Lessons from Our DIY Wedding
October 1st was the one year anniversary of Mike and I's DIY wedding and guess what... we still like each other! Yay!
The past year has given me lots of time to reflect and talk with family about our big day. Then, last month, I participated in my best friend's DIY wedding. Now I'm doubly qualified to dole out some advice.
When we started wedding planning, Mike and I established our priorities immediately. We wanted a BIG party. It would be the most expensive party we'd ever thrown but we definitely didn't want to go into wedding debt. I have several friends who were still paying off their wedding bill and, with my student loans, that was not a comfortable direction for us.
We started exploring traditional venues and the cost was astonishing. I knew that mentioning the word "wedding" meant higher prices but this was ridiculous! And the rigid structure of these venues was really getting me down. Set prices for dinner, selling alcohol by the glass, having a curfew of 10pm! That's just madness. It became increasingly obvious that we needed a unique venue.
Mike and I knew we wanted to get married in nature. We wanted a awesome view as our alter and a cozy, secluded spot for our dance party/reception. Our best options were California or Maine and, for it to be affordable, it had to be Maine. It would be rough on our people in California but we could only hope they'd understand and make the effort to get up to the stunning Northeast forest.
I racked my brain for meaningful spots and it dawned on me. Two years earlier I had walked into the Sugarloaf Outdoor Center and said to my sister-in-law, "this would be a great place for a wedding." It functions as a cafe and sports hub during the winter and is very quiet in the off-season. Mike's parents spend winters up there and were happy to help with anything we needed. Anyway, apparently I'd stored that thought in the deep recesses of my brain and it floated right to the top two years later when all other options had been exhausted.
I called Sugarloaf the next morning and got the details. $2000 for complete freedom to do what we wanted. We'd have it from Friday at noon until Sunday at noon. It had a kitchen, bathrooms, and some tables. Oh! And gorgeous wood paneling with soaring ceilings and incredible views. I booked immediately.
The crucial benefit of this venue was our ability to bring in all our own food, booze, decorations, sound system, and rentals. We had full control and full bargaining power. The whole planning process was an exercise in defining priorities and remembering the big picture. It was so easy to get caught up in the tiny details.
Anyway! As I'm now doubly qualified, I'm going to declare a few rules:
9 Rules For A Successful DIY Wedding:
#1 Pick the right venue.
Traditional venues want to have control. Partially to reduce their liability, partially so they can take some money off the top. They're a business, they have costs, it's fair enough. But a successful DIY wedding starts with a flexible venue. How about a private house, campgrounds, park, or town hall? Get your brain outside that box. My bestie's wedding was held in her sister-in-law's backyard. Big tent, strawbale seating. It was awesome.
#2 Destination weddings are cool, IF you have loved ones "on the ground" in that particular location.
Our shingdig would not have been possible without the in-person efforts of Mike's parents and our loved ones in the northeast. They sheltered much of my family for the week, scoped out the venue, stored piles of decorations, picked up clothing, booze, and rentals, and found our bagpiper through word of mouth. They provided the local insight and transportation. Highly necessary.
#3 Choose your battles. Don't do it ALL yourselves.
This is the MOST important rule. There are so many elements to a wedding. There is the food, rental equipment, and utilities (bathrooms, cooking area, parking). You'll need music, an MC, and sound equipment. Then there are the flowers, decorations, dresses and suits, gifts and thank yous... You think the list is done and then there's more! Pick and choose what you want to DIY.
My family are amazing cooks. With their permission, most of our food was DIY. HOWEVER, we realized that cooking the main dish ourselves would make for difficult timing. Our cooking relatives needed to see the wedding! So we hired a caterer to do the main dish of lobster rolls and then our amazing loved ones cooked all the appetizers and sides. Success!
We also realized that, with my people's propensity to drink, we'd need to get crafty with the alcohol. A good friend/ wine expert found us a supplier who allowed us sale or return. Then we found a keg supplier around the corner with the best prices we've ever seen...and then we told guests to bring their own liquor... some people insist on the good stuff and our budget couldn't handle that. We had friends and family picking up huge amounts of alcohol from all over the state!
#4 Keep it simple.
As we all know, simplicity is the easiest way to save money. Also, we were really lucky to have our loved ones involved in the preparations and we didn't want them feeling overly stressed or put-upon. So I spent a lot of time thinking of the simplest way to create incredible ambiance.
Instead of flower arrangements (expensive!) we had fluffy ferns and lots of candles. The only other decor in the room was the DJ's lights and hundreds of feet of fairy lights strung around the room. Thankfully the family are incredible at this stuff and they took the supplies, mobilized our army of helpers, and made it all work. AND, after the wedding, I sold the candles and lights to another bride for $300. Sweet!
Our only other decorations were artwork given to us the day of the wedding; rocks and twigs Uncle Kevin brought in from outside, and some potted plants at the alter (reusable).
I also knew that we couldn't spring for bridesmaid dresses and didn't want the girls spending lots of money for our wedding. We already felt bad enough about the $200 suit rentals for the dudes. So I asked my ladies to pick their own dresses. Some shade of blue, at whatever price they were comfortable with. My Maid-of-Honor reviewed all dresses before purchase and I think they looked amazing.
Aside from making lots of our own food, we made our own cake. The gluten-free cakes we tasted were delicious but really expensive. So mom and I spent a day experimenting with recipes and came up with a delicious GF Coconut Pineapple Cake. We are MASTER BAKERS. (At least that's what we told ourselves). Anyway, we saved a bunch of money and I will make that cake with pride for years to come. (Recipe at end of this article!)
AND DON'T FORGET! This is important and something I did not think enough about: clean up the next day. Most of your volunteers will want to sleep in and if you have a time limit to get out of there, you could be scrambling for help. Also, you'll be "sleeping in" with your new spouse and won't be able to offer an ounce of help. So now it falls on the shoulders of your overtaxed family and bridal party. It can be a huge amount of work. THINK ABOUT IT.
#5 Give people specific jobs and give them fair warning.
We were so lucky to have an army of helpers. They turned up in droves to help us prepare. We wrote the to-do list and separated it into project. There were a few people we fully trusted to lead a project. They helped us brainstorm the best way to prep and execute and they were crucial in the days leading up to the wedding. By identifying the "project leaders" a few months out, we were giving them fair warning. They arrived prepared for battle...a lovely, fun battle.
A key part of this team work was trying to ensure people knew what they were doing. That they knew the overall goal and what role they were playing. And most of all, that they felt appreciated. I think we were successful! Hopefully our people agree.
#6 Stay organized!
My bestie's new husband, Ben, planned most details of their wedding and the man is a spreadsheet fiend! His spreadsheets helped people find rides from the airport, helped keep his vendors and to-do list straight, and helped us all navigate the confusion of a wedding day.
For our wedding I also had spreadsheets of the guest list, people's addresses, gifts we received, Thank You's we sent, and a detailed schedule of every to-do from one year out to the day of the wedding. Without that organization, I would have been lost. This is one of the biggest risks of a DIY wedding. Lose track of your process and you could run out of time or, even worse, spend too much money. There was one time when a vendor asked for their payment after they had already been paid. I referred to my trusty spreadsheet and caught the mistake before it was an issue.
Another way to stay organized: drawings. Not gonna lie, I had an AutoCAD drawing of our venue with all the tables in place. Then, each table had the location of plates, glasses, and centerpieces. It was such a huge help on setup day that I barely had to get involved!
#7 Shop around but not TOO much.
Sometimes, its worth a higher price to get great quality. If it's a one-time purchase like string lights or candle holders, get that bargain! But if you're shopping for services such as a caterer or florist, get someone good. If your gut trusts them, go with it, even if it means a higher cost. In the end, this decision could mean the difference between comfort and catastrophe on the big day.
And don't forget to ask your friends! If you have a friend you respect who provides a service, hire them! Our friend Garrick was our photographer. He would attended the wedding anyway but this way he got to be part of all the preparations too. It was lovely working with him because it just felt like talking to a friend. Also, we're very confident he gave us the best value for our money. Just look at these photos, they're gorgeous! (Garrick photographs people and fish! Check him out at Garrick Dixon Designs).
#8 Get a "Day-Of" Coordinator.
Find a friend of a friend or someone who works at the venue. Someone with a knack for logistics. Pay them $20-$40 per hour to be there for a 5 or 6 hours on your wedding day. Someone to organize and pay vendors, direct guests, and send the bridal party down the aisle. Someone who would not be otherwise involved in the wedding but who you trust to represent you that day. Give them your to-do list spreadsheet and forget all your worries. Worth every penny.
#9 Give up on perfection.
This is a DIY wedding! It's not going to be perfect, no matter how much you plan. Be prepared to relinquish control and leave the details to your helpers. At a certain point you have to embrace the fact that this wedding is a product of you AND your loved ones. Trust them to produce their own version of perfection.
Our entire wedding of 146 guests cost $16,000, plus our honeymoon. I don't mind admitting it because we're dang proud. And it was, indeed, the BEST dance party wedding we could have imagined.
An Update on Wedding Gifts
If you're a long-time subscriber, you'll remember my article: Wedding Gifts for Minimalists. Well, we couldn't have been happier with the gifts we received. Most guests contributed to our honeymoon and, collectively, they actually ended up paying for our entire 6 week honeymoon AND a significant portion of our wedding. There could not have been a better gift for people like us.
That being said, we had a few other guests who gave beautiful, heartfelt gifts. The handmade sign from a dear college friend, the traditional Scottish quaich, and the wooden Welsh love spoon. There was a double hammock for our outdoor adventures, lots of fancy booze, a minimalist wine rack, a collection of blank journals for our travels, and a spa treatment a few days before the wedding. This pair of frugal, nostalgic minimalists could not be more thankful. :)
And now, for the piece de resistance, drumroll please!...
GF Coconut Pineapple Cake
(serves 20 ish people)
2 1/4 cup GF flour
1 3/4 cup sugar (we could prob reduce this further)
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp vanilla
1 20 oz can of crushed pineapple (undrained, in its own juice)
2 cups shredded coconut
1/2 cup butter
8 oz cream cheese (softened)
1 tsp vanilla
1 1/2 cup powdered sugar
2 lemons (zest AND juice)
Cake: Preheat oven to 350. Mix all cake ingredients in a bowl. Pour into greased 9x13" pan and bake for 35-40 minutes (until top is golden brown).
Frosting: Beat butter, cream cheese, and vanilla together until creamy. Gradually mix in powdered sugar.
Frost cake while still warm.