Slow and steady: Locals offer tips on ‘I Dos,’ ‘I Don’ts’ of cost-effective wedding planning

A whirlwind romance, a picture perfect engagement and … a color-coded budget spreadsheet?

That seems now to be the natural order of things for couples from the tri-state area and beyond as wedding-related costs continue to soar in a post-pandemic world.

The average wedding cost in 2023 reached $29,000 nationwide, according to online wedding planning site Zola, a continued and expected increase driven by inflation and COVID-19-driven backlogs. For Iowa couples, that number hovers closer to $20,000.

In Illinois and Wisconsin, the averages are roughly $37,000 and $25,000, respectively.

But while “I Do” price tags continue to inch upward, local vendors and event planners attest there are still ways to plan a beautiful wedding without breaking the bank.

“Everything nowadays is getting more expensive, and that’s true of weddings, too,” said Katelyn Soat, owner of All In One Bridal in Dubuque. “But there’s definitely ways of saving and still getting that special day feeling.”

Like most ventures in a strong relationship, budget-friendly wedding planning is best started with an honest conversation between partners, according to Danielle Stowell, owner of Dubuque-based Wicked River Event Production.

Weddings carry a lot of personal and social significance, she said, and it’s easy to get wrapped up in other people’s expectations. Ultimately, couples can save time, energy and money when they focus on what’s most important to them.

“One of the biggest things is being really honest with each other about what they want to see at their wedding versus what there is pressure to do or what’s trendy,” Stowell said. “You shouldn’t be afraid to say no to (a certain idea or tradition).”

Having that conversation early can guide a couple toward what they see as their personal wedding essentials, Stowell said, giving them an idea of what absolutely must be included in their budget versus what’s more of a secondary desire.

It’s also important to be honest about how much you and your partner are willing to spend on a wedding and where that money will come from, Stowell added.

Some couples cover all costs themselves while others get help from friends or family. Some want big ceremonies while others lean toward smaller, more intimate gatherings. Nailing down this information early is essential to staying on budget and avoiding any last-minute cuts or surprises.

“We usually recommend starting with the high-priority items first like the photographer or vendor,” she said. “A lot of things seem to fall into place after that.”

Amy O’Connell, owner of Sprinkled Confections, said couples also should extend that same candor to their vendors as they move through their wedding planning process.

Sprinkled Confections is a commercial bakery in Holy Cross, Iowa. While the brick-and-mortar store opened last year, O’Connell has been baking professionally out of her home for over 10 years and has been working on wedding cakes and desserts for eight.

It is best for couples to know their budget and the number of guests as best as possible going into a consultation with a baker or other vendor, she said, to ensure they are discussing options that realistically fit their needs and wants.

Some tasty, cost-friendly options O’Connell highlighted included purchasing a smaller one- or two-tier wedding cake for the couple to cut while getting a simpler sheet cake or cupcakes to serve the guests.

Dessert tables also are becoming more popular, which include small servings of a variety of sweets and treats, she said.

“I feel like a lot of people are leaning toward those different style desserts right now,” she said. “There’s a lot of good variety there — little cupcakes, cookies, fudge bars (and more) — so I think a lot of people are pleasantly surprised.”

One of the most important parts of planning a wedding on a budget, however, is sticking to it.

At All in One Bridal’s Main Street boutique, Soat said one of the biggest and most frequent mistakes she sees is brides trying on dresses that are outside their budget “just to see.”

“If you’re not 150% sure you can afford it, don’t try it on,” Soat said. “There’s nothing worse than seeing a bride try on a dress, fall in love with it and then seeing their face fall when they can’t afford it.”

If you see a dress outside your budget, Soat recommended instead pointing out to a consultant what you like about the dress to see if there are any dresses with similar attributes closer to your desired price range.

She also advised couples to look for ways to bundle with certain vendors to minimize costs. All in One Bridal also offers photography, videography and DJ services, she said, and can offer deals and monthly payment plans to couples booking multiple services.

Regardless of the service or product, area vendors and planners alike advised couples to start planning early.

This can allow monthly payments to be spaced out instead of having to pay one lump sum, and it also can help prevent the decision fatigue that can come with having to make too many choices too quickly in the lead-up to a big day.

Theresa Jancek, event coordinator at Wicked River, advised couples give themselves at least a year to plan a wedding if they are working with an experienced wedding planner. For couples doing the planning themselves, she advised taking at least a year and a half.

“Slow and steady is underrated,” she said. “You want to take the marathon approach to your decision making, starting early and keeping a consistent pace, so you don’t forget anything and can minimize that stress.”