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.
 
 
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?
 
 
I figured gathering ideas from my Facebook friends' favorite weddings couldn't hurt. :] (If you're wondering why the broken-glass reference, my car proved irresistible to some thieves last summer. Twice in five days.)

One friend said the best wedding she's ever been to was the best because the bride and groom made the day about things they enjoy: Christmas ale (my family, the Husband-To-Be and I actually tasted Christmas ale-infused cupcakes today!). Sushi appetizer (never tried it!). And their own music playlist. (Steven and I have taken to writing down song titles anytime we hear something we like. VH1's 100 Greatest Songs of the 90's is to blame, guests of ours, for the abundance of 1990's songs we have on our list, a la... New Radicals' "You Get What You Give" and Barenaked Ladies' "One Week." Get ready to party like it's 1999.)

This Facebook friend also noted that the bride and groom made it a point to spend time with all of their guests.

Amy, one of my bridesmaids, commented that the most memorable weddings she's attended were the ones that stepped outside the box. One took place at a yacht club and culminated with fireworks. Another was scheduled on New Year's Eve. And a third took place on the stage of a theater downtown. "Individuality is the best way to go!" she wrote. (The Husband-To-Be and I stayed true to our musical, or not so musical, endeavors in arranging for wedding karaoke.)


This two-word answer attracted quite a few *likes*, lol: Open bar. (Wedding alcohol is always cheaper to serve if you find a place that will allow you to buy and bring in your own drinks, I'm told. And if you go that route and need a bartender, check out Bill.)

"Mine is pretty simple," another of my bridesmaids, Michelle, wrote in response to the question. "The ones that stick out the most had the best DJs, the ones that really kept the party going and made everyone want to dance."

Other "best weddings" were described like this:

  • NOTHING TOO FORMAL: Guests wore flip flops and summer dresses. People brought food to share, and his sister, mom and I decorated. If you wanted to speak with the bride or groom, you didn't feel like you had to ask or wait in line. We had no assigned seats at the picnic tables. You felt free to move around and talk. Outdoors, simple and special.
  • TRUE TO TWO: Perfectly them, matched their personalities and preferences and made them so happy!

Finally, a recent bride wrote: "Mine! I've been to many weddings, but nothing beats your day."
 
 
The first response I received, from a groom who just got married: In a year, no one will remember what your centerpieces were. Make something, and keep it cheap.

Another engaged friend of mine wrote, "In my opinion, they can be the prettiest centerpieces ever, but if you can't see the people across from you, they're just
downright annoying! Stay small."

Use Pinterest, one former bride suggested. (She wishes it had been around when she got married.)

The same person also noted that she'd seen some HORRIBLE centerpieces, including one involving potpourri and doilies. She noted the bride's mother-in-law had created them, something I think underscores the importance of making sure that if you're entrusting someone with such an important job, they know your vision.

Specific centerpiece ideas:

*Limbs of cherry trees, in bloom, in the center. Hang from them crystals and lit candles. (Only criticism: It was hard to see the people on the opposite end of the table.)

Here's an example of a cherry tree centerpiece I found on Brideorama:
*Photo holders (the type that have clips that prop up photographs), set atop mirrors on each table with small, battery-operated tealights. The couple chose photographs that meant a lot to them, and they wrote memories on the back of the pictures. The idea really encouraged people to mingle and get to talking to people they didn't know, this person noted. "I think it speaks volumes that this wedding was six years ago and I remember it so vividly," she said. Touché!

*Given the love of karaoke my husband-to-be and I share, one person suggested we assign song lyrics or titles to the tables instead of numbers. She said she saw a couple who loved to travel assign city names to their tables in much the same way. Cute, I think, and definitely something we'll consider.

*Tall square vases filled with clear marbles, icy-blue Christmas ball ornaments and glittery icicle-laden branches extending out. Here's an ornament centerpiece I found on Pinterest, credited to boards.weddingbee.com:
*One bride didn't want to use a lot of flowers, so she used pillar candles and glass beads. One particularly helpful thing she suggested is to be cognizant of how much natural light you'll have during your reception because a lot of natural light can render candles useless. By the time it was dark during her reception, the candles were melted way down, she said. Flowers would have helped mix things up and soften the room, she added.

Here's a centerpiece candle idea I like. I'm envisioning one Mason jar (or two) atop the tree trunk cuttings we've bought already, maybe with lace ribbon added to the mix. Thoughts?
Credit: Lindsey Cowan, Pinterest