Cheap and Chic Weddings: Real Simple Weddings Editor on How to Pull Off an Elegant but Less Expensive Fete

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Rachel Hardage
Deputy Editor, Real Simple Weddings
Tuesday, February 17, 2009; 11:00 AM

Planning your big day on a small budget? Real Simple Weddings Deputy Editor Rachel Hardage took questions on stretching your dollars to get the wedding you always wanted. The transcript is below.

Special Section: Wedding Week 2009


Rachel Hardage: Hi, Rachel Hardage here from Real Simple Weddings. If you're reading this because you're getting married in the very near future, congratulations! Send me your questions and I'll try to provide some helpful suggestions when it comes to throwing a gorgeous wedding without spending a fortune. After all, brides are clearly cutting back these days. In 2008, the average cost of a wedding fell by 24% (from $28,704 in 2007 to $21,814 in 2008).


Rockville, Md.: I am planning my wedding in northern N.J. for October 2009. We feel like flowers is one of those areas in which we are trying to save some money but we don't want to look cheap. What are the best ways to cut the flower costs without looking like I don't have flowers?

Rachel Hardage: First, there's really no such thing as an ugly flower, so there's no reason to spend a fortune on flying fancy blooms in from Holland. If you want floral centerpieces, why not try fresh flowers like Gerber daisies or sunflowers in milk jugs or mason jars, which you can easily buy in bulk? If you love peonies (and, really, what bride doesn't?) ask your florist to suggest fuller garden varieties of roses that have a similar look and feel but cost much less. Another colorful centerpiece option: fruit (think lemons or green apples) in a tall cylindrical glass vase can also add a vibrant splash of color for less money than flowers. (And you can pretty much find a fruit -- oranges, lemons, red apples, green apples -- that will work with your color palette.) Another non-floral centerpiece idea: Offer varieties of punch in large glass beverage containers that multitask as centerpieces.

In terms of bouquets, I love the look of wildflowers straight from the farmer's market. You can even tie up each bouquet using the leftover fabric from your bridesmaid dress alterations. Another great affordable option: letting each bridesmaid walk down the aisle while carrying a single, long-stemmed flower, like a calla lily, instead of a bouquet. (Just pay attention to the stems during photos, because the stems can look sort of unwieldy.) Hope that helps!


Springfield, Va.: My fiance and I are planning and paying for our wedding. We plan to move to a new city this summer, and hold the wedding in that city a few months after our move. We've been told (by many older family members) that since most of my family will be traveling from out of town to attend, that we need to have a guest bag for those out-of-towners. Is this a requirement? Our budget is only around $4,000, so I've already begun the DIY process. I was hoping to skip the out-of-town guest bag idea to allow me to spend more money on our reception. However, what does the etiquette book on weddings say about that? Thanks for your help!

Rachel Hardage: Hi, Springfield! While guest bags are always nice touch, they are certainly not a requirement in my opinion. (Some of you may disagree with me, so feel free to chime in!) If you do want to offer something for out-of-towners, you could simply offer an assortment of brochures highlighting fun things to do in the city, as well as water and a piece of fruit.

A friend of mine who got married in Chicago put together an affordable welcome bag filled with water, an apple, gum, etc. But she tied the whole welcome package together with a little card featuring trivia about the couple (each item represented a bit of trivia). For example, they met in NYC so the apple represented the Big Apple. The Wrigley's gum was a nod to Wrigley Field, in their new hometown of Chicago. The water represented the huge body of water (the ocean!) that separated the couple for the 26 years before they met. So you can certainly have fun with this idea with really affordable items.

Another option: If everyone is staying at the same hotel, you can rent an extra hotel room for the weekend and stock it with some water and snacks and encourage guests to stop by if they want refreshments. In the long run, this might prove to be cheaper than offering individual welcome bags. Plus, your wedding guests will have the chance to interact before the wedding.


Charlottesville, Va.: I would love to know how to save money on a photographer without sacrificing quality. Good photographers are so expensive!

Rachel Hardage: Don't overlook for listings of photographers and videographers in your area. Budding photographers looking to build a portfolio may snap candids for a low price. You can save money by hiring an experienced photographer for the posed shots, then let an up-and-comer shoot the remainder. If he does a good job, you'll have great photos for posterity. If he turns out to be lousy, you'll still have the most important pictures taken care of.


Washington, D.C.: What budget saving tips do you recommend for flowers and music? I read the article that suggested we invite our guests to each bring a flower -- great idea but too late for us. Do you have other suggestions? Is buying flowers from farms generally cheaper than going through florists? What about wholesale flower markets?

For music, we are planning to rent speakers and use an iPod. Do you find this works for weddings or is the lack of a DJ to make announcements noticeable? Also, do you have an idea how much it generally costs to rent speakers?

Thank you!

Rachel Hardage: Hey, there,

See above for my tips on flowers. (And, yes, farmers' markets and wholesale suppliers are typically cheaper than florists.)

When it comes to music, I love the idea of saving money by using an iPod. I attended a wedding in Pennsylvania where the bride actually used her basic iPod speaker dock to provide the music for her brunch reception, and no one seemed to miss the live music. Of course, if you're looking to throw a full-on dance party, you'll need to make sure your speakers are loud enough to handle your reception space. And it's always good to have a backup iPod loaded with the same songs just in case yours acts up. If you're looking for playlist suggestions, you can ask guests to weigh in with their must-haves on your wedding website. You can also check out other brides' iMixes in the iTunes store. Simply search "music," then "iMix," and then type "wedding playlist" into the search field for song recommendations beyond the obvious reception music (YMCA, anyone?) As far as speaker recommendations, I'm at a loss. Does anyone else know of a good resource for speakers? If so, speak up!


Janesville, Wisc.: What percentage of the wedding budget should go to the wedding cake? How important is it to have an elaborate cake? Thank you.

Rachel Hardage: Well, about 50% of your wedding budget should go toward your reception, and the cake cost falls within that 50% (in addition to the cost of the venue, beverages, food and service, etc.) If the cake is extremely important to you, you can cut corners on the dinner menu or the drink menu and splurge on a cake. But I'm always flabbergasted by how expensive a cake can be. A basic wedding cake can easily set you back $700.

But you certainly don't have to go the traditional three-tiers-and-a-cake-topper route. In fact, the Philadelphia bride I mentioned earlier didn't have a typical cake. Instead, she ordered a variety of pies and cheesecake from her favorite bakery. Guests could simply slice into their favorites. when it comes to a cake/pie selection, I especially love the idea of creating a fun display with all sorts of pies displayed on vintage cake stands. (You can often find great cake stands at, anthropologie, and even on ebay). (If you plan for guests to cut their own slices, choose pies with thick fillings, like coconut custard, pecan, and pumpkin.)

Of course, this pie idea wouldn't make sense for a 300-person wedding. In that case, I'd ask a baker to create a smaller version of your dream cake and then get a supplemental sheet cake to feed your guests. Another alternative to the cake/pie idea: an ice cream sundae bar with various toppings. And again, an elaborate cake (or dessert selection) is certainly not a necessity. I mean, at the end of the day, what guest wouldn't be happy with a good ol' Fudgie the Whale?


Fairfax, Va.: I am looking to decorate my tables with something besides my small blue hydrangea centerpieces. We are going to have about 10 tables that will fill about 8-10 people each and I feel the centerpieces aren't going to be big enough to make a statement and I would like some low-cost ways to accent the centerpieces besides votives. We are having a Sunday morning brunch wedding so with the sunlight, lit candles and votives don't seem logical. Thanks for any suggestion!

Rachel Hardage: First of all, great call on the blue hydrangeas. Those are a personal favorite! To accent the centerpieces, you could try a few things. You know those long mirrors people hang on the back of their closet doors? You can find them for around $10 at places like Wal-Mart, Target, or Bed, Bath & Beyond. Anyway, you can use them as table runners if you have long, narrow tables and get double the atmosphere thanks to the reflection of the flowers. (The mirrors would also work well with the candles if you did decide to go that route.) You could also get smaller cylindrical glass vases and fill them with water and let one gorgeous bloom float on top.

Other ways to liven up the table: a pretty assortment of vintage books that work with your palette (these could double as favors) or black-and-white childhood photos of you and your groom glued to blue ribbon and strung across the table, like a timeline. One final word: When it comes to your centerpiece, choose low (under 14 inches) or very elevated (about 30 inches) arrangements so guests will be able to see one another across the table.


My flower tip...: I was able to save a bunch of money for my wedding by alternating flower and candle centerpieces on my tables. My florist decorated candles with our monogram and ribbons. We used pillars of varying heights along with little glass jewels (to catch the light), so it looked a little more done up than the typical votives on the table. Since half of the tables did have flowers, overall the room had a nice look to it (and plenty of candlelight). Won't work in all scenarios but it stretched our budget and looked beautiful.

Rachel Hardage: Great tip. Thanks!


Washington, D.C.: I am planning my wedding for October of this year. One of the colors I am using is a darker purple (that is the color of the bridesmaid dresses). Do you have a suggestion for another color to use? At this point I only have purple.

Rachel Hardage: Depending on the shade of purple, you could potentially go with a gold, gray, ivory, tan, brown, or even a light pink. One of my favorite wedding blogs ( has great color palette suggestions and ideas, so try that site for more real world inspiration! Other useful sources: (where you can search palettes other users have created) and


20002: What about favors, menus, and programs? I'm thinking of doing without those? Also, it seems like everyone does cutesy placecards these days. But I just want to do something simple and cheap since I am not a DIY type. Do people even care about placecards?

Rachel Hardage: Here's a fun idea to cut costs on menus and place cards. Use a large chalkboard to direct guests to their proper seats/tables. That way, you won't be spending money on individual cards. At the table, you could continue with this theme and use a smaller chalkboard to share the evening's menu. (Just enlist a friend with great penmanship to do the writing!) If executed well, this can evoke a fun, casual vibe, similar to what you'd find at an Italian restaurant, where the evening's specials are written on a chalkboard.


Boston: Hi, what are some ways to cut down the catering budget (including alcohol)? We want to have a nice wedding with good food (and an open bar) but don't have a ton to spend. Thanks.

Rachel Hardage: A cocktail party with hors d'oeuvres can cost less than a sit-down dinner, but be sure to keep the party under three hours. Otherwise, the difference in cost is negligible. Buffets aren't always as cheap as one might assume (caterers have to account for potential second-or third-trips, so you can wind up paying for a lot more food than anticipated). I'm a big fan of having separate serving stations throughout a reception. That way, guests don't get backed up in one long line as they would at a buffet, but they're also not waiting on each course as they would be at a sit-down dinner. I went to a wedding in Dallas where they had comfort food-inspired stations with sliders, macaroni and cheese, you name it. Needless to say, it was a huge hit with the guests. When it comes to alcohol, you can save by selecting one signature cocktail and only serving that in addition to beer and wine. By doing this, you'll save a bundle on liquor. Try a thematic favorite (mint juleps for a Kentucky wedding; Manhattans at a NYC wedding; spiked lemonade for a summery, outdoor bash).


Rachel Hardage: Goodness gracious, y'all! So many questions, so little time! I hope you found some of that information helpful. Remember that this should be an exciting-not stressful-time of your life, and that your wedding guests are ultimately attending your Big Day to see YOU, not the cake, the decorations, or the favors. Anyway, good luck with the planning process! Congrats!


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