Friday, March 23, 2012

Our Thrifty Wedding: We're Doing it Our Way

Some news I have been holding out on: Steve and I got engaged at the Grand Canyon. Hooray!

A little side note on how we met (seven years ago!) to give you a background of who we are. I was thinking about going to culinary school after my position as a managing editor of Washington news at a trade publication was "eliminated" - always a nicer way than saying "fired." After seven years there right out of college, I thought if ever there was a time to try something different, it was now. On the advice of a chef, I was told to ask other chefs on their opinions on schools and working in the kitchen. I asked one at a French restaurant when I was dining there with my parents, and he offered me an apprenticeship where the banquet chef just happened to be my heart's desire. I was drawn to him immediately. He does look so handsome in that chef's uniform, although my dad teases me I'm like the World War II brides who fell in love with the uniforms of the GIs. Steve's moved on from that restaurant and after extremely grueling hours with low pay and no benefits, I couldn't justify $25,000 plus for tuition at the New York culinary schools. After some temp jobs, a short waitressing stint (please never be ashamed of taking any honest job even if it's totally out of your field if you're reading this and are unemployed), I now have a cubicle job. Not a "dream" job saving the world with my political science degree, but a job I'm pretty grateful to have. Ultimately, I love what Robert Kincaid said in the film version of The Bridges of Madison County, "The old dreams were good dreams. They didn't work out, but I'm glad I had them."

While I gained a relationship from my job loss, I also changed my relationship with money as a result of my unemployment and times living on my very limited restaurant salary. Steve's very careful with money too. He's worked hard his whole life. He still does with one full time state job (which he often worries about losing amid our budget cut crisis times) and has a part time job at an Italian restaurant. We're about to move into another two family home (he's keeping the one we're in now as an investment). We're still waiting for our mortgage to arrive and right now the words "bank," "mortgage" and "mortgage broker" make my blood boil! But ultimately, a home, not a one day party, is really our top priority. Even if that wasn't in the picture, we'd still have a thrifty wedding. Here's what's in store so far.

The ring:
I told Steve DON'T buy me a new ring when we were talking about to get engaged. I definitely wanted something secondhand, preferably vintage. I don't want to contribute to questionable sources for diamonds (see Leonardo DiCaprio in Blood Diamond!) and we just don't have that kind of money. He proposed with an IOU for a ring! When I got back from the trip, my mom showed me my grandmother's ring from my father's side, and it fit perfectly. It's very modest and totally me. I grew up with my grandparents in Switzerland who I saw occasionally on summer vacations there, but with the distance and language barrier, I didn't have the same experience other children have, so I love being close to my grandmother in this sense, and that it's the ring my grandfather picked out about eighty years ago. I never did get to meet him.

The dress:
With great pride, I'm telling people happily: I got my dress at the Goodwill! I went to the Paramus, New Jersey location on another mission, and happened to see a display of wedding dresses. I had already made my purchases, but a gut feeling told me to go back into the store. The girl took the dress off the mannequin, and it fit perfectly. A customer passing by came up to me and said, "Get it" and when I told her the price, she said, "Definitely get it!" Since I was shopping alone, I thought she was one of those guardian angels at just the right time. I'll reveal the dress and the shocking price (two digits!) after the wedding (sometime this summer). It's from Hartley, an upscale boutique in Westwood, New Jersey. About a year or two ago, I admittedly was fascinated with the TLC show, "Say Yes to the Dress" where brides try dresses on at Kleinfeld's in New York City. First, I can't believe their "budgets." If you're spending $2,000 on a dress, that's not a budget in my book. Also, I wasn't about to make anyone pay for my dress. Even if my grandmother was alive, I wouldn't spend thousands of dollars of her money so I could get some retail high off a dress shopping experience. My parents are retired and their financial security is more important than a few hours at some catering hall wearing a dress I'll have on once for a few hours. I have some nice savings I've built up and have no intention of using so much of it for this one day.

Readers here know I am a big advocate of the reuse market, especially for clothing since almost none are made domestically, and am thrilled to have found a secondhand dress. Angela Barton has a "Thrifty Threads" column where readers show off their secondhand clothing on her "My Year Without Spending" blog and she featured a bride, Alyson, who got her dress on eBay for just $100. Angela also shared this site, Recycled Bride, which says more than 20% of brides bought gently used gowns last year.

Rehearsal dinner dress:
At the Goodwill again! On the same mannequin! A navy blue Jessica McClintock dress for just $30. Admittedly, I need to lose 5-10 pounds, which is my goal anyway. My wedding dress has more of a 1930s feel, but this is more 1950s. Very Mad Men!

The rehearsal dinner:
We have a restaurant in mind, and it's a BYOB which will save a ton of money. I think my parents will be picking up the tab.

The registry:
We aren't having one. Really, we just want money toward a honeymoon or the house. Steve and I are on the same page with consumerism. We both will tell you we love stuff and are constantly acquiring things (for me: homey stuff, books, and vintage clothes and such, him tools and odds and ends), but we get it almost entirely second hand. Our "new" television - from the trash. We feel ill at ease giving anyone's money (our own or our loved one's) to corporations for all their (mostly) Chinese made stuff when we can buy things already produced for a fraction of the cost. We're supplementing our household needs with finds at charity thrift shops and estate sales. I even rescued a nice white wicker nightstand minutes before the garbage truck was going to bring it to a landfill.

The reception:
If we ever get into our house and I don't have to hear Steve's "patience is a virtue lecture," we'll have an intimate dinner in our backyard. Steve wants to get married in his Catholic church (I'm Protestant, but neither of us are deeply religious). Since our new home has a tiled patio with a private backyard that looks out to a wooded area, this seems perfect. I keep thinking about the garden dinner party Juliette Binoche's character hosts in the film Chocolat with amazing food, candlelight and close loved ones, although we don't have a French farmhouse - it's a suburban home built in 1970. I love in that scene even the dog is savoring the food.

I also thought of the great backyard wedding scene in another Juliette Binoche film, Dan in Real Life, or when Rachel McAdam's character got married in the film The Vow in an unconventional pink dress in a rouge ceremony at a museum. Who says you need to spend money on a pricey catering hall?

Honestly, I started looking at locations and got getting queasy thinking about the costs. All of my relatives are in Switzerland which is too far to travel, and his are in Iowa (they have a family reunion every other summer there so we can celebrate later). We definitely don't want the gluttonous amount of food: big cocktail hour, four course meal, dessert buffet. It's too much! Only the catering sales manager really believes that much food is wanted by your guests.

Local flowers from the farm or even our garden or my mother's garden. I'd love to have a Lily of the valley bouquet since it grows in her garden.

So that's where we are so far. While I love sharing things about American culture and history, I also seek to challenge what's presented as the norm in our society in my blog about the American Dream. You don't have to live the life corporate America has spent so much time laying out for you. You can follow your own path. I don't make the best choices as a consumer all (or even most) of the time, but I am proud of the wedding we're planning, as it reflects us as a couple.

Did you know the average American couple spends $27,000 on their wedding?

Did you have a thrifty wedding or attended one? Frugal wedding tips? Please share your thoughts in the comments section on weddings in America, including your own.


  1. The average American couple spends $27K on a wedding?!?!? I could live for 2 years on that amount of money!

    I fear I am a tad bit cynical about this entire topic, so my one and only frugal wedding tip would be to just live in sin... it's so much easier on everybody.

  2. I loved our wedding, held in my parents' yard. Some of my parents' friends, who were like aunts and uncles to me growing up (extended family was far away) provided 'services' as their gift to us. Two amateur photography buffs took all the pictures and gave us albums and negatives (yes, a long time ago...); flowers and bouquets were from a gardener friend's yard; music was played by a couple of friends. I remember very few of the physical gifts we received but feel warm and fuzzy inside whenever I think of the contributions of themselves these people gave us that day.

  3. Congratulations! Mazel Tov! And thank you for sharing your exciting news with us! Before I get to sharing about my own lovely and frugal wedding, do you know the magazine Mary Jane's Farm? It's a magazine I indulge in occasionally and over the past year they have been following a couple that was planning a green and frugal wedding. I believe theirs will be rather large, but they were doing things like buying plates from thrift stores for the reception. They were planning to keep the ones they really liked afterward, and bring the rest back to a thrift store. Also, over the last few months I've noticed at a bagel shop in my town that one couple had left a box for collecting the empties for a particular juice drink that was sold there and the note on it said they were gathering them to serve as vases for the tables at their wedding reception. I loved both these ideas!

    My wedding was (gulp!) 21 years ago! Though I live in Montana now, at the time we were living in the Catskill region of Upstate New York. Our whole wedding cost about $2,000! Aside from our wedding being simple, we also had lots of friends that offered to do things like set-up tables, schlep chairs, etc. We wanted an outdoor wedding and found a beautiful park in the area that had a bi-level pavilion built into a hillside, next to a stream. We paid something like $50 to reserve the pavilion for our event. I was blissfully unaware of most things the average American couple does for their weddings, and we felt free to do things as we wanted. To avoid having to deal with catering a meal, we had everyone gather at a restaurant for a simple lunch prior to the wedding. Then we all went to the park where we had set up chairs in the upper part of the pavilion (and had hung our own planters of flowers and such). After the ceremony we went downstairs for the reception. We used the picnic tables from the pavilion, and friends had set up one main table for the cake and lots of Martinelli's sparkling cider (I'm not a drinker, and my husband is only an occasional one, so we decided to make it simple and not do alcohol -- nobody complained), and some other munchies. We had a musician friend play DJ and we had a great time eating cake, dancing, and hanging out at this beautiful park with all our friends and family! I have such great memories and great feelings about how it all went, no regrets, and never any feeling of "why did we spend all that money!" Our friends understood our choices, but our relatives also seemed to have a great time and appreciate the casual and festive event.

    I support and encourage you as you go through this process to do it your way, making the choices that feel right to you and your betrothed. We knew we could have chosen to get married on our own and not even have a wedding, but we very much wanted to share the occasion with the many important people in our lives. But do it for yourselves, do it with heart and soul, and have fun!

  4. It truly seems unbelievable about the cost, but based on weddings I've attended, I'm not surprised. As a guest at some of these fancier weddings, I've never liked the social pressure to give a monetary amount to match what the bride and groom spent on you (say, $150 a head, so you should give that back). I've never wanted people to spend a lot of money participating in our event. People are financially pressured enough today. I'd be happy if everyone brought a plant for our garden or nice bottle of wine, or just a very small contribution toward a trip.

    I love the idea of guests providing services as gifts! I just asked Steve yesterday who in the family is good at photography.

    Amy, thanks! A park wedding sounds great. Parks (along with libraries, farms and of course home) are some of the most happiest of places to me. Our new home is so close to the church we thought the backyard would be easiest especially with food which we'll likely do ourselves. Steve's brother is also a chef, but he knows so many chefs who may be able to help out with plating. We also considered the wine/champagne issue in the parks. I'm not a big drinker myself. Two glasses of wine would be a lot for me!

    I did not know about Mary Jane's Farm magazine, thanks for sharing. I found the Mary Jane's Farm BB in Idaho and it looks amazing!

  5. Yes, the B&B in Idaho! I've been longing to go there over a weekend for the last few years. One of these days. . . And, yes, we also had a friend take the photographs, and she put it together in a simple album and gave it to us as a gift -- it was perfect. I like your idea about donations towards either your honeymoon or your new home. And I think people appreciate knowing that they can give an amount they are comfortable with towards something they know you want and will use. Many people struggle with knowing what to give for these occasions and I think it is un-necessary stress on your guests. I think those who know you really well and might have something more specific or personal in mind will just go ahead and do that anyway (I know I would!). Happy Planning!

  6. Congratulations! My fiance and I are currently planning a thrifty August wedding ourselves. Getting flowers from a local farm is a brilliant idea--I'm going to have to check if any of the area farms sell flowers for a reasonable price. My biggest thrifty find thus far was finding printable invitations on clearance at Target--100 for $21. Our venues will also be fairly inexpensive as my church charges very nominal fees to parishioners.

  7. Thanks Amy! And thanks also Emily and congratulations to you as well! Good luck with those flowers. Invitations, yes we need a thrifty find too as soon as we settle on a date. Great find!

  8. Congratulations, Catherine! I giggled when you mentioned Steve's " 'Patience is a virtue' lecture." I get that one from Jason, too. ;-)

    I also had a pretty thrifty wedding. I don't know what Jason spent on my engagement ring (and don't want to!) but he has assured me that it was way less than a diamond, which I didn't want. (I have a lab-made ruby in a beautiful white gold setting). We had a small wedding, only about 35 people, at a bed and breakfast here in town. We were able to rent the place and pay for a nights' stay for us for less than $2,000, and that includes tables, chairs, decorations, punch, the run of the house, etc. I believe my wedding dress cost about $700 after alterations, which I now find a little galling. I did my own makeup. We had our favorite Indian restaurant do the catering, and the food was delicious and inexpensive. We didn't have alcohol because most of our guests either didn't drink or were underage. A family friend and Jason's dad did our photography.

    If I could do my wedding over again, I would: spend less on the dress, bake my own wedding cake, make strawberry jam as wedding favors (we didn't have any), and invite the same number of people but some different ones.

    I've always been of the mind that the marriage is what's truly important, not the wedding.

  9. Cate, thanks! Your ring sounds just lovely, as does your B&B wedding with the Indian food.

    I'd like to do my own make up too and we'll probably do our own cake. I love the strawberry jam idea! I may have to copy that (and learn how to make my own jam!) Or perhaps a small pot or herbs? Some Swiss chocolate? I guess we better get a date first. I appreciate too when couples do charitable donations.

    I still wince at the money wasted on my prom dress, makeup, hair, limo, hotel, etc. Cost of food and wine we'll purchase for the dinner excluded, I'll probably have spent more on my high school prom (1994) than I do on my 2012 wedding!

  10. Okay, me again! But I must weigh in on this bit about baking your own cake. I love baking and even spent a couple of years working in a bakery and it was friends at that bakery that did our wedding cake. Although the idea of baking one's own wedding cake may sound nice, I would seriously advise against it. I think that even with a simple wedding there is plenty of stress to be had without adding that of making your own cake. Truly, I don't think it is worth it. You want to be present for your family and friends and fiancee and YOURSELF! If you could make it and decorate it a week ahead, that would be fine -- but that's not how cakes work! Even if you bake ahead and freeze, there is then the delicate process of decorating it that must be done the day before or day of the event. Don't do it to yourself! And while I'm on this topic I shall also say that I always tell couples about to get married that taking a honeymoon (even if it is just some time off together) immediately after the wedding is a really important thing to do if only for the fact that you will both be excited, yes, but probably also tired from all the planning, excitement, emotion, etc. Be nice to yourselves and take care of yourselves. Don't overdo it and leave space for enjoying your new life together. Okay, rant over, thanks for listening! :-)

  11. Hi Amy. Chime in any time! Steve and I have done zero wedding planning since we're STILL waiting for our mortgage and are so eager to move out of our house. It's been really frustrating and I could write a whole post but it would be quite anger filled at the bank and mortgage broker we're dealing with.

    Steve did mention the idea of cupcakes instead of a cake a while back. There is a really great vegan cupcake bakery in New Jersey, Sweet Avenue Bake Shop, which is a possibility. Steve is not even vegetarian but he really loves their cupcakes. Our event will definitely be on the smaller side (our backyard venue will force that) so we won't need that many. Maybe that would be better instead of doing our own?

    We're still trying to figure out the honeymoon location, and we tend to like to go places a bit off season vs. the peak season. I loved being in the Southwest parks without the summer crowds. I will say we're both excited for the wedding and to celebrate with friends and family, our focus is building the lives we want for ourselves in our new home (cooking, gardening, entertaining, a place of solace) and (hopefully, if the fates intend it) starting a family. :-)

  12. I love your wedding plans thus far.
    We got married in our backyard, potluck (our friends are fabulous cooks), and a seamstress friend helped make our outfits as a gift. Marvelous day--and very cost-effective.
    And now we're helping friends plan their summer wedding to be held in our yard again.

  13. Hi Teresa! Thanks for the comment. What a great idea to take advantage of their cooking skills with that potluck, and having a seamstress friend. Its sounds so lovely and best of all personal.

    Hooray for thrifty weddings! Good luck with that summer wedding planning.

  14. Congrats! What exciting news! I'm so happy for you!

    We didn't do any of the traditional wedding stuff and I'd be lying if I said it didn't bug me sometimes. I think what you're doing is so smart--having the dress, the flowers, etc., but making it all thrifty and fabulous. It's going to be such a lovely event! So happy for you. :)

  15. Thanks so much. :-)

    I am the anti-bridezilla. Steve and I still need to set a date! I like that we are having such a low key affair. I don't know how many other traditional things we'll do. I don't want some crazy bachelorette party - I'm more of a tea party girl.