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In NYC, the average wedding now costs a faint-inducing $65,824. The rest of the country is not much better, with the average American wedding clocking in at $26,645. Those kinds of figures don’t really go well with trying to achieve early retirement, and when I got married several years ago I went on a quest to research the best deals. I spoke with several wedding industry specialists in an interview capacity. Here are the best tips I compiled from those conversations and which helped me cut my own bill by $20k-$40k.
5 Best Venue Tips
Going off the beaten path is the number one way to get a great deal on your venue. Here are a few options.
Restaurants: One of my favorite suggestions is to consider a restaurant as your venue. Go on Yelp and find gorgeous restaurants with high reviews, or check Open Table in their Private Events section for capacity info. Restaurants have all the tableware, linens, etc. that you need, and have spent a lot of time curating their ‘look’, possibly with regular floral deliveries, so you may save a bundle on décor going this direction. For design-challenged folks like myself, it’s pretty fantastic to be able to tour a space and see what it’s going to look like upfront, not envision what I need to do to it in my head. Oftentimes restaurants won’t require a venue fee which typically get the $1000-$4000+ range, and just require a food and beverage minimum, so you save money there as well. Also, the staff you get is full-time instead of temp folks and you’re getting a team who knows how to cook for the capacity of the space you’re in with a kitchen they’re familiar in with dishes they cook on a regular basis.
Timing: If you can find a venue that’s typically closed at the time you want to hold your event (a bar for a daytime event, a rustic coffee shop for a night time event), you can probably score a killer deal. If you are a at a wedding-focused venue who does this regularly, typically you can get a discount for doing a daytime event, or a Friday or Sunday night time event. Discounts also tend to surface in non-peak seasons like December through March. The discount on timing is generally at least 20% and can reach 30% or more.
Hotels – Non Peak Rooms and New Hotels: Many people will tell you to avoid hotels entirely for a budget wedding, but I realized that they can oftentimes have some of the better deals, especially if you aren’t going to be renting their main ballroom but rather some of the other lovely rooms they offer. Hotels often include a bunch of extras that other venues don’t provide – almost all their rooms are fully sound system-equipped, and they give you options for chairs, tables, linens, and come with a caterer (often required, though) for easy planning. When you add up all you’re getting for the price, it can come out to a great deal with less headache than putting everything together on your own.
Combine this with the timing comment above (i.e. a morning event or Friday/Sunday event) to get a really killer deal. I was told by hotels at least in the NYC area that fall and winter were their peak times since it’s when many companies hold conferences or holiday parties. That means for them, you may get ‘off peak’ pricing in spring and summer which are typically considered peak times at wedding-focused venues.
Bonus tip: I’d consider inquiring at hotels which have been operational for less than a year or year and a half for killer deals. Most hotels have a dedicated special events/private events team so you’re going to get dedicated professional resources, but since they are a new hotel they haven’t built up a big base of reviews for their wedding services. The sales manager will likely be hungry to close more events. I spoke with one new hotel who was cheaper than more established peers by 15-20% because they were trying to build their book of business. Don’t take their first quote – keep negotiating.
Parks/Historical Buildings: Parks and historical buildings managed by the park systems are often fantastic, affordable gems. These spaces are meant to be used by the public so the permit needed or the rental fee is often very affordable, usually under $100-$300. A quick call to the parks office will probably get you a very direct run-down of where they often see events like yours being held and what has worked in the past for other couples.
Take Advantage of Near-Term Pricing: If you’re planning a wedding within the next 3-4 months, you may be able to snag much lower prices as many venues often book 9-12 months in advance. Odds are they won’t be seeing much additional near-term demand. For near-term openings they will often be willing to cut a deal, but you need to ask.
9 Food and Drink Strategies
Delivering vs Serving: There are two ways caterers typically charge. The most common method is per person, and you see that with caterers who are also providing the serving staff for your event. The other method is by pan or by some other bulk measurement. If a caterer is delivering to you but not serving at your event, you can often get pricing by the pan and it ends up being more than 3x-5x cheaper. You would have to hire your own servers, but it could still net out to significant savings. I went to a wedding recently in the brides’ parents’ gorgeous backyard, and they were able to get high quality food and alcohol delivered for about 1/10th the cost that on-site caterers charge.
Ask to Waive Extra Fees: There are some pretty ridiculous fees tacked on by wedding caterers. They may charge a $1-$3 per person cake cutting fee; they don’t provide the cake, but they charge you to do their job and you know, slice and serve it. Say something like “we really love the options we’ve discussed with you, but we are just not comfortable with the cake cutting fee. It’s not part of our budget. Are we able to waive this?” See what they come back with. Some places will cave on this add-on fee with just a little nudge. I got my cake cutting and ceremony fees waived just by using this line.
Specify your budget upfront: I had luck specifying the max cost I wanted to spend upfront. I found that many caterers who had advertised no options in my price range in their initial materials were actually able to create something that met my price range if it was within 20% of their lowest priced advertised package.
Wine and Beer vs Open Bar: Ask them what it would cost if you did wine and beer instead of a full open bar. Wine and beer only options cut the price per person I was quoted in half.
Consumption-based Charge: Many caterers will allow you to pay for your guests’ drinks on a consumption basis rather than going full open bar. It is not often listed as an option in intro materials. You can arrange with many caterers to have them alert you when the total amount approaches some set level you so and your partner can make a game time decision at the event; this prevents your a la carte bill from getting out of hand. Our caterer’s open bar quote per person essentially required each guest to have four drinks per person in order to break even vs ordering a la carte. Considering we did an afternoon event, there was no way we’d reach this level of drinking. We were able to leverage that information to cut our costs by thousands of dollars.
Order A Cake For 10-20% Less Guests: Not everyone will be eating cake, especially if you are offering additional dessert options. For a guest count of 150 people, for example, you are generally safe ordering 125 slices.
Request a Simple Cake Design: For your cake, you are paying for design work and time more than you are paying for the ingredients and size of the cake. Ask what the price will be for different design ideas. As an example, doing pearls/icing piped spots is a nice elegant look that requires minimal time and effort, which should be reflected in your bill.
Display Cake Plus Sheet Cake: One commonly cited savings tip is to have a small display cake out front and then large sheet cakes in the back from which to serve your guests. This works well for large events with 150+ people. It creates less savings for a small event.
A tip from my catering friend – when selecting entrees you may want to consider food choices that hold up well to sustained heat. The reason filet mignon ends up being so tough and rubbery at most weddings? Not a high enough fat content. Going with things that are braised like short ribs or fatty fishes like Chilean Sea Bass and it will probably result in an overall better quality dish. These options are often cheaper to boot!
2 Flower Options
Choose the Right Flowers: There are several flower cost guides you can google once you have several ideas you like. Two main things to keep in mind: 1) Many flowers are seasonal. So if you want peonies in November, expect to pay through the nose for them. These guides will tell you what flowers are in season at what time. They’ll also give you a sense for the cost per stem so you can get an idea for which flowers are more costly than others. 2) Don’t assume every optically high-priced flower is expensive. For example, hydrangeas tend to be one of the highest priced flowers per stem, but they also take up a lot of volume in a bouquet or centerpiece, so you will need less of them to achieve your overall effect.
Here is a basic chart of prices on the most commonly used flowers to get you started:
|$5-$10+ Per Stem||$5 or Less Per Stem|
|Cattleyas Orchids||Asiatic Lilies||Roses|
|Cymbidium Orchids||Bells of Ireland||Stock|
|Dendrobium Orchids||Craspedia (Billy Balls)||Sweetpeas|
|French Tulips||Gerber Daisies|
|Lily of the Valley||Green Fuji Mums|
|Phalaenopsis Orchids||Hypericum Berries|
Use A Non-Wedding Focused Florist: I found that I got the best quality to price ratio by going with florists who are not specialists in weddings. I sent the same picture of a centerpiece to numerous places and got back pricing ranging from $65-$135. This was my quick way to weed out who was going to come in around my price range and allowed me to compare them apples to apples. The other positive was that the non-wedding florist did not ask me for a several thousand dollar minimum spend to take on my event (yes, many places have a minimum spend on flowers). I used Yelp to find reliable florists in my area who were not focused on weddings.
The Silver Bullet Recommendation
Get Married At The Courthouse: I would be remiss in my frugal duties if I didn’t mention that going to courthouse and paying the approximately $40 license fee will get you just as married as a fancy banquet hall event. As long as you’ve picked the right life partner, you’ve done the most important part! The rest are just fancy trappings. I realize not everyone will find this the best option when taking into consideration family, friends, and their own values, but for those who can: good on you!
For those wondering, the hubs and I had a traditional, sort of fancy wedding. It was important to my husband to have many of our friends and family present, and his sense of hospitality pushed us towards a traditional sit-down meal of a certain quality given how far people were traveling. We kept our event under 50 people, scored a below-price deal just as a new caterer was trying to build their book of business in the space, and waived guest minimums in our dream venue in a charming stone building directly in NYC along the Bronx River. We nixed ceremony fees, cake fees, and all sorts of silliness.
I got one of my favorite photographers at less than advertised prices by cutting extraneous features like the included engagement shoots and condensing shooting hours to under six. I went with raw footage for our videographer, taking the cost from the usual $2,000 to less than $600. Our non-wedding focused florist cost a total of $650 for all centerpieces, bouquets, and boutonnieres vs. minimums of $1,500-$2,000 quoted by wedding-focused florists. I bought my dress as a sample at a gorgeous high end boutique and then donated it for the tax deduction immediately after, costing me a total of $400. We paid for everything ourselves. All told, it was $19,328, which would be perhaps $8,500 in other parts of the country. It was still an incredible expense, but we were very happy with the day.
The wedding industry may charge nosebleed prices, but you can throw a classy, gorgeous event for easily half the average cost for a wedding. There’s no one “right way” to do a wedding, but hopefully you can use these tips to keep more dollars in your pocket and working toward your and your spouse’s futures.
Do you have other good savings tips for weddings? What was worth the expense? What wasn’t?