Weddings are a big deal. You plan them for months or even years and invite everyone you know, then you have the highly-anticipated, heavily-photographed event and they all live happily ever after. (Cue the end credits.)
So much goes on behind the scenes before the big day, as anyone who’s ever attended or been in a wedding should know. But what you don’t really find out until you plan one for yourself is just how expensive and wasteful they can be.
The true cost of a wedding
When I was planning my wedding between 2018 and 2019, I learned pretty quickly what weddings actually cost. And I’m not just talking about the bill.
Each year in the U.S., couples spend thousands of dollars on average on their weddings. In 2022, the national average price of a wedding was around $30,000, according to The Knot. Of course, these averages vary by state and city but could be much higher. And destination weddings can add another several thousand onto your final total.
And every year, these averages go up.
I didn’t know any of this when I got engaged. But once I started actually planning and crunching the numbers using quotes from vendors and venues, I realized that there was no way I could afford the “average wedding,” and I wasn’t sure I wanted to.
Creating my lists also had me thinking about how all of these different “to-do” items would eventually become “to-dump” items. Those flowers would have to go somewhere, right? The table decorations would need to be disposed of, the cards tossed, and the wrapping paper from the gifts thrown in the trash.
So I decided to try to do things a little differently. Both out of necessity because I was poor when we got married – like still in college, barely 22 years old poor – and out of a desire to be eco-friendy.
I’m going to share seven real ways I made my wedding greener and some ideas for making your big day low(er)-waste too.
Read more: Are you financially ready to get engaged?
1. Swap the flowers
My flower total: $94.55
Swapping real flowers for sola wood, paper, fabric, or anything else that will last is a smart place to start. Because the fact of the matter is, flowers are incredibly expensive. And then they wilt and die, as cut plants are prone to doing.
For my flowers, I opted for sola wood. This is a material that comes from tapioca that can be treated and shaped almost like paper. It’s lightweight and looks darn close to the real thing.
I found a shop on Etsy that sold individual sola wood flowers in a bunch of different colors and varieties, and I used 24 of these for my bridal party. For myself, I purchased a pre-made sola bouquet from another store so I didn’t have to cobble one together.
The great part about using sola or another material for your flowers isn’t just that it’s inexpensive but also that you get a keepsake.
I let my bridesmaids keep theirs as a memento and I have the leftovers in vases.
For me, that was it in the way of flowers. I used other decorations for everything else, including repurposed antiques and some DIY items. But there’s nothing saying you couldn’t go all out with the sola since it’s a fraction of the cost of live flowers.
Tip: Purchase sola flowers in large quantities to save even more, and buy them early so you can match them to your other decorations and customize them.
2. Buy your dress secondhand
My dress total: $700 (without alterations)
I know, I know. This one is a harder sell. Many brides have very clear visions in their heads about how they want their dresses to look and make them feel, and purchasing secondhand limits your options. Plus, thrifting a top or a pair of jeans is different from thrifting one of the most important outfits of your life.
But hear me out. No one is going to know someone else wore your dress before you. Wedding dresses usually get worn once, maybe twice, before collecting dust. And creating gowns is so labor and resource intensive that even repurposing one has an impact.
For my dress, I went to The Brides Project in Ann Arbor, Michigan. This is a nonprofit bridal boutique that collects donated dresses, sells them, and uses the profits for charitable causes. The Brides Project donates to the Cancer Support Community of Greater Ann Arbor and everyone who works there is a volunteer.
Buying secondhand saves serious money and prevents a dress from being wasted. At the end of the day, I spent $700 on my dress and I loved it. This was in 2018 when the average cost of a wedding gown was right around $1,750.
Tip: If you don’t have access to a secondhand bridal shop, check out your local consignment and thrift stores, go on eBay and Poshmark, or browse a marketplace specializing in pre-owned bridal gowns.
Secondhand marketplaces include:
Point is, you’ve got options.
3. Use one venue
My venue total: $1,850
If you can find a venue with enough room for both your ceremony and reception, book it. This is one of the best decisions we made. Venue rental fees will eat up a big chunk of your budget no matter where you go, but choosing one for the whole event can help you save a little money and make things easier on yourself – and your guests.
With one venue, nobody has to kill time in between, you don’t have to get multiple places set up, and you don’t need to pay for twice the decorations. You save your elderly relatives from climbing into a car more than necessary and nobody gets lost.
This creates less waste and simplifies your planning. Plus, without all those cars on the road getting from one place to another, you’re not responsible for as many carbon emissions.
Tip: To pull this off, you have to love whatever venue you choose. Rather than picking a “blank canvas” venue you’d have to style from floor to ceiling, consider one with some personality. If you choose a place that suits your style, you don’t need to do as much decorating.
We got married in a city club that had vintage art, furniture, and accents throughout, and our wedding was in spring when the flowers were blooming. It felt timeless and setup was minimal.
Overall, highly recommend.
4. Skip (some of) the cards
My card total: $117.19
Physical engagement announcements, save-the-dates, invitations, and programs are nice to look at. But that’s a lot of material that’s probably just going to get recycled. And wow is it pricey.
The only paper I purchased was invitations and RSVPs. We ordered these from Paper Culture, a company that creates custom eco-friendly cards using recycled paper and bamboo.
The cards included links to our wedding website where people could RSVP and find out everything they needed to about the event. We did receive some physical RSVPs back, but the majority of our guests used the website to “joyfully accept” or “regretfully decline.”
There are so many wedding planning websites and apps that organize everything from responses to registries in one place. You can pretty much skip most of the cards if you want to.
Great wedding websites include:
- The Knot
Tip: Send invitations a little earlier than recommended if you’re doing digital. This will give guests more time to “save the date” and you more time to track down RSVPs. And you might need to give your tech-averse relatives a call if they don’t respond.
As for programs, you might not need them. I wrote down the schedule of events with times on an extra-large mirror (that I got on sale for $35) and displayed this centrally at the venue. I still have this mirror today, with the writing on it, on my wall.
Bonus tip: Not everybody needs a plus-one
Maybe this seems selfish, but we gave out plus-ones very sparingly. If we had met a person’s significant other, they were invited. Otherwise, we didn’t really want to give them hugs in the receiving line or pay for their dinner.
We made a note on the RSVPs that if someone wanted to request a plus-one they could, but no one actually did this. People get it.
5. Choose food wisely
My food total: $3,077.50
For many couples, the food and drink bill ends up being the biggest. The Knot 2022 Real Weddings Study found that the average food bill for a wedding comes out to $75 per person.
But most people don’t go to a wedding for the food. In fact, this is often the worst part (just stating facts). Don’t put too much pressure on the meal you’re serving to be a highlight of the day or evening, and don’t fork over more cash than necessary.
That said, we decided to do a menu of just appetizers. We ordered enough that everybody would be able to pile their plates with several individual bites and have plenty to eat, but not so many that we’d have leftovers to deal with.
Every venue is different, but ours charged a per-plate or per-head price on dinners and a per-item price on appetizers (or hors d’oeuvres if you want to be fancy). By choosing apps instead of plates, we saved a ton of money and gave our guests more options. They were able to enjoy dinner-sized portions and we still hear from people about how fun this was.
Tip: Some venues require you to use their caterers and might place a minimum on how much you need to order. Try to get this information before signing a contract to rent a venue. And if your venue doesn’t offer appetizers or you’re not into the whole strolling dinner thing, buffet-style meals can be an economical alternative to plated dinners.
For 130 guests, we could have spent over $9,000 going the traditional route. I’m glad we didn’t.
6. Ask for money
It’s not weird anymore to tell people you just want cash.
Especially if you and your partner already have most of the things you need or have been living together for a while, chances are you don’t need a gift from everybody coming to your wedding. Feel free to ask for money.
Many wedding planning websites have built-in options for collecting cash contributions (we called ours the “Honeymoon Fund” but I’ve also seen “Newlywed Fund”). This is easier for your guests because they can just virtually send cash without having to buy and wrap a gift and better for you because you can get what you really need. Bonus, there are no boxes or piles of wrapping paper to get rid of.
Tip: Don’t worry about offending anyone. A lot of your guests have been in your shoes. They know weddings are expensive and would probably be more than happy to help you out this way instead of buying you a pan or sheet set.
7. Rethink the diamond
My ring total: $2,000
Okay, so this one isn’t technically for the wedding. But it’s important.
Consider an alternative to a diamond engagement ring if you’re planning to get engaged. There are much more sustainable options out there than the standard diamond, and ones that won’t break the bank.
Moissanite is one of the trendiest non-diamond stones but precious gems like sapphires, emeralds, morganite, and opal can be fantastic choices for couples looking to save money.
And if you love traditional diamonds, that’s great too! There are so many ways to buy diamond rings that don’t involve going to a big box store.
Tip: Antique shops and estate sales are perfect for finding vintage rings and many online retailers carry gorgeous rings without the markups you typically see. Try Blue Nile for discounted conflict-free diamonds.
You can also choose an “imperfect” diamond. This is what I did. I have a salt-and-pepper diamond from Alexis Russell and it’s pretty perfect to me. It’s certified conflict-free and made with recycled gold.
When I got engaged in 2018, my husband spent $2,000 on this ring. That year, couples were spending over $7,800 on average for engagement rings.
Read more: Where’s the best place to buy diamonds?
When to splurge
The great thing about getting married is that you get to do what you want. It’s your day.
You and your partner can strive for a greener wedding if you feel compelled, and that can look however you want it to look. Compromising in some areas and splurging in others is the best way to have the wedding you’ve been dreaming of without too much guilt or sticker shock.
You should splurge on the parts of your wedding that matter most to you and your partner, and try to save on the things that don’t. For example, maybe you love fresh flowers. You can’t imagine a wedding without fresh flowers, so you get these and rent the rest of your decorations or buy them used.
Or maybe the pictures are most important to you. To balance out this cost, maybe you serve cupcakes or cookies instead of a tiered wedding cake.
There are no wrong answers, as long as you’re doing what makes you happy.
The wedding industry is due for a shake-up, and enough people making tiny changes to their big days could have a huge impact on the planet.
With careful planning and some compromises, we were able to completely recoup what we spent on our wedding in gifts and cash contributions. That means we got married without debt, and that was worth celebrating in and of itself.
Our wedding was by no means the most eco-friendly it could have been. And if I were to plan it again today, I’d probably try to do better. But I feel good about the little changes we did make.