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How We Planned a Debt-Free Wedding

What do a debt-free wedding and a happy, lifelong marriage have in common? They both require a good deal of self-control! One of the leading causes of divorce is financial distress. Before you get married, you would never plan to be upside-down on a mortgage and fight over every receipt, but it happens. One thing leads to another, and suddenly you're drowning in debt.

As you prepare for marriage, you have the opportunity to set a foundation for self-control with your spending as a couple. Start on the right foot.

How did we do that?

1. We Decided We Would Not Go Into Debt

Buying something that you cannot afford puts you in debt. We decided that it would be silly to spend the months after our wedding day paying for the party. The wedding has recently become, for many people, an extravagant event. It's essentially a large party where everything must look, smell, taste, sound, feel and act "right" and the bride must cater to a thousand whims of what exactly "right" may be for her guests. The bride spends enormous amounts of money to ensure that everything is just right.

As a teacher, I know that I cannot please everyone, no matter how hard I've tried, how effectively I teach or how fairly I treat students. As a bride I also knew I would never please everyone. My mantra became this: Do the best you can with the money you have, and do not let the pressure of imagined expectations convince you to spend more.

We decided not to spend what we did not have. It's similar to a night at an old college watering hole. If you count your drinks and declare a stopping point, you will remain in control. If you take it as it comes and do what you feel like, you will spend a lot and end up regretting things the next morning. As a newlywed you don't want to be paying for rash decisions made many months ago because it felt right at the time. (And if you need further motivation not to get into unnecessary debt, you can check to see how much debt will cost you over your lifetime.)

2. We Budgeted in Advance

I knew my biggest expenses would be the dress and the church/venue for the reception. I gave myself a $1,000 limit on the dress and anticipated another $300 for alterations. I only laid eyes on dresses within my budget. Do not be like the girls on "Say Yes To the Dress" who put on a $15,000 gown when the budget is $5,000! Hold onto the eternal truth of "If you can't afford it, you can't afford it!" Don't tempt yourself.

Oh goodness, the venue. Be prepared to hunt and hunt for a venue. I am so glad that we had the ceremony and reception at our church. And yes, alcohol was permitted — be sure to ask in advance, though. I highly recommend going for the combo, we literally saved thousands by doing this. It reduces the chances of being required to go through their preferred catering/bar/floral/cake/DJ/everything-imaginable services.

We budgeted the "small things" as well. Those little gifts here and there seriously add up. Anticipate your needs. The florist may give you a quote but then charge for something unanticipated, like fertilizer. You never know. That's why it's important to get everything in writing upfront, and have a clear understanding of what you're getting with everyone you're paying.

Be a lenient bride. You'll be happier. Instead of scheduling mani/pedi/hair appointments for (or with) your bridal party, just decide on a nail color to share and pass around the bottle while passing around another bottle! Find an easy hairstyle you can do for each other. This will save your girls a lot of money, and take some stress off of you.


3. We Made Sacrifices

There are things you cannot afford. Some you make room for with creativity, and others you give up.

There are an absurd number of things that are now "standard" wedding items that hardly existed before Pinterest and TheKnot. We did not have a video. We did not send sweet magnets. We did not have a photo booth. We did not have an interactive program. We didn't have Pinterest-worthy favors. We didn't have an Instagram-worthy hipster-esque open bar — although there was a hashtag. We chose what to spend money on based on what we considered valuable — from an outside perspective and from the long view.

4. We Viewed It From an Outside Perspective

You've been a guest at weddings. What did you roll your eyes at, and what did you really enjoy? James and I actually made lists of these things after attending weddings so we would remember it when it came time for ours. I like for things to have a function, and if they do not have a function then they should be economical.

For example, when I get an invitation in the mail that required $2 worth of postage, four envelopes and took an origami artist to fold, I totally roll my eyes. Maybe for you, the formal invitations are worth it though. All I can think about is "At least $4 each in total production to make and send these, multiplied by total possible guests = way too much for paper." We printed beautiful invites for $24 at Staples, added around $75 in postage, for a total of about $100, to bring in more than 200 guests.

5. We Thought About It From the 'Long View'

Ask yourself: In five, 10, 45 years, will it matter that we did this? It is unlikely that your shoes will be remembered by anyone but you, and you will remember them for the blisters! It is unlikely that anyone will remember the cake, unless the best man trips into it during his toast.

Spend appropriately. Things that I believe matter: the ceremony, the dress, the food, the photos, the vibe. This doesn't mean to drop cash on those things to the fullest degree! I did the most I could with my budget to ensure that the most memorable elements were on point. And they were!

Most of my friends have those cute 3-4 minute wedding videos that show everyone having a Pinterest-perfect fun time. When I see those videos I sure do want one — but because of self-control and a limited budget, we cut it. Our guests had a great time, and I am happily married. I don't need a $1,000+ video to share that with the world, nor do I need to validate myself through social media.

6. We Said 'Yes' to People Who Offered

My uncle makes cakes. When he offered to make mine free of charge, I said YES. And it was very pretty! I don't remember how it tasted, though….

My maid of honor's mother is a creative genius. When she offered to do the flowers at a wholesale market cost, I jumped at the opportunity.

I find that it can be very difficult to accept people's generosity. Perhaps this is because it means admitting that you need help, or perhaps it makes us uncomfortable. I worried, "What if X, Y and Z won't turn out right? I could never tell a family member that it wasn't how I wanted it."

Take the risk, because if they have offered, it means they seriously love you and will do their very best.

7. We Asked for Help Too

In high school, I went to the world's greatest Life Teen youth group and remained connected with them throughout college. I asked the kids on the leadership team to rally some troops and help out at the reception. I hoped to get three or four kids to bus tables and refill water. Their generosity was overwhelming — more than 20 teenagers, many of them strangers, gave up their evening to be magic elves. Hiring a wait staff costs about $20 per person an hour! Bartenders are far more. We asked the cutest couple ever to bartend for us. They said yes. We got free bartenders, they got free drinks and dancing. It was a win-win.

Be creative. Who do you know, and how can they help you? Don't be afraid to ask. Also, be prudent in your requests!

Finally, I see (and feel) a great deal of pressure to validate our experiences through social media. If you can let go of those pressures, you can save a lot. Yes, slo-mo photobooths are so cool I can't stand it. I also couldn't afford it. Guests come to a wedding expecting to enjoy themselves. If your love for each other is evident, and the vibe is right, they will have a great time. I promise. Don't let yourself get caught up in thinking too much about what pictures, videos, etc., you will need to share on social media. It's about lifelong love, not a trending hashtag. Focus on what is most important and spend money with self-control.

When you get in the habit of spending only what you can afford to, and avoid going into debt when it isn't necessary, you can find yourself in a better position down the road when you, say, want to buy a home together. Making sure both partners' credit is good can also help when it's time to get a mortgage, which is why credit standing should also be a part of your regular conversations about money in your relationship — so you can set goals and check in on them. Pull your credit reports and credit scores regularly — you can get your credit reports for free every year through AnnualCreditReport.com, and you can see your credit scores for free monthly on Credit.com.

Images by Alex Eugenio, courtesy Maggie Perkins

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