One thing I heard over and over from couples who were forced to shift to an elopement or a micro-wedding in 2020 was a sense of “this celebration is SO much more us.” There’s good reason for that.
Big weddings are generally about other people — NOT the bride and groom. Of course, there are exceptions — I have seen big weddings done really well. But for many, many people, the big wedding ends up being a big stressor where the focus becomes: “Are the flowers perfect?”
“Are my guests having a good time?” “Why aren’t people dancing?” Rather than an opportunity to truly have the best day ever — whatever that would look like to you.
Do me this favor: Close your eyes, lean back and dream. What would the best day ever look like for you and your partner? If you could do WHATEVER you wanted — what would that be? Who would be there? What would you eat? What would you do?
In fact, I have a date night idea (or two) for you. Grab takeout from your favorite restaurant, a pad of paper and a pen, and take time to ask each other these questions:
Who (if anyone) HAS to be at our wedding? (This is not — “Oh, I need to invite Aunt Sue because she’ll be offended if I don’t.” This is, “This person, whom I love, needs to be by my side for this important day.” This first sweep should be a very short list. Your might even be — “Well, just the two of us would be great.”
On a perfect day off, how would we spend our time?
What are our favorite things to do as a couple?
What are our favorite foods and drinks?
Are we an extroverted or introverted couple? Do we love big shindigs with lots of dancing or is an intimate dinner party more our speed?
What do we do when we get together with friends?
Is there anything fun and quirky about us that’s an important part of our relationship? (We love Star Wars, we hike every weekend, we have four dogs, we are really into craft beer, etc.)
What is our “vibe”? Are we foodies? Outdoorsy? Love wine? Down home country people?
When you imagine your wedding day, what do you see? (If your partner says, “I don’t know,” ask him or her if they imagine a big party or something more intimate.)
That may take up one date to be honest. But if you’re going strong, continue on with this next set of questions. These are elements that most couples include in traditional weddings. Use a simple one word answer for each of you (yes, no, very, not). Consider them carefully — don’t just say “yes” because everyone you know did it that way. Only say “yes” if the answer “sparks joy” for you. Your answers may be different from one another — that’s totally OK! If you find some differences, just note them and talk about it later.
Do we want any guests at all?
Do we want a bridal party?
Is it important for us to take time for just the two of us on our wedding day or do we want to spend it with our community?
Do we want a wedding venue? Or are we leaning toward a less formal national park/backyard wedding?
Do we want lots of custom decorations?
Is high-end wedding attire important to us? (Dress from a bridal boutique/designer or custom suit?)
Do we want live music or a DJ?
Do we want real flowers?
Do we want to send out custom invitations?
Do we want professional videography? (Presumably if you’re reading this, you’re already thinking about hiring a photographer.)
How important is really good food to us?
Ok, now you have sketched out what is important to YOU two. Not The Knot, not a wedding blog, you.
Let’s talk about structure for wedding celebrations.
The average American wedding seems to have somewhere between 120 and 170 guests (if you google this question, every website has a slightly different answer) and costs about $33,000.
The biggest, most immediate things you will have to decide when planning a wedding are (1.) How many guests do we want? and (2.) How much is our budget?
Typically a traditional wedding day with 100+ guests looks something like this:
Get ready (photographers take detail shots)
Bridal party photos
Dance floor opens
But the only thing on that list you have to do on your wedding day is some kind of simple ceremony.
For some people, this structure is the Best Day Ever and it’s absolutely perfect. For others it’s stressful — they don’t get to eat and they spend a lot of time worrying about why the flowers/cake/DJ is late and if everyone is having a good time.
Side note, if you do find yourself leaning toward the big traditional wedding, I highly recommend not DIYing it all. Find yourself a really good planner and rely on that person to help the day go smoothly.
But what I want to do in this space is give you options. Because for a lot of people, the big wedding ends up being at best “meh.” I want to help you dream beyond what everyone else does and create a day that is totally and authentically you. So here are some other ideas, starting from small celebrations to larger.
As a general rule, the smaller the gathering, the more you can invest in the experience. Would you rather take $15,000, $30,000, or name-the-amount and spend it on the most epic luxury weekend (or week) for two? Or would you rather take that money for a celebration with 100 people? No right answers!
If your answer is “holy shit $30,000!” Then that’s legit too! But remember…that’s the average American wedding cost and it’s REALLY easy to get to that number. Especially the bigger you get and the more personal details you add.
In my experience, the biggest waste of money is wedding favors. People forget to take them or they’re kind of random so they end up getting tossed a year from your wedding or never used because maybe they don’t need another set of salt shakers or some flower seeds. Anyway, I digress.
Alternative Wedding Ideas
Adventure elopement: Hike to the top of a mountain with your love, say your vows, have a picnic, dance around the campfire. Go on a hot air balloon ride. End the day back at an Airbnb or VRBO with a meal for two, prepared by an accomplished chef.
Resort getaway for two: Book a long weekend stay at a luxury resort. Have spa days, go fly fishing or ATVing, golf — enjoy everything the resort has to offer — and at some point, have your wedding ceremony and get married. End the evening with a private meal in your room (or under the stars) for two.
Four to Fifteen
The Hybrid: Book a “home base” vacation rental that everyone can stay at. Do a first look for just the two of you on top of the mountain at sunrise, then come back to the house for breakfast. Take everyone out on a midday adventure — tubing down the river, spa day at a local resort, then come back to the house, get ready, get married, and celebrate with a private dinner served on the site.
Getaway weekend: Rent a huge house on a lake (or in the mountains) and invite all your guests to come stay for the weekend with you. Play group games, drink beer and plan a full weekend of activities. In the summer you might go jet skiing, rent some pontoon boats, etc. In the winter, you might go skiing or ice skating or snow tubing. And then, over the course of the weekend, get married on the property. Cater food from a local restaurant and have it delivered to the house to eat out on picnic blankets or by a cozy fire.
Sixteen to Fifty
Estate wedding: Rent a beautiful estate, go all-out on thoughtful, custom decorations and have an elegant five-course gourmet meal for you and your guests. End the night with dancing under bistro lights on the patio.
The backyard wedding: Borrow the backyard of someone in your life who has plenty of space. Have a potluck — ask everyone to bring their best dish to share. Set up a ton of yard games. Hire a live band and a caller — do square dancing. Set up a hot chocolate and s’more station. End the night with a huge bonfire and your favorite drink of choice.
If It’s Joyful, It’s Right for You
Whatever you choose, it should fill you with excitement. If, as you start to plan, you are feeling overwhelmed or stressed or even dreading the day, take a step back. Remember — this day is an investment and should be filled with memories. At the very base level it should be something you enjoy. If you don’t know half the guest list or you find yourself getting panicky about zanias vs. roses vs. hyacinths, then don’t go there. Do something that feels more you.
If an adventure seems way more fun to you than a party, then plan one. If you want to dance the night away with a live band, make that a priority and feed everyone mac and cheese. If you really love great food but can’t afford to serve a five-course meal to 100 people, then only invite 15. You have choices. Whatever you choose, make this a day that reflects all the things and people YOU love.
The Ultimate Small Wedding Planning Guide and Checklist