Frugal Wedding Planning: A $20,000 Wedding Budget Is Considered “Low Budget?”

March 24, 2014

 I couldn't believe that $20,000 was considered "low budget" for a wedding! Can you?

A few years back, I was engaged and planned a destination wedding for our family and loved ones for over 100 people that would take place in Los Angeles.

Though I had been actively involved with many of my friends who had planned weddings, and put together many-a-centerpiece, planning my own shindig was personally eye opening because this time it was my pocketbook and hard earned cash.

I knew I wanted to plan a debt free wedding and established a budget of about $20,000 to be able to do that.  I was darn proud of that number and felt that this would be a Pinterest-worthy shindig that would be both beautiful and fun.  The double whammy was that it would NOT be financed on a credit card at 14-18% interest and it had been the most expensive party I could imagine hosting.

Well, I was proud of that number.  I felt a swift kick in the ass to discover that even looking for some atypical, less traditionally “weddingy” type venues doesn’t mean that you won’t pay sky high prices and feel like you’re on an assembly line for a wedding factory.

I knew the wedding wasn’t going to be cheap, I just didn’t know how cheap it was going to make me feel.

I saved for months and was so proud of the cash I put away. $20,000 is by no means a “cheap” wedding, yet is it just me or does the industry seem out of friggin’ control?  It amazed me that instantly some venues made me feel so. friggin. insignificant.

They sell you on all this emotional crap, “it’s your big day!” and a gushy, bestie-esque “we are so excited to help you celebrate the most special day of your life!” and then, when it comes to talking about booking, it amazes me how you are just another number and suddenly the emotion is gone- it’s just cold hard cash.  Yes, I totally get it that it’s a business, but don’t try to sweet talk me before you take my cash.

The wedding industrial complex feels like one giant backhanded compliment

I’m not new to buying stuff- even big stuff like cars and houses leaves room for negotiation, or at least lay their cards on the table without pressuring you in such a skeezy way.  If you buy a car, yes, you are just one customer in a sea of customers, but you can typically work with even limited inventory to find a vehicle that suits you and your needs.

Yet several venues I looked at took a tone with me, “We’re booking up fast, and we can’t be flexible on our minimums, fees or mandatory extras*. Weddings are our bread and butter.”

*some of these extras were a valet fee even if we wanted to rent a party bus, or one venue that required we hire a babysitter if any kids were attending. Because, you know, kids don’t come with parents. Parents that already know how to take care of said children.

I honestly could not believe how many nickle and dimed fees were added on that were absolutely non-negotiable.  If you book a venue, you have to use their approved vendors- which really means you can’t shop around for a DJ, caterer or DIY your own food at some locations.  Another venue had a food and beverage minimum, so if you loved the location and simply wanted a standing reception with horderves and beer and wine only- no thanks, we don’t want your business.

I mean, I get it, they’re a business- but it also leaves you feeling greasy.  Can’t really afford the $1000 cocktail minimum? Well, it’s your special day but don’t feel like you won’t get guilted or shoved out the door for another family who is willing to take on gobs of debt to party their way.

So basically, you’re just one bride in a sea of brides that all have their cute budgets and willing to write a check.

That’s fine, I totally understand- but don’t sell me on how special this is, unique I am and how wonderful it all is then get all  like “get in line,” when it comes to asking hard questions about where my money is going.

I think this speaks volumes about the wedding industrial complex and how we emotionally manipulate people into throwing a party that could easily be a down payment on a house, or help build a family.  Yes, it’s a special day, but also, it’s a party.

If you’re a bride who is proud of your budget, anticipate that no matter what the budget actually is, there will be a few vendors who make you feel like a cheapskate even if you’re willing to put down a sizeable amount of cash.

About that time my budget started to feel bad, that’s when I should have done a 180 to reclaim my wedding planning, yet it took about 4 weeks of unsettled nights before I threw in the towel and reclaimed our wedding.

We originally looked into, and fell in love with, a venue out in Palm Springs, California.  It offered an all-inclusive package that was beyond what I felt was right for our budget, but it had a great vibe and solved a lot of the problems that come to planning a wedding from 1,000 miles away.

The venue was super nice in answering all my questions, and truthfully, I wanted it to work.  I knew that this would eat up a large part of my budget since they had some rock solid food and beverage minimums.  Additionally, it would mean that we couldn’t have the date we wanted since the food/beverage minimum jumped over $5,000 between Saturday and Sunday.

I knew they were a popular venue, but that astounded me- over a $5,500 price difference to book and eat for a wedding on a Saturday vs. Sunday.  Yes, I totally get market demand- but it also makes me wonder how inflated and arbitrary wedding prices can be.  Was this wedding venue so amazing and so popular that it could justify a $5,500 price difference in a 24 hour window? Maybe so, for someone else!

I stressed and stressed. We made spreadsheets.  We had to make it work. I felt powerless in the situation so I tried to regain control by making sacrifices of things I wanted elsewhere for our wedding and recrunching numbers.  For weeks, I grappled with the decision, and quite frankly, couldn’t make one.

Here’s your sign.

Well, the final nail in the coffin came when I asked about s’mores.  I wanted s’mores.  Could they do that? You bet!  For $9.95 a person.  Great! For $1,000 I could have s’mores that cost about, I don’t know, $100 in materials to put together.

Here’s the deal. To me, a cake can be worth $1,000. Cakes are cool. They take talent and you usually have to go to baker’s school (or whatever it’s called) to make wedding cakes worth $1,000. Right?  S’mores are usually made by the guests (that’s the point to me, they’re fun for kids too) and it’s a fun experience with little expertise necessary.

I couldn’t take it.  That was a crazy chunk of change for a bunch of grocery store items haphazardly assembled over an open flame. Since I wasn’t allowed to bring in my own food/beverage for this venue so I could still have my (non)cake and eat it too, this was a deal breaker.

I finally had a beautiful sense of clarity.  This venue wasn’t right for us & I couldn’t force it to be right.

Sometimes, indecision is a good thing.  A money saving, sanity saving, very good thing.


Look, I know it was probably obvious to you, but it totally wasn’t obvious to me until it had to get so bad, so out of whack I finally reached the tipping point of crazy.

I was even previously questioning if I even wanted to get married at all because I’d had such a bad time figuring out a venue that was still quirky, retro, comfortable and unique but wasn’t going to cost $18,000 just to sit down and eat at.


We’ve found a venue that’s much more in our price range and also didn’t make me feel like a $20,000 budget (which I know we will go over) was “cheap”… and it allows for BYOB, open fires (for s’mores..or you know, for other fun things), and more options for catering or food trucks if we want!

And a spoiler…this is the new venue we’re looking at…

…it helps that one of the mockup weddings from Amorology hit the nail on the head for what we’re after: retro, comfy, unique, quirky.  It also helps that they rented scooters from Route 66 Scooters.  Yes… I’m trying not to jinx it with how. many. right. things. there. are.


Source: Green Wedding Shoes & Amorology

Sanity. Restored.  We hope.


26 comments so far.

26 responses to “Frugal Wedding Planning: A $20,000 Wedding Budget Is Considered “Low Budget?””

  1. HaleyFaye says:

    I knew that I wanted to get married on a Sunday because of the price differences and also on the off season (not in June or July) for the same reason. We’re getting married on May 4th Which maybe also just happens to be National Star Wars Day…. May the Fourth be with you? Lol He’s names after Luke Skywalker and we’re both geeky. We wanted a subtle homage to our neediness rather than a themed wedding.

    But Anyway, I can vouch for the miracle it’s been having it on a sunday in may. Vendors have been begging me to fill their appointment books in an off season. It’s saved me THOUSANDS.

    • Shannyn says:

      The venue I was looking at apparently had no reasonable “off season” the only time we could get a discount was in July, August or December… not really ideal times, especially since the desert reaches 110 degrees. I was surprised, their “peak season” was Feb-May and “shoulder season” was June, Sept, Oct., and “Off Peak” was January, November, December. We tried a zillion days to make it work, but it didn’t work for that venue.

      Luckily, the other venue we’re looking at doesn’t have a $5k price difference from Sat to Sunday, there is a difference but a reasonable one. Since half the guest list is coming from out of town, Saturday would be ideal but who knows what we’ll end up going with!

      BTW I LOVE your theme and the date, that is amazing!!! Seriously, it’s adorably geeky! I got proposed to with a Doctor Who ringbox so I have a special part of my heart for nerdy brides!

  2. Kara says:

    I completely understand feeling like you’re on a conveyor belt in the wedding industry. I’m planning my wedding for May 2015 and I had a beautiful hotel in mind and they were flexible and even offered a discount so their prices would work with my $25K budget. (i.e. I’m getting married on a Saturday but am getting the Friday/Sunday pricing). I feel the venue that’s right for you will FEEL right; they’ll be flexible and open to your budget and your vision. If they’re not, it’s not right for you.

    Good luck with your final venue choice, I hope it works out!

    • Shannyn says:

      Totally- I was extremely frustrated with how mushy it was and then when it came to asking questions at some venues they took on an air of snobbery, “We are a highly sought out venue and we book up a year and a half in advance (do you now?) ….fees, fees, fees. Ridiculous add-ons you don’t want, but take it or leave it.”

      The mandatory baby sitter at one venue one defies all logic for me. I wasn’t looking at a venue that was a historic monument that had a bunch of artifacts… why the need for a babysitter to watch kids at a basic venue?!

  3. Andrea says:

    I love the sounds of your wedding. It’s definitely hard to do a cheap wedding. I got married last June and we somehow kept it under the $10,000 mark, but that was with a lot of DIY and thankfully a very cheap venue (I live in a small Canadian city). It shocked me how many places wanted to charge for ridiculous things though, some even charge per plant, per fork, per cup etc. That would just be insanity. Perfect color choice for a Route 66 theme! We had turquoise and red and for decorations we did center pieces with records and made our own custom Jones bottles in the colors too as favors, looked so great with that color combo. I love your Smore idea too! The hotel we had ours at actually had a Sundae Bar as a dessert option, and it didn’t cost any extra! Good luck in planning your wedding! It definitely gets to be hard when it comes down to things that you think you really want vs. a realistic cost.

    • Shannyn says:

      When one of my bridesmaids got married last year, her florist was going to charge for centerpieces by person too… like, I get a bigger table that seats 12 may need more flowers than a small card table, but seriously- who measures and charges for flowers for 6 people vs. 8 people at a table?


  4. Ashley says:

    Oh my god. I am getting wedding planning flash backs!

    I went bride crazy from when my husband proposed in 2012 to when he deployed that year. Then I just stopped. I gave up. It was all so STRESSFUL for no reason when I look back at it. I gave up on all the venues because of extras and we were trying to keep it at 10K with 300 some guest. Well we ended up around 12k, all the extras from wine made and labeled for each of my guests, to amazing food. I had all the help in the world, DIY’d everything, had my tent that could house 500 people. I just had to have it in my parents 75 acre “back yard” Yeah. It rained. Things went wrong, and only the devil.. i mean mother in law complained. But looking back I stayed in our insanely tight budget, got closer to all those that helped me fold napkins and stuff them into water cups / all things we could have paid someone to do– but did ourselves. Was it stressful- then. Looking back all the changes made made for a memorable week, not just the day 🙂

    Good luck girl! Deep Breath- it always works out 😉

  5. Karen says:

    Hi, Have you thought about having friends make special items (s’mores) in lieu of a gift? One of my friends was from Oregon. Her family made all of the food. It’s more meaningful and special and it can still look super classy. If you have go-to people that can help, lean on your friends. I paid $10,000 for my wedding X amount of years ago. As long as you focus on the most important stuff, all of the little details you can do inexpensively. I just wanted to make sure the food was good and the DJ. The place was decent looking. It’s about having fun, not all the bells and whistles. Trust me. You and your husband are the focus. Also, sometimes simple and understated is so much more beautiful!

    Look on Pinterest too. They have DIY bouquets and many other ideas.

  6. NZ Muse says:

    As a bona fide budget bride ($5000) I so sympathise with this:


    I still think back and wonder if some of our guests judged our humble and small wedding.

    • Shannyn says:

      If people were judgey they should kiss it 😛 Honestly, who in the heck just has $20k lying around?

      When people found out I started saving for my wedding (albeit very little each month like $100 a month) before we were engaged, I got mocked. Honestly though, where does the money come from? Even $5k is a good chunk of change yet with weddings it’s out of control.

      You wouldn’t just buy a new car or plan a vacation on the drop of a dime, you’d plan for it- yet people seem to think weddings are these grand parties that exceed common sense and sound financial planning. I bet you had a beautiful wedding for $5k. We’re planning it remotely and couldn’t find a venue that worked for us from afar so our budget hopefully includes travel, hotel & dog boarding, etc.

  7. Stephanie says:

    I completely agree with how ridiculous the pricing is. I’m having mine on a Friday because of the huge price difference. I tried to negotiate with a few venues but instead of them waivering on rental prices they simply told me which of their preferred caterers is cheapest, and that caterer tried to go down to the crappie at menu possible which finally flipped it for me. It took me a few site visits to be more upfront about my budget. This is what it is. If that doesn’t work for both parties, we will find what does. And we have. I am so glad that you have found yours. Don’t ever let the planning of a wedding overshadow the most important fact-you feet to be married to this man . The day will pass and you will still have your husband at your side

  8. Oh, man. INSANE. This makes me really, really scared for the day I’m planning a wedding, because I’d imagine my budget would be very similar to yours. I love that you found what sounds like the perfect venue for your theme/budget (hope it works out for you!), but HATE that people haven’t been working with you –RIDICULOUS. It kind of makes me want to go to city hall or elope and just forget about the whole thing; of course it’s supposed to be a special day, and you’re right, that’s what these venues, companies, etc. try to sell it as…but, at the end of the day, it’s really all about the moolah. Not cool!

    • Katie says:

      I agree, I just started planning my wedding and just today started crying (added hormones currently didn’t help lol) to my fiance asking AGAIN if he wanted to elope! I have already been made to feel cheap by vendors who albeit have great credentials also have outrageous prices (6g for photographer!). What really sucked was when they tried to convince me that staying within my budget wouldn’t get me the service or quality that I deserved or that was worth while. Ekkk!
      I have a 20 thousand budget and yes especially in my location it is considered a small budget. I do not but I am regularly encountering sticker shock. The one thing that has helped me is doing online shopping prior to sit downs with vendors and adding up the costs. I have been lucky so far and through a family member got a deal on our venue from 7 down to 4 but I still have lots of rentals and I know I will have to DIY and have to think out of the box to stay close to my budget. But on the upside I do want a unique wedding and love to DIY! I may have to drink a glass of wine and eat lots of chocolate now and again but I know I can get through this because I am marrying the man I love and he is a personal trainer so he can help me work off the chocolate 😉
      For my fellow budget brides try to look for down to earth vendors that maybe don’t advertise all over wedding sites and don’t just cater to only weddings. It takes a lot more searching but can be worth it. Ask friends and family members for recommendations and help. And prioritize what is important to you and your fiance.

  9. YAY! Congrats on finding an awesome venue that fits you 😀 I love following your wedding planning.

  10. Alyssa says:

    Oh man! I hear you on so many things. We are trying to get married in November of this year (8 month engagement) and it is pretty frustrating. I have a lot of money to save in a relatively short amount of time.

    We are getting married in Iowa so things are a lot more affordable but it still is a little bit ridiculous. I can’t believe they would charge $9.50/person for a smore bar! That’s insane.

    My fiance and I have already had a lot of “discussions” about our guest list. He wants to invite like everyone he ever met and I’d prefer smaller and a little nicer meal! I keep trying to find the balance between my want for a super nice reception and not wanting to spend $$$$.

    I got frustrated this weekend and at the end I just said “I just want to be married. Why does all of this have to be so complicated?” I think I will be glad when all of this is over! ha!

  11. Stephanie says:

    When my fiance and I first got engaged, we talked about what we thought our wedding budget would be. We both had $10k in our heads. Good, same page. OH WAIT. THINGS COSTS MONEY. We quickly discovered that even if we wanted to do things that were less expensive, all the extra things start to add up. I was floored by photographer prices. And we’re going to need a shuttle due to the lack of parking at the reception location. And apparently we have to invite relatives (and that adds up in the guest expenses department).

    I still have cut costs in some ways. Our venue is a local flatbread pizza + candlepin bowling location, and so they’re mostly charging us “at cost” for food, drinks, and bowling. They’re even throwing in free socks and shoe rentals! But we had to have the reception noon to 4 on Saturday in order for it to work out for them.
    And my dress cost less than $300. We’re still trying to figure out the wedding cake thing (having hit 4 different bakers for tastings, it’s time to decide what our cake budget is and what matters to us about tiers or anything like that).

    Returning from my story here, I feel for you! It’s frustrating the way venues (and even other vendors) all assume that “money is no object” and that you wont even care about how much it costs because it’s “your day”. STOP TREATING US LIKE THE BRIDEZILLAS ON TV! That’s my biggest beef with these places. We’re not made of money. That “$1k for smores” thing also made me just want to yell. So frustrating!

    I hope your new place works out. It sounds like an awesome fit for your style. Good luck!

  12. Caitlin S. says:

    Ask to see the corporate menu instead of the wedding menu. We did that and got the meal, tax and gratuity for $30/head instead of $50/head without the tax and gratuity. If you know someone who is in business and knows how to persuade to, bring them along. The food is just as good – if not better than the wedding menu and less expensive overall. Another thing we did was book in the off season like many suggested and on a Sunday (which was less $). Because we had the ceremony and reception in the same place, we got a deal on the venue.

    I hope your new venue works out! the pictures look so cool!

  13. Emily says:

    *sigh.* This is what freaks the heck out of me. My boyfriend and I have been talking about engagement, rings, and an ideal season that we would like to get married. I know he doesn’t get this at all – but I’m stressing out and I’m not even officially even engaged! Weddings are SO expensive and I don’t think he realizes what we are in for. I feel behind – like I should have been saving since I was 5 in order to afford this. Thanks for sharing your planning journey with us!

  14. Yikes! We spent under $1k on our wedding, but that’s because we did a quickie courthouse wedding (I really hate weddings!).

    I think it’s awesome that you’re going to cash flow the entire $20,000! That’s a major feat 🙂

  15. My fiance and I are having a small, immediate family only wedding and even THAT is proving impossible. We wanted to get married on New Years Day but we couldn’t find venues that would allow such a small number for a reasonable amount of money… so after a lot of deliberation, location changes and conversations with potential vendors, we finally managed a date and location we were happy with and felt we could live with.

    But the wedding costs are ridiculous. I was having nightmares and major stress over the 300 person wedding we were going to have to plan (especially since I’m a “volunteer” for the next year and have no income) and that lead us to the tiny wedding. I think we’ll be at $15k including the wedding and two hometown receptions, but hey, you can win everything and our families were willing to help us out.

  16. Latasha says:

    I’m impressed, I have to admit. Rarely do I encounter a blog that’s
    both equally educative and interesting, and without a doubt, you’ve hit the nail on the head.
    The problem is something which not enough men and women are
    speaking intelligently about. I am very happy that I stumbled across this in my hunt for something regarding this.

  17. Lowering Acceleration Sensitivity.

  18. Hi! I’m not sure if I missed the link but where is your wedding venue? We have the same budget and looking in same area it would be amazing to have this!



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