The bride and the budget
Can you get married in Sonoma on $14,000?
I've always hated being told I can't do something. Tell me I can't and I'll go out of my way to prove that I can. Take, for example, my wedding.
We wanted to do it right; we didn't want a low-budget elopement. But money, to put it lightly, was an issue. My fiancé was diagnosed with leukemia and had to drop out of law school for treatment, which meant he lost all his student loans and had to go on government disability. I'm a small-town newspaper reporter fresh out of college. When my parents pulled together about $14,000, I questioned whether my Wine Country dream wedding would even be possible.
So I sought an event planner's advice. She laughed. "Are you kidding? Is this a joke? There is no way you can hold a wedding in Sonoma for $14,000."
No way? Way! The gauntlet was thrown.
While my friends suggested I take out more credit cards, I was now committed to having my dream wedding, on budget and without going into debt.
But to understand the challenge, you need a little perspective. The average wedding in America will run almost $30,000, and in Sonoma, it's closer to $50,000. So if you want to cheat the system you have to make some sacrifices and get your hands dirty.
For me, it was mostly about an army of helpers doing the work of an army of vendors at a fraction of the cost. It helps to come from a long line of industrious women who know how to get things done. But, without Daddy Warbucks, you still have to make sacrifices.
Some girls have been planning their trousseau since they were two. I'm not one of them.
I like to say I was an anti-bride-someone who found the prospect of making 100 frivolous decisions unacceptably tedious. And really, what is wedding planning but a series of endless decisions? Violet or lavender? Cascading flowers or rounded bouquets? Chicken or fish?
The endless choices tempted me to scream, "I don't care!"
But I soon found that not having opinions set in stone makes wedding planning easier, because we could choose the financially prudent option without the emotional attachment. A girl with my budget simply can't be too invested in Vera Wang.
Now about that army of helpers: You'll need everyone you know, and then some. Parents, in-laws, friends, kindly neighbors, overly interested strangers-take a helping hand wherever you can find one.
Secondly, decide what is most important to you, and make plans to spend some money there. It could be the flowers, it could be the dress. For me, it was the photographs. I knew I wanted to find a photojournalist, someone who could capture the essence of the occasion, not just the images. After a lot of looking, I finally settled on Lezlie Sterling, who got her start in newspapers and knows how to catch emotion in the moment and action on the run. Having a gorgeous book of photographs that truly translated the feeling of the day was most important for me, so that's where I splurged.
Weddings, like real estate, come down to location. As I planned mine, I knew I wanted a wedding in Sonoma, but didn't know if I could afford it. I visited dozens of sites, gorgeous gardens, wonderful wineries, historic properties-the town abounds with nuptial opportunities. But the typical weekend cost of location rental alone was around $5,000. (A budget bridal tip: Many locations offer discounts on weekdays, including Friday).
Since my loving family drew the line at setup and cleanup, I decided it was best for my pocketbook and my sanity to find a wedding venue offering as many reception elements as possible. And that led me to the Depot Hotel. Not only did it offer a charming, historical setting for my wedding, but the reasonably priced packages included everything-from placing the centerpieces and pouring the wine to making the food and cleaning up the site. Not to mention the fact that wedding aficionado Gia Ghilarducci runs around 50 weddings a year at the Depot, and can help anxious brides handle anything from warring parents to screaming ring bearers.
With a location secured, that only left a few thousand other decisions to make. Flowers were one of the few elements I felt strongly about. I wanted bold, beaming sunflowers, long associated with weddings because they symbolize devotion. But wanting is one thing, arranging is another. So when hundreds of boxes of flowers arrived at my mother's house days before the wedding, we would have made Henry Ford proud with the efficiency of our centerpiece assembly line.
Finding the perfect wedding dress was another challenge, especially given the state of our finances. Some brides wait for year-end sales before the spring lines are released; or they search the Internet for trunk shows of their favorite designers. But my mother has been sewing my clothes since I was in diapers and she made her own wedding gown, so I figured she could make mine.
The design was fairly straightforward: an empire waist and a tulip skirt with cap sleeves and a satin sash. Making it extraordinary was the fabric. We spent hours at Lacis Textile Museum in Berkeley, which houses hundreds of antique textiles, including tablecloths, handkerchiefs and centuries-old clothing. Besides being a museum, Lacis offers a collection of unique fabrics you can't find anywhere else. It took hours of scrutiny but we finally had the "aha" moment when we found the fabric that would become my dress.
Over the next six months, my mother was a woman possessed. She made template after template, creating the dress from muslin over and over again and every time I saw her we had another fitting. It was a dance I grew tired of quickly, but each fitting got us closer to the perfect final product.
With the gown in good hands, next up was the cake. It had to be chocolate and it had to be different, something outside the vanilla and buttercream standard. My husband and I settled on a variety of flavors covered with a thick, rich chocolate ganache icing. Here's another budget tip: Get a smaller display cake, which is what your guests will see, and ask the bakery to prepare a basic sheet cake so you can meet your guest count.
As the details began coming together, the weight on my chest that felt like a boulder got smaller and lighter. That didn't stop the Bridezilla part of my brain from bouts of maniacal emotion, but at least I could breathe.
Of course, no amount of planning will ensure that everything goes as planned (ask me about the blue tarp). Every wedding has its flubs, but you forget about the small ones and the big ones make great stories.
The most important advice anyone can give is this: Take time to enjoy the occasion you worked so hard to create. My wedding went by in the blink of an eye. I still wish I could slow the day down in my memory, to savor those precious moments.
From the Summer 2009 issue of SONOMA