it.

One woman said she was sorry that she skimped on her wedding shoes and doesn't like any of the photographs that show those shoes. 

Of course, nothing is all about price. A former editor of mine urged that simply spending more dough does not ensure a great vendor or responsive service. He suggested asking oneself, "Did they capture each couple's story, or take cliché images?" when vetting photographers, and considering how a DJ plans to keep your party lively.

When it comes to our pending nuptials, we've definitely spent more (via my bartering) to ensure we have karaoke and a very competent DJ and emcee. It's important to us to have a party that gets people up and dancing, and keeps them up and dancing, and I hear from Something New Entertainment's former clients that they deliver. 

Finally, one former bride said she wished she'd spent more on linens because she saw another wedding with pricier linens, and they did make a "tremendous" difference in the overall feel of the room. Speaking of linens, we've decided to buy ours instead of renting them. Anyone know a quality site that sells them?
 
 
In the year since I asked these 30 Days of Wedding Questions, I've learned a lot on my own, particularly when it comes to bargaining. Brides, never be afraid to ask if someone can better accommodate your budget. And wedding vendors, please be upfront. If you know someone's budget isn't what it needs to be to afford you, just say so. (I recently revealed our budget for a particular service to a vendor and exchanged a couple dozen emails with the vendor, only to receive a quote more than $1,000 more than our budget. No matter how you slice it, he wasted his time, and I wasted mine.)

I agree with this advice (offered by a Facebook friend): Go to bridal fairs. I won $100 off videography at the last wedding show I attended, and Story of Your Life (the company I co-own with my sister) distributed 10% off promo codes at the Boutique Bridal Bazaar this year to prospective clients.

As for straight discounts, hosting an off-season wedding (i.e., not during the spring, summer or fall) and hosting it on a Friday or Sunday can save you money. Also, one of my friends (who's also getting married this year) saved money by booking vendors located not in the big city, but in more remote cities. This is logical, given that the overhead costs, such as rent and taxes, in a place such as Cleveland are typically higher than more rural places.

Oriental Trading is great for inexpensive items (bridesmaid and groomsman gifts, for one) that include free personalization, another woman noted, and trust me, the wedding catalogs find a way of finding you. I probably have four or five here at home, and I never subscribed to a single one.

Another person noted that vocational schools offer their baking and hair-styling services at much lower prices than established vendors. And others said they saved by serving pie or cupcakes instead of cake (Steven and I are, too!; feast upon our flavors here), and serving buffet dinner rather than plated. Plated service requires more servers, and thus costs more.

Steven and I are planning on family-style service to avoid buffet lines; family-style puts serving platters of food on each table and has guests serve themselves.


Last but not least, one woman said her husband and she saved big on closing the bar during dinner. (They still served wine and champagne, though.)

Just a reminder: My officiant is offering a bargain. Free wedding ceremony service for anyone who contacts her, mentions The Bartering Bride blog and is getting married in the summer of 2013! See the details (and reasons why we contracted with Harleigh) here.

And, while I'm at it, Story of Your Life is offering 10% off for any project ordered by April 1. Email us here to get started.