How to Plan an Epic Wedding Step by Step

Updated: Feb 15

The Complete Wedding Checklist for Every Bride-to-Be

Most of us dream of our wedding day long before we even get engaged. It’s easy to envision the perfect wedding, whether it’s a Hawaiian-themed beachfront celebration, or a candlelit evening in a rustic manor. However, planning the wedding of your dreams takes hard work, patience, and a considerable amount of cash. As a bride-to-be, you’re in for an eventful year (or two) of wedding planning. There’s a lot to consider when planning your epic wedding, but it doesn’t have to be a stressful process. With the right amount of guidance, wedding planning can be almost as exciting as the big day. Use this guide as your comprehensive wedding survival kit and get inspired.   

Step 1: Set Your Wedding Budget and Stick to It!

Hashing out your wedding budget should be at the top of your wedding planning checklist. If you don’t know how much you can afford to spend, you can’t even begin planning. Of course, money conversations are never fun, but when you’re planning the most important day of your life, budgeting is vital. Pro tip: Use NerdWallet's Wedding Budget Calculator to see how your wedding costs add up.

Crunch the numbers for both your budget and guest list as early as possible, because they affect each other (and the rest of your wedding planning) in a serious way.

Sure, there are many other wedding essentials that contribute to a wedding budget. You have your venue, catering, decor, rentals...and let’s not forget services provided by vendors. Out of just those five vital wedding elements, four are entirely contingent on the guest list. Eighty percent of wedding costs are determined and impacted by the number of guests!

One often overlooked expense is your marriage license. Believe it or not, you can save money, get you license for free, or in some instances, end up with more money in your pocket. Here is a Pro tip: A number of states offer incentives, usually in way of a hefty discount in the marriage license fee, in addition to allowing couples to skip a 3-day mandatory waiting period. All you would have to do is take an approved premarital course, some are 100% online, and show an official certificate of completion from a certified provider. That’s all. Some providers charge a fraction of the discount you will receive in your marriage license, leaving money in your pocket.

Start by researching average wedding costs for your area. Newlyweds in California spend around $33,000 to tie the knot, while a wedding in the Sunshine State costs roughly $21,000. These regional expenses are especially important to understand if you’re considering a destination wedding!

Here’s how much you should allot for each main wedding expense in your wedding budget:

Wedding Reception (food, beverages, rentals, and site): 40 percent to 50 percent

Flowers: 10 percent

Photography and/or Videographer: 10 percent

Bride's and groom's attire: 5 percent to 10 percent

Music: 5 percent to 10 percent

Wedding planner or coordinator: 10 percent to 15 percent

Miscellaneous (favors, transportation, etc.): 10 percent

Cushion: 5 percent to 15 percent

Once you’ve determined your wedding budget, it's time for you and your fiancé to have an open, respectful talk about how much you can actually afford. Whether to include others in this conversation depends on who will be contributing to the wedding. Though more and more couples are paying their own way, it's still common for the bride's and groom's parents to take care of at least some of the expenses.

If you and your partner are financing your wedding on your own, sit down and discuss realistic ways to save up for the big day. You can put a dent in your wedding budget by saving 20 percent from every paycheck. The longer your engagement, the more time you’ll have to save. Even with a relatively short engagement, you can still save up a decent amount of money by limiting your spending on extraneous purchases or activities.

This means getting in the habit of making your own coffee before work and skipping those $6 lattes and abstaining from lavish date nights in lieu of watching Netflix with a bowl of homemade popcorn. Keep the big picture in mind when planning your wedding. Your wedding is one of the most special days of your life and living frugally is a small price to pay for the wedding of your dreams.

Step 2: The Guest List

Wedding Guest List Creation:

If you or your partner make tips at work, consider putting those extra funds aside for miscellaneous spending. Depending on how much you need for your wedding budget, consider taking on a side hustle: Walking dogs, babysitting, tutoring, and even taking online surveys are simple ways to supplement your income. If you’re lucky enough to have extra space in your home, consider becoming an Airbnb host. You have to invest some time and energy into hospitality and customer service, but you’ll quickly reap the financial benefits. If you’re planning on asking relatives for help with wedding costs, make sure to speak with them about your wedding budget as soon as possible. There are other ways for your family and close friends to help offset wedding costs, too. Think of all the talented and passionate people in your network who could potentially help out with your wedding day. Is your best friend from college a skilled graphic designer? See if she’s interested in designing your wedding invitations! Ask for vendor recommendations from any newlywed friends (you’re more likely to get a discount as a referred client). You can even ask a close friend to officiate the wedding. Asking your loved ones to donate their time and talents can seem daunting, but typically your friends will be flattered by the request. As a show of good faith, offer to pay for their services (even if they don’t ask), and send them a thoughtful, personalized thank-you gift after the big day.

Make an A, B, and C list

Once you, your spouse, and your parents have finished your individual lists, combine everything into a master list. A wedding guest list manager, like this one from The Knot, can allow everyone involved in planning to make changes and see updates in real-time. Next, assign each guest on the master list a priority of A, B, or C. This sounds harsh - nobody wants to think of assigning priority status to their loved ones - but it’s beneficial for everybody involved, especially if your master list exceeds your venue capacity or budget requirements. If ten people from your A list can’t attend, you’ll know exactly who to invite next. A List – Close family and friends that must be at the ceremony, especially members of the bridal party. B List – Additional friends, extended family, and professional friends that you are planning to invite. C List – Guests that would be nice to have at your wedding if your budget allows.

Step 3 Research Your Wedding Venue Options

Take into consideration what's included in the venue's cost and site fees. Some venues include tables, chairs, china, flatware and glassware—but if their items don't fit your vision for the day, you'll eventually have to rent everything anyway. That venue could be comparable to another that doesn't include anything at all. Once you’ve thoroughly read your ceremony and reception venue’s contract and signed on the dotted line, you’ve officially set a date for your wedding—and the real fun begins! Check out wedding venues here

Step 4: Set a Wedding Date

Choosing a wedding date is a little bit like playing Tetris. Your wedding date is contingent upon your venue’s availability, as well as any vendors you absolutely want to use for your wedding. Even your guest list can be a factor: Make sure to check with your closest friends and family members before scheduling a date. It would be a shame to set a date only to find out your Maid of Honor has a scheduling conflict. To help you decide which planning order is best for you, we’ll take you through each of the two scenarios:

Option #1: Set a Specific Date First

If you and your spouse have tight work schedules, or if you’re determined to get married on a certain date, prioritize the date before searching for venues. That way, you’ll be able to easily eliminate venues that are booked on that date. Of course, this limits your options in terms of venues (and vendors). These days, it’s not uncommon to reserve a wedding venue years before the actual wedding date. If the date matters most, be prepared to make sacrifices in terms of your venue location and style. (Pro tip: see the most popular wedding dates of the year)

Option #2: Find a Dream Venue or Vendor First

You may be set on having your wedding at a certain venue or hiring a specific photographer or other vendor for your wedding. Maybe you got engaged at the beach, and you dream of having your wedding on the sand in the Hamptons. If it’s important to have a particular vendor, you’ll need to work with their schedule. Securing your dream venue or vendor is absolutely possible, but you may need to extend your engagement and adjust your guest list. If you are committed to a particular space or wedding vendor, these compromises will be worth it. Once you've got an approximate wedding date, start scouting venues. Research pricing and guest capacity ahead of time, so you’ll be able to tour wedding venues that can accommodate your wedding needs. It’s a good idea to start writing down your preferences, too. Do you want a space that has a large, indoor dance hall? Will your wedding ceremony and reception be held at the same venue, or do you need to reserve two spaces? Some couples will want to get married at their house of worship and shuttle guests to the venue - in this case, you should research local wedding transportation services, as well. Figure out the type of reception style you prefer—formal seated, buffet, cocktail party, or food stations. And it’s always smart to have a contingency plan in case of bad weather.

Step 5: Choosing Bridesmaids

It’s often the first thing that comes to mind after saying, “I do”: Who’s going to be your Maid of Honor? Perhaps you’ve been thinking about your bridal party long before you met your spouse, or maybe it’s just now crossing your mind. Either way, when it comes to determining your wedding party, you’re going to want to take time to consider every factor - Don’t just invite the first five friends who congratulate your engagement on Facebook! Think of the role you want your wedding party to play: Is it important that they’re available to help with the logistics, like addressing wedding invites and calling vendors; Do you want to make sure your bridesmaids and groomsmen are already close friends; Will you be hosting get-togethers, like bridal brunches, that require everybody to live relatively nearby?

To ease the stress of choosing your wedding party, apply the same “A, B, C” method as you used for your guest list. Spend time with your spouse discussing who you absolutely want to have involved in your wedding party. Your sister-in-law may not be your best friend (yet) but it’s probably better to ask her to be one of your bridesmaids than your sorority sister. Of course, there’s no limit to the amount of people in a bridal party, but you and your future spouse likely have an idea of what feels right.

If it’s important that you each have the same number of bridesmaids and groomsmen, it’s good to have a few friends on standby just in case. If you really want to ask your best friend who lives in Ireland to be the Maid of Honor for your California wedding, be sure to have a backup plan. It’s possible that some people may have financial restrictions, so take this into consideration if you plan on asking your bridesmaids to buy $600 gowns or throw you an expensive bachelorette party in Vegas.

Like every other part of planning an epic wedding, you will be glad you took the time to carefully consider your wedding party options.

On the big day, don’t sweat the small stuff

No matter how much effort you put into planning the perfect wedding, things will go awry. Any professional wedding planner will tell you that it’s impossible to account for every possible issue. So, on your big day, don’t sweat the small stuff. Years from now, you won’t remember if the table settings were the wrong color. What you will remember is how happy you felt walking down the aisle or sharing your first dance. Ready to start planning your wedding? Start by choosing a wedding planner.

Credits. Noël McGrath Photography.

Dr. Liliana Wolf, psychotherapist, former professor of psychology and international relationship expert, has been preparing couples for marriage at her Coral Gables office for over 20 years. She is an approved and certified provider of online premarital courses in all states extending incentives. Favored by couples about to be married, her courses have achieved a consistent 5-star rating, positioning her in the top 1% in sales of online courses by the Teachable platform worldwide. Ranked at the top 1% in the specialty of marriage and family nationwide by HealthGrades, Dr. Wolf is at the top of her game both as a clinician and professor.