Alright, so once we got engaged, we were very excited to start planning our wedding. We had a clear vision for the theme and the atmosphere we wanted, we had The Knot Ultimate Wedding Planner in hand, so it was going to be EASY, right? We couldn't have been more wrong.
I guess if you have unlimited funds to throw around, yes, wedding planning with a clear vision in mind is fairly easy. But with a tight budget (ours is $20k for 100 guests), it's a major challenge. After envisioning certain aspects of my ultimate wedding for quite some time - great food, an awesome bar, a photo booth, plenty of flowers, unique decorations, a cool venue - it quickly became clear that it would be just about impossible to pay for everything I've had in mind.
Since the venue sets the tone for the event and accounts for about half of the budget, finding the perfect place was our first order of business. We ended up checking out lots of unique, affordable venues in Southern California (click the link to see what we found). Along the way, the tours, number crunching, and research all helped guide us to our top choice (SmogShoppe!). We also learned a TON in the process and wanted to share some tips for those of you who might also be on a seemingly impossible hunt for an awesome venue within budget!
1. start by envisioning all aspects of your wedding day
Before you even start the search for a venue, it's worth sitting down with your fiancé to discuss how you both envision your wedding day going. Do you have a certain theme in mind? Are you going to get married at a place of worship or will both the ceremony and reception happen at the same venue? Do you picture the vibe being fun, elegant, casual, or quirky? How many people will you invite (make a rough guest list)? What time of year will you consider (weather is always good to take into account!)? If you can, make a wedding venue "wish list" with all of the qualities you would like it to have to accommodate the wedding you have in mind.
By spending time roughing out the details surrounding your big day, you will make your life a million times easier when it comes to choosing a venue. Your venue could very possibly be the most expensive item on your wedding budget list so you really want to make sure it works before signing any contracts! It also sets the tone for your WHOLE event so finding a place that both of you like and will facilitate (not compete with or deter) your wedding plans is ideal!
2. To source options, visit a few different venue scouting websites (& Pinterest)
When you're on a budget, you might have to cast a wide net to find options that are awesome but also affordable. It might feel like searching through the "Sale" rack at times but you're bound to find something you like if you look hard enough!
We live in Los Angeles so we knew that there should be a fair share of options to choose from in the city and surrounding areas. We started our search at the big name wedding websites that we thought would have the best resources to find the perfect venue. What we found, instead, was often disappointing. They were stocked with lots and lots of typical "ballroom" options but they fell short when it came to the more off-beat, unique, or lesser known venues. They also seemed heavily influenced by their sponsors whose names pop to the top of any search. One site doesn't even feature pictures of venues who haven't paid to be listed. If you're looking for off-beat, you probably won't find what you're looking for in the usual places, so spare yourself the time.
We also had success just Googling unique or affordable wedding venues in Los Angeles. Doing some searches of that sort should dig up some interesting lists online. We often got directed to the discussion boards of Wedding Bee on our searches, which proved to be really candid and useful! Social media also helped. We often found posts on Pinterest that featured venues that we might not have stumbled across otherwise. In fact, while we're on that topic...
3. SOCIAL MEDIA SITES ARE YOUR BEST FRIEND
When we were curious about the true look & feel of a venue, we found we could really get a really good idea of how the venues looked and worked for events by scanning for photos & videos on Facebook, Instagram, Yelp, and YouTube. That made a world of difference to help narrow down which of the options we were going to visit!
When we were making our final decision on venue this also helped. We looked at how the venues looked for different weddings and watched videos to see how the nights went. This gave us a good feel for how our wedding day might look and ultimately influenced our final decision.
4. Schedule Site Visits and Pay Attention to the Details
As useful as social media might be, you have to have to have to visit sites in person (and with your significant other) before making your decision. It's worth having a preliminary list based on what looks best to the two of you and might fit within approximate budget. If options look a little pricey at first, don't rule them out just yet!
On your visits, take lots of pictures and notes and don't be afraid to ask questions! It's better to cover all your bases if you can up front. Following each visit, make sure to discuss what you did or didn't like and record those pros & cons as well. After a while, they all might seem to blur together so keeping track is key! Some things to consider on site:
Keep Your Theme & Vision in Mind
Envision how the venue works with the theme & vibe you're anticipating for your wedding. Would it require a lot of work to decorate to match that or does it seem to fit your vision perfectly? We found that we would rather choose a venue that matched our theme than try to fit it into another space (and spend more time and money on decorations as a result).
Imagine Your Wedding Day
If you can, spend some time where the marriage ceremony will take place (if getting married on site).
Together, see if you could envision yourself getting married in that spot. Does it give you a warm fuzzy feeling?
Beyond your marriage ceremony, also think about how your ideal wedding would look/feel/function. Will the venue also accommodate what you've got in mind for your event?
Check out the Bathrooms
This one is kind of nuts but check out the bathroom situation! I was really into the idea of having a private bridal suite with bathroom to myself but found that some venues didn't offer that.
For the ones that didn't have a private bridal suite, I was sure to check out the bathroom stalls. Would I be able to fit with a wedding dress on? Beyond my own personal concerns, number of bathrooms was an issue at some locations too. One venue had only two single stall bathrooms and one was up a giant flight of stairs! We couldn't imagine that would be adequate for a party of 100!
Pay Attention to the Furniture
Firstly, see if your venue provides furniture. If it does, you'll want to make sure that it works with the look you want. If no furniture is included, or you're not happy with the furniture provided, you'll have to rent some. Definitely factor this cost into your overall venue budget! You may find that the cost you'll be saving on a bare bones venue might not be much cost savings in the end after all!
I really didn't expect chairs for guests to be an issue but I found that it was a concern! One venue had the chairs packed in along the tables so tightly that I could barely get in and out of my seat without anyone else occupying the chairs next to me! The chairs were also tiny and uncomfortable so I couldn't envision that guests would be too happy in that situation! Overall, it's worth knowing what the experience will be like for your guests so it's worth checking it out ahead of time instead of hearing the complaints later.
Some venues are now offering furniture beyond tables and chairs. "Lounge" furniture like couches and coffee tables could add another element to your event so keep an eye out if you're interested in this touch.
Consider Your Guests
I know ultimately your wedding day is all about you but also consider how some of your closest guests might feel about the venue. One venue we visited wasn't in the safest part of town and we felt like our families wouldn't feel comfortable entering & exiting the venue. That ruled it out pretty quickly for us! Other venues were a bit of a trek for guests and with many flying in to LA, we didn't want to add an additional inconvenience by adding an hour and a half drive out to the venue! Also think about how the environment will be for the guests. If part (or all) of the wedding is outside, will the weather be comfortable enough for guests? This was definitely a concern of ours given a summer wedding and the high temperatures that LA has been having recently! Venues without AC were ruled out no matter how nice they looked otherwise!
As much as you can, think through how your immediate family and best friends will feel about your location. You won't be able to please everyone but it's worth trying to keep your closest guests as happy as possible!
Keep Your Eye Out for the "Extras"
Some venues are super prepared for your wedding and will have sound systems, DJ booths, and even projectors and screens already in place.
The more things that your venue provides, the less headache you'll deal with in the planning process and coordinating the day of your wedding. Also, you'll save money! So a venue that comes fully stocked might be more expensive up front than one with minimal amenities BUT you might save elsewhere!
5. Don't Assume That 50% Wedding + Catering Cost is Appropriate for your Budget
As with all of wedding planning, you really need to begin determining where you want to splurge vs. save for your big day. All budgeting exercises have told us to assume that 50% of our budget ($10K out of $20K) will account for the venue, drinks, catering, cake, etc. The other 50% is supposed to be dedicated to dress, tux, rings, photographer, decor, flowers, gifts, invites, DJ, etc. This will vary for everyone but, for us, we realized early on that we would be willing to compromise on "the other 50%" in favor of a more expensive venue.
When it comes to the other 50%, we're less interested in expensive clothing for our wedding day (dress, tux, shoes, etc.) or splurging on a videographer. And when it comes to the DJ, well, we might be better equipped to create our own playlist given the theming and particular music we want to play. We don't need fancy food (although tasty is definitely a must), we might be able to DIY our flowers, and we're already in the process of DIYing our invites. Basically what I'm saying is, we're anticipating a lot of savings elsewhere. And for this reason, we felt comfortable with the possibility of going over the 50% for the venue + catering.
For others, a designer dress, special catering, a certain photographer, or an amazing DJ might be more of a priority. And in that case, the 50% venue fee might be TOO much. It all comes down to priorities for your particular event! Set them early so you really know what you can and can't afford in terms of your venue.
6. CREATE A SPREADSHEET WITH BUDGET BREAKDOWNS
As you start to amass a list of potential venues, be sure to reach out to any contacts there to get all of the details surrounding pricing. No venue has a "cut and dry" cost associated with it and all venues have different factors that affect pricing. Some require management fees, cleaning fees, parking fees, liability insurance, babysitters, gosh I can't even think of the rest now, but they're all DIFFERENT. So you need to really look through the paperwork and do a budgeting exercise to determine where all of the venues fall financially.
I made a massive spreadsheet to keep track of all of the different venues and their associated costs. Ok, full disclosure: I can be a neurotic planner and a major math nerd. In any case, my spreadsheet (or part of it) looked something like this (venue names omitted since these costs change all the time):
Greg looked at me like I was a crazy person but, guess what? This really helped us in the end! We could compare the venues and see which were way out of budget and which might work for us. We could also add in some catering estimates we received and some guesses on cake & alcohol costs to arrive at our venue + catering numbers. Even more involved (but very helpful) - we estimated all other costs for the wedding to see how everything stacked up in terms of our overall budget.
In the end, we also used the spreadsheets to determine venue costs for different days of the week and with different guest counts. Knowing where your numbers fall is essential when you're on a budget!
7. There's Major Cost Savings in Choosing a Venue with Catering Flexibility
After Operation Spreadsheet commenced with about 30 different venues and their associated costs, some patterns started to become obvious. Catering was a major red flag. Unless a venue was already a restaurant with in-house catering, venues that required us to use ONE particular caterer ALWAYS blew the budget. Venues that had a handful of caterers to choose from almost always blew the budget. And venues that allowed us to pick whomever we wanted? Well, those were almost always within budget.
Catering costs can vary so drastically. For 100 people, we could go with deluxe food truck catering for about $28 per person ($2800 total) to have everything bussed to the tables and all. Or we could go with a high-end caterer exclusive to one venue for about $150 a person ($15,000) total. That's more than a $12,000 difference on JUST food!
If you go with a venue that doesn't allow you to choose your own caterer, know that there's a good chance your food may put you over budget!
It's also worth noting here that some venues that offer only one option for food because they're already a catering hall or a restaurant. Sometimes they place a large discount on the venue fees as a result - you just have to shop around!
8. You Can Save Big By Doing A DIY Bar
And while we're on the topic of food, let's talk drinks. Many venues also have exclusive bartending services - not allowing you to choose your own. This means....you guessed it....astronomical pricing! Also, many of these services have fixed "tiers" so you may even pay a premium for not so great beers or liquors! Womp, womp....
Because we have a tiki-themed wedding, custom cocktails were high up on our priority list. We went with a venue that would allow us to stock our own bar and choose our bartenders. By buying our own booze, we get to select EXACTLY what we want (our favorite beers & wines, specific ingredients for tiki drinks, etc.) and this will be WAY cheaper than having a bartending service with pre-selected alcoholic options. It comes at a fraction of the price - at least 1/3 the cost!
And in case you're thinking that we're crazy about hauling all of these bottles to the venue...we don't have to! Bevmo will deliver all of the selections we make in store for FREE!
If you've got it in you, find a venue that allows a DIY bar and customize your drinks to exactly your preferences (while saving yourself a couple grand in the process)!
9. Be Flexible On Your Wedding Date
Most venues have "peak" and "off-peak" days of the week. The most expensive months are usually in the summer and the most expensive day of the week is generally Saturday. If you get married on, say, a Friday in February, you'll probably save a ton of money. But it's really about determining what works best for you and where you can compromise.
We couldn't save on time of year because August 2016 was really the best month for our schedules. But we realized, we could be more flexible with day of the week. At first we figured we'd go with a Friday (cheaper than Saturday!)...but as we were pricing out our Friday wedding, our favorite venue prices were falling out of budget, which was disappointing.
Then we decided to dig a little deeper. What if we decided to get married on a non-conventional day like a Thursday instead? What would that do to costs? Turns out that one of our top picks was $2000 less expensive just by going with that day of the week! It ended up being cheaper to get married there on a Thursday than one of our "backup" options on a Friday!
Now, I'm sure you're probably thinking, but it's a THURSDAY, who's going to attend that wedding? Well, we've thought this through. Many of our guests will be flying across the country for our wedding and will most likely make a mini vacation out of the trip to LA anyway. Thursday vs. Friday or Saturday will most likely not change the dates for or nature of most trips. As for our more local guests, the vast majority don't actually work typical 9-5 jobs. For those who do, yes, they might end up being inconvenienced by taking a 4-day weekend as a result. But to be honest, after years of overworking myself, I hope that this event can result in some enjoyable downtime for people.
Ultimately, we ended up affording a venue that we thought was just out of reach. So, before you rule out any options, start thinking outside the box in terms of your date!
10. KNOW WHERE TO COMPROMISE
When you're on a budget, sadly, it's pretty much impossible for a single wedding venue to meet all of your hopes/dreams/expectations. Weddings on the cheap are all about creativity and compromise so you're really going to have to decide what is really most important to you and your fiancé. Which aspects of a venue are absolutely necessary and which ones could you live without? Can you compromise on catering, day of the week/time of the year, or even on guest count to make an ideal venue work within budget? In the end, you may have to make some concessions but the most important thing is choosing a venue that you both like and that will fit your vision for your wedding.
Once you've think you've found "the one," really start picturing all of the details. No matter what you choose, there should be some pretty exciting qualities to the location you've picked. Get amped up about your spot and know that once you've got this (BIG) piece figured out, you'll be on your way!
Okay, this all might seem like a lot of work and number crunching but hang in there! Checking out different locations can be super fun and it's all about really setting the stage for everything else. Once you cross this hurdle, all other aspects of your wedding will begin to fall into place much more easily. It helps to have a date, location, better idea of budget, and facility vibe all in mind as you move forward! Happy hunting!