GET HITCHED AND SAVE
Still basking in the afterglow of a holiday or Valentine's Day proposal? Sooner or later (preferably sooner), you'll have to start calculating how much the wedding is likely to cost -- and determine whether you can afford it. Adding up everything from hors d'oeuvres to flower arrangements catapults the average total beyond $31,000, according to The Knot's 2014 Real Weddings Study.
SELECT AN ENGAGEMENT RING
If you're not yet engaged and still ring shopping, take the time to learn about the 5 C's of finding a diamond. All five -- cut, clarity, color, carat, and certification -- are important, but you don't want to skimp on cut. Experts say you can compromise a little on clarity and color and still wind up with a gorgeous ring. Prices rise with size, so a 1- or 1.5-carat stone with a fine cut but lesser clarity and/or color says it all, and more.
CHOOSE AN OFF-PEAK DATE
Summer is considered wedding season, with June the most popular month followed by October. Peak season means peak pricing on every wedding component, from venues to vendors, so choose another time of year to keep a lid on costs. In December, for example, a site already decorated for the season can save you money on decor. The day of the week also matters, and the best day to avoid is Saturday. If you worry that guests won't feel free to let loose or stay for the last dance, consider a Sunday over a holiday weekend that ends on Monday. This may cost more than a typical Sunday, but fees will still be less than Saturday.
KEEP THE GUEST LIST SHORT
Between invitations and postage, dinner and dessert, drinks and favors -- not to mention plus-ones -- each extra name can easily add $100 or more to the final tab. Make a list of friends and family whom you can't bear to leave out and be strict about the guests parents want to invite. A lean guest list can also widen the selection of venues that can accommodate your head count, potentially letting you choose a cheaper and more intimate space.
FIND A FREE VENUE
Before you Google "cheap [your city here] wedding venues," try to brainstorm offbeat and original locations for a wedding. Your guests will be impressed at the beauty of a barn, garden, park, warehouse, or family home once decorated. Inquire at locations that hold sentimental value, such as a favorite restaurant, weekend getaway spot, or the site of your engagement or first date. Keep in mind that such venues may end up costing more after factoring in catering, furniture rental, portable restrooms, and the like. On the other hand, some venues are all-inclusive, with in-house catering, bar service, tables, chairs, and flatware. This arrangement limits opportunities to find savings but may be less costly than renting all the necessities separately. With so many variables, ask plenty of questions and compare costs.
SHRINK THE WEDDING PARTY
As much as you might want to include every childhood friend and college roommate in your wedding party, remember that you'll be treating these VIPs to two nights of dinner and drinks. The rehearsal dinner can easily become the equivalent of a small wedding reception if you're not careful. Fewer bridesmaids and groomsmen also mean fewer attendant gifts and flowers for bouquets and boutonnieres. Cutting back on the posse can add up to hundreds in savings.
USE FREE ONLINE TOOLS
Resources abound on the web for couples planning a cheap wedding. Commune with other budget-conscious brides at Weddingbee, seek inspiration from Style Me Pretty, and track your spending at WeddingWire. Many wedding sites also have corresponding apps. WeddingWire, for example, boasts a family of apps that cover all wedding planning needs, such as WedStyle, WedSocial, and WedTeam. The Knot is a one-stop shop for wedding planning that also offers an app. Pinterest is a popular visual resource for ideas on everything from decorations to cakes to gowns.
HEAR THE WEDDING MUSIC
Students and novice DJs are good, inexpensive choices for wedding entertainment and ceremony music. Post on local school bulletin boards and scour Craigslist for eager musicians. Meet aspirants in person for confirmation that they can mix and play the type of music you want. A band is always an option, but likely to cost a lot more -- not to mention the meal you'll probably provide each band member during the reception. If you're still leaning towards live music, audition student bands that may be willing to trade a budget price for publicity and practice. By far the cheapest and increasingly popular option is the iPod DJ. Program playlists of songs you love and let the digital mixtape bring a crowd to the dance floor. (Recruit a friend or family member to press "play" and "pause" and guard the station so no one else tries to take over.)
TAKE THE WEDDING PHOTOS
To get "wow!" wedding photos, hire an artist rather than a wedding professional. A photography major at an art college can look beyond the typical wedding checklist (bride and groom with bride's family, bride and groom with groom's family) and capture more than mere portraits. Check out portfolios from students and photographers just starting out. You may see work worthy of magazine editorial spreads for less than half the cost of a full-time wedding photographer.
BUY THE WEDDING DRESS
Saying yes to the dress doesn't mean saying yes to a $1,000-plus price tag. We found affordable options at Nordstrom, J. Crew, and Bloomingdale's, with many bearing under-$500 price tags. Dresses sold by Anne Taylor start at slightly higher price points, but are still less costly than a fancy designer dress.
DO THE HAIR AND MAKEUP
Once you've chosen a wedding dress and accessories, you'll want to polish the look. The easiest way to save on hair and makeup is to do it yourself or have a skilled friend help. (Are any guests hairstylists or beauty school students? Ask them to share their expertise as their wedding gift to you.) With the wealth of online resources and tutorials on sites such as Pinterest and YouTube, almost anyone can learn to pull off stunning makeup and hair with a little practice. Forgo the pricey makeup brands in favor high quality, low-cost mascara and lipstick -- no one will be the wiser.
PICK THE FLOWERS
Cut costs by sticking to flowers that are in season, and choose less expensive varieties. Gerbera daisies and greenery amount to less than calla lilies and peonies. To save even more, pass on the florist and buy in bulk online or from a source such as Costco. Make assembling the bouquets a DIY project and bonding time for the bridesmaids.
CRAFT THE CENTERPIECES
Rustic and minimalist centerpieces, two popular and current trends, make a style statement that keeps your wedding plans on budget. Think wildflowers in Mason jars or a few elegant blooms floating in water. Sites such as Martha Stewart Weddings and Pinterest are studded with ideas.
RETHINK THE WEDDING MEAL
To save money on catering, step outside the box for the format. A family-style dinner or a cocktail reception with passed canapés and food stations is generally cheaper than a formal sit-down dinner. These setups typically require fewer servers and eliminate time spent plating individual dishes. You also don't have to account for uninvited guests or last-minute changes to entrée preferences.
PLAN THE MENU
When you make up the menu, include items that are low-cost but sure to please. Instead of the typical (and expensive) steak or chicken options, be open to alternatives such as macaroni and cheese, barbecue, or slider burgers. These foods are sure to be a hit with guests and are well suited to family-style meals or buffets.
LIMIT THE ALCOHOL
You want your guests to have a good time, but an open bar is a costly affair. If the venue allows, buy alcohol (stick with beer and wine and skip the spirits) in bulk and carry it in. If this isn't possible, limit the service to beer and wine. Alternatively, arrange for liquor to be available, but at a cash bar only. Even with an open bar at a restaurant, you probably won't have to pay for every open bottle -- unpoured liquor can go back behind the bar and served to other patrons.
CUT THE WEDDING CAKE
The wedding cake is an easy target for cost-cutting. Instead of opting for an elaborate cake that could set you back $500 or so, opt for a small cake to share with your groom and serve guests from sheet cakes. Better yet, have a family member of close friend bake the cakes of whatever variety. Cupcakes are another frugal choice. Cupcakes at the center of each table (homemade and decorated nicely work fine) will be readily accessible when the time comes and can double as a centerpiece. If you prefer a dessert table instead of cake, ask family members to bake up some goodies while you spring for the small cutting cake.
OPT FOR A DESTINATION WEDDING
The romance of a destination wedding. But the cost! In 2012 The Knot estimated the tab for a stateside destination wedding was about $225 for each guest and $400 for an international location. With a budget of $20,000, that means about 85 guests in this country and 50 guests on foreign shores. Destination wedding costs include airfare, meals, accommodations, local activities, and so on for bride and groom, perhaps for the parents, maybe for the bridal party, and for some things, all the guests. But if this is your dream, there are a number of all-inclusive wedding packages at destination hot spots, some as low as $10,000 for 50 guests. Budget-friendly locales include New Orleans, the Hudson Valley in New York, and the Florida Keys, as well as Puerto Rico, Belize, Jamaica, and Cancun.