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The Road to “I Do”

A thrifty couple’s guide to having your cake and eating it, too

Come this fall, I am officially adding strategic planner to my resume. After moving, working two jobs and planning a wedding from 700 miles away, I’ve earned it.
    Some couples hire a wedding planner to help design their special day from top to bottom. My fiancé and I knew from the start we’d be taking on the planning ourselves. So when I got engaged, I started by reading magazines and web blogs. These resources can be a great help, but they lured me into a false sense of confidence. Doing this yourself is a lot of work. Don’t get me wrong: It’s an exciting time, but keeping so many balls in the air takes serious organizational finesse.
    As a bride-to-be, I’ve been determined to create a wedding that is true to my fiancé and me and sustainable for our finances, family, friends and our planet. By sharing my experience, I hope to help other ambitious brides create their own dream weddings.

About Us

My fiancé and I met in graduate school at Duke University, where we were both pursuing master’s degrees in environmental management. From friends, we quickly evolved into something more. Four years later, he popped the question in front of the Jefferson Memorial in D.C.
    Surprised with a photographer to capture the moment, an antique ring I had fallen in love with (that he had hidden in our closet for two years), some beautiful words and a round of applause from the onlookers, I said Yes. It was perfect.
    That was April 2015. We have been wedding planning almost nonstop since, first from D.C. and most recently from our new home in ­Cambridge, Mass.
    My fiancé and I both work in the environmental field, I most recently at Chesapeake Conservancy in Annapolis. We are both conscious consumers. We wanted our wedding to support local businesses, have a very natural feeling and be as gentle on the earth as possible. Through all our planning and decision-making, these values were non-negotiables.

Let the Planning Begin

Get out a new notebook, start a Google Doc or buy a pocket calendar; it’s about to get organized in here! Whatever works for you, use it to track conversations, contracts, payment deadlines and lingering questions. Keep it all organized and in one place. In the future you will appreciate your organization.
    I’ll talk you through my notebook, now nearly full. But first, a few general guidelines.
    Decide up front what wedding elements are most important to you and your fiancé. Develop a budget accordingly. Track your monetary commitments as you go to avoid surprises later.
    The internet is your friend. Good places to start are and Pinterest is also great for figuring out your style, colors and décor.
    Be willing to make tradeoffs. It was important to us to have a seated meal, but we were perfectly happy with a DJ instead of a band. Making compromises in some places will allow you to comfortably spend more funds in others.
    Ask for references. Hell hath no fury like a disappointed bride, so you are likely to get very honest responses. We have done this for most of our vendors, and it has been hugely helpful.
    Don’t overextend yourself financially. If it sounds too expensive, it probably is. The wedding business is priced through the roof, but there are great options if you’re willing to look around and think outside the box.

Where to Marry

Start with choosing your venue.
    For us, this was easy. In graduate school, we spent countless hours exploring the Sarah P. Duke Gardens adjacent to Duke’s campus. That’s where we wanted to tie the knot.
    Popular wedding venues book up quickly, especially in the spring and summer, so we traveled to Durham to secure our spot right away. Even a year and a half in advance, only two Saturdays were available in October 2016.
    If you don’t have such strong feelings, think about places special to you as a couple: a favorite city, vineyard or ambiance. As you dream, consider the time of year you want to marry, the number of guests, whether they will be willing to travel and your budget. Then, visit the contenders.
    Walk the grounds, talk to the staff and envision your day. Some venues require that you use pre-approved caterers and services, which may be a deal-breaker for you.
    Once you book the spot, you can dive into the details.

The Caterer

Catering was our next stop. Duke Gardens had a limited list of approved caterers, which made our decision easy. We were flexible on the cuisine, as long as most was sourced locally. Ultimately, we chose the caterer that presented us with a menu that spoke to our tummies and to our worldview.
    If you have a particular food preference, let that guide you. And, if you’re nearby, definitely meet with caterers in person and try their food.
    Next came choosing between a seated dinner and a buffet. Each has tradeoffs. Buffets generally have lower costs for wait staff but may require you to order more of each dish. Buffets tend to be cheaper overall, but seated dinners seem more elegant. After a lengthy debate, that’s what we choose. All our guests will be coming from out of town, so we felt it important to treat them to a relaxing meal.

The Dress

My dress gave me the most anticipatory heartburn. I am not one to spend a lot of money on clothes, especially on clothes I will only wear once.
    My mother eased my pain with her suggestion of Cherie Amour Bridal Resale in Howard County’s Historic Savage Mill. Cherie Amour sells donated wedding, bridesmaid and mother-of dresses. All proceeds benefit Success In Style, an organization that works to dress people in crisis for employment.
    I saw my perfect dress in the window. Originally priced at more than $4,000, it cost me $550. Mom and I had a special afternoon together, and I was smitten with both my dress and helping others.
    Whether you find your dress at a bridal salon, your mother’s cedar chest or a bargain alternative, remember that you will need fitting and tailoring, so include those funds in your budget.


Making this decision was fun. Hours of looking through photos online helped us decide on a style that suited our wedding vibe and venue. With those elements and our price point, it was easy to find a photographer that fit our needs. Again, online reviews and phone calls to discuss our vision were invaluable.
    Be on the lookout for specials. During the month we booked, our photographer was offering a free engagement shoot. We hadn’t planned on engagement photos, so this was a happy surprise — and a rehearsal for getting past feeling awkward.


Flowers can really rack up your tab if you’re not careful. We found that smaller operations tend to be more reasonably priced. We also supported a small business by choosing a mother-daughter team who grow flowers in their back yard. Their passion for flowers was infectious, as was their delight in using flowers to bring joy to others. It was a perfect fit.
    Using local, seasonal flowers helps cut both costs and your carbon footprint. But the flower industry is weather-dependent, so you need to be flexible. If a flower we want isn’t blooming when we marry, our florist won’t be able to use it. We were fine with that, but you should let your florist know your must-have flowers.


Music was the hardest booking from afar. We knew we’d hire a DJ, but it would be sight unseen. Online reviews and references saved our day — we hope. I’d rather have trusted my ears, and I hope you can.

Hair and Makeup

I knew I’d need help with my hair, and I trolled photos on Pinterest to decide on the look I wanted. Then, I found stylists that demonstrated my aesthetic and chose the one I felt most comfortable with over the phone. I’ll visit Durham before the wedding for a trial run.
    In terms of makeup, I decided to invest in some good makeup and training, rather than a makeup artist for the big day. I went to a makeup store for lessons from a professional, which I see as an investment in my bridal shower, bachelorette party and rehearsal, as well as my wedding.

Plus …

I wish I could say our planning is complete, but we still have a few decisions to make, including choosing our wedding rings. Despite my best planning, others will come up. Yet so far, my type-A personality, obsessive organizing and thorough note-taking is paying off. I look ahead confident that we will have created a wedding true to our ethic and to ourselves, happily shared with our best friends and family.
    Good luck to you, too!