Your wedding should be one of the happiest days of your life, but the day’s debt should not follow you throughout your marriage. That said if you’re having a big Mexican (Greek, Indian, Korean, etc.) wedding, feeding and entertaining throngs of family and friends just isn’t cheap, but there are a few DIY options that will allow you to pull off the big Mexican wedding on a budget they’ll be talking about for years to come.
My idea of an ideal wedding was to elope and get married on the beach with only our siblings, parents, and grandparents, followed by a great dinner. Honeymoon included, everyone’s happy, right? Wrong. My husband wanted the pachanga – the big hullabaloo with all the primos, tíos, friends since preschool, and everyone he’d ever worked with. And rather than the simple, elegant Italian silk dress I bought for $200 at Banana Republic, he envisioned me in a frock that resembled a cake.
All in all, our wedding was a huge success. It was very personalized and true to our characters, our ceremony was beautiful and intimate, and then we provided the party of a lifetime, were a fight between luchadores or Mexican wrestler almost toppled the cake and our very musically-talented friends were the entertainment.
Did we do everything right? Absolutely not. In retrospect, I would have enlisted more help so that I wouldn’t have to direct the show and break it down at the end of the night (second nature from my theater days in high school?). I would have hired a bartender because apparently everyone we know is a heavy-pour. But it was everything either of us could have hoped for, and all the planning took only 6 months. A wedding for 300 guests can cost $30-40,000+, but it can be done for $10-15,000 if you’re creative and determined. Or broke.
My recommendations here are a composite both of what we did well and what we definitely could have done better, with hopes that our best practices will help you with your dream wedding on a budget.
What to spend money on
Early on, I got the advice that it was fine to be cheap for everything except the dress and the photography – consider budgeting $1,000 at least for a dress and $3,000 for photos. You want to look great in photos that will last forever. J. Crew has some nice dresses in the hundreds (I spent much more), but I got my mantilla veil for $20 on Etsy. For photos, look at portfolios and choose someone whose wedding photography you love – don’t compromise. Our photographer was amazing at capturing beautiful things in the foreground and simultaneously hilarious scenes in the background. Build a shot list (like mine in Pinterest) of photos you’d like to have of the event, and share and discuss them with your photographer.
Build a vision for your perfect day
Both you and your significant other should collaborate on what you think your ideal wedding would be, and be clear about expectations and limits. Things to talk about are:
- Budget: how much can each of you contribute and how much do you think you should spend on the wedding?
- Size: are you inviting a core group, who will be excluded (this is important), what’s the max limit on your invite list?
- Location: city, indoor/outdoor, venue space.
- Look and feel: country wedding, posh, pachanga, traditional, etc.
- Colors: it may sound simple to choose colors, but once you pick them, they’ll guide all the tangibles you pick from there on out.
- Attire: some men like tuxedos, others want jeans, Converse, and a bowtie; some women might want a Diane Keaton-style pantsuit, while others want a ballgown. Make sure you “go.”
Having visuals helps you to be on the same page. I created a Pinterest board where I collected ideas I liked for decorations, venues, hair and makeup, dresses, and more. As I found things I liked, I’d show my fiancee for the “yay” or “nay.” Many of the ideas in our Pinterest board inspired the DIY elements of our wedding – invitations and thank you cards, papel picado, and decor.
A note on the invitation list: my fiancee, now hubby, and I decided we could invite 300. Apparently, I wasn’t clear in what I thought that meant. I meant we could invite 300 people. My husband understood that as people declined, he could keep inviting until we had 300 confirmed. Guess what? We had about 300 of our closest friends and family members. Lesson learned. Be clear.
Choose the perfect place
Probably the biggest hurdle in planning an event is picking the venue. Many wedding venues are all- or mostly-inclusive but at $25-$80+ per person(it varies wildly) plus space, bar, photographer, planner fees, and more, and with an invite (and actual guest list) of 300, that just wasn’t an option for us.
Consider the off-season: many venues will charge more because they can. You may get better rates and date selections if you consider the off-season.
- Ranches and farms
- Your tía’s big backyard
- Restaurants with a large, open spaces
- Public event spaces – you can always decorate for a wedding
Ultimately, we picked an indoor/outdoor event space adjacent to some stables on the east side of town. Despite the fact that we got married the weekend of an unprecedented freak storm (that’s good luck, right?), there was a chapel space for the ceremony, gazebos for photos, and a covered space for the party and discoteca.
The key to any good gathering: ample food and beverage
Buen provecho: There are so many catering options – pick something that you love. If you’re at a restaurant, that option is built-in, but if you’re in an event space or museum, you’ll need to find your own catering. We got carne asada tacos (someone drove up an hour and a half from our hometown) and a Baja-style taco truck. We opened the gates, and the food truck drove right in. Both taco teams brought their own plates, napkins, and trash cans, and we invited everyone to help themselves.
Again, perhaps we should have put limits to our generosity with two food tickets per person or something of the sort, because I’m told people were going back for thirds, and taking to-go plates and leaving them in their cars. I’ll save my thoughts on that for another day.
¡Salud! The day before the wedding, the bestie and I went to Costco and got sodas, wine, handles of booze, mixers, plates and forks for cake – about double what we thought we’d ever need. We also ordered 3 kegs of beer.Well…it was all gone by the end of the night. In retrospect, we should have hired a bartender because people were pouring generously and taking shots, and let’s just say the evening ended early, and everyone was fed, hydrated, and happy. Very happy.
All that came to about $6 per person.
Tap your people for help
Our wedding simply would not have been possible without the skills and talents of my family and friends. These were their gifts to us:
- Ceremony: my father’s cousin was our priest at the ceremony. His sermon was beautiful, personal, humorous and heartfelt, and he delivered it in English and Spanish. Both sides of the family were happy – we couldn’t have asked for more. If you don’t have men of the cloth in your lineage, you can ask someone well-spoken and sincere to become ordained (it’s a relatively easy process).
- Wedding cake: another cousin of mine is an extremely talented cake maker/decorator. I came across the perfect topper (which wasn’t really a topper) in the Phoenix airport on the way home from a business tripl. My cousin and I texted each other ideas of calavera wedding cakes and ultimately agreed that she would surprise me with the final design, with gluten-free tiers for me (!!!). It was masterful and perfect.
- Flowers: flowers alone will break the bank. I was looking for alternative options:
- Centerpieces: my sister made all the centerpieces – Mexican paper flowers in our theme colors, in vases made of ball jars wrapped with thick eyelet. It was gorgeous, vibrant, and filled out the space.
- Bouquet: my friend’s sister-in-law apparently made beautiful flower arrangements. I told my friend what I was hoping for and crossed my fingers, and she exceeded my expectations with the brilliant flowers below.
- Candy bar: a dear friend put together a beautiful candy bar in our thematic colors which was fun for the kids and for my adult friends who roasted marshmallows in the heat lamps.
- Hairstyling: another great friend who was a stylist did my amazing updo with about 5lbs of bobby. If a hair fell out of place at any point in the evening, she would help me get my life together.
If you want something perfectly custom, do it yourself
In the photos we pulled in planning for the wedding, we decided we’d use lattice, papel picado, swallows, and red and turquoise – the theme for all elements of our wedding design. The projects weren’t burdensome because we both love graphic design and we had 6 months to execute.
- Invitations: we designed the invitations and printed at FedEx on a toothy stock we purchased and then did the lattice cut-outs by hand with a stamper from Michael’s.
- Papel picado: my hubby ordered the paper flags with our names and swallow designs from Mercado Libre – Mexico’s answer to eBay, for $80 though you can order them from Etsy, as well.
- Wedding favors: we designed our own wedding favors with custom M&Ms of our faces and the date and a custom guitar pick in sachet bags from Amazon. The favors came to about $1 each.
- Thank you notes: at the wedding, we took photos holding a thank you sign we made in a giant sacred heart, and set them in the cards with the same lattice cut-outs.
- Photo frames: my husband also designed and printed for cheap giant poster board frames that people could stand inside and hold to take photos.
Get a team of helpers
Do as I say, not as I do. Either enlist a team of ready and willing helpers or go ahead and hire a planner. We didn’t get a DJ until last minute but a good one with experience in weddings can be your master of ceremonies and emcee. For tables, chairs, heat lamps, a dance floor, and a jumping castle, I spent about $1600. Ask someone you trust to help guide them, so you don’t have to do it the morning-of yourself. Lastly, get a team of people to help you clean-up at the end of the night.
Celebrate what matters, don’t linger on what doesn’t
When you’re planning a wedding, don’t lose sight of what really matters – the union of two souls made for each other and the celebration of their love. What will last forever are the relationships, the photos, and the memories, so rather than pining over the perfect lighting or napkin design, the fact that the hungriest guests didn’t bring gifts, or that your bestie drank your flask, create an unforgettable experience that is meaningful and authentic and share it with the people you care about. Or elope.
[Photos by Kelly Rashka]