This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on June 10, 2012.
As many brides and grooms have discovered, the happiest day of their lives can also be the most expensive day. According to wedding planning website The Knot, the average cost of a wedding nationally is more than $27,000 (and often higher in metropolitan places like the Bay Area).
Fortunately, for every beautiful-but-expensive item in the wedding budget, there is an equally charming, less expensive alternative. Below are some of best cost-saving secrets from the people who know best – the vendors who participate in dozens of weddings each year.
— Choose a buffet: According to Jim Standfield, owner of Toast Catering and Event Management in Burlingame, buffet-style dinners can save couples $10-$15 per person compared with plated dinners. Plated dinners require one server for every 18 guests, but buffets require half that. At an average cost of $200 per server, the savings add up.
— Select only one meat entree, and don’t choose beef: The per-person cost of meals is usually based on the protein selection, and chicken, pork and salmon prices are lower and fluctuate less than beef, halibut or sea bass, Standfield said. Choosing one of these can result in a savings of $8 per guest.
— Save on rentals by washing dishes: Rental companies often charge 60-75 cents each for items like plates, forks and glasses, and Standfield said each guest may use up to eight glasses at a wedding. If the reception venue has a commercial dishwasher, have serving staff wash glasses, salad forks and salad plates during dinner and then reuse them for dessert.
— Serve beer, wine and a signature cocktail: This is much cheaper than having a full bar, and signature cocktails can match wedding colors or be tied to a special memory in the couple’s life.
— For more than 120 guests, it can be cheaper for couples to purchase alcohol directly: Buy from retailers like BevMo instead of buying from the catering company directly. Unopened bottles can often be returned for additional savings.
— Have a smaller display cake in the dining room and a sheet cake in the back: Cheryl Lew, owner of Montclair Baking in Oakland said for a wedding of 200 guests, the display cake could serve 75 and the other 125 could eat a sheet cake stored in the kitchen. The sheet cake will probably be fresher, and the savings could be as much as $700.
— Ask for less labor-intensive decorating: One of Lew’s trendy ruffle cakes made with fondant costs $765, but a carnation-covered cake offers a similar look for $550. Choosing buttercream frosting over fondant can also save up to 25 percent.
— Don’t try to save on delivery costs: Lew says it might be tempting to have a friend pick up the cake in his minivan and bring it to the reception, but she warns this is risky. Bakery delivery fees, she said, are worth the peace of mind.
— Give the florist a color palette and inspirational photos, but not specific flowers or shades: Florists can keep costs down on bouquets and centerpieces when they have the freedom to choose seasonal flowers at the best prices of the day, according to Susan Kelly, owner of Three Sisters Flowers in Palo Alto.
— Think beyond the bouquet: One of Kelly’s traditional floral centerpieces (pictured) costs $275, but a chic look of several vases holding single flowers costs only $75. Using fruits and vegetables in the centerpiece can also keep costs down.
— Consider a secondhand wedding dress: Local consignment shops, eBay and specialty websites like Bravo Bride, Once Wed and Pre-Owned Wedding Dresses offer designer (and non-designer) wedding dresses for lower (sometimes 50 percent lower) prices than a new gown’s retail price.
— Shop in department store evening-wear sections: Joyce Scardina Becker, wedding planner and owner of San Francisco’s Events of Distinction, recommends brides on a budget check out the white or ivory evening gowns, or even prom dresses at department stores where dresses retail for a few hundred – rather than a few thousand – dollars, and chances are a bride will be able to buy one that doesn’t need major alterations, saving an additional $500-$600.
— Consider community centers, museums, zoos or city/state-owned campsites and facilities: All-inclusive venues like hotels or vineyards are the most expensive choices, Scardina Becker said. Weddings at parks, beaches or even private homes may seem cost-effective, but savings quickly evaporate when couples have to rent, transport and set up tables, chairs, lighting, sound systems and everything associated with catering. Alternative venues also usually have their own tables, chairs, sound and lighting systems, not to mention staff who can help coordinate setup and cleanup.