If you’re planning a wedding, you’ve seen the numbers. According to The Knot, the average American wedding cost $33,931 in 2018.

WeddingWire says couples expected to spend $16,000 in 2018 but didn’t realize how pricey wedding vendors could be. They eventually spent $29,000 on average, by WeddingWire’s estimate.

Are you horrified? Don’t be. A fun, upbeat wedding with a full house doesn’t have to cost tens of thousands of dollars. It doesn’t even have to cost $5,000.

Intrigued? Then keep reading…

Jess and Casey’s $3,500 Wedding

Jess and Casey Olsen pulled off their Oregon wedding last May on a $3,500 budget — with 350 guests in attendance. The average wedding in The Knot’s 2018 survey had just 136 guests, which comes out to about $250 per guest. At that rate, Jess and Casey would have spent nearly $90,000 on their wedding!

A little-known fact, according to an article by Slate, is that The Knot’s reporting on average wedding costs is designed to help wedding vendors learn what couples are spending. Couples don’t need to use these numbers to evaluate what things should cost or how much they should pay.

The Olsens, who couldn’t afford much, didn’t rely on national averages to guide their spending. They relied on what felt reasonable to them. We think everyone should feel as confident as they did about choosing to keep their wedding costs within their means.

Not sure how to start planning your own wedding on a budget? Check out the choices Jess and Casey made.

Jess and Casey’s Wedding Budget vs. the National Average
Wedding Expense ItemJess and Casey’s Cost for Their 2019 WeddingThe Knot’s 2018 Real Weddings Study National Average CostWeddingWire’s Newlywed Report Cost Range for 2018 Weddings Nationwide
Ceremony + reception venues$1,500$17,821$733 to $20,000
Planner$0$2,002$400 to $4,500
Food and drink$20$9,520$400 to $13,000
Cake/dessert$0$528$105 to $1,000
Dress$100$1,631$100 to $2,600
Suit or tuxedo$130$283$100 to $2,600
Hair and makeup$0$225$60 to $1,040
PhotographyUndisclosed$2,679$300 to $4,500
Flowers$150$2,411$175 to $4,200
Reception DJ$0$1,292$450 to $2,000
Lighting and decor$135Not available$1,400
Wedding party gifts$120Not available$600
TotalLess than $3,500$39,309$6,123 to $58,740
Our table uses the most recent numbers available from The Knot and WeddingWire as of February 6, 2020. The total for individual items in the Knot column is higher than The Knot’s national average cost because not all couples spend the national average on each component of their wedding. Also, The Knot’s national averages reflect an average wedding size of 136 guests; only 2% of respondents told The Knot they had more than 300 attendees.

Want to know exactly how the Olsens kept their wedding costs so low? We have all the details.

Ceremony and reception venue: $1,500

Jess and Casey paid just $1,500 to hold their ceremony and reception at the church where Jess worked. And yes, she got an employee discount.

The price included plates, glasses, silverware, and the like: items whose cost surprises many couples. As part of the cost, the church also provided a wedding planner and a team of volunteers.

The ceremony and reception took place in the same room. A friend officiated; the marriage license and certificate cost $150. For the reception, church volunteers cleared away the center chairs to make a dance floor.

Food and drink: $20

Jess and Casey didn’t spend $2,000 or even $200 on food and drink. Their cost for food and drink for their Friday night wedding was $20.

“We only did dessert, no food,” Jess tells us. “We asked about 20 friends to bring a few dozen of their favorite desserts. It was special to have all the unique desserts that people loved.”

For drinks, they served water and lemonade. The lemonade mix cost $20.

Most people expect alcohol at a wedding. Jess didn’t serve any at hers; the church didn’t allow it. Her advice? “Pick a venue that prohibits it if you don’t want to pay but don’t want to be judged,” she says.

What did the guests think about the dry wedding? “If anyone had issues with no alcohol, I didn’t hear about it,” Jess says.

Attire, hair, and makeup: $230

Jess bought her $100 wedding dress from a thrift-shop bridal boutique, and she still has it. But she hasn’t worn it.

“The craziest thing happened the day before the wedding,” she says. “Someone gifted me a wedding dress they had never worn. It had tags and everything and had been in their closet for three years, completely forgotten about.”

It fit perfectly despite Jess and the giver being completely different sizes, she says of her “miracle dress.” It was a major blessing: Jess had lost weight since buying her original dress but lacked the time or money for alterations.

Jess did her own hair, and a friend did her makeup. She didn’t wear jewelry because she’s not a fan of it.

Casey was more particular. He and his groomsmen wore a specific brand and style of pants that came with a $130 price tag, along with a white button-up shirt and a bowtie he already owned.

But the money went toward comfortable, everyday slacks instead of a one-time rental. And the bride and groom wore shoes they already owned.

Photography: A gift from a friend

To capture the joy of their wedding day, Jess and Casey received a steeply discounted rate from a friend, Marci B Photography. “We agreed not to tell anyone how little we paid so it would not affect what price other couples expected,” Jess says.

Flowers: $150

Originally, Jess planned to have each bridesmaid carry one sunflower. Ultimately, her mom bought an assortment of flowers from Costco for $150 and turned them into bouquets for the gals and boutonnieres for the guys.

Ambiance: $125

For wedding decorations on a budget, Jess bought nine bolts of tulle online for $5 each and made “sunset floofs” for table centerpieces. Linens were $80. The church provided string lights.

What did they do about music? The couple made a Spotify playlist and used the church’s sound system; Jess’ brother-in-law managed it. Jess danced down the aisle to Hall and Oates’s “You Make My Dreams Come True.”

Invitations, favors, and gifts: $360

“We bought 350 invitations from Costco for $89.95, envelopes included,” Jess says. “We hand-delivered most, but I actually don’t recommend this because they all got out at weird times, and people ended up thinking they were forgotten.”

Jess spent another $150 on wedding favors: little bags of Starbursts. That might seem pricey for ordinary candy, but we’re talking 2,400 pieces packaged in bags of six. Jess adorned each bag with a custom sticker that had the couple’s names and wedding date. To save money, she sacrificed time: Jess estimates it took 15 hours to assemble the 400 favors.

Thank-you gifts for the 23-person wedding party cost $120. “The guys got bow ties, and I got my girls ‘squad’ fanny packs with a gift card, dry shampoo, gum, and hair ties,” Jess says.

How Jess and Casey Paid For Their Wedding

Jess and Casey estimate that their share of the total wedding cost was less than $1,500. They accepted help from friends, relatives, and volunteers to pay for everything else while keeping the total wedding budget under $3,500.

The actual cost would have been much higher without the venue discount, church volunteers, and desserts baked by guests. But weddings are about celebrating togetherness. People don’t want their loved ones to stress over wedding costs. Ask for help, and you’re bound to get it.

Jess and Casey cash-flowed all their wedding expenses during their 10-month engagement. Jess didn’t want to have wedding debt or use savings for the event. She wanted to focus on having a big party and preparing for marriage, not on having “a bunch of stuff no one will remember,” she says.

The couple wasn’t always on the same page about how to pay for the wedding, though.

“We both wanted it to be mainly about fun, but when a penny pincher and a brand-name guy get married, there are bound to be bumps,” Jess says.

“The biggest challenge was other people feeling like we were not doing what we should do,” Jess adds. “There is a long list of things that people feel are mandatory.” People will think you’re being cheap when you choose not to honor certain traditions around jewelry, flowers, or food, she says.

Whenever someone questioned their choices, they asked that person to pay for the pricier option, which ended the conversation.

The Bottom Line: Stick To Your Wedding Budget

Jess is happy with the decisions she and Casey made and said they have no regrets. She describes the wedding as “so fun, and so full of joy.”

In wedding planning — as in everyday life — staying focused on what’s important can keep your spending in line with your values. Stick to your convictions, and you’ll stick to your budget.