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Twelve Things I Learned from Planning a Wedding
What to keep in mind ahead of the biggest day of your life
My wife Lizzie and I are celebrating our first wedding anniversary this weekend. I don’t think marriage has changed me very much, which I think speaks to the strength of our existing relationship. But there are two exceptions. First, I have finally sort of gotten used to wearing a ring on a daily basis. And second, I am no longer constantly thinking about planning a wedding.
I didn’t know very much about wedding-planning when we got engaged, and I learned a lot about it from personal experience over the next two years. If you’re getting ready for your own wedding, or think you will be someday, here are a dozen things I wish I had been aware of from the beginning.
Yours are the only visions that matter
I realize the irony of starting an advice column by saying not to listen to what anyone else thinks, but this is important context for any of the many, many unsolicited suggestions you’re bound to receive. Consider this paradox the matrimonial equivalent of “everything in moderation,” or “only a Sith deals in absolutes.” (Hopefully if you’re reading this you are at least somewhat interested in what I have to say.)
At the end of the day — and at the beginning of the day, and all throughout whatever marriage ceremonies and celebrations you choose to partake in — only two people’s happinesses really matter: Yours and your betrothed’s. Throw everyone else’s ideas and standards out the window. If you want to elope, go for it. If you want your officiant to be an Elvis impersonator, I’ve seen it done. If you want to have your first dance under a Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton in the museum that four-year-old you declared was the only place you would ever be willing to get married, I can tell you that it’s as amazing as it sounds.
This isn’t to say that family traditions or religious practices can’t be meaningful, nor that people won’t be hurt or judgmental if you choose not to do things the way they would. Yet we found that focusing on our own desires let us conceptualize the expectations we chose to conform to as deliberate ways to honor our loved ones, not as obligations. Do only what makes you happy, though that includes the joy it may bring to other people.
Wedding-planning is a series of choosing people
When you’re throwing a wedding, obviously the most-important person you choose is your fiancé(e). Hopefully that decision is pretty easy! Unfortunately, the rest of the process requires a lot of uncomfortable prioritizations of your loved ones.
The biggest example of this is the guest list. When we first sat down to go through everyone we absolutely had to invite, we set a few rules to keep the size manageable. No one whose inclusion felt merely obligatory. No one from work. No one we could even imagine having our special day without. Within 15 minutes, our list of absolutely uncuttable invitees was larger than our target number for the whole event. By the time we finalized the list a few months later, it was about 50% bigger than the one we had set out to make. It’s a wonderful problem to have so many loved ones, and we were lucky to have a venue that could accommodate a larger crowd than we’d initially planned. And yet, there were still people we felt bad about not making the cut. No matter where you draw the line, someone whom you will feel guilty excluding will be on the other side of it.
Then you pick the bridal party, an honor that’s incredibly meaningful to the people you choose but can be awkward for those you leave out. Having a bachelor(ette) party? You can’t bring all your friends with you. It’s not practical for everyone who’s important to you to do a reading or give a toast. A couple weeks out from our big day, I was so relieved to be done with assigning prioritizations to our loved ones…until we started working on the seating chart. The good news is that these things aren’t as big a deal as you’re afraid they will be, especially for anyone who’s planned a wedding themselves.
Make sure you like your photographer
It probably goes without saying that you should find a photographer whose style matches your vision. If you want to memorialize your wedding in formal portraits, don’t hire someone who specializes in vibrant candids. What you might not realize is that, with the exception of your soon-to-be-spouse, your photographer is the person you’ll spend the most time with on your wedding day. When you first talk to them, ask yourself: Will you enjoy hanging out with them for several hours during the biggest party of your life? If not, you should go with someone else. (I don’t want to bog this post down with a bunch of vendor recommendations in a city where most of my readers don’t even live, but if you are planning a wedding near Cleveland, we can’t say enough wonderful things about Karen and Gen Menyhart as both photographers and day-of companions.)
Weddings are really expensive
Everyone knows that getting married comes with a huge price tag, and that even the types of weddings that would once have been considered modest are eye-poppingly expensive today. Until you start soliciting quotes yourself, though, you may not realize just how costly it can get. My basic rule of thumb for estimating prices became:
Come up with what seems like a reasonable range of how much something should cost.
Take the highest point of that range.
That’s the bare minimum you should expect to pay.
We did a lot of things to get the most out of our budget, like making our own playlist instead of hiring a DJ, and not decorating the museum with flowers. It also really helped to have our wedding in Cleveland. (The rental price alone for an equivalent venue here in Philadelphia would have exceeded what we spent on the entire wedding.) Many costs are unavoidable and some upgrades are worth paying for, but you’ll likely have to prioritize to stay within your budget. Which brings us to…
No one remembers the food
When I think about the best weddings I’ve attended, I remember the palpable joy of seeing two people I love coming together. I remember the personal touches of the ceremonies. I remember the families beaming with pride, the uninhibited dancing, the loosen-your-tie conversations at the end of the night that feel like they last until dawn. And I have absolutely no idea what I ate.
I’m an unabashed foodie, I have strong opinions about what I eat, and I was thrilled with the fun, creative, and dietary-restriction-accommodating dinner that Chef Aaron Coon and the Zack Bruell team served at our wedding. But with the possible exception of the legendary Tommy’s milkshakes that we got delivered to the dance floor, I doubt any of our guests fully remember what they ate. Unless it’s meaningful to you, spare the expense of a formal dinner and have a casual buffet.
People truly want to get you gifts
When we got engaged, we weren’t interested in having a wedding registry. We’d already lived together for years so we didn’t need any basic linens or appliances, and when we said that our guests’ presence was enough of a present we really meant it. However, within a few months, we learned that our loved ones weren’t asking for our wish list out of obligation, but because people really like giving wedding gifts.
As unnatural and immodest as it may feel, you’re not being presumptuous when you make a registry. You’re doing your guests a favor! This is your opportunity to replace your college kitchenware with nice things that will last for decades. It’s your chance to ask for things that you don’t need, or that you can’t bring yourself to buy but will be glad you have. It’s also a wonderful feeling when you use a gift and think of the person who gave it to you. (Even if you think you’ll remember, make sure to write it down; you’ll be glad you had things itemized when it’s time to write thank-you cards.)
Be prepared for COVID disruptions
On July 4, 2021 — two months before our wedding — Joe Biden declared America’s independence from COVID-19. As if on cue, the more-virulent and -dangerous Delta variant started surging around the world shortly thereafter. Within a couple weeks, we went from wondering if our vaccine requirement was really necessary to questioning whether we should have the wedding at all. Dozens of people who were planning to attend backed out over safety concerns. We eventually decided to ask our guests to take a test before they came, and despite our fears that they would be upset about that at a time when antigen tests were still generally hard to find, we heard nothing but gratitude for the extra precautions we took.
Many Americans are done caring about the pandemic, even as the U.S. sees thousands of deaths from it every week and accessing vaccines remains a hurdle (to say nothing of the rest of the world). If you’re one of them, I don’t expect to change your mind, nor am I going to tell you not to host an event where everyone presumably understands that their attendance comes with some risk. Having said that, even if you’re done with COVID, there may be people on your invite list who will back out if transmission rates go up, or who will stay home if they have cold symptoms that they would previously have ignored, or whose flights get cancelled thanks to pandemic-related staff shortages. Get a group of even a few dozen people together right now and there’s a good chance someone will be contagious — which is why most of the post-pandemic weddings I’ve heard about that didn’t ask guests to swab before they came ended up to be spreader events. You probably have loved ones who are at increased risk for serious illness, and implementing some degree of safety precautions could spare them the difficult choice between their health and your wedding.
If you’re reading this for advice on your own upcoming wedding, I sincerely hope that this is less of a concern by the time you say your vows. But if recent history is any guide, be prepared for the pandemic to be a consideration on your special day.
People bend over backwards for you
I remember the moment when the reality that I was getting married set in. It was a few weeks before our wedding, and I had just arrived for my scheduled appearance at Lizzie’s bridal shower. As I walked up the driveway to my soon-to-be mother-in-law’s backyard, I couldn’t believe what I saw: Dozens of people from every corner of both of our lives, the whole lawn set up with tables and personalized decorations, and a mountain of gifts that looked like Santa Claus had set up a workshop in Crate & Barrel. It was truly overwhelming to realize how much work our loved ones had put into making us feel special.
The way everyone around you makes an effort to care for you when you get married is something I’ve never experienced before. It was so pervasive that it disarmed my reflexive self-consciousness about receiving that kind of attention and continuously warmed my heart. It’s in the big things, like having a hundred-odd loved ones travel to Ohio on your behalf, or being vaguely aware that people are taking care of last-minute logistics while shielding you from the stress. It’s also in the small things, like my groomsmen surprising me with an Asiago bagel the morning of in honor of our dog. It’s a feeling everyone should get to experience, and one I’ll never forget.
It’s hard to spend time with people
So you’ve gathered your friends and family from near and far for your special day. You can’t wait to catch up with everyone! But you’d better talk fast. If there are 100 people at your wedding and you want to talk to all of them, that works out to maybe two minutes per person over the course of the reception — assuming you’re not wasting time with frivolous things like pictures, dancing, eating, or catching your breath with your new spouse. So good luck getting in your proper face time.
The most-helpful piece of advice I heard when we got engaged, which I will now pass along to you, is to make your ancillary events as inclusive as possible. Eschew the bridal-party-only rehearsal dinner and host a backyard barbecue for anyone to drop by. Pick a spot near the reception where people can gather afterwards. If there’s a main hotel where travelers are staying, bring breakfast the next morning so you can give them a bagel and a hug before they head home. If your wedding is out of town, throw a casual local celebration a couple weeks later to accommodate those who can’t make the trip (this also helps if you still feel bad about leaving anyone off the main invite list). Make chances to visit with your loved ones a priority as you allocate your budget.
Something will go wrong
It doesn’t matter how many months or years of work you put into your special day, or how meticulously detailed your schedule is, or how many contingencies you’ve anticipated: Something is going to throw a monkey wrench into your plans. Maybe a vendor flakes at the last minute. Maybe a VIP misses their flight. Maybe it starts to pour right before your outdoor ceremony starts. You can at least take comfort in the fact that something seemingly disastrous happens to everyone, and what feels like a catastrophe to you might not even register as a problem to your guests.
It’s all worth it
The most-common suggestion we heard when we got engaged was to just elope. As I reflect on my own advice in his essay, I feel like I’m inadvertently proving their point. Spending tons of money, possibly hurting non-invitees’ feelings, negotiating COVID protocols, and knowing that some unexpected problem is certain to arise — it’s a whole lot of stress! But then you’re there in the moment, and you understand why people say they are the best days of their lives. The best way to describe how I felt at our wedding was that Lizzie and I were bouncing around in a pinball machine, and all the bumpers are people that we love. Drink it all in in the moment, and then savor the memories for a lifetime.
You’ll know how to help others
A funny thing happens the first time you go to someone else’s wedding after having your own: You picture yourself in the couple’s shoes. More to the point, you instinctively recognize things you can do to make the happy couple happier. At weddings we’ve been to over the last year, we’ve made it our mission to help the newlyweds stay fed and hydrated throughout the evening. We’ve shepherded people towards reception activities that weren’t getting much use. We were even asked to plug in our cocktail-hour playlist when the couple had technical problems with their own music. When you get the chance to make someone else’s wedding as special as possible, you’ll be excited to say “I do.”
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