Marvelous Money: Prioritizing Spending v. Saving

11 September 2018

When we shared a few months ago that Southern Weddings was retiring, I promised that I’d always be available to offer wedding planning advice. After all, weddings are my first love, and I’ll never tire of chatting about them! Today’s Marvelous Money topic is giving me the perfect opportunity, falling as it does at the intersection of celebrations and personal finance. From Judy, the reader who emailed me:

I’m engaged and getting married in just a month, and I’ve been thinking a lot about how the wedding fits into our overall financial priorities. My fiance and I are lucky to share similar views as you and John – pay off debt fast, save a lot, and spend only on things that bring joy. I am so excited for the wedding, but I’ve been having a hard time justifying some expenses in the perspective of our broader financial goals. Should we really pay for several hundred dollars of chair rentals, or just deal with less-than-ideal chair covers? Should I feel guilty about wanting peonies in my bouquet? Will prettier chairs actually be better than putting that money towards a vacation or retirement?!

I would love to hear your perspective on how you decided which parts of your vision were worth it, what you chose to forgo for practicality, and how you dealt with any complicated feelings about spending extra money on a wedding instead of saving for retirement or other more “practical” things. I know weddings are worth spending money on to honor the sacrament of marriage and celebrate with friends and family, but it’s so hard to know what it worth it, and what’s too far!

I love this question, because it has legs far beyond wedding planning — it will come up over and over again for anyone who follows a budget or has big money goals. (For us, currently, it looks like deciding how much we should prioritize making aesthetic upgrades to our living room.) But let’s break down Judy’s specific question a bit:

How we decided which parts of our wedding vision were worth it:

It sounds like a bit of a circular answer, but our spending priorities were the things that brought our vision most powerfully to life. In the first place, we had a very clear vision for how we wanted our easy-elegant-classic-garden party-seaside wedding to feel. From there, we identified the things we thought would add to it most strongly: our location, our tent, our band, and our caterer and chosen method of catering. A view out to the ocean, an airy, elegant tent, a live band playing swing music, and waiter-passed food versus a sit-down dinner: these things were fitting for our story as a couple and created a memorable experience for our guests, and so they were worth spending on (for us).

Don’t get me wrong: the micro decisions, like chair covers or peonies, were in some cases excruciating to make! But circling back to our overall vision always helped us align our priorities.

What we chose to forgo for the sake of our future finances:

We cut back or saved in areas that would not contribute significantly to our vision or the experience of our wedding. We served just beer and wine at cocktail hour, we added no decor to our beautiful chapel, I made our signage with scrap paper and addressed the envelopes myself, we played a custom CD at cocktail hour, we drove our own car instead of renting a vintage one, and I sold my dress to recoup more than 50% of the cost — to name just a few things.

We also knew the exact budget we had to work with, so we knew if we wanted to splurge somewhere, we’d have to cut back elsewhere. A money mindset shift that helped when we were feeling sorry for ourselves: it’s not that we couldn’t afford XYZ, it’s that XYZ wasn’t a priority for us. (This is a powerful shift for all budget followers!)

One major area where we did splurge without regret was our photography and videography. As someone who has consumed wedding images daily for literally decades, I have extremely high standards and very particular opinions. I wanted our wedding captured in a particular way, and I am so grateful we prioritized it – the photos and videos match perfectly with how I remember our wedding, strengthening my memories even six years on.

Why we decided to spend money on a wedding at all:

Our wedding was a magical day, a touchstone we will return to for the rest of our lives. It was a chance to honor and celebrate our community, to paint a picture of the beauty of the gospel, and to say to the world, this is who we are and who we will be, and this is what matters to us.

For all these reasons and more, we placed a high value on celebrating our marriage, and so we made it the first financial priority as we began our life together — as important as saving for a down payment or paying off student loans. Those things were so important to us, too, but only after the most important relationship we’ll have in this life was honored in the way we felt best.

You may or may not feel the same way. (I have two dear friends who chose elopements, and that was the perfect choice for both of them.) This all might sound incredibly silly to you, even!

Though I’m confident we could have celebrated well with a bigger or smaller budget, I don’t regret the amount we spent. After all, the point of budgeting and saving money is to have money for what’s most important to you. As people passionate about personal finance, John and I tend to highly prioritize our future selves. Our wedding was a good reminder that we only get one chance at certain things in life, and they don’t always line up neatly with when we have tons of extra cash lying around. From one frugal person to another: spend on the things that matter deeply to you — you’ll never regret it as long as you only spend money you have.

Friends, I’m laughing at myself because I tried to make this post as concise as possible and it’s still a novel! I hope it’s helpful, whether you’re currently planning a wedding or debating some other noble use for your money! I’d love to hear: if you’re married, what was the best thing you spent money on at your wedding, large or small?

P.S. Our sixth anniversary is on Saturday! I have another wedding-themed post coming up later this week :)

All photos by the wonderful Tanja Lippert

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September 11, 2018 6:43 am

Thank goodness you’ll still be writing about weddings here because my gosh, reading this post made me feel so nostalgic for reading your wedding writing!! As always, your advice is so thoughtful and wise.

The best things we spent money on at our wedding, looking back…definitely our splurge-but-worth-every-penny photography and videography, my dress (strange because it wasn’t super emotional to find it, but from our wedding day and beyond, I cannot imagine the day without that specific dress!), and the draping/lights/dance floor we added to the barn to make it actually fit our style. As you know, we totally broke one of the biggest budgeting rules about choosing a venue that doesn’t need much additional decor, and while I wish that hadn’t been the case, I was so happy with the way it turned out once we added those details!

September 13, 2018 7:59 am
Reply to  Em

I felt the same way about my dress! I wore the dress my mother and grandmother wore, and decided that, while I would have chosen a different style if I’d bought a new dress, carrying on the tradition of wearing the heirloom dress was more important to me. It was a totally rational decision (no emotional Say Yes to the Dress moments here!) but it ended up being the right one. I LOVED wearing the dress on my wedding day, and like both of you, now can’t imagine the wedding without it!

September 11, 2018 8:31 am

We had a small wedding – well, it was just us, the officiant, our daughter, my grandmother and our photographer! We then met our closest friends and parents at a trendy restaurant for dinner, drinks and wedding cake :). Because it was a second marriage for both of us, and we had a child together we wanted simple. I had done the big wedding. Our biggest investment was the photographer. Our wedding date was based on her availability – that is how bad I wanted her! Those images are priceless. I always wanted pretty paper goods and they were without breaking the bank!

September 11, 2018 8:55 am

As a gal just dating, and looking forward to the days of engagement, wedding, and marriage, your words are such a gift and treasure. I will be saving this post for future reference. I especially love “spend on the things that matter deeply to you — you’ll never regret it as long as you only spend money you have.” Amen. Amen. Amen. I need this as a phone background for a constant reminder. Thank you for sharing good, grounded truth.

September 11, 2018 9:33 am
Reply to  Kelly

I could not agree more with Kelly – as someone contently a couple of years away from wedding planning myself, I know I will return to this post (and many others!) when that time comes. I especially loved your quote, “Our wedding was a magical day, a touchstone we will return to for the rest of our lives. It was a chance to honor and celebrate our community, to paint a picture of the beauty of the gospel, and to say to the world, this is who we are and who we will be, and this is what matters to us.” Thank you for sharing the beautiful while simultaneously always pointing to the heart behind it all.

September 12, 2018 1:46 pm
Reply to  Em

This! Emily, I have been meaning to tell you that I’ve referenced your posts over and over again as we’ve been planning our wedding. It has been so helpful to read about your process, which — like these ladies said — beautifully balances practicality and prioritizing what you love. Keeping that mindset has (so far) made wedding planning much more enjoyable than I thought it would be! Thank you for sharing your gifts. <3

September 11, 2018 9:46 am

Our wedding was about as budget friendly as you could get, but we came out the other side with no debt and we are so grateful for that! We had a free venue at the church we met and served at in college, which was also a renovated Winn-Dixie grocery store. We served pizza because it’s our favorite food plus it was cost efficient. I think our biggest budget item was our photographer and she was worth every penny.

The best piece of advice I received was from my matron of honor’s big sister. She told me to ask myself, “Will this matter a year from now?”, when I was faced with tough choices regarding the wedding. I believe we saved so much money thanks to this question!

September 11, 2018 10:17 am

We got married in 6 months, so we had to be very strategic about where we wanted to spend our money and where we wanted to save! I ended up finding my dream dress at a sample sale, and was lucky to be able to fit the one on the mannequin, so I got a discount for that! We also chose to forego robes for the bridal party (this was a hard decision for me!) Photography was a non-negotiable, so that and catering is where we spent the most. The venue was also pricey, but to me it was worth it because there was a bridal and groom suite, so we all had a place to get dressed. Our videographer was someone who was just started out in wedding videography, and his price was incredible and I absolutely LOVED our video! It was a lot of give and take in terms of what we were actually willing to spend a ton of money on, but it made for a beautiful day.

Kelly Strawberry
September 11, 2018 10:34 am

I love elopements – thanks for including those that choose no wedding at all! :) I love the tiny details of our wedding ceremony and our weekend in Asheville that are memories I only share with my husband.

Kayla Holsomback
September 11, 2018 12:06 pm

We had a small wedding, with about 30 in attendance (family & close friends). It was an outdoor wedding at a Bed & Breakfast. Friends and family rented out all the rooms in the house the night before and we got to eat breakfast together with everyone who stayed there the next morning. The owners of the B&B handled everything–setup, reception (a sit-down lunch), cake, flowers–and did a beautiful job (most of it was stuff they did themselves, and the owner’s sister did flowers). We loved that we got to spend time with everyone there and that everything was so relaxed. We had a larger reception with all of our friends and family a couple weeks later at our church with a BBQ dinner. It was so different from any other weddings I’d attended, but I can’t imagine my own wedding having been done any other way.

September 12, 2018 4:17 pm

Thank you so much for your thoughtful and kind answer, Emily! I looked back over your wedding posts for guidance throughout planning, and even though the wedding is done this is so sweet to read. I especially love the bit on how we only get one chance at some things. Such a good reminder, and a good filter on when we can be patient. It’s so true that if you have a total number as your limit it can really help put budgeting into perspective. For anyone who’s in our shoes (not having a total number allocated to the wedding, just trying to keep it as cheap as possible within a range), I’d advocate for really focusing on the first part – which things bring your vision (for your wedding or anything else!) to life. We’d gone with a cheaper venue, thanks to our high-cost-of-living area, and at the end of the day, the chairs made a huge difference in how I saw the space.

In case you’re wondering, after my full blown existential crisis over financial priorities, brought about by chair rentals and peonies, I rented the dang chairs. I don’t regret it :)

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September 13, 2018 7:00 pm

It’s not entirely in the vein of weddings, but Laura Vanderkam’s book All the Money in the World goes into great detail about how money is fungible. Basically, money is one of the few things that we really can exercise power over. One of her examples is lowering the wedding budget to prioritize a cleaning service and dinner dates…for an entire year! I’m a single mom, but I’ve found it a really helpful perspective as I choose private or public school, traveling with my son and partner vs soccer teams, etc.

September 18, 2018 7:18 pm

As always, I so enjoy reading your perspective on all kinds of things. Also – I missed your anniversary on Sat! Hope it was a wonderful one, Emily & John!