8 smart steps to creating your wedding budget

I'm going to start this out by telling you two apparently conflicting things: First, the process of creating your wedding budget is pretty simple. Second, actually creating said wedding budget will probably be one of the hardest things about planning your wedding.

How can those both be true? Well, the way I lead my couples through creating a wedding budget really is simple: We follow logical steps to arrive at a spending plan, ideally before any money's even been spent. It's the details along the way that can make it challenging: family dynamics, compromising with your partner on priorities, accepting the reality that some of the things you want might cost more than you thought... None of those challenges are insurmountable, though, and having a plan for planning your budget gives you a good foundation from which to deal with them.

Photo by RapidEye/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by RapidEye/iStock / Getty Images

So what is this great budgeting plan? Here you go:

  1. Figure out how much money you have to spend. The obvious first step, right? And these days there really are no rules about where that money comes from. You and your partner might be paying for everything yourselves, or you might be getting some contributions from your parents or other family members. The important thing is that you know the total amount before continuing on with the budgeting process, so sit down with everyone potentially involved and figure it out.
  2. Designate a contingency fund. This is super important! You will be the rare couple if you get all the way to your wedding day without having one or two surprises along the way. Be financially prepared for them and they're much less likely to throw you off track or over budget. I recommend setting aside between 10% and 20% of your total budget amount as your contingency fund.
  3. Decide on one or two top spending priorities. This is (theoretically) pretty easy: Sit down and think about what's most important to you about your wedding. Ask your partner to do the same thing. Did you come up with the same answers? Super! You're ready to move on. Did you come up with radically different answers? Well, um, welcome to marriage. Have a heart to heart and come to an agreement. It's great practice for the next 50 years.
  4. Decide on one or two bottom spending priorities. Same basic idea as Step 2, but this time you're identifying the things you really don't care that much about. And by the way, it's totally okay if you don't care about some of the traditional "weddingy" things like flowers or invitations or even what you'll wear. There are no wedding rules that say you have to be typical. Just be sure you're not shortchanging an important spending category. If you're concerned that you might be doing that, then ask your wedding planner about it. We'll steer you right.
  5. Plug your total spending amount minus the contingency fund into a wedding budgeting tool. If you're working with me, then you'll just send that total spending amount my way and I'll plug it into my budgeting spreadsheet for you. I'm sure most wedding planners have developed something similar to use in-house. Not working with a planner? There are plenty of budgeting tools available online and, while they're not as accurate on average local costs as an actual professional wedding planner, you're only making rough estimates in this step anyway. If whatever tool you choose doesn't calculate percentages for you automatically, then calculate them yourself. Then plug all that information into a spreadsheet to make it easy for you to manipulate.
  6. Sanity check your entire budget. Look over each of your categories to make sure you have a realistic amount budgeted for each. Even things that don't matter much to you cost money, so don't sabotage your whole wedding budget by not taking that seriously right now. For example, let's say food isn't a top priority of yours. Fair enough, but you'll still need to feed your guests, so if you find that you have only $500 allocated to feed your 200 projected guests, then you either need to do some budget and/or guestlist manipulation or get really creative. Don't rely solely on online budgeting tools for this part! From this step forward you're fine-tuning your budget, so either do your own pricing research with actual local vendors or pay for a one-time consultation with a wedding planner.
  7. Adjust your budget percentages to reflect your priorities. This is where you'll use the decisions you made in Steps 2 and 3. Take a look at the budget amount allocated for your top categories. Does it look like enough to cover what you want? If not, then take some of the money from your bottom spending categories and reallocate it to your top priority areas. Just be sure to make these adjustments realistically (see my comments on Step 6).
  8. Stick to your budget! Like Step 1, this is obvious, right? Yet so many couples skip this last step altogether. You don't necessarily have to stick to your overall spending plan; if it turns out that you just can't find a vendor in a particular category for the amount of money you have allocated, then consider adjusting your budget. That DOES NOT have to mean adjusting your total expenditure upwards. Resist that seductive little voice in your head that says, "but it's only $200 more...," because those $200 overages add up to thousands pretty quickly. Instead, sit down and figure out where you can cut that $200 out of a different spending category. If you come up totally blank on how to make up the difference in your budget, then pull out your contingency fund and pat yourself on the back for wisely setting that money aside in the first place.
Photograph by Pretty Entertaining

Photograph by Pretty Entertaining

So, ready to sit down and get that budget all done? I know, it's not the most fun or glamorous part of wedding planning. Trust me, though, you really do want to get this completely settled before you start signing vendor contracts. Money-related stress is very real, and the best way to avoid it is to keep it from getting started in the first place. And the way to do that? Plan ahead.

Have questions about budgeting? Most couples do. Just ask! Ask your wedding planner, or if you're not working with a planner, then ask the vendors involved. And remember that most wedding planners will sit down with you on an hourly basis to work on things like budgeting, even if you're not engaging them for full planning services.