Wedding cake
Spending thousands of dollars on your wedding day does not necessarily guarantee a great event nor a successful marriage.

One of my side hustle ideas that has helped me along the way of FI with some extra cash is wedding-photography. I have been doing it as a side business that fits perfectly my full-time teaching job. 

In the beginning, I started with acquaintances and family members getting married. Then with a bit of word of mouth I got myself to some nicer places, and I can proudly say that I have even been flown to Hawaii to photograph a wedding.

In the Chicago Land area, I can’t say that I have been to every single hotel, but I have been to quite a few; several on the so called Magnificent Mile of Michigan Avenue in Chicago. Likewise, I have been also to lots of backyard & tent events, where people use their creativity to come up with their own decorations and maybe even cater from their favorite local restaurants.

The verdict?

Weddings are very expensive events and there are a lot of social pressures that push people to spend way beyond their means. In the same way that we feel that we have to buy the biggest house, go to the “look-at-me-college,” buy X,Y,Z brand clothing we are pushed into the idea of affording a big party that many times results in family tensions and stress, hurt feelings and even worse: Debt! The start of married life with the burden of unnecessary debt. 

Breaking it down

When you think of the basics of a wedding, the first things that come in mind are the venue, food, DJ, photographer, dress, cake, flowers, centerpieces, decoration and a plethora of miscellaneous items.

I’ll base my budget here according to my area, which is Chicago and the burbs. According to The Chicago Tribune, Chicago ranks as the fifth most expensive place for weddings averaging 50K. Sadly, paying 50K for a wedding does not guarantee that your day will be unforgettable; maybe only because it was an unforgettable mistake! Especially when 50K may be half the amount you need to fund your retirement 35 years down the road.

100K invested in the market at a 7% average return will likely yield 40K a year using the 4% rule for the rest of your life

Meanwhile, your money savvy friend who got married in a forgotten barn of a rural area may have had the most beautiful wedding on a low budget, and still enjoy some awesome food, gorgeous photography and best yet: Debt free! Now if money is not an issue, by all means, please! Blow the money away like there is not tomorrow!
On the other hand, if money, your future and retirement are indeed aspects of your life that concern you, then this piece of advice is for you.

Why would it matter what I have to say? Well, because as a photographer I have been to many fancy weddings and I can’t recall them neither being the most fun nor the most memorable, when compared with some “low-budget” events.

If you do a quick search for venues you will quickly see that in the Chicago area most venues start around 8-11K; that is just starting prices, that will cover around 100 guests. I would love to be more specific about different venues but my intention is not to attack any particular business.
As you spread your search towards the suburbs prices improve, but like in any business there is the hidden potential of lots and lots of up-sales.
Some of these places can be beautiful but not a requirement to make your day better.

I have been hired to photograph weddings in many fancy venues as well as barns, clubhouses, VFWs, and party halls. I can tell you that I have never been to a fancy hotel where I walk out saying “wow, the food was absolutely amazing.” Most of the times I make it home with some sort of stomach issue or wishing I had a burger instead of the whatever fancy-nicknamed chicken the venue served.  Whereas it is at those” low-budget events where people are not obligated to cater from the venue where I am always amazed with the menu. Where people can cater from whatever place they want and are not obligated to buy the overpriced menu ($150+ per guest).
I am now to the point where I am very particular about what I eat at these fancy venues. The food is far from impressive, and understandably so. The hotel can’t have a Chef in the back carefully concocting a master dish for each of the 200 guests awaiting; yet the venues charge as if that was the case. 
To add insult to injury, most guests also complain left and right about everything, as huge piles of food, and of course money, are scorted to the garbage cans behind closed doors. Why would you agree to pay thousands of dollars on food that you know will be wasted? Why do we have these social norms and pressures of what is considered a reasonable  wedding celebration?

Where should you not be a cheapskate on your wedding day?

This is what kills me, and you may say I am biased, but hear me out. People spend a fortune on the venue and its food service, but they want a deal with the photographer and the DJ. They want these services for as cheap as possible. When in reality these are the things that will probably make the greatest impact on the wedding day. 

If you have a bad DJ I can guarantee you that once your guests finish dinner they will start trickling out the door, regardless of how impressive and expensive the venue was. I don’t care if Michelangelo decorated the walls and ceilings. If your guests can’t have fun, after they eat they’ll be gone. A DJ that doesn’t know how to read the crowd or can’t deliver the right music for the moment will kill your party without a doubt. 

Also, let the DJ do his(her) thing. You can, and should request some of your favorite songs, but remember that your musical taste might not be what gets everybody down on the dance floor. Let the DJ do her/his thing.

The next area where many people try to snatch the $500 deal is with photography. Seriously? You’re willing to spend 10-15K on a venue and feeding people that will complain about the food, but you won’t spend 2-3K in the images that your family heirs will look at? Or, you don’t want an album because you’re a scrapbooker and you are going to take care of the album? Really? These are the images that may get displayed at your funeral to remember some of your better times. Yet, you don’t want to spend money on them? After you spent all that money feeding a bunch of people that you probably won’t ever see again(insert here: a deep sigh!).
Hey, to each their own. Whatever floats your boat, but just keep in mind that after the party is done, all the plates are picked up and the leftover food (your $$$) is in the garbage and the lights are off, all you will have the next day of that special moment is your pictures of that day, which will be forever to remember. If you are going to spend money, spend it on yourself first. Do not cheap out on your wedding photography!

The best wedding I have been to was actually a wedding in a barn. The food was catered from Famous Dave’s; ribs, pulled pork, potatoes, few salads and corn. A truck pulled  by the barn and roasted a whole pig in front of the crowd against a fading sky at the end of a cornfield. 

The DJ was amazing, he was animating and leading the crowd on the dance floor, with a great selection of music. The DJ really knew how to get people dancing. I would estimate the whole event was probably 8-10K for close to 200 guests. It was a great time, even for me, who was there only as the photographer. 

Expectations and social pressures

We are really good at pinpointing how kids put down others who don’t comply with the norms and expectations of peers. However, adults are not too far from that. We like to believe that we don’t judge others, but we do it so often that we are oblivious to the fact that we do.

Weddings, among other things, are one of those social expectations that people tend to judge others on. They are extremely expensive. Many times people make the critical mistake of even going in debt to pay for them. The guests criticize and complain about everything regardless of how much money is thrown at these events trying to make them unique. At the end, all of them end up following the same pattern of bridal party introduction, tosses, speeches, dances, etc; not very unique.

Not only do people spend a fortune in these socially-expected events, but many times the stresses and the emotional baggage of a wedding create a lot of animosities among family members and friends. I am sure I don’t have to tell you about the good friend who was not chosen as Maid of Honor, or the parents who didn’t feel as included as the “other parents”, or got to share a speech, picked the flowers or decoration, or any other diatribe that in the real sense of life are plain and simply irrelevant. Not to mention that sometimes after all these issues flare up, relationships become damaged beyond repair, leaving a trail of resentments. Which doesn’t help the fact that marriages have almost 50%( slightly less than 50%) chance of succeeding, and even fewer chances for subsequent marriages.

If none of these things sound familiar to you, consider yourself lucky!

Bottom line

You don’t need to spend a fortune to have an awesome wedding. Know that there are alternatives to the big shebang.

Care less about the venue with the awe factor and worry more about your music, food and please, please…please! Your photography! That is what you will look at 50 years down the road when your memory starts failing and you barely remember your name. Isn’t that a song?

Sometimes less is more. It is perfectly fine to choose to get married on a beach, or cruise and skipping all the other expenses.

Break any rule you want. It’s your day. You don’t have to comply with anything you don’t want to. Feel free to skip any protocol. Even if your  groomsmen can do a full-out Haka, or lip-sync any Britney Spears’ song along with the biggest show on Earth. It’s OK. You don’t have to. 

I am not sure you, but I am at the point in m life where I really care less about what wine I drink. If it’s a $4 bottle or a $200 one, I absolutely care less. What I care about is who I am spending my time with, and how much I enjoy being with that person.
In these days it seems like more effort and passion is put into the celebration of the wedding day than even staying married or together with the person we once chose. Spending boat loads of money will not guarantee a successful marriage if you are not willing to do what really matters in your relationship. And of course, never spend the money that you don’t have.

If you liked what you read, agree or disagree, I would love to hear your point of view and experiences.