How I Threw a Wedding for 100+ People for under $10k

Weddings are expensive.  This is not new information.  Every millennial has heard horror stories about the debt their peers have gone into to afford that picture perfect, Pinterest-inspired dream wedding.  In many ways I was your typical bride-to-be, picturing dresses and flowers and venues, but my husband-to-be and I had always been very adamant that we didn’t want to start out our life together in mountains of debt.

With this one decision driving all the others that would follow, I knew that I’d have to get creative.  Every google search that followed included the words “affordable” or “DIY”, but I quickly discovered that those two words are not interchangeable… so let me state this early on: there are some things that do not make sense to “do it yourself”.

Before we get to the meat of this post, a little background on us: I’m a Midwest transplant that’s lived in California most of my life, and my husband was a New Yorker up until he got stationed in sunny San Diego by the Marine Corps.  We had family stretching from coast to coast that we wanted to invite, and we originally discussed doing a destination wedding, or even picking somewhere random in the middle of the country to make it fair for everyone.  In the end we finally decided that we wanted to get married in San Diego, where we knew everyone could enjoy a mini-vacation, as well as make things a little easier on us.

I started looking at some venues online and was floored at what these places cost; many of the hotels, wineries, and typical event halls wanted a MINIMUM of $10,000, and that was barely including the basics.  I also found that a lot of those places required you to use their food, their alcohol, etc. and it just didn’t seem like a lot of flexibility to make it “ours”.

At this point I expanded the search to include some less typical venues – restaurants, breweries, beach houses, but I kept running into the same problem; they either wanted too much money, or they weren’t flexible at all – and in many cases, both.  I even looked into parks and beaches, which were a lot more reasonable as far as price, but we needed expensive permits for alcohol, and that was before adding in the cost of renting tents and tables and heaters… it was enough to make my head spin.

When I was nearly at my wits end and trying to imagine which friend I could ask to use their backyard, I came across a conference center down at the marina; it wasn’t the fanciest place but it was on the water, they had beautiful lawns with boats in the background, and tons of different sized rooms to choose from.  I showed it to my husband-to-be online, and we went down to take a look that weekend.

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As we pulled into the parking lot, he said “I know this place, this is where we launch to go float tube fishing!”, and sure enough he showed me where he and his buddies hid their shoes in the bushes and put their float tubes in the water when they fish in Mission Bay.  8 months later, we would get married about 20 feet from that spot.

We met with the very friendly staff at the office, who walked us around and showed us all the different rooms we could choose from, as well as the various lawns on the property.  We were looking at a weekend in August, while people’s kids were still on summer break, and our family and friends could enjoy the best of the San Diego weather.  When we sat back down to go over pricing, we realized the lawn and room we loved weren’t available for that Saturday, but we could get them for Friday.  We had a hurried discussion, and decided that we could make Friday work – and that was that.

What I wish I’d known earlier, was that we should have been looking at Friday or Sunday in the first place – Saturday weddings, while ideal in many ways, will cost you exponentially more than a wedding on any other day. DJ’s, bands, photographers, florists, etc. charge premiums for Saturday weddings, so you get the best deals on any other day of the week.  Even the venue gave a break for Friday instead of Saturday, and every little bit helped.

At less than $3,000 for the lawn and the room together, we had our venue.  The beauty of this place was not only in the price, but the fact that it was a blank canvas – they had chairs and tables that could be arranged however we wanted, we could bring in any food we wanted, any alcohol (they already had a license), any entertainment, the possibilities were endless… they made some reasonable requests of us to clean up the room before we left, and asked for a modest damage deposit, but otherwise there were no limitations to what we could do.

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This simple fact opened up a whole realm of possibilities… now we could buy all the wedding booze at Costco instead of paying premium prices at the venue.  I was able to order catered Italian food from a local restaurant, and they delivered the food and set it up at no charge (upstairs I might add).  It gave me the freedom to shop around for rentals, flowers, and entertainment without having to adhere to any of the venue’s requirements, and one of their staff even did the lights and decorating for a reasonable rate as his side business.

Now that the big pieces were falling into place, I could focus on the little ways to save money; I ordered our Save The Dates as postcards instead of in envelopes, and used a coupon for the printing site.  Being relatively crafty, I decided to design my own invitations, bought card stock, printed them myself, and spent a lovely afternoon with a friend watching Les Mis, drinking wine, and stuffing envelopes.  For bridesmaid dresses, I shopped online from a regular retailer instead of shopping for “bridesmaid” dresses, and got them for $20 each – they all love and wear them regularly.  I sewed beach bags for each of the girls, and filled them with towels, flip flops, and cute earrings and necklaces I found for cheap online.

I had to remind myself on numerous occasions that while I wanted the best, this is all still only for one day, so even though it would have been fun to get the girls all matching silk robes, they were just as happy with the cute tank tops I got them, with iron-on letters for each of their initials.  No one cared that the centerpieces were thrift store vases filled with sand and seashells and candles.  All these little things still added up, so I kept a master spreadsheet of everything I was spending, and it was immensely helpful to keep track of it all – I even opened it back up to write this post.

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The photographer was a former coworker that gave me a good deal; the DJ was a local favorite that gave us a military discount.  The florist had a flower cart instead of a real shop so her overhead was low; we even asked our three favorite bartenders from our local watering hole to come and bartend our wedding for tips, and they were the life of the party.  Rather than having a professional come to us for an exorbitant cost, I took all of the girls to get their hair and make-up done at a beauty school the morning of the wedding for unbelievably cheap, and it was so much fun.  All in all, I think the only thing I didn’t get some kind of a discount on was the rental house that the girls and I stayed in, but it was much cheaper than a hotel, was walking distance from the beach, and allowed me to create my final, crazy cost-saving measure: folks, I made my own wedding cake.

Let me pause here to discourage anyone reading this from doing so.  Looking back, many people tried to talk me out of it, but I was determined.  I’ve been baking for years and truly enjoy it, and cake decorating is a favorite hobby of mine.  I was also appalled at the cost of a “real” wedding cake, and couldn’t believe what they wanted for even something very simple, and I shopped around at length trying to find reasonable alternatives.  But there was no getting around it – I was either going to spend hundreds on this cake, or I was going to make it myself.

I made countless “trial cakes” leading up to the wedding, and had my timing and recipes memorized.  The girls helped me bake (fed me champagne) before the bachelorette party, and helped me decorate (fed me wine) the night before the wedding.  Despite a few curse words and some imperfect buttercream rosettes, the 3 tiered cake was complete, and I was able to assemble it the day of the wedding in about 20 minutes -and somehow, I didn’t get one single bit of red velvet on that beautiful lacy gown.

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We were lucky enough to have a lot of help from family and friends as well, and I encourage anyone to take people up on their offers of help – people genuinely enjoy being a part of it, and it lightens the load of all the work that needs to be done.  The boys brought bags of ice upstairs to the reception room, many of my aunts and friends helped with decorating the morning of, and my in-laws were kind enough to pick up the tab for the rehearsal dinner.  At the end of the day, we got to have about 110 of our closest friends and family in the same room, and it was the best party we’ve ever been to.

While there were a million things I loved about our wedding day, my absolute favorite is after we cut the cake, my husband and I managed to sneak away to eat ours outside, alone for the first time in days – we sat there and smiled, and ate my home-made cake, and caught up on the last couple of days with our family and friends.  Your wedding is only one day, and a lifetime of memories, but also years of payments for some people, so I encourage any of you out there to spend the money where it counts, and save it where it doesn’t – because sometimes homemade cake is better.

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