You don't need to break the bank to host a dream wedding. I did it for $780.
I proposed to my boyfriend over email. Actually, he was just cc'd on the email, which was directed to his parents and mine. "Theoretically, would you be available to come to D.C. for a wedding on Sept. 24?" it read. Moments after hitting "send," my phone rang. "Congratulations!" my dad said. "Now you have to call your grandma to tell her the big news."
"What news?" I asked.
"That you're engaged!" my dad said.
"Well, I should probably wait until I hear back from Steve," I said.
I wasn't too worried. We'd been together for eight years, and we definitely wanted to get married. What we couldn't figure out was how to do the wedding.
The main problem was the guest list. Steve's family is small, while mine is enormous. That's because the Hay clan grows the normal way, through birth and marriage, while the Dingfelder family expands primarily through divorce. We don't allow anyone's ex to just drift away. We keep inviting them to birthday parties and bat mitzvahs, and if they get remarried and have kids, fantastic! They're invited, too. A generation or two later, no one can recall exactly how we are related to, say, the Baydins or the Sauers, but if you don't include them in your wedding, feelings will be hurt.
Then there are my friends. I have a lot, which may have something to do with the fact that I was deeply unpopular as a child. These days, I hoard friends the way people who lived through the Great Depression hoard cash - I'd stash spares in my mattress if they didn't make such a fuss. I make new friends in line at the grocery store, and Steve has learned that when I say, "my best friend," I can mean any of five different women. I've been a maid of honor four times and a best man once. I don't even accept invitations to be a regular bridesmaid anymore; it's beneath me.
As a result, my most ruthlessly paired-down guest list was more than 100 people, which put our wedding budget well north of the national average of $33,391. No matter how I looked at it, it seemed as if we would be required spend a huge chunk of money or leave out a lot of important people.
This realization had us stuck for years - until one night when I was at a local dive bar and inspiration struck. My friend Eli's cover band was playing a show where audience members get to pretend to be the lead singer - a concept called "live band karaoke" - and it occurred to me that my family would love this. In fact, my dad has been known to sing on stage, uninvited, in non-karaoke contexts.
"I figured out how to do our wedding!" I drunk-texted Steve.
Instead of renting a venue, we could just tell everyone to go to Eli's band's next show. "We can invite everyone we know, and all they have to do is pay the $5 cover to get in," I explained to Steve. Our cost: Nothing, except a well-earned reputation for being cheapskates.
Steve requested a few additions: a small ceremony in a local park and a luncheon afterward.
"Deal!" I said.
Once that was settled, I just had to wait for Eli's band to schedule a performance. The moment they did, I sent that email - the one my dad got excited about. Planning the wedding only took a few hours: I bought a white dress online, made a Facebook invitation and called it a day.
My best friends couldn't believe I'd finished so quickly. "Who's doing your hair," asked Tori, a public relations vice president who always looks impeccable. "What are you doing for music?" my best friend Sybil chimed in. "What about the Baydins?" my dad asked. "You have to invite the Baydins!"
I was quickly discovering that people have a lot of expectations about weddings, and I didn't want to disappoint anyone. So I made a general announcement: If you want something specific to happen at my wedding, plan it and surprise me.
Steve didn't notice my lazy outsourcing until moments before we walked down the aisle. We were sitting on a couch in our apartment, waiting for a text from Tori.
"Where are we going, exactly?" Steve asked.
"I don't know," I said.
The park I'd picked out had been taken over by a nationally televised cook-off. My mom tried to talk them into moving, but they wouldn't budge, because they had permits and paid for the space. As a result, the wedding was slightly delayed as my friends scouted for an alternative location.
"Aren't you worried?" Steve asked.
"Nah," I said, and it was mostly true. Sybil and Tori are women who, in their professional lives, command large staffs and million-dollar budgets. Finding a patch of unoccupied grass and herding a dozen people there was well within their abilities, I reasoned.
Eventually, Tori texted me with instructions to go to another park, one that featured a gorgeous white pavilion that looked like it had been made for weddings. Clutching a bouquet of roses (a delivery from a friend who couldn't make it), I walked behind my two self-appointed flower girls, picture-perfect in matching dresses that were much more expensive than mine.
As we approached the pavilion, we heard an insistent buzzing, like a swarm of angry bees - a sound that turned out to be a chorus of kazoos playing Wagner's "Bridal Chorus." Sybil was conducting our friends and family members with the precision that you'd expect from a former drum major. It was perfect, and I was weeping the entire time.
I won't bore you with the details of the reception - but just know it was a killer party, the kind where people get together the next day to piece together what happened. Did my 86-year-old grandma really get on stage with a bunch of my friends and sing "I Touch Myself"? Did someone really show up with a basket of warm pot brownies? Did Steve and I get cheered by hoards of strangers as we walked down the street at 3 a.m. in our wedding clothes? Yes, yes and yes! Best night ever.
All told, we spent $780 for my dream wedding ($30 for the dress plus $750 for the family luncheon). But we got a lot more than we paid for. Our bare-bones approach inspired friends and family to fill in the blanks with their special talents and skills, and that made the day a delightful surprise.
It reminded me of a story my dad used to read to me, a children's book where a clever pig tells a village of animals that he can make soup from a stone, and the intrigued villagers throw in so many garnishes, they end up feasting on a hearty stew.
I was even luckier than that pig, because my stone soup wasn't just made by friends and family. Strangers pitched in, too.
"This goes out to the bride and groom," shouted some guy I'd never met, before launching into a spirited rendition of "Living on a Prayer."
"He's good," my grandma shouted over the music. "How do you know him?"
"Oh, we go way back," I said.
Author information: I'm the "Staycationer," author of a biweekly column reviewing tourist hotspots in the Washington, D.C. area. I also preview upcoming performances and write quirky and fun feature stories.