According to research from the Knot, the 2021 national average cost of a wedding was $28,000—and that’s without the engagement ring, which tacks on another $6,000. My husband and I knew we didn’t want to spend even half of that much when we got married in 2019. We couldn’t afford it anyway.
But we also didn’t want a bare-bones courthouse elopement. We wanted to find a happy medium where we could celebrate with our friends and family without breaking the bank. Here’s how we put together a 60-person wedding for what the average couple spends on an engagement ring.
Inside this article
How we planned our wedding
We really didn’t want a traditional wedding, and we certainly didn’t want the traditional price tag. We decided to jettison a lot of wedding customs, including a bridal party, ceremony, rehearsal dinner or registry. Instead, we planned a laid-back weekend with about 60 of our friends and family members.
For our actual vows, we went to our local marriage and civil union court on a rainy Friday morning. They had a 15-person limit, so we only invited our immediate families. We wore dressy casual clothes that we already owned, and we each asked one of our sisters to say something brief. The whole thing took about 10 minutes and it was perfect. Afterward, we went to my family’s Airbnb for a homemade brunch of eggs, biscuits, sausage, bacon, coffee and mimosas. A few close friends and extended family members joined us.
Our big event for 60 people was two days later at the wine shop on our block. It’s a charming little place that we love, and we chose a Sunday night because it was less expensive (about $725 to rent for five hours) and it was a meaningful day for us—the anniversary of our first date. We set up a buffet table in the middle of the room, a bar on the front counter and had seating around the edges of the space. We selected a handful of wines and beers as well as some non-alcoholic options, and we arranged to have dinner delivered from our favorite neighborhood Jamaican place (our order cost about $1,000). They brought in big hot platters of jerk chicken and all the sides!
The wine shop provided the glassware at a small cost (about $1 per glass), and I bought some small things: a frame where I put a hand-written list of our drink options, antique-looking green glasses to hold the silverware and a big white table cloth to cover the buffet table. We also had some giant floral arrangements that brightened up the space and made it feel special.
How Much Does a Wedding Cost?
How Much Does a Wedding Cost?
How much your wedding costs depends on a lot of things, including guest count, location and whether you decide to hire a wedding planner or a live band. Here’s a breakdown of wedding expenses.Find out more
After we ate our fill, drank a bunch and had so much fun, we helped break down the stuff and get what we wanted to keep up to our apartment. Then we headed out with the bravest of our guests and walked to a local dive bar we love. It was a perfect night!
Decide what’s really important to you
To trim costs without becoming a true minimalist, we had to choose what we wanted to spend money on and what we wanted to save money on. When it came down to it, we settled on three elements we really cared about: great food, great drinks and time with our closest friends and family.
The bulk of our budget went to food, drinks, flowers and renting out the space. The flowers were a splurge, but they made the wine shop feel more festive—we got two huge arrangements for the buffet table and a smaller one for the bar from a talented neighborhood florist. It set us back about $1,100.
Literally. Remember to tip! And remember to calculate tips into the total cost when making your wedding budget.
Once we determined what we were spending the big bucks on, we pared back and chose low-cost options for everything else. Here are some of the ways we saved money:
Evites: Instead of traditional invitations, we used an email invitation platform that cost about $50. We still got to customize our invitations and make them pretty, but it saved a lot of money, as well as time tracking snail mail RSVPs.
Reusable clothes: Instead of a traditional wedding dress and tux, we wore off-the-rack items and clothes we already owned. For the big reception, I wore a wide-leg green jumpsuit that cost less than $200, and he wore his best suit.
Repurposing: My mom’s engagement ring and wedding band weren’t her style anymore, but they’re mine! I asked if she would be willing to hand them down, and she was thrilled to do so.
Nontraditional venues: Getting hitched at the courthouse and having our reception at the wine shop saved us a lot we would have spent on a church, banquet hall, restaurant or other space. Plus, we got to simplify things because our venue and drinks came on the same bill.
Playlists: We skipped live music and were our own DJs. We spent a fun night making a playlist of our favorite songs on my husband’s iPod (yes, he still has an actual iPod) and it was perfect.
Ask friends and family for help
My rings weren't the only thing our families chipped in. My sister-in-law and her husband hosted a lovely cocktail hour at their place the night before our reception (without us even asking). Similarly, my family was happy to host brunch at their Airbnb after our courthouse wedding—a lot cheaper and more intimate than taking everyone to a restaurant. Thanks to them, we got more time to see everyone and celebrate.
My sister and her husband are incredibly talented photographers, so I asked them if they would shoot photos at our reception, but told them not to treat it like an event they were working. I definitely wanted them to get plenty of time to eat and drink and be merry. They spent a small portion of the events shooting candids and a few family group photos that turned out beautifully and serve as perfect mementos.
Asking for help is fine, but don’t overdo it. Make sure that you allow people plenty of space to say no and make your requests light enough that they won’t be working instead of enjoying their time.
Our family and friends were eager to help and jumped in without being asked when I was setting up beforehand and cleaning up afterwards. (That said, I planned it to be easy enough that my husband and I could do it on our own in about 30 minutes.) One of my dear friends even asked if he could walk our dog that night so that we didn’t have to worry about it!
Go with the flow
When you’re having a low-cost, low-key wedding, you can’t treat it like a multi-million dollar affair. Since we didn’t have a planner or coordinator, I set everything up to be as simple as possible. Here are some of the ways I made things easier on us:
As we live in Chicago and don’t own a car, we decided to rent a car for the weekend so that we could pick up groceries and ferry our older guests around. It wasn’t cheap, but we didn’t have to pay for a host of Ubers and grocery delivery or spend hours schlepping to and fro.
We chose the wine shop not just because it was special and the right price, but also because it was right across the street. We didn’t have to make a big plan for getting us and our stuff there and back—and when my shoes got uncomfortable later that night, I ran across the street for a more forgiving pair!
We bought disposable plates, silverware and napkins to set out when the food arrived. The only “work” we had to do was getting the giant floral arrangements and other stuff back into our apartment after the festivities were over.
We also didn’t have a dress code, didn’t have a wedding party and didn’t have a cake. It was basically a nice casual dinner with a few speeches after dinner. Someone gets a little too tipsy? Someone brings a “plus one” that technically wasn’t allowed? Who cares! Let’s all have a good time.
Looking back, we could have saved more money here and there. I paid for professional hair and makeup (only about $300, but still more than it would have cost to just do it myself) and if I had it to do over again, I would have just done my own. We had way too much food—we were eating jerk chicken and cabbage for days—so we could have trimmed costs there as well.
There’s also things I would have been more relaxed about. I really wanted to keep the guest list as small as possible, but my husband and some family members pushed the numbers higher than I originally wanted. While I’m glad we didn’t have a three-figure guest list, I could have just rolled with it and not let it stress me out.
But we had a beautiful, memorable night that didn’t leave us in debt or exhausted. We got to have a celebration that felt very “us” while doing exactly what I hoped: drinking great wine, eating delicious food and spending time with the ones we love.