This guest post from Lars is part of a new feature here at Get Rich Slowly. Every Sunday will include a reader story (in the new “reader stories” category). Some will be general “how I did X” stories, and others will be examples of how a GRS reader achieved financial success.
I got married last month. It was a bit of a whirlwind romance — at the beginning of 2009, we'd been talking about an engagement later in the year, with a wedding in 2010. Things being what they are, the engagement got moved up a couple of months, and we decided to plan a wedding for the end of the year.
The first question we had to ask ourselves was, “What size wedding do we want?” The next question was, “What can we afford?”
A little background
Let's talk about our personal situation for a moment before I answer the questions in detail. My wife is finishing school and doesn't work. I finished grad school 18 months ago, and had a bout of unemployment for the last four months of 2008.
As I'd just gotten out of school, I hadn't yet amassed much of an emergency fund. I mostly lived off of credit cards during that period. After moving, paying rent for two months on two apartments, and a small weekend trip to Europe earlier this year (before the wedding was in the works…if I knew we were getting married this year, we wouldn't have gone), I racked up over $10,000 in credit card debt. I set a goal in April to have my debt paid off by the end of January 2010 — a goal I'm quite pleased to say that I'll meet.
Basically, the take-away here is that we didn't have much money for a wedding.
For us, the most we could contribute was just a few thousand dollars. My fiancée checked with her family, and the best they could contribute was $1000. My parents paid for our honeymoon, so, we were looking at planning a wedding with a budget of $3000.
What size wedding?
I've moved around a bit over the last few years, so it's been hard for me to keep up with old friends. And since I recently moved, I didn't have friends that I was dying to invite to my wedding. My wife had a couple of people on the “it would be nice if they could come” list, but their attendance wasn't critical. So, we decided on a family wedding.
We figured that meant under 10-20 people including us. Some of my wife's immediate family is local; the others all live in the same town about eight hours away. My family isn't local, and would have to fly no matter where the wedding was held.
Here's the challenge: How do you plan a wedding for a dozen people on $3000? We explored some local options, and with facility charges and whatnot, the economics just didn't work. We would have paid too much for a big facility that would feel empty with so few people in it, or been too stuffed in a smaller facility. Because it was a December wedding, an outdoor event where we are wouldn't work either.
We both wanted a nice wedding that didn't feel cheap and that worked in our budget. (My wife told me later that she wasn't thrilled with the budget we'd set, but she also said that ten years from now, she'd be happy we weren't still paying for it.) Then there's the sticky issue of some friends of her local family that we socialize with from time to time… we were being “encouraged” to add them to the guest list. I wasn't happy about it — if they all came, it would almost double the size of our wedding.
What can we afford?
As luck would have it, we stumbled on some wedding packages in Las Vegas. When I started putting together cost estimates, I realized that this would be the best fit. We stumbled upon the Stratosphere's wedding packages, and they start at just a few hundred dollars. We chose a package that ran about $800 for a 30-minute ceremony way up in the tower, and it came with a dozen photos.
The ceremony was nice and short. We ate dinner at Fellini's restaurant in the hotel — we were able to get a private room for no additional charge — and best of all, we had a really nice three-course dinner for $32.95 per person. Wine was available for $18 a liter. The restaurant served us a really great cake for about $80. All said and done, dinner was about $800.
After dinner, we were given passes to the hotel lounge up in the tower, which provided us an excellent venue to enjoy a few drinks, some light dancing, and each other's company. The VIP concierge was kind enough to provide us a limo at the low rate of $42 an hour — six of us drove up and down the strip for two hours taking pictures all over the place.
Choosing to have our wedding in Las Vegas didn't go over so well with her side of the family at first. My family didn't care; as my dad put it, a plane ride is a plane ride. Her family, on the other hand, had to travel. If the wedding had been local, those that were eight hours away would have driven, and the locals could have just stayed put.
My wife and I talked about it for awhile. I asked her, “Who is this wedding for? Is it for us, or for your family?” It was for both, of course, but when push came to shove, the costs came out of our pockets. A local wedding would have cost more, although not by much. It would have been a bit cheaper for her family though.
What was the right answer?
The truly locals do quite well for themselves (and, truth be had, get caught holding the bag for others in their family on occasion) but they also know that we're just getting started in our married lives, and that every dollar counts.
I would have compromised. If I were in her family's shoes, I would have sat down and said, “Look, we know it's going to cost you more to have a local wedding. It's also going to cost us a lot in travel expenses. How about we figure out what it would cost us to travel out there, and write you a check for a fraction of that?That way neither of us is unfairly burdened with avoidable costs.”
Had they offered that, it's likely we would have had a local wedding.
Happily ever after
In the end, we decided it was our wedding, and our budget. We also knew we weren't putting people at a terrible disadvantage cost-wise (flights were running $250 per person from both cities, and the Strat had regular rooms for $30/night during the week and $50/night on the weekends. Our suite ran $120/night.)
It turned out to be, in everybody's opinion, an awesome wedding. I loved it from a budget perspective — we were able to pay for exactly what we needed, no more, and no less. No minimum charges, no facility rental charges, no nothing. And after the wedding, we had the whole town of Las Vegas to provide our nightlife. I think we did the whole thing for right around $3,000 — if we went over, it was only by a few hundred.