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How to plan and budget a DIY wedding

November 16, 2011

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