Throwing a Budget Wedding in Birmingham, Alabama: Keep It Simple, Ask for Help, Get Creative

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bride and groom at garden wedding

Photography by Spindle Photography

Marriage is, in part, a financial commitment. Don’t get me wrong — I’m a romantic. Russell and I are in love, and we’re pretty cheesy and sappy about that (well, when we’re alone). But we also got married because we make good life partners. Money is a big piece of that partnership, and going into debt because of our wedding seemed like a bad way to start our joint financial lives. So we worked hard to keep our wedding to a small budget, even though we had a big guest list.

Today, I want to share a few of the things we did to throw a budget wedding that didn’t look cheap. This is just what we actually did; it’s not a comprehensive list. Some of these ideas will work for anyone. Some will only be helpful if you have a crafty, DIY streak. And a few only worked out for us because we happen to have really close friends in the wedding industry and related industries (photo styling, videography, etc.). Obviously, “become best friends with the best wedding photographer in town” isn’t the most helpful tip, although it worked out well for me. But those relationships helped give me insight into innovative ways to save that only insiders know about. So if you’ve never schlepped heavy boxes of props in 98-degree heat with an intern who goes on to become an amazing florist, you won’t save as much on flowers as I did — but the tips she shared with me can still help you cut your budget.

We Chose In-Season Flowers

bridesmaid holds flowers

Shipping flowers in from out of town, or out of the country, requires a lot of refrigeration and transportation, and transportation and refrigeration cost money. It’s cheaper to buy flowers blooming near you around the time of your wedding. We got super lucky because one of my good friends, Kathleen Varner, is a florist, so she knew what would be most cost-effective. I didn’t choose my flowers at all — I chose my budget and a general color palette and asked Kathleen to make that go as far as she could. Your can stretch your budget more by letting your florist know your general tastes and letting them decide where the money is allocated instead of demanding a specific flower, like peonies, that can eat up a lot of your budget and limit what your florist is able to do with the rest of it.

We Asked a Friend to Officiate (As a Gift)

wedding officiant

We asked our friend Michael Stuckey to officiate as our wedding gift. I’ve officiated weddings before, so I had a general idea of how I wanted the ceremony to flow and what vows we wanted to use. You can leave that stuff up to the officiant, or you can Google your way through it to make the favor less time-consuming (and to have more control over what your ceremony is like). Michael was ordained through a religious organization, but if you’ve seen any sitcoms in the past several years, you probably already know that anyone can be ordained on the internet. If you go this route, be sure you check into your state laws, since officiant duties vary a bit (for example, I had to complete a notarized form when I performed a wedding in New Orleans), and you’ll want to be prepared.

Our Video Is Ceremony-Only

We wanted our wedding ceremony videoed because we both had grandparents who couldn’t travel, but we couldn’t afford a videographer for our entire wedding, so we asked for video of the ceremony only. This option may not be available because, frankly, it’s very annoying for the videographer. They have to do all the work of prepping and stressing just like they would for a day-long wedding, but they only get a fraction of the paycheck. We were able to convince our videographer to squeeze us in anyway because we got married on a Sunday, so he still got to book a full wedding on Saturday. 

We Rubber Stamped Our Invitations

rubber stamped wedding invitations

I have a lot to say about DIY invitations — some good, and some bad. It was a bit of a rough process, but it did save us several hundred dollars. I’ll blog all about it soon.

We Didn’t Ask Guests to Mail Reply Cards

If you’re keeping your wedding small, you might be able to reach out to people individually. We definitely did not keep our wedding small, but we also didn’t need an exact headcount because we weren’t doing a sit-down dinner. I created a text RSVP through Google Voice, so we got a rough headcount without paying for reply card postage.

Our Cake(s) and Caterer Were Non-Traditional

cake table with bundt cakes

We chose to do a hybrid potluck for the food, and we had a bunch of people we loved bring bundt cakes. It was beautiful, it was meaningful, and it was cheap.

We Skipped Traditions We Didn’t Care about

We put our own spin on the traditions we cared about, and we ditched the ones we didn’t. We didn’t have a traditional wedding cake. We didn’t buy toasting glasses. We ditched the bouquet and garter tosses. (These don’t cost much money, but they do add time to the reception, and that costs money.) We also had our short, simple rehearsal about an hour before the ceremony itself, so instead of a rehearsal dinner, Russell’s family cooked an amazing barbeque dinner for us at my parents’ AirBNB. (We found an AirBNB with a grill and asked permission to have a small group there.) 

We Paid for Everyone’s First Drink Only

bar menu and glasses

This choice plagued me for awhile before the wedding. We got married at a biergarten, so we couldn’t really skip alcohol, but we definitely couldn’t afford to pay the tab for an open bar for 200 people. My first idea was to do a signature cocktail for free and have the rest paid, but Russell (a former bartender) was against it on the grounds that most people aren’t really going to want the signature cocktail, and we’d waste our money without solving the problem.

What we did instead was kind of a “first drink’s on us” kind of thing — we put a couple thousand dollars toward the bar tab, and that just went as far as it could go. We had a small drinks menu so people could choose between a couple of wines and a couple of beers or one or two cocktails; they could get those for free. Anything off that menu, or anything after the first hour or so, was paid. We also provided all the non-alcoholic drinks for free all night.

We Got Married on a Sunday

We chose Sunday because our venue closed early that day and that’s when we were able to use Brät Brot. But our vendors were also more open to creative (i.e. cheap) solutions because they could still make their normal paychecks on Saturday. (If you choose to do this, remember that it’s going to be harder on out-of-town wedding guests because they can’t limit all their traveling to the weekend.)

We Each Had One Attendant (No Big Group of Bridesmaids and Groomsmen)

We each had a close group of friends who we celebrated with, but we didn’t have a big group of “official” bridesmaids and groomsmen who stood up with us. We didn’t really do this to save money — we did it because my friends have all been in too many weddings already, and they’re all pretty much over matching dresses. So my sister was my maid of honor, and Russell’s brother was his best man. But we did save money because we didn’t have to buy as many bouquets, and also because Courtenay and Josh picked out and paid for their own clothes.

Russell Wore a Suit, Not a Tux

Russell wore the same suit he wears to everything. We just got it altered a bit so the fit was perfect, and we got a new shirt, belt and boots. We bought ties for our officiant and Russell’s best man that coordinated with his, but they wore their own clothes otherwise.

We Asked a Friend Be the Day-of Coordinator

I don’t believe there are many things that every wedding needs, but I do believe in having a coordinator. Even casual weddings are hard to pull off, and you’ll need someone to handle emergencies on the day of the wedding, when you and your family are likely to be frantic and edgy. Probably a professional coordinator is best, but we couldn’t afford one. So I was basically the coordinator until the wedding day, and then my friend Alison took over my Google Docs and Trello boards and handled everything that didn’t go according to plan.

Do you have a really, really organized friend who you completely trust? And is this someone who won’t mind running around doing errands on the day of the wedding instead of chilling with you and the bridesmaids? Would you hand this person your credit card and your engagement ring with absolutely no worries? If so, you might have yourself a coordinator. Mine was my former boss — I trust her and her taste completely.

P.S. If your church has a coordinator, this means you need your own coordinator more, not less. The church coordinator is there to prevent the sanctuary from abuse, not to help you troubleshoot. A church coordinator is just one more person to get on board with your specific wedding plans.

We Let Our Venue Determine Our Wedding Style

brat brot outside view

Finding a venue is so hard. They all have crazy rules and really high price tags. But once you find somewhere you like, you’ll save money if you lean into that aesthetic instead of fighting it. My friend David owns a biergarten, so getting married there was one of the first things we decided. Then I geared most of our other choices — from food to my dress — to things that would already work with the venue. Fighting the style of your venue is going to be a lot more expensive than working with what you’ll be surrounded by.

We Reset Our Expectations

Weddings are so, so expensive, and every little thing you add — Even the DIY stuff! — somehow ends up costing a lot of time and usually a lot of money. The best way to cut costs is to decide what’s really, truly important to you, and be willing to ditch the rest. I always expected to walk down the aisle in a white dress with a veil and a full princess skirt. I ended up wearing a smoke-blue beaded bridesmaid’s dress, and I didn’t have a veil at all. The dress of my daydreams didn’t really make sense with my venue or any of the other things we chose, and it didn’t fit my budget.

Does that sound depressing? I don’t think it is. I think it’s good practice for marriage, actually — sometimes, it’s better to challenge your expectations than force an idea from your past that you’ve actually outgrown. I ended up a with wedding that was true to myself, my husband and my community instead of honoring who I thought I’d be when I was 18 years old, and I think that’s a choice that opens up a lot more exciting possibilities in the future.

Wait, am I saying “Say Yes to the Dress” has lied to us? Yeah, I am. Because if it’s the dress we’re saying yes to, I think there’s a problem from the beginning.

Carrie Rollwagen married Russell Marbut in September of 2018. She’s the author of The Localist, a book about buying independent, and cofounder of Church Street Coffee & Books. Currently, she’s Communications Director at Infomedia, a Birmingham-based web development company. Find her on social media as @crollwagen: Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. Russell is a web developer and jiu jitsu instructor who isn’t much into wedding blogs or website bios. He’s on Instagram as @russellg9.

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