At times, we thought we were crazy, too. As we piled 64 rock-hard avocados into our shopping cart at Sam’s Club four days before the wedding, I wondered, “Can we really make guacamole for 80 people on our wedding day? Will these avocados even ripen in time? What were we thinking?”
But it was important for us to make it work. We were tired of all the propaganda from the Wedding Industrial Complex telling us that we needed the perfect flowers or the perfect centerpieces to make our day perfect. We didn’t want to obsess about surface details or let the wedding overshadow our relationship. We wanted our wedding to be sincere, authentic, and memorable—a wedding focused on community and connection, not my wedding dress. We were convinced that we could make it work in a budget-minded, hand-crafted, eco-friendly way.
And—with the help of good-natured friends and family, a little luck (the rain stayed away), and a solid plan—we managed to pull off a stress-free wedding that was the truest expression of ourselves. It was better than we expected. It was full of seriously fun quality time with our friends, family, and—most importantly—each other.
Here's the story of our wedding planning process from its conception in a Mexican Restaurant to its climax with a choreographed dance to Prince’s “Kiss”.Our Planning Process
My friend got engaged a few months before I did. By the time I baked a celebratory engagement cake and showed up on her doorstep, she had already purchased several bridal magazines and started a file folder to capture all her wedding ideas and inspiration.
Instead of starting with the details—dress, flowers, centerpieces, invitations—Matt and I took a different approach while planning our wedding. We headed to a good Mexican restaurant to brainstorm our goals and vision for our wedding.
As a teacher, I learned to create lesson plans though a backwards-design approach. The idea is to start with the end vision first. You ask yourself, “What do I want students to know and be able to do by the end of this lesson?” Once you’ve answered that question, you can then plan the smaller activities that align with the end goal.
Matt and I applied the same approach to our wedding. We wanted to figure out the big picture before we let ourselves dwell in the details.
Over chips and salsa, we reached consensus about the goals of our wedding:
- We want to bring family and friends together to reconnect and form new friendships.
- We don’t want the experience to feel overly-orchestrated. It’s a celebration of our love, not a show.
- We will fight consumerism by spending only $2,000 max. The Wedding Industrial Complex is conspiring to make us think we have to spend more money. But we want to make the event special with sincerity, not money. Plus, we need to save money for a house, and we certainly don't want to start our life together in debt.
- It will be good for the environment and connected to nature.
- We want to have real time to spend with guests. We want to be able to spend quality time with our friends and family. We don’t want to follow the traditional pattern of a few wedding “events” where the bride and groom only have time for a “meet and greet”: rehearsal dinner, reception, brunch the following morning. We want more of a family and friends reunion. (Side Note: One of my favorite memories from the wedding was waking up and eating the homemade breakfast provided by the B&B. My friends and I just sat and talked for two hours every morning.)
- We will make all the decisions ourselves so our wedding represents us (hence another reason why we need to pay for it ourselves).
- We only want to be surrounded by our closest friends and family.
- We want to be relaxed and fully present.
Our goals helped us stay focused on what really mattered to us throughout the entire process. For example, when we were working on the invitations, I was convinced that we had to have photo stamps. I couldn’t imagine anything cuter than our faces on a postage stamp. But it wasn’t in the budget. And frankly, when I reviewed our eight goals, I just couldn’t seem to connect the photo stamps with a single one. Darn.
Early on in the wedding planning process, there were other factors that complicated things. Namely, my mother-in-law. She was kind enough to help us search for locations, but she kept pushing us toward venues that were way out of our budget. Being the amazingly nice and generous woman she is, she continuously offered to help finance the wedding. However, we didn’t want to violate Goal #6. We knew that as soon as we accepted financial contributions, we would be forced to widen the circle of decision-makers from two to four. And the wider that circle gets, the more difficult the process is and the more likely the wedding starts to represent our parents’ tastes and preferences instead of ours.
Needless to say, those first few weeks were a bit stormy. Luckily, we anchored ourselves with our goals and hunkered down for the bumpy ride.Two Big Decisions
Honestly, one of the most difficult parts of the wedding planning process was trimming down the guest list (or should I say, “going at it with a machete”?). The list started out gigantic. We knew we had to cut it back because of Goal #5 for our ideal wedding: “We will have real time to spend with guests. We want to be able to spend quality time with our friends and family. We don’t want to follow the traditional pattern of a few wedding ‘events’ where the bride and groom only have time for a ‘meet and greet’: rehearsal dinner, reception, brunch the following morning. We want more of a family and friends reunion.” We knew that the bigger our wedding got, the less opportunity we would have to genuinely connect with our guests.
We had to look at the wedding guest list through an honest lens. I noticed that there were people on the list who were pretty much only there because I had been invited to their weddings (even though we aren’t particularly close friends). I cut those people from the list. I also noticed there were people on the list with whom I wanted to be closer friends. I just wasn’t. Those people got cut, too. Finally, I noticed there were colleagues whom I felt obligated to invite. I applied the following litmus test: “When I move on to my next job, will I still be friends with _____?” If the answer was no, they were off the list, too.
Luckily, we had the primary say over our guest list because we paid for the wedding ourselves. Of course we consulted with our families and made a few adjustments, but we made sure we would only be surrounded by our closest friends and family (none of our dads’ golf buddies, for example, or family friends we hadn’t seen in ten years).
While we were dwindling down the guest list, we were simultaneously scouring the state of Colorado for a suitable location. We didn’t want to get married in Matt’s hometown (Bloomington, IN) or my hometowns (Tampa, FL and San Diego, CA) because we didn’t want the wedding to be dominated by one side. We were living in Denver, and we figured it would be much easier to plan a wedding that was within driving distance of our home.
We quickly realized that finding the perfect location was way more difficult than trimming the guest list. The wedding location determines a lot about the wedding. It’s like the first domino that starts a chain reaction of other falling dominoes. It determines how casual or formal the event feels, what the catering options are, what kinds of fun things your guests can do, how many people can attend, how much decoration will be needed, etc.
Matt and I had a very difficult time selecting our wedding venue. The mountains of Colorado are a hugely popular wedding destination (especially in the summer), which drives up costs everywhere. Our budget kept us out of the more traditional wedding venues in the area, as well as our desire to avoid the “wedding factory” feel. We didn’t want to be “just another wedding on today’s agenda.”
We also knew that we wanted to be able to rent out an entire place because we wanted all of our friends and family to stay together. We were trying to create the feel of a friends and family reunion.
By the time we started planning our wedding in late December, there weren’t a lot of weekends left that had full availability of the entire site. Argh!
Then there was the beauty piece. We wanted a placed that was aesthetically pleasing. And we wanted our guests to be comfortable. And we wanted it to be affordable for them (since they were already paying for plane tickets and rental cars).
In the end, it came down to two choices (which, ironically, had opposite names: Sunshine Mountain Lodge and Shadow Mountain Ranch). Shadow Mountain was more beautiful. The cabins were cuter and the property seemed more situated in the mountains. But, the owner wasn’t as great as Cathy and Cory, the owners at Sunshine Mountain Lodge.
Cathy and Cory were so kind, welcoming, and helpful. We decided that it was better to go with the less aesthetically-pleasing place because relationships matter more to us than photographs or guests’ first impressions.
Originally, we wanted our ceremony and reception at the same site because it’s more environmentally-friendly. But we couldn’t figure out how to make it work at Sunshine. Then we came up with the idea of having the ceremony at a B&B up the road (which we could also use for overflow guests). We managed to find a lovely lake with picnic tables already there. No need to rent chairs! All of the dominoes started to fall in exactly the right way because the initial domino was the right one.
With the guest list and location decided, we were able to breathe a huge sigh of relief. Then it was time to focus on some of the fun details like doling out jobs, making the invitations, and finding rings.
When you undertake the seemingly crazy task of planning a wedding with a small budget, you have to think outside the box. When it came to the idea of traditional wedding vendors and wedding rings, we did exactly that.
At one point in the planning process, I received the following e-mail advice from The Knot: “The more guests feel involved with your wedding, the more likely they will have a great time.” So what was the website’s advice for helping guests feel more involved? Creating a detailed ceremony program.
We took the advice more literally. We asked our friends and family to serve as the photographers, caterers, hair stylists, DJs, bartenders, officiant (see photo above), florist, traffic directors, and videographers.
This approach had multiple benefits: 1) We saved a ton of money. We didn’t have to dish out thousands of dollars to multiple different vendors. 2) We avoided much of the stress associated with Wedding Industrial Complex interactions. We didn’t have any of the oh-this-is-a-wedding?-then-it-will-cost-three-times-more. 3) Our friends and family felt more invested in and connected to our wedding because they helped make it happen.
We tried our very best to give each person one small piece so they weren’t overwhelmed. And—with the exception of all but the fajita maker—every job happened before or after the ceremony and reception, so people could fully participate in the action. We hired the owners of the B&B where the reception was held to heat up the food, set it out, refill it, and clean up.
One of my favorite memories took place in the hours before our ceremony. Matt and I worked elbow-to-elbow with our closest friends, chopping lots of stuff for homemade guacamole, salsa, seven-layer dip, black bean and corn salad, fajitas, and quesadillas. We worked with urgency while laughing and chatting. People constantly passed through the kitchen in the main lodge and offered their support. It reminded me that weddings are about community, connection, and commitment.
In addition to our DIY, budget-friendly approach to staffing our wedding, we also had an unconventional approach to our wedding rings. We asked our friends and family to donate their old gold to an environmentally-friendly jeweler, greenKarat. The company melted the donated gold, credited our account with more than $1000, and created new rings. Our invoice came to $109.
During the ceremony, the rings were carried on a ring pillow crafted from the hat Matt’s grandmother wore in her wedding 54 years ago. We acknowledged the longevity of their love and thanked our friends and family for letting us incorporate a piece of their history into ours through their donated gold.
We tried to carry the DIY, budget-friendly, and eco-friendly ethos throughout the rest of the wedding planning process, too. Luckily, we were able to do this for the next phase of the planning process: attire.
Many of my friends got married the same summer I did. It was fun to compare notes during the wedding planning process. During one conversation, a dear friend said, “Yeah, our wedding isn’t too expensive either. Aside from the food at the reception, everything is pretty reasonable.”
I reminded her, “Aren’t you having your dress custom designed? How expensive is that?”
“Oh, that. I forgot. The dress costs about $2,000.”
That was our entire budget!
And there it was. On Target clearance. A perfectly suitable white sundress for a mere $15.
I say “perfectly suitable” rather than “perfect” because it had its flaws. Number One: there was so much extra fabric it made my waist look bigger than it is. Number Two: it was a little plain.
I decided to remedy both these problems with a little DIY, handmade action.
I fixed the first problem by creating a simple sash. Because I was trying to be friendly to the environment and my budget, I simply used fabric from an old piece of clothing. The clothing had significance to me because I purchased it while traveling through India right after I met Matt. I used some thick interfacing to prevent any crinkling, and I sewed on some buttons.
In terms of the second problem, I decided to do some customized embroidery along the bottom. First, Matt and I designed the story of our life together. Since our first date involved a frolic in the sprinklers, for example, we depicted two birds splashing around in a bird bath.
In order to save even more money, I used the same fabric to fashion a tie for Matt. Even though I had never undertaken such a feat before, I knew I could turn to the internet for help. After a Google search and an online tutorial, the tie was complete. Voila!
For the final touch, I used the fabric to make flower pins for our wedding party (thanks to another internet tutorial!) and a matching bandanna for our dog, Hoss.
As fun as it was to spend time hand-making items for our wedding, I had to pull myself away to focus on more significant undertakings: writing our own ceremony.
Matt and I wanted a ceremony that engaged our family and friends—that inspired them to listen and reflect. We wanted them to think “Wow, that was meaningful,” rather than, “Thank goodness that was short and the party can start.”
That’s why Matt and I decided to write our ceremony from scratch. Basically, we invented our own symbolic gestures that were both more interesting because they were novel and were more representative of us and our lives.
- Quilt-Wrapping: Instead of signifying unity through a candle lighting ritual, we were wrapped in a quilt made from the fabric of friends and family to signify unification, the warmth and support of friends and family that are needed to sustain a healthy relationship, the comfort we bring to each other, and the bond between us that will continue to develop. On our wedding website, we asked guests to send us a small piece of fabric. Then—thanks to the help of another internet tutorial—Matt and I turned them into a quilt.
- Tree-Planting Ceremony: Instead of reading something about how love takes effort, we planted a resilient Live Oak sapling to represent the growth of our love and symbolize that marriage—like a tree—requires constant nurturing and nourishment.
We also wrote our vows from scratch. We decided to follow the following format: “I love you because…” followed by: “Because I love you…”
- Matt, I love you because you make me laugh out loud on a daily basis, like when you come up with alternate names for our dog, Hoss, such as Hoss-tage, Hoss of Pain, or Hoss-car Myer Weiner.
- I love you because you challenge me to be a better person, like when you made me promise to tell the Penske truck people that we scraped the moving van.
- I love you because we create adventures together, like Halloween scavenger hunts or road trips out West.
- I love you because you care so much for other people that you inspire all of us to be more caring. You do things like put toothpaste on my toothbrush and leave it out for me or come home on the worst day of winter with slippers and a Chia pet herb garden.
- I love you because I smile every time I wake up to you and when I come home to you. We play together, brainstorm together, create together, read together. Your hand always feels comfortable in mine.
- Matt, because I love you, I promise to treat you the way you want to be treated and with the respect you deserve. I promise to build trust with my words and actions. I will be your cheerleader, your nurse, your editor, your therapist, your teacher, your student, and your partner in adventure. I will deeply appreciate all of your positive qualities and not let the passage of time dull that appreciation. When life challenges us, I promise to focus on the resiliency of our love. And if I stumble and fail to live up to my promises, I will look you in the eyes, hold your hands, and apologize with sincerity. I will be my best for you.
Yes, we worried that we would freak out our families (Matt’s is Irish-Catholic and mine is Presbyterian). But in the end, people said it was so beautiful and sincere (even our families).
At a lot of weddings I’ve been to, I’ve either felt like I was part of the “in crowd” or I was on the outside. If I’m in the wedding party? I’m part of the in crowd. If I’m not invited to the rehearsal dinner? I’m on the outside.
Matt and I didn't want to have those kinds of divisions at our wedding. We wanted to spend quality time with everyone. That’s why we opted for a Welcome Picnic instead of a traditional rehearsal dinner. In order for it to fit within our strict budget, we had to simplify: make-your-own sandwich bar (including organic meat from Whole Foods!), chips, watermelon, iced-tea, lemonade, and homemade chocolate cherry dessert with vanilla ice-cream.
The event was held at the same B&B where the reception was held. Approximately half the wedding guests were staying on site with us, so it was a very casual affair. People helped themselves to food and an assortment of fun activities: football, hot-tub, S’mores around the campfire, board games, a swing dancing lesson, volleyball, etc.
One of our main goals for the wedding was to give our friends and family an authentic opportunity to get to know each other. It’s a hard task, especially when small talk is the norm among strangers.
To combat the small talk conundrum, we fashioned name tags for our guests to wear at the Welcome Picnic. Instead of “Hello, my name is…” the tags read “Ask me about:” Each guest has three or four quirky things on their tags.
The tag of my friend, Camella, for example, said: “Ask me about: Ashtonga yoga, raising chickens, DJing a radio show, and why you shouldn’t buy corn.”
It was quite a bit of work (aren’t most DIY projects?), but it was well worth it in the end. They really helped build the kind of connection we were going for.
The Welcome Picnic helped connect people from different families and friend groups. When it was time for the reception the next day, people had already formed new friendships.
Sometime in the middle of planning a $2,000 wedding, it occurred to me, “Why not think of it as a reunion instead of a wedding?” Weddings tend to focus on surface things like flowers, attire, and centerpieces. Reunions tend to be about fun.
When it was time to plan the reception, we focused on just that: Fun. We rented out an entire B&B in the mountains of Colorado. We set up tables in a grove of trees, and our guests feasted on homemade fajitas, tamales, guacamole, salsa, nachos, seven-layer dip, black bean and corn salad, frozen margaritas, and six different types of cakes.
After dinner, we gathered everyone on the flagstone patio for our first dance. Matt and I stood in the center of the dance floor, surrounded by a semi-circle of our wedding party. Our friend, Nick, announced that it was time for our first dance. Matt and I stared lovingly into each other’s eyes. The music started. It was “Kiss” by Prince. We immediately started scissoring our hands and gyrating our hips. The entire wedding party joined in and we performed a choreographed dance, complete with a semi-strip tease by Matt’s brother.
The dancing continued on the patio, while other guests traded their wedding finery for bathing suits. Some trekked to the campfire to tell ghost stories, while others broke out Scrabble and Uno. We also showed a video of our lives together.
The guests helped themselves to wedding favors: hand-made cilantro seed packets with directions on the front and our personal guacamole recipe on the back.
I danced and talked and cooked a S’more and played some games and talked some more. Late in the evening, I donned my bathing suit and got into the hot tub with my best friends from college.
It wasn’t about the dress, the flowers, the centerpieces. It was about community, connection, commitment, and old-fashioned fun.
There’s a line from one of my favorite songs that says, “I wish that I knew what I know now, when I was younger” (Ooh La La by Roonie Wood and Ronnie Lane).
So, dearest brides and grooms (or brides and brides or grooms and grooms), here’s the advice I would give myself if I were planning another wedding:
(10) Start with the Big Picture, Not the Details
Sit down with your fiancé and figure out what kind of wedding you want. What do you want to be able to say about it when it’s over? What do you want your guests to say? How will you make your wedding memorable, relaxing, and fun? Develop a list of your goals and vision and then move on to the smaller details. Always ask yourself, “Does this small detail align with my broader goals?” Make decisions accordingly.
(9) Make It Happen
Once you know what kind of wedding you and your fiancé want to have, make it happen. Don’t let your parents’ preferences and tastes, your insecurities, or your budget get in the way. Have courage, stand your ground, and be creative. Your wedding should represent you and your fiancé, not anyone else.
(8) Limit the Guest List to Your Nearest and Dearest
Your wedding is not a show. It’s a celebration of your commitment and your community. You will feel much less stressed and nervous if you are truly surrounded by your closest friends and family. It’s your day. Don’t let anyone else commandeer the guest list for their own purposes.
(7) Distinguish Between Wants and Needs
When you’re planning a wedding, everything feels like a must-have. Use the 10-10-10 rule that was featured in O! Magazine: when making a decision, ask yourself: “What will be the effects of this decision in 10 minutes, 10 months, and 10 years?” It will help you keep everything in perspective. Not everything is important.
(6) Don’t Let Your Wedding Overshadow Your Relationship
Planning a wedding takes a lot of compromise and consensus. It’s highly likely that you will disagree and probably even fight. Just remember that your wedding is only one day of your lives together. Don’t get too wrapped up in it.
(5) Build Relationships with Vendors
Working with others to bring your wedding to fruition is a very stressful process. There has to be a lot of trust. Do your best to build relationships with people along the way. They will have more investment in the wedding and be willing to go above and beyond for you. You will have fewer doubts about their reliability.
(4) Don’t Forget the Ceremony
Don’t get so caught up in the invitations, dress, flowers, reception, music, and catering that you neglect to put the same kind of thought and attention into your ceremony. The purpose of a wedding is to publicly declare your commitment and seek support from your community. It’s important! (And make sure your guests can hear everything that’s said during the ceremony.)
(3) Dress Comfortably
It’s your wedding. You should enjoy yourself. Make sure you can walk, dance, and move comfortably from head to toe, from ceremony to reception. Seriously.
(2) Moderate Your Wedding Porn Viewing
Don’t spend too much time reading wedding magazines and blogs. Yes, they give you ideas. Yes, they are fun. But mainly they just make you doubt things you’ve already decided on.
(1) Just Breathe
Planning a wedding is stressful. Your expectations are high and the stakes feel high even higher. But remember: No matter what happens with the details (the weather, the vendors, the food) you will be married in the end. And anything that goes wrong will make a great story.
When you become too irrational, just curl up next to your partner and remind yourself that the marriage matters more than the wedding.