How to plan and budget a DIY wedding

Categories   Wedding Advice

We thought we’d end our week of posts about Rachel + Dustin’s beautiful, creative wedding with a little (big) overview on what it takes to plan something like it. Rachel is an impressive crafter, but also a VERY detailed planner (she made a spreadsheet to organize the cookies she baked for her sister’s wedding, after all), and since we get so many questions about how to actually go about planning your own DIY wedding, we thought we’d let a recent expert do the honors.

Fair warning… this is a LOOONG post. But that’s what it takes to really explain how to go about this whole business. We know that there are plenty of you out there who will rejoice when you see it all laid out. Some of the inspiration details are in the actual wedding post as well, but we thought it would be nice to repeat them here so you can see how it all came together. And don’t worry, we’ve included some of the more personal, family-focused photos too. Just so you’ll have something sweet to look at as you read.

Here’s Rachel:


(family focused, large dinner party, fun, bright colors)

Our wedding was a completely collaborative effort. I always knew that D would be on board and interested in all the design aspects (there are advantages to marrying an architect!). We started by separately pulling images from various blogs, and then examining them together and discussing why we liked different aspects of photos. We talked about how we wanted our wedding to feel (inclusive, big family dinner party, fun) and look (bright, playful, modern). We kept things fairly open until we found a venue that worked for us (the venue search was the hardest part of planning, hands down) and then solidified our ideas. We were going to have a big party with lots of movement using turquoise, coral and yellow. We would incorporate some of D’s Mexican heritage without going too literal and making it look themed.

We both love working on projects, so we knew we were going to want to get creative. But we also both work full time and we have a lot of family commitments. We decided to maximize our efforts by allowing ourselves to choose a few well planned, high impact projects. Everything else would be kept as simple as possible and with an eye to logistics.
The hardest part was restraining ourselves from diving into half baked projects. We made ourselves sit down and design the invitations first, because we wanted everything to feel cohesive and it starts with the paper. From there we discussed an overall look for the venue and decided which projects would be worth our time. We ended up with just a few really big projects and a small handful of smaller easy ones.


(um, none – but we ended up a hair over $20K)

I’ll admit I originally wanted to hit that popular $10K mark. But it is hard to throw a dinner party for up to 180 guests (we didn’t end up with that many, but you have to plan for everyone!) for that much money, especially if you also want the whole thing photographed. We ended up taking a much looser approach to the budget, making choices that we felt solidly comfortable with and then entering generous estimates in a spreadsheet so that we had an idea of the potential maximum costs. The wedding ended up costing twice that original figure, but a lot less than the maximum. We were so rock solid about the choices we’d made that we both feel perfectly happy about how we spent the money. You can do without the frills but there is a certain bare bones level of spending that has to take place or you need to modify your wants.

I have been to all kinds of lovely weddings with vastly different budgets and enjoyed them all. The most critical wedding budget advice I will give anyone is this – you can have an amazing and meaningful wedding at any budget. But you can’t have any wedding at any budget. There is going to be a lot of angst if you’re trying to get more wedding than you can realistically afford. You cannot comfortably throw a $40k wedding for $10K. That’s a painful fact.

Picking a venue wisely can be the biggest money saver. We had a dream venue that we both fell in love with, but the cost was $6000. We agonized about it, but ultimately decided to choose a venue that was not as fancy, but was from a similar era and had a similar feel. The cost was half that of the dream venue and the fact that the site was a little less fancy actually made it easier for us to cut costs elsewhere. It might have looked odd to have a taco truck meal in the gorgeous 1930s ballroom in the dream venue, but it was perfectly appropriate on the 1930s Spanish patio at the venue we chose.

We saved money on areas of the wedding we could easily DIY and we also simply cut out a lot of little items that didn’t matter to us personally. We stockpiled soda and alcohol in the months leading up to the wedding, by watching the sales like hawks. We bought a bunch of standard cakes from our favorite bakery rather than ordering one large wedding cake (cut the cake cost in half because the bakery didn’t need to have any meetings with us or work out any custom designs). I did my own hair and makeup and didn’t buy any jewelry. We didn’t order corsages for our enormous families. I gave up the idea of videography, which was painful for me, because it wasn’t a top priority. We didn’t give gifts to each other or to our families. We ordered pizza for the rehearsal dinner.

We splurged on things that mattered to us and that would seriously improve the experience for our guests. We did hire wedding planners to give us recommendations on vendors in our price range and to set up and keep everything running smoothly on the day of the wedding. We hired 3 party staff even though our venue only required one licensed bartender, so that they could help bus and refill drinks and most importantly, clean up at the end of the night. And our best unnecessary splurge was on a photobooth – we always knew we wanted one, so we did some serious research on prices and reviews. It was a completely indulgent choice, but it ended up being perfect. I don’t think it was empty for more than a minute or two all night.


(scheduling, knowing your limits, hiring help)

Logistics was the aspect of wedding planning that stressed me out the most. I’d done a lot of the planning for my sister’s wedding so I knew that almost every single thing will take more time than you expected and that you’ll hit hiccups. I knew I needed a generous schedule with plenty of breathing room and options.

Schedule to death – I printed out a calendar and then worked backwards, laying out a schedule for us with deadlines for the projects we’d chosen. If we didn’t hit a deadline, the project got modified to be easier or cut entirely. Case in point – I originally wanted table runners made entirely of the paper flowers I’d been working on. They would have been insanely gorgeous, but I didn’t meet my deadline for making enough flowers. I (a little tearfully) came up with a modified plan that would use the flowers I had and wouldn’t require me killing myself to make more. It was a tough call, but not having that extra pressure more than made up for it.

Know your limits – You can do some DIY projects but not all of them, especially the last minute ones. I love arranging flowers, but I also desperately wanted to do some baking for the wedding. Both of those things have to be done in the days before the wedding. I decided to prioritize the baking (I made cookies and outsourced the cakes) and let the flowers go. For the centerpieces, we mixed the paper flowers that I made months ahead of time with glass cylinders of succulents, which could be arranged a week ahead of time, boxed back up and then stored in the garage and easily transported.

Make lists – The main issue with a DIY heavy wedding is the transportation and set up, in my opinion. We had a lot of stuff (even though we tried to keep it streamlined) and it all had to go somewhere specific on a specific day. Keep your details simple so you aren’t overwhelmed with odds and ends and keep lists with inventory and note when and how each box will be transported and who is responsible for setting it up at the site and when they’ll be allowed to do that. I’ll admit that this part wasn’t fun and gave me a headache, but it’s crucial. If you don’t want to have to deal with the logistics, you probably either need to start cutting your DIY down or hire a full service wedding planner to manage it for you. Things get crazy in the last 24 hours and being super organized is the only thing that will keep you from going crazy as well.

Hire help – Yes. Unless you have a huge and massively energetic family (or a very small and easy to manage wedding), you probably need to hire help for your DIY wedding. You guys, it is a huge party! It isn’t going to manage itself. We had two wedding planners, two bartenders and 1 server/busser, in addition to the staff that came with the truck and the photobooth attendant. I’m so grateful we did, because they kept everything running smoothly and then boxed everything up neatly at the end of the night and made sure the rentals were properly arranged for pick up. All we had to do was swing by the next day to pick up our stuff. We also hired a DJ, rather than going with an iPod wedding. Our venue didn’t come with a sound system, and once we added up the cost of renting a system and the hassle of delegating someone to troubleshoot it, we decided it made much more sense to hire a professional.

I originally felt kind of weird about having all that help, but if you think about your wedding as a dinner party on a grand scale, it makes more sense. When we have people over for dinner, we are working – setting out the food, refilling drinks, checking on the music, making sure everything goes smoothly. It’s enjoyable with 12 people. It isn’t manageable with 140 people who all just want to talk to you and get photos with you. I didn’t want to work my own wedding and I didn’t want my family to have to do it either.


Isn’t that a trove of great advice? We hope this gives some of you the framework you need to make your own decisions about your wedding, and the permission to do things that you’ve been resisting… whether it’s drop a few projects, hire extra help (DOC is essential, even if you’re not hiring a planner, FIY), or even to spend a little extra money than your pre-determined budget. Certainly don’t got into debt, but like Rachel mentions, don’t get stuck on a number that’s ultimately unrealistic for the kind of party you want to have.

Thank you so much, Rachel! Your thoughtfulness and advice is always appreciated.

For those of you who can’t get enough, don’t forget that Rachel has been posting the rest of her wedding tutorials on her own blog, Heart of Light this week.

Photos: Fresh In Love Photography

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Sharon on Nov 16, 2011

Beautifully done, and excellent point about the venue choice having a major impact on the wedding budget. Venues who allow outside caterers and beverages allow so much more room to work within a budget.

k8te on Nov 16, 2011

This is a great post, I will definitely come back to read it in detail when I'm not at work. I love Rachel's honesty...and their wedding was stunning!!

birdie to be on Nov 16, 2011

Great post & advice!!!

Ashley Elrod on Nov 16, 2011

We were able to do our entire wedding within a $5,000 budget for 180 people and everyone thought it was the best most personal wedding they'd been to. Most people don't care about the fancy they just want it to feel like you.We made everything! This is a good post but I do think it is possible to get all you want out of your wedding for less than $10,000

Rachel (heart of light) on Nov 16, 2011

@ Ashley - I completely agree! We threw my sister's wedding for under 5K and it was perfect (there's a detailed budget post here) and everyone loved it. I do think that you can make your wedding wonderful with whatever budget you have, absolutely. I don't consider my wedding a budget wedding (whatever that is), just a DIY wedding (and we still had a lot of hired help). I think a lot of the agony over wedding budgets comes with a couple feels like they a) have to have everything and b) must do so under a specific amount. There's an infinite variety of wedding styles and budgets - everyone just has to find the one that works for them!

Cindy on Nov 16, 2011

Thank you for this post! It takes a big weight off my shoulders! :D

east side bride on Nov 16, 2011

i <3 these photos

wedding dress on Nov 17, 2011

The whole wedding looks so warm and sweet..... I love all of it... Wish you all the best.

Heather on Nov 17, 2011

Thank you so much for this post! I am recently engaged with only $10K to spend on my wedding and I really want to make it beautiful, personal and special. I had no idea where to start, so this is incredibly helpful!!

xo on Nov 17, 2011

$20K is not a budget wedding to most people. Give us some real budget wedding ideas please 100LC!

Heidi on Nov 18, 2011

CN on Nov 18, 2011

Is a DOC really essential? My caterer said she could do it. My DJ will also be acting as an MC. It seems like between the two of them I won't need a DOC.

Rachel (heart of light) on Nov 18, 2011

@ xo - Sorry, I may not have made myself clear! I definitely don't consider my wedding to be a "budget wedding", just a wedding where I carefully weighed all our expenses and didn't buy stuff that I didn't need. You could check out my post on my sister's $5K wedding, which was super carefully budgeted and that might be more helpful for you! I will still emphasize that I'm completely comfortable with how we spent our money, and I don't think we could have gone much lower and still gotten what we wanted. The best way to save money is really to change it up (i.e. afternoon wedding without a full meal and dance party, or late evening wedding with cocktails and dancing) but it was important to us to have the full dinner and big party. It is really HARD to do a full dinner for a large party without conscripting all your family into working at it. And getting family/friend help can be a huge money saver, but unfortunately we weren't in a position where that was possible, just due to physical limitations. @ CN - If you have a full service caterer who is willing to act as DOC then I wouldn't worry about it. Our issue was that our site needed quite a bit of set up and tear down because it was completely BYO everything and I physically couldn't be there getting the tablecloths laid out in the time window we had. Our "caterer" was the truck, so all they did was show up and start serving - no bussing or set up on the site at all. If your caterer is handling that set up and tear down, then I think you'll be good!

berkeleybride on Nov 18, 2011

It'd be so helpful to really see the breakdown of your $20k, if you'd be willing to share it. Part of the problem with a budget wedding is if you have, say, 150 guests and want to feed them a big meal, it's extremely hard to find catering for under $10k - and that's JUST food, staff, & rentals.

Maria on Nov 19, 2011

As a bride to be, this was very helpful! Thanks for great advices. I have to say that I'm in love with the dress!

Rachel (heart of light) on Nov 19, 2011

@ berkeleybride - I may do a really detailed budget breakdown at some point - just need to pull it together. I can give rough numbers for big categories, these are all rounded up to keep it easy, so we actually had more wiggle room than it looks like - we spent $2800 on our venue + $1200 on rentals (linens + tables + chairs). $5200 for our food (included tip for staff). $700 on bartenders/staff for set up and break down. A little over $500 for the dessert buffet. $1700 for drinks (this included fancy beer, decent sparkling wine, costco margaritas, soda, ice delivery, and all the plastic cups + napkins - we got some of it back because we returned unused stuff). We spent nearly $7K on our big vendors (photographer, wedding planners, DJ, photobooth) combined. The other 1 - 2K went towards decor (which was pretty low for us) + our simple invites which we made ourselves + clothes + the other little miscellaneous things that pile up. The catering was hard for us as well. We looked at SO MANY options. Because we had a relatively casual wedding venue, it felt right to choose the taco truck, but we did give up full service. They provided paper plates and I had to be okay with that. We didn't have servers so people walked up to the truck to order for themselves. I know not everyone has the food truck option. Our second choice was my favorite local BBQ place, and we could have gotten a casual buffet from them for the same amount of money (again, paper plates, no table service). Not traditional wedding, but it would have been delicious. Traditional wedding caterers are more expensive but often provide a higher level of service (staff, linens, plates, etc). We supplemented with the party staff, because it was still cheaper than any of the service estimates we got from caterers. I should clarify that I don't think the caterers are overcharging - they're providing a different service altogether and it's more formal and probably runs very smoothly and you'd have less need for a full service DOC if you had a great caterer. I guess that's actually fairly detailed! Of course, feel free to email me if you have any questions. I did not love figuring out the money part of the wedding, but I'm comfortable with where we ended up.

Friday Sunday on Nov 23, 2011

This is such a great, thoughtful post, and this wedding turned out beautifully! We're trying to push wedding photography into a more affordable realm for sensible, DIY brides... things have just become so unrealistic lately! Just takes some creativity, but this really shows that you CAN have it all for less!

vanessa on Dec 1, 2011

This was so incredibly helpful! I am in the midst of planning my very DIY heavy wedding and these posts could not have come at a better time. Thank you!

wedding dresses on Dec 24, 2011

Great post & advice!!!It takes a big weight off my shoulders!

Tricia on Jan 19, 2012

Where did you get your sparkly shrug?

Wedding Dresses on Mar 3, 2012

wonderful post and such a great wedding and as mentioned very creative! I'm not too sure what the typical budget for a wedding is in the US, but $20K looked pretty reasonable too. One again a great write up on a great blog I always enjoy reading thanks x

Custom made dresses on Mar 8, 2012

Wow those are some amazing photos very bountiful i want my wedding to be traditional with a custom made wedding dress

Custom made dresses on Mar 8, 2012

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plus size lingerie on Mar 13, 2012

i loved every single picture that you have taken of your beautiful weddinge

uk troll beads on Mar 13, 2012

Great picture and thanks for the helpful advice

Gaurav on Apr 4, 2013

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Wedding Venues on Apr 28, 2013

Such good tips, thanks so much! This has motivated me to get organised :) Kai

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