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Get married without saying ‘I do’ to debt

Allie Johnson

March 18, 2016

Weddings can be expensive, but it’s definitely possible to tie the knot without tying yourself down to a load of credit card debt.

When Melissa Davies got engaged in San Francisco a few years ago, she and her husband-to-be made a vow to stay out of debt. It took some creativity, planning and cost cutting, but they managed to throw a wedding and reception for over 60 guests for $3,000.

How did they do it? For starters, they asked a friend to host the reception in her loft, got their favorite restaurant to cater and ordered other items from grocery and liquor stores without mentioning the word “wedding,” which can cause some vendors to hike costs.

The couple wanted to declare their love in front of family and friends. But, Davies says, “The idea of going into debt at the beginning of our life together, for a fancy party, seemed irresponsible.”

Here are nine ways to get hitched without racking up a balance on your card:

“The cost goes up exponentially with each guest. It’s not just the food. It’s the room, the seating, the flowers, the favors, the cake. See if you can pare down the guest list.”
— Stephanie Aspinwall,
owner of Pretty Entertaining

  1. Commit to a budget. The first thing you need to know is how much you have to spend, says Stephanie Aspinwall, owner of Pretty Entertaining, a Washington, D.C.-area wedding planning company. The first thing she does with clients is sit down for a budgeting session. Sources of money might include money you’ve saved up and gifts from parents who want to contribute. It’s best to gather the money upfront and put it in a dedicated wedding bank account, so those funds don’t accidentally get spent on other stuff, she says. If you don’t have a lump sum, you can carefully plan so you pay for a few items each month, says Ethan Baron, author of “Wedding Bliss on a Budget.” In that case, the more time you have between engagement and wedding, the better. “It allows you to measure out your spending,” he says.
  1. Make up a guest list. Your guest list size has more impact on cost than anything else, Aspinwall says. “The cost goes up exponentially with each guest,” she adds. “It’s not just the food. It’s the room, the seating, the flowers, the favors, the cake.” Is your budget too small for the wedding you want? “See if you can pare down the guest list,” she suggests. It’s hard to stand up to loved ones who want to expand the size of the list, and you might want to allow your parents to add a guest or two each, Baron says. “But if Mom’s inviting everyone from the office and your aunt’s decided she has to bring her six closest friends, you’ve got to draw the line,” he says.
  1. Pick your top priorities. Decide on your top priorities, as well as what’s least important so you can better allocate the funds in your budget, says Stephen Alred, founder of Ignite Financial, a financial planning firm geared toward millennials, who is getting married in Nashville, Tennessee, this fall. Early on, he and his wife-to-be picked the photographer and a beach honeymoon in Mexico as their top priorities. They’re cutting costs in other areas, so they’ll get married in the church her parents attend and hold the reception in the church basement. The cost: $600, whereas a different venue would have cost thousands of dollars. “We put the money we saved toward our honeymoon,” he says.
  1. Don’t let food eat up your budget. Unless you’re foodies who have decided food and drink are priority No. 1, the refreshment portion of your budget is a great place to save, Baron says. For example, hold a brunch or cocktail hour reception instead of a dinner, curtail liquor expenses by serving only beer and wine and not offering an open bar or limit your food options. You can serve great food on a budget, says Erin Bonin, who got married in South Bend, Indiana, in January 2016. She and her groom spent only $15 per person on the reception meal. The couple served a family-style Polish dinner that included roasted chicken, mashed potatoes, gravy, noodles and sauerkraut — perfect because it’s common at weddings in their city and they had just traveled to Poland. Instead of having the dinner served, they went with a buffet to save money, she says.
  1. Plan for surprises. Set aside 10 percent of your total budget as a contingency fund to cover unexpected expenses, Aspinwall says. You may not have to tap the fund, but having it available can keep you from reaching for your credit card. Expenses that commonly catch brides and grooms by surprise include: postage for wedding invitations, gratuities for everyone from the catering staff to the hairstylist, and surprise fees. For example, some facilities also charge a cake cutting fee of $3.50 to $4 a slice or per-bottle corking fees if you bring your own wine, which some couples do to cut costs. “That can eliminate all your savings,” she says.

“We accepted that we’d be carrying a little debt, but we had a plan to pay it off quickly.”
— Erin Bonin,
who got married
in January 2016

  1. Get creative. You can wow your guests for little money by adding fun personal touches to your big day. For example, Davies, who runs the site BikePretty.com, and her groom made cycling a part of their big day. After the wedding, they led their guests, dressed in cocktail attire, on a short ride around San Francisco ending at the reception venue. And Bonin and her husband got married on top of a snow-tubing hill at a county park. During the ceremony, the couple stood by leftover Christmas trees they got for free from a local tree farm. After their vows, they slid down the snowy hill on a tube adorned with a homemade “Just Married” sign. “We slid down with pine cones and cans rattling behind us,” she says.
  1. Borrow stuff rather than money. If you want to make sure “something borrowed” doesn’t include money, ask others to lend you some of the items you need. For example, to decorate her reception space, Bonin borrowed tall cylinder vases a co-worker had bought at a garage sale, along with mini chalkboards and cardholders made from birch branches. One of her big money-saving tips: “Borrow from recent brides.” You can borrow talent as well as stuff. For example, Davies and her husband went that route to keep costs low. “We asked our good friend, who also happens to be a huge ham, to officiate,” she says. “He turned the vows into a roast and kept us all in stitches.”
  1. Make some purchases on plastic. Despite your desire to stay out of debt, you should use plastic to pay for some expenses, such as deposits with vendors, then pay the bill in full, Aspinwall says. That way, you avoid debt but get the consumer protections offered by your credit card, such as the ability to dispute charges if you’re not happy with a service. For example, Aspinwall has heard of weddings where a caterer served the wrong food or a vendor went MIA on the big day.
  1. Consider a 0-percent card just in case. If you have good credit, consider applying for a card that offers a 0 percent introductory deal just in case, Bonin says. She is “very opposed to debt” since she works for an accounting firm and comes from a family of financial pros, but she did put some wedding expenses on a Chase card that offered no interest on purchases for 15 months. She expects to have the balance paid off in a few months, without paying a cent in interest. “We accepted that we’d be carrying a little debt, but we had a plan to pay it off quickly,” she says.

SEE ALSO: Tips for paying off your wedding credit card debt

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