Six things to do after getting engaged (if you're on a budget)

If money is tight after you've gotten engaged, there are ways to be celebratory and still avoid some of the higher costs associated with getting married.

Keith Srakocic/AP/File
Samantha Shriver twirls in her wedding dress during a photo shoot at the Mass Mutual Pittsburgh ice rink at PPG place in Pittsburgh (Thursday, Dec. 24, 2015).

It's engagement season! I have so many friends getting engaged and posting the news on Facebook and I could not be more excited for them. I know just how they feel--my husband and I got married in October 2015 after nine years together.

There were a few reasons for we waited so long to get married. One was that we were quite young when we met and neither of us were in a rush. But probably the biggest was that we were on a tight budget after paying for college and his PhD program. Even with some help from our families, we still had to be very smart with our money. There were a lot of hard decisions and a lot of 'we just can't have this' moments during our wedding-planning process. In the end, our wedding was the most perfect day, and probably the only time in our entire lives that all our friends and family will be in the same room together. Not a single person noticed that I didn't have the chairs I wanted or that I decided not to pay for a photographer for the entire reception.

Trust me when I say that I completely understand the excitement of being engaged and wondering how in the world you're going to pay for everything. I've got a few tips for the next steps you should take if you're trying to plan on a budget.

1. Pick three wedding must-haves.

Both you and your fiance should grab a pen and paper and each pick three things that mean the most to you in this wedding. Those are the things that you can spend a little more on if necessary. We knew we'd need to set aside extra money to get that hometown venue and to serve the drinks on my hub's list. Once you've established your main priorities (even easier if you both have matching items!) then you can start working on your budget knowing that there are going to be some things you may spend less on or cut out completely in order to have those important things.

2. Set a budget.

This seems like a no-brainer, but please set a realistic budget and then realize you're going to blow past it. You'll never think of every single thing on the first try, so make sure your budget is reasonable in the first place and then do your very best to stick to it. You can find budget checklists online and they are a great place to start. Excel spreadsheets will soon become your best friend. You can either give each broad category of your wedding its own budget (think: ceremony, reception, attire, transportation) or you can get itemized right from the start. I chose to do the latter and it helped me feel organized from the start knowing that I already thought about the cake plate and the aisle runner.

Once you're comfortable with your list, it's time to start that math. Allocate funds from your total budget to certain items on the list and just start tweaking until you feel like you've got a rough budget set up. I highly recommend budgeting out parts of your wedding before you start booking any venues or vendors. Have a budget for each piece of the day, rather than focusing on one big number, and stick to it for each thing you book or buy.

3. Pick a month (and two backup months).

If you have an exact date in mind, you're going to have a harder time booking. We found that going into it with a month in mind and then being flexible with two other months as backup was a great way for us to negotiate. It's an added bonus if your month happens to fall in an off-season because many wedding venues and vendors offer discounts during the winter. Do a little research online for local venues to see if they have off-season pricing in months like December through March and then ask yourself if you'd be okay with having snow on your big day (before you dismiss the idea, go look at Pinterest. You might change your mind!).

4. Create a rough draft of your guest list.

If you want to stay in budget, you'll need a rough estimate of how many people will be attending. Not only do some venues have guest limits due to fire codes, some also charge per head and you won't get a true sense of your wedding's cost without an idea of how many people will be there. Always estimate high. We told our venue 150, although we thought it would be more like 125, but with that extra per-head left over at the end, we didn't go as far over budget as expected.

5. Start researching venues, pick one, and book it ASAP.

We were engaged in July and started looking at venues in August. We found one we really liked and asked about availability and the earliest date was the following October. This was a barn venue, in rural Michigan, and it was already booked a year out. I was blown away that all the dates had been filled already, but talking with friends I found out that this was common. If you have your heart set on a certain type of venue, please make this one of the first things you do. You'll want to get your deposit in as quickly as possible as well. As I mention in the next step with photographers, venue pricing can change at any moment. It happens the most in January to start the new year, so jump on the quoted price as quickly as you can.

Venue tips:

  • Ask about discounts for Friday weddings or weekday weddings.
  • Ask if they have preferred vendors or caterers for the venue and if a discount is provided for booking with them.
  • If they do not have preferred vendors, ask if you can hire vendors on your own or if they need licensing (your aunt that offered to cook for your wedding may save you thousands, but you have to be sure a home cook is allowed to provide the food).
  • See if you are able to have the ceremony and reception in the same spot and if there is an additional fee.
  • Choose a venue that fits the theme of your wedding. We chose a barn because there would be no need for extra decor to give the 'rustic' vibe, it was already rustic!

6. Book your photographer.

I put this on the list because while planning I realized that photographers truly know their worth--as they should! Once they start getting popular and building their portfolio, their prices go up. Some that I was looking at went up over a thousand dollars from 2014 to the 2015 year. I was able to snag a wonderful photographer through a recommendation from a friend and she was the first person I booked for our wedding. I'd seen her portfolio and getting her for my budget felt like a miracle. Looking at her rates now, they've gone up nearly $1,000. I was married less than three months ago! If you find the person you like, scoop them up quickly.

Once booked, talk to them about their schedule options. I was able to pay a little less for 6 hours of coverage, rather than 9 or 10. As the big day got closer, I didn't feel like 6 hours was enough (and I had some wiggle room in my budget), so I asked if I could add an hour to my package and she worked with me on it. Talk to them in your first meeting about scheduling, changes to the contract, etc. and then if you feel like they're the right fit, book immediately.

A few more resources for the budget bride that I found really helpful:

  • - A great, free planning tool for your budget, checklist, style inspiration and everything between.
  • - Wedding gowns from $200 and bridesmaids dresses from $99.
  • - The name says it all! Some dresses have been worn once, or not even at all.
  • Craigslist and Facebook - There are local groups of newlywed brides selling (or giving away!) their wedding decor.

A final note: A wedding is very personal. These tips will not work for everyone and ultimately what you decided to do after getting engaged is up to you and your new fiance! Keep that in mind throughout the planning process. It's about the two of you and what you can afford and what you want. Cut things you find frivolous and don't listen to opinions that shouldn't matter to you. There will always be someone who can find something to dislike about your wedding (because it's your style, not theirs!), but are they really the ones that matter on your big day?

This article first appeared at Brad's Deals.

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