This is my personal story and lessons I learned from planning a simple yet meaningful destination wedding for <50 people. If you are dating, recently engaged, or even just dreaming of a fabulous wedding that doesn’t leave your bank account empty, pour yourself a warm beverage, get comfy, and prepare yourself to fill an “idea board” on Pinterest.
Boy meets girl*. They become friends. Really good friends.
Girl realizes she likes boy, and tells him so.
Boy realizes he likes girl too, and asks her on a first date: laser tag.
Over the next 3 years, they move in together, move across the country, change careers a few times, and adopt a pair of puppies. They both realize that this is a match made in heaven, and the real deal, and The One, Mr. and Mrs. Right, and whatever other saying you want to use.
This is forever.
Boy and Girl then realize:
- we are super poor right now
- we don’t want to be poor forever
- we want to get married
- we don’t want to spend tens of thousands of dollars on one day
- our families live in at least 7 states, 1000s of miles apart
- eloping is not the route we want to go
- we want to have an epic week long party
- did I mention not wanting to be poor forever?
Sooooooo what do we do?
Do we get married in his home town, and piss off all her relatives who have to travel? Do we get married in her hometown and piss off all his relatives who have to travel? Do a city hall ceremony in CT, with 2 seperate parties later?
Nah man, let’s just have our whole immediate family and best of friends all go on vacation together.
And then also, get hitched!
When you think of a destination wedding, you probably think of a white sand beach, with the bride in flip flops or bare feet. A tropical location with hibiscus flowers and drinks poured in coconuts and pineapples. An all-inclusive resort.
And a five-digit bill at the end of the weekend.
It doesn’t have to be that way!
A destination wedding at its simplest is just that: A wedding, at a destination. Typically, a destination which is neither of the couple’s hometown.
Have an honest conversation about your priorities, including: your budget, whether any family members will be contributing to the cost, who you want to invite, what you want your day to look and feel like, and if there are any meaningful places to you.
Even though some people still think “Talking about money is tacky,” (LOLOLOL), you need to get right the hell over that.
There is literally nothing more important than talking about your money, because no one cares about your money and your financial future like you do. And if you don’t trust your chosen life partner enough to talk this over, y’all are in deep doo-doo from the get-go.
So put on the big girl panties, and start throwing out real numbers. Realistic numbers.
Our Priorities: location in the mountains, housing for the wedding party, relaxed vacation-like vibe, keeping it frugal
Our budget: $10,000
Now, I won’t be mean and wait until the very end of the article to tell you (spoilers!) we basically hit our budget. Yes, we hosted a 6-day, 5-night wedding weekend in the mountains of Tennessee for $10K.
- Total cost: $10,004.15
- Location: Pigeon Forge, TN
- Venue: 10 bedroom log cabin
- Season: Spring (May) of 2016
- Wedding party: 8 + 4 parents + wedding couple = 14
- Guests total: 45 (including the wedding party)
Below I’m going to break down each area of a typical wedding celebration, and walk you through how we went about finding the right balance. We wanted an experience that stayed true to who we are as a couple, and I highly recommend you do the same.
Just because someone in your family did a first dance, but you are terrified of dancing in public, don’t feel like you have to do one.
And so what if your best friend had a ten tier, 6 flavor cake that cost more than your car. If you hate cake and way prefer pie, definitely go for the pie, girl!
The point of a wedding, at the end of the day, is to celeberate the joining of two people’s lives. You are agreeing to be there to love and support one another, no matter what crazy things life throws at you. That is a unique and beautiful thing.
It is definitely NOT a carte blanche to become Bridezilla about every little detail, but yes, the day should be about you as individuals and as a couple, and to hell with anyone else’s expectations.
We started the search for the right place by deciding that we were not location bound, but that we wanted to stay within the US.
Since our families were scattered all over Texas, Ohio, Arizona, Tennessee, Iowa, and Chicago, and we were currently living in Connecticut, all we knew was that there was no right or wrong answer!
People were going to be traveling regardless, and we knew we weren’t attached to CT (and their silly high prices for everything).
We both love the ocean and the mountains. As our time in Colorado showed us, the mountains are pretty much our favorite place, and guaranteed to be gorgeous no matter the weather. So we wanted to go somewhere in the mountains. That narrows down a few states.
We also knew we wanted a spring wedding, so we needed a place that would be tolerably warm in May, so likely the lower states.
Honest to God, we started with AirBnB and VRBO. We wanted to be able to provide a location large enough that the wedding party did not need housing. This would save everyone in the party the cost of a hotel room for the week/weekend.
We simply searched for places that could accomodate a minimum of ten, no maximum, and went from there. Options included lavish mansions in Las Vegas, oceanfront mansions in California and all along New England, a castle or two, beautiful antebellum homes throughout the South, and log cabins in several different states.
From there we narrowed by price, starting with a pretty wide band and then winnowing down into our more comfortable range. We also wanted a long celebration, not just one day, so the cost was considerably higher for nearly a full week. If you do only one day or one weekend, you can probably knock off another grand or two.
Honestly, the huge place for a whole week makes up almost 75% of the money we spent.
You could quite easily get that down to 1-2K for a shorter duration or a smaller place. But rolling the ceremony, reception, and whole weekend into one space is what we wanted, and we were willing to pay for it.
Given the price-to-value ratio of how many people a place could sleep, what level of luxury it offered, and the prices, a large log cabin in the Tennessee/Kentucky/Virginia area hit all our requirements.
After weeks of looking and pros and cons, we narrowed it to two cabins. My parents so generously offered to cover this part of the weekend. My mom was really the major factor here, basically stepping in as my de facto wedding planner.
She called them each and asked what kind of deal they would give us. One place let us adjust the dates, added one extra free night for just us to stay after everyone else left, and threw in a pre-holiday discount (it was right around Memorial weekend), so we went with a 10 bedroom cabin in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.
This one might merit some input from family, if they are very invested in your celebration. We just knew that we wanted to keep it on the short side.
We agreed to “immediate family” only. What hubby didn’t know at the time, is that my admittedly very small family is still nonetheless very close, so essentially my whole family is my immediate family.
When we drew up the list, it was pretty clear who was on the “must invite” list, we were lucky that way. We ended up with about 50 people, of whom roughly 45 showed up. This was on the higher end of comfortable for us and the size cabin we had.
Paper: Save the Date, Invitations, RSVPs
We chose our date a little less than a year in advance, because we knew that people were going to have to travel. People need time to plan, book flights, arrange cars/hotels, etc. Therefore it made sense to send “Save the Date” cards.
I knew I wanted to try my hand at making all our own paper goods, because 1) I enjoy crafting 2) I hate spending money and 3) We had a small enough list of those we were inviting that it wasn’t totally overwhelming.
I would not recommend DIY with a guest list over 50!
The invitations were all hand-made, with the help of one of my indefatiguable friends. I looked through ideas online and settled on a simple design with a ribbon tying two small rings together, in our colors of purple and blue.
A good friend at work was kind enough to volunteer some of her crafting supplies (a paper cutter, hole punch, scissors, etc) and her time to help me put them all together. We cut, glued, and tied for hours.
All told, the paper, glue, ribbon, envelopes, and rings cost about $100 for about 50 invitations, save the dates, and RSVP cards. Stamps were another $20 or so; I was lucky to also already have a stash from before.
Depending on the number of guests, your costs might be more or less. Many people nowadays are also opting to go paperless, for money-saving and/or environmental reasons.
My mom really loves me and wanted to throw an engagement party/wedding shower, but I turned it down.
The reasons were multiple:
- The same people who would come would also come to the wedding and after-wedding-reception
- I don’t like the idea of multiple large gifts being expected of people
- It was in February in Ohio and she wanted us to drive there
- I just don’t like those kinds of events, the waste, & attention
- We had been living together for a few years already at this point, there wasn’t much left for a “household” that we needed
So no engagement party or wedding shower.
For pre-wedding events, I did end up having 2 bachelorette parties. As mentioned we were living in CT at the time. We had only been there a little over a year, so I didn’t know too many people outside of work friends.
But these work friends were amazing people, and decided I needed a party. We planned a great day of winery-hopping (there were three relatively close together) followed by a downtown New Haven bar crawl. I didn’t pay for a thing, and I’m told it was a lot of fun! 😉
Then we also had a smaller, quieter party in TN with the wonderful ladies of the bridal party: my sister, my cousin, my best friend from grad school, and my sister in law. We are all such laid back women that we opted to just hang out at the cabin and drink wine and play games!
The guys went out in downtown Pigeon Forge at the same time to do their thing, then we all met back at the cabin for general merriment.
I wore dresses I had already owned, no special clothing, shoes, or accessories were purchased by me for these events. Some of my friends did go all out and got me a “Bachelorette” tiara and light up sash, which was quite fun to wear.
2 days prior to the Big Day, the boy and I went downtown together to get the marriage license, which was $41. This was the easiest part of getting married! And our officiant very kindly took care of signing and mailing it afterwards to complete the ‘make it official’ part.
The rehearsal was quick since we were holding the ceremony at the cabin, and it was to be very short and simple. We all just lined up in order of who we were walking in with, and practiced processing in, standing, and then walking out 2-3 times.
The rehearsal dinner the night before the wedding was covered by my wonderful in-laws, and was held at a restaurant downtown.
We had a great time sitting and talking, our two sides of the family and closest friends getting to know each other better and make memories. A few toasts and speeches were made, but there was nothing “official” about it and no pressure. It is also much easier to sit everyone at one long table and actually hear each other talk when there are about 20 of you.
Apparel & Beautifying
Everyone knows the big white dress is an important part of the day.
But honestly even that is up for discussion now. I toyed with the idea of a non-white dress, like a pale peach or champagne. I tried on dozens of dresses in all different styles, at every boutique within driving distance.
And while I loved the look of the mermaid, the A line, the curve hugging slinky kinds, the puffy ones with huge trains… they just weren’t me. I felt uncomfortable, like I couldn’t walk or dance or sit.
Then I tried on a shorter ‘tea length’ dress, and (I’m told) my face and eyes lit up and I couldn’t stop smiling. Clearly, 3/4 length dresses are my thing. The swirliness of the skirt and lightness overall felt so right; I knew I would have a short wedding dress.
But, as I only planned to wear it for a few hours, and probably not pass it on to anyone, I didn’t see a point in paying several hundreds of dollars. Those boutique dresses were just to try different styles, no way was I walking out with a 4-digit charge on my credit card.
The Dress was purchased at the end of season, online, and was the last one they had, in my size. The total was just over $100. Turns out it fit like it was made for me, so no altering was required!
My shoes were purchased on sale from Payless, with a coupon, and the jewelry was borrowed from my sister. I got a crinoline online to make the skirt poofier, for less than $10. And there was no veil; I just didn’t like how they look on me, and didn’t want to do the whole ‘guy uncovers your face’ thing.
So once I was clothed, we had to figure out the rest of the party.
We decided to let the guys wear a suit they already had (black, with a white dress shirt to keep it super simple) and the girls could wear any dress they chose as long as it was approximately knee-length, and a shade of grey to go with our colors.
This way everyone gets to wear something they love and look and feel good in, and almost all of them didn’t even have to buy anything new for the event.
**It will always be appreciated if you take others’ budgets into consideration!!**
I’m so glad the mismatched-but-same-color-palette thing is a trend, because it looked amazing on my girls! They even magically chose half silky and half lace (2 each) so it looked almost planned anyways.
We like it and wanna put a ring on it!
Let it be known, that you do not HAVE to have wedding bands, or engagement rings either. This is a personal decision for each person and each couple. No judgment here. A piece of jewelry cannot summarize your feelings for your person. Obviously, not having wedding bands will save you this expense completely.
But, we did want that outer symbol of our commitment to each other. I also wanted a simple band I could still wear when I didn’t want to wear my larger bling and tempt fate. Our wedding bands were bought online, in tungsten, because it is so durable.
I simply did a few minutes’ of research on different metal types and price compared across a few companies. The boy picked his favorite, and we clicked “order”. We even sprung for the extra few dollars to engrave the wedding date inside the matching bands.
Mine was a super slim 2 mm and hubs had a larger size with rounded edges. We both love how comfortable they are to wear, except when playing video games for long periods of time. 😉
Though I was of the opinion that we could do our own hair and makeup thank you very much, on the day of the wedding, the girls did all go to the salon together to get our hair done in matching styles, and I even got upgraded to makeup as well.
Which is probably for the best, as I don’t use makeup and would likely not have worn any otherwise!
The salon we used did a fantastic job, I loved the curls and braids! And the makeup was enough without making me look like a whole different person. It was also extremely reasonably priced (the girls were sweet and chipped in to cover my cost).
The cost for this was $0 because hubs’ cousin is a pastor!
He has done TONS of weddings, so he was not at all nervous, and was very well prepared. His words were beautiful and heartfelt, and he brought a special perspective to the ceremony since he had such close lifelong knowledge of the groom.
If that sounds like a nice idea, but no one in the family currently is “of the cloth”, you can have a family member or close friend become ordained quite easily online.
For example, my brother, who recently got engaged, has two close male friends. He wanted to involve them both, but wanted only one best man. One of them is very religious already, so it was an easy choice to ask that he become ordained and perform the service, while the other stood as best man.
This way, both are integral to the process and close to my brother on his special day. And he doesn’t need to pay a pastor either!
We kept the ceremony short and sweet, since neither of us is particularly religious. If you have a faith you grew up in or live in now, there may be traditions you keep.
There was no rental fee, because we had the ceremony in the cabin we had already rented. If you choose to use a church or other venue, there may be a location fee.
We had our sisters do a short reading on love, and we did have a “unity” thing, because “you have to make it at least symbolic of joining your lives”. This did seem like a legitimate suggestion, so we thought long and hard about what we could do that would be actually meaningful to us.
There are all kinds of ideas out there on the interwebs if you just search. We debated a few different ideas including candles, building things, breaking things, planting things, and then the idea of a sand sculpture made something click.
But instead of sand, we wanted to use spices!
(Because I’m the Budget Epicurean, duh)
So we created a mixture of garlic powder and salt, to “spice up our lives together”. 🙂
In the interest of pausing this novel and giving you all a chance to catch your breath, I’ll cut this article off and continue in Part 2.
Be sure to come back and catch How To Have a Gorgeous Destination Wedding for $10,000: Part 2. It has all the goodies on food, drinks, gifts, and the all-important final reveal of the numbers!
*Disclaimer: This story is in no way meant to alienate readers who may be gay, lesbian, bisexual, asexual, transgender, transexual, or polyamorous. This is also not meant to imply or insinuate that any- or every-one should enter into a legally binding marriage. I am also not saying that a wedding celebration/party is required to have a meaningful and lasting marriage.