Get serious about saving
While it's easy to look at each line item and strategize how to cut costs, a couple's biggest hurdle is setting aside money to pay for anything.
"Financially preparing for wedding costs means budgeting, saving money for it, and not overspending," says Anthony Martin, CEO and founder of Choice Mutual.
That's precisely how Kelley Skar and his wife tackled their wedding budget planning. Unlike many young couples, Skar and his wife didn't get help from family members.
"We were engaged for a year, which allowed us to save and pay for cash for the entire wedding," explains Skar, a father based in Alberta, Canada, real estate agent and founder of rewrittn. So even though the entire event cost the Skars about CA$18,000, they started their new life together wedding-debt-free.
A good strategy is to open up a separate bank account for wedding costs. Then, only deposit money designated for this event, and only spend the money in this account on wedding costs.
Set a wedding budget
Saving up for a wedding is critical, but so is setting a budget.
"Having a maximum amount you'll spend on your wedding can help you plan without overspending," explains Martin.
For many, determining a total cost and figuring out what to pay for each component can be a difficult or intimidating process.
"A wedding is a joyous celebration, but it's also important for couples to keep in mind that they should only spend what they can comfortably afford for the day, rather than begin married life with an extravaganza that puts them in a financial hole," says Carma Peters, president and CEO of Michigan Legacy Credit Union.
Peters recommends that couples overwhelmed with the wedding budget piece get help from a money coach or financial planner.
"Throughout life, we have athletic coaches, professional mentors and career coaches; why not a money coach? Given that one of the most important things in a marriage is money, it makes sense that a couple would get help from a coach in this area."
A money coach can cost as little as $75 per hour. A few hours can help you establish realistic spending and saving for your wedding, and help you avoid years of high-interest debt.
Prioritize your wedding needs and wants
When planning your wedding, it's easy to prioritize pleasing others.
"When planning the finances of your wedding, always prioritize the costs you and your partner think are most important," says Paul Sundin, a CPA and tax strategist at Estatecpa.com.
Once you know what's important to you and your partner, you can allocate how much to spend on each area and category.
"Setting a maximum budget for each category and sub-category helps prevent impulsive purchases and helps prioritize your spending," says Martin.
"It is your wedding, after all, so it's best to decide which wedding elements are the most important. This will be where you spend the largest chunk of your budget," says Sundin. Better still, prioritizing your needs and wants makes it easier to start cutting down on other items since "you've already determined your non-negotiables."
Look for ways to minimize debt costs
But what if you really can't save up enough before the big day? Is it OK to take on wedding debt, then? While there are schools of thought that suggest no debt is good debt, there are financial professionals who concede that debt has an unavoidable role in our lives and budgets.
For instance, Keegan Schmidt worked with a couple last year who chose to take on $10,000 of debt to pay for their wedding. As a certified financial coach with Deeper Than Money, Schmidt asked the couple to walk through their plan for paying the money back.
"The amount of debt was intentional and planned. They chose to set aside $1,000 per month to pay off the interest-free debt within a year."
How much debt you take on and how quickly you pay it off can only be determined on a case-by-case basis, but Schmidt is clear with her clients: "Only take on as much debt as what fits into your plan."
That means being very realistic about your budget and repayment plans.
"No one wants to be paying off their wedding for the next three years," says Schmidt. So when the numbers don't fit, go back to your budget and find ways to save.
One way to minimize the cost of wedding debt is to look for no-interest loans or 0% balance transfers offered by some credit card companies.
Use one credit card — say a cash back card — to pay for all the wedding costs. Then transfer to the 0% APR card for six to 12 months of interest-free payments, explains Marina Vaamonde, founder of HouseCashin.
Keep in mind, the balance transfer will come with a fee, so you'll need to add that cost into the budget — but a 2.5% balance transfer fee on $10,000 is going to cost you much less than if you slowly paid off the same sum on a credit card charging 29% interest.
Another option is to talk to your wedding service providers to find out who offers zero- or low-interest payment plans, says Carter Seuthe, CEO of Credit Summit. Amortizing the payback of a small wedding loan can be manageable, and the no- or low-interest allows you to avoid paying extra for the privilege of a fantastic party.
"In the end," says Skar, "we need to remember that it's an expensive party for friends and family."
— With files from Samantha Emann