How to Throw a Wedding for Under $5,000

City hall, kegs of wine, and a small guest list can help make your dream wedding affordable.

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Jul 6 2018, 2:31pm

Illustration by Daniel Zender

With the average wedding costing around $33,000, you might be tempted to elope instead. But there are ways to celebrate your union in style without getting into major debt.

Couples like Michal and Amir Shamli knew they didn’t want to spend tens of thousands of dollars on a single day. Instead, they “wanted to keep it super simple,” says Michal. So they got married at city hall in outfits they already owned, with a friend taking photos for posterity.

A pizza lunch for the couple and the four friends who attended the ceremony followed. “I didn’t feel like I was thinking about cost as much as I was thinking about doing what felt right,” Michal says of wedding planning. “My husband and I were both totally on the same page the entire time and felt so present, so happy, and so swept away by love all around the entire day.”

Two years later, the couple used the money they saved for a down payment on a new house and looking back, Michal says she wouldn’t change a single thing, except, well, maybe opening one more bottle of Champagne.

If you’re ready to hack your own wedding into a budget-friendly affair, start with the little things like wedding favors—all that crap with your name on it is just going in the trash anyway. Then start whittling down the major expenses, like the wedding venue, which can cost as much as $16,000, and elaborate floral arrangements, which can set you back another $2,500, to save some serious dough. As for rings, consider family hand-me downs or save those for your first wedding anniversary to make it extra sweet.

Here are seven ways to have a fabulous wedding for $5,000 or less:

Don’t invite anyone you wouldn’t invite over for dinner

It may be tempting to invite your entire freshman year dorm and class of interns and high school soccer team to what’s supposed to be the best day of your life, but save the big blowout reunion for, say, a tenth anniversary party, when you’ve landed your fortune. “Keep your guest list short and sweet,” suggests Elyssa Kirkham, finance expert for Student Loan Hero. “The more people you expect to come, the more you can expect to spend on a bigger venue space, food and alcohol for more people, and so on.”

Go public

“Instead of opting for a traditional venue, many of which are expensive, hold the ceremony in a public place—such as a park,” suggests Janessa White, co-founder of Simply Eloped, which has produced over 600 weddings with budgets under $5,000. “Parks often create a nice atmosphere with lots of opportunities for really pretty ceremony photos.” City, state and national parks often charge a permit fee (park permits can cost up to $200), but other than that, you’re free to host your event in a beautiful public space for practically no costs. Or consider going to a City Hall or courthouse, which, thanks to Instagram, you can scope out for photo-friendly interiors. No matter where you’ll get married, you’ll need a marriage licence, which typically costs as much as a large pizza ($35 in NYC).
Total cost: Maybe $250, or free

Amir and Michal Shamli at city hall in downtown Manhattan on their wedding day in 2016. Photo courtesy of Michal Shamli

Get digital

Save the dates, invitations and RSVP cards all need postage, which, for each guest you invite, can add at least $1.20 to your mail expenses, not including the cost of actual paper goods. Use email invites on Evite, Paperless Post or Punchbowl for all your correspondence and build a free wedding website with The Knot or Joy so guests have any easy place to find any relevant information. Not counting your labor and personal time, even DIY paper invites can cost over a dollar per guest, while more generic online orders costs $4 or more each, so you’re quickly cutting costs by just doing things the way you should for the Twenty First Century.
Total cost: Free

Borrow, rent or resell your outfits

Facebook Marketplace, eBay, Poshmark, Pre-Owned Wedding Dresses, and many more resale sites are full of wedding day outfits that people one wore for, you guessed it, one day. Or never, in some cases. Currently, a brand new unaltered Vera Wang gown is going for $250 on Poshmark (prices are also negotiable with sellers), along with countless other wedding dresses, accessories and undergarments. If you keep your outfit in good condition, chances are you can resell it to close to what you paid for it.
Total cost: Maybe $1000 for the couple, including dry cleaning and alterations, but could be much, much less (or more!)

Feed your friends for cheap

Whether you’re getting married at breakfast, lunch or dinner time, guests will expect a meal. Instead of an elaborate feast, treat guests to non-traditional catering. Food trucks, street vendors, fast food carts (In-N-Out wedding for the win), or even a DIY-style buffet can keep food costs. “Some traditional catering companies [and restaurants] offer drop-off catering, which includes food but without the staff,” says Los Angeles-based wedding planner Sabrina Zelle. You can also ask owners of taco stands, fruit carts or other small businesses for great, fun food at your wedding for a low price. WeddingWire says the typical wedding buffet costs $28 per person, $1400 for a 50-person wedding, but keep in mind catering prices often don’t include plates, flatware, glasses, staffing, tips and more tiny costs that can significantly up that “per plate” price.
Total cost: About $1000 for roughly fifty guests to eat and drink luxuriously

Drinks

To drink, stick with wine and beer. If you can, order kegs of beer and wine to your reception venue, or if the “on tap” logistics are too tough, just stock up on bottles (or even cans!) on your own and hire a bartender (or get a friend of a friend to volunteer in exchange for free booze) to pour into recyclable or disposable cups. If you’re hosting fifty guests for five hours, assume people are drinking an average of one drink per hour. The drinks work out to about $2 each (a $12 bottle of wine gets you five or six glasses, a 24-pack of Corona Extra goes for $24 at several big box stores), so expect to spend $500 on the booze, plus $35 on cups and $35 and hour for a licensed bartender.
Total cost: $750

And with the $2,000 you have left over ....

It's always nice to have a little money left over to play with. If you don’t want to go the Spotify playlist route, you can drop some cash on a pro DJ, or at least a cool sound system, and perhaps splurge on a pro photographer. Many photographers allow couples to register for wedding albums, so you’ll pay for their time and friends and family can gift the actual album. Or you can spend all that extra cash on a sweet honeymoon.

Follow Melissa Kravitz on Twitter.