How to Prioritise Your Wedding Budget (and My Personal Story)

To start with, let me come clean and say I totally blew our wedding budget – and that’s an I, not we – so there’s definitely a lot to learn from my mistakes. If you’re interested, later you read my entire wedding budget. First though, let me show you how to prioritise your wedding budget, beginning with the tale of how I did not…


If you’re not interested in me, that’s fine too – scroll down a little to ‘Priorities’.

We started with the idea ‘average’ budget of $35,000, and from there thought we’d probably save, because we wanted a small-ish wedding of 75, and wanted a ‘dry hire’ venue, so would save a lot of money on the alcohol too. At the end of the day, before the honeymoon, we actually spent (eek) $55,000.

I didn’t prioritise, and therefore I overspent…

My now-husband is a pilot, and brought me home a wedding magazine from LA. Though I’d tried on a few wedding dresses that were all okay, I fell head over heels for one on an ad within the first couple of pages of the magazine – for those of you familiar with advertising, alarm bells may be ringing already. For those of you familiar with fashion, the fact that it had ‘couture’ in the name may be another giveaway. I was desperate to get it, and called an LA stockist of the New York based company to arrange to come and try it on and hopefully buy it.


Clearly this was my first rodeo, as I was informed that with it being ‘couture’ there would be no try-ons, it would be ordered to fit me and arrive in six months. Gobsmacked, but still totally in love, I asked how much it cost. $2,000 – okay, great, the US exchange rate looking pretty great too. I ordered it. Shortly after, I got an email… it wasn’t $2,000, it was $5,187 plus tax, plus shipping from New York to LA – I would have to come and pick it up from there. I had to tell Blair, and I had no idea what he was going to say. Of course, he hadn’t even seen a picture, but knew how happy I was to have found the dress, so said to go ahead. However, I knew I’d already blown the budget. Six months later, and all ready to fly to LA and pick up my dress.

And just as I’m searching for every last dollar between the cushions of the couch, I discover that in six months, the exchange rate has shifted by 30% – from 1.3 to 1.6, and the dress is now going to cost $10,000 (September 2015 remains the highest exchange rate in 5 years). Well, there wasn’t a lot I could do, we paid the difference, I loved the dress, we blew the budget, and it was a good thing I could barely afford to eat because it was really tight!

This is a pretty exceptional situation, and not one that many people would find themselves in, but it’s one of many examples where things just didn’t go quite as planned.


Clearly the dress was a priority, and this is where a little advice comes in. Everyone talks about setting priorities, those few little things where you’re prepared to spend more money on whatever’s really important to you. The thing is, you can’t just set your priorities, you have to prioritise them in terms of time. If the dress is the priority, and the dress is going to cost $10,000, you need to know that before you lock in all the little things that aren’t priorities. If you don’t, and you go about organising the rest, and then you realise how much your priority is going to cost, it’s way too late.

So when it comes to spending, pick your priorities, then actually make the purchase, the booking, finalise the cost, really early on. Splurge on what’s important to you, say photographers, the wedding dress, and music, get those deposits out of the way, and only then, go ahead and figure out how the rest is going to fit into the budget.

Rounding back to the beginning, when you actually set a wedding budget? Often, parents are still offering to support their children’s weddings, I’d just suggest a couple of things that I’ve seen go wrong here. I can at least say we avoided any drama in this regard because we paid for it all ourselves.

For one, if parents are financially supporting your wedding, they may feel a sense of ownership over it, whether that’s in terms of the guest list, maybe the music, the wording on the invitations. Secondly, you have the issue of pay parity between two sets of parents, or four individual parents, who want to contribute, but may not be able to do so equally. Third, remembering that not everyone chooses to get married, you don’t want a parent’s generous gift to you leading to a perceived imbalance to your siblings, if say, they also could do with a large cash injection.

My suggestions to each of these – instead of having lump sums, having a parent pay for something in particular such as the catering, the music, the photographers. This both minimises their opportunity to take ownership, and no need for any talk between parents of exact monetary figures. For the sake of family relations, establish right away whether it’s a loan, an advance on inheritance or a gift.

Step 1: Work out who’s contributing, and how much you can set aside. This figure will also tie into your date, because you can work out how long you’ll be saving, and whether you want to save money with an off-peak wedding.

Step 2: Prioritise and get spending on those elements.

Step 3: Now it’s going to come down to looking at everything else and seeing what, when and how it can possibly all fit together. I designed the little white book’s budget pages to help with this really simply, with columns for initial estimates, then actual, with deposits paid, amount payable and due date – because your wedding budget is not static, and as I said at the beginning, things can change, a wedding budget is not just a number.


Once you’ve got an estimated budget and an initial guest list, let’s look at how you can choose a wedding venue that caters to your guests within a cost you can afford. You can expect to spend anywhere from 50 to 70% of your budget on venues, depending on whether the price includes catering.

When it comes to choosing a wedding venue, one of your first big questions is going to be whether to go for a ‘dry-hire’ or ‘venue only’ location, or an all-inclusive, fully comprehensive and catered spot.

Many people assume that this is a cheaper way to do it, because you don’t have to pay restaurant rates for wine, and you’re not obliged to use in-house catering, theming and decorations.

If you’re aren’t well organised, good at budgeting, and into the idea of making all the arrangements yourself, a dry-hire venue may not be for you.

wedding-organiser-organizer-diary-planner-book-little-white-bookGet well organised with the little white book wedding organiser and diary.

To make a space your own though, and for a wedding that’s unlike any other, you can turn the empty shell of a dry-hire venue into a really special and completely personal space. It’s all up to you, but it’s also at your expense.

Venue – biggest cost

Some fully catered venues won’t have a hireage fee, but either way, you need to know exactly what is, and is not included: how much time? Exclusive use? Taxes, gratuity, cleaning? Staff for set-up, decoration, food service, packing up, planning assistance in the lead up? A sound system for music and speeches? Even the very basics, such as tables and chairs, won’t be included in a dry hire venue, so you’d better find out now. I offer a venue questionnaire pack which will really help you with these questions.

Some venues may offer a wedding planner to assist. As an example of the costs involved with a dry-hire venue, with ours because we had to hire all the tables, chairs, crockery, cutlery, glassware, linens and a little décor, the cost was an extra $100 per person – and that’s without the need to hire a marquee, which itself is thousands.

So, once you’ve got a venue, and maybe 50, 60 or 70% of your budget is dedicated, what’s next?

As you go through the list like that in the little white book, and begin thinking about estimates, you might see things you hadn’t even contemplated spending money on – like transport, wedding favours, or a rehearsal dinner. My advice would be that in that case, you needn’t contemplate them. You need a bride, a groom (or sometimes two brides and two grooms in NZ), two witnesses, a celebrant and a marriage licence – everything else is negotiable.

My wedding cake was smashed en route to the venue the day before the wedding, and I can tell you how much difference it made – absolutely none. It was just as delicious in bits, and I’d certainly encourage others to save $500 or $1000 and serve a cheaper, one tiered cake instead, if not forego it altogether and serve dessert. See how to save money on your wedding cake.

On the day of the wedding, it transpired that the platters of banquet style food we had were so large that they wouldn’t fit on the tables, unless we took off most of the centrepieces, flowers, candles and all the different glassware. Again, noone noticed. I could have saved thousands.

When you feel like your budget isn’t meeting your expectations, and you realise you’re going to have to save money in some areas, I suggest that rather than think ‘What could I DIY to save money’ or ‘What could I get cheaply’ rather, think What do I really want and need to have, and don’t go beyond that.

Don’t go along with something because you saw it in a movie, challenge every assumption you make that you have to have something. The wedding industry wants you to think you need it all, your bank account does not.

The easiest things to save on, I suggest, are on stationery (which can now be completely electronic or print at home – thanks Etsy!), flowers, décor and favours, which are not really necessary,

If you do want and feel the need to have all of those things, the most effective way to trim the budget is by having a smaller wedding – the cost of food and drink for each guest adding a tremendous expense, not to mention per person cost for all the little things that add up.

You may find yourself getting disappointed, you had all these huge ideas, this Pinterest perfect wedding, but you really needn’t. To start with, a note on Pinterest, please, be aware that much of what’s on Pinterest, and often on vendors’ websites, are styled shoots, which is the wedding industry’s way of advertising. They haven’t been replicated on a large scale, which would be at a huge expense.

Personally, I go to a lot of weddings, and none of them look like they do on Pinterest – in fact, my wedding is on Pinterest, but you can’t see the things all the things that went wrong (the cake is noticeably absent!)

It’s akin to Facebook, it’s everyone’s highlight reel, but don’t get caught up in what it’s all ‘supposed’ to look like. It will be beautiful, you will have an amazing day. And at the end of the day, you will be married – and it’s only the beginning…

If you’ve just started planning, head to the wedding planning index and take a look at the little white book wedding organiser and diary.

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