I’m Engaged!!! Now What?!?

          A wedding can be one of the most exciting, and most stressful, times of your life! The stressful part, of both weddings and life in general, is honestly, almost always, of our own making though!

 << enter stage left >> Life Lessons on Flexibility & Priorities

        This still doesn’t change the fact that at some point every one of us finds our head spinning at the thought of venues… photographers… the bridal party… catering… invitations… accommodations… décor… cake tastings… menu choices… gift registries… entertainment… the dress… and let’s not even talk about the cost of all of those things (at least not yet). The list is seemingly endless, and it all can be more than overwhelming! In this blog series, I’ll do my best to help you see ways you can eliminate the stress, enjoy the experience, and not miss any of the important details on your journey towards wedded bliss! So, what’s my advice for the first things to do now that you’re engaged?

Secure your venue as soon as you’re ready.

          If you’ve had your heart set on a wedding at a certain place, season, day, or time, for as long as you can remember, it’s going to be even more important to secure your venue as far in advance as possible.  If that isn’t an option because your wedding is happening sooner than later, get in the mindset now, and plan to be very flexible when it comes to compromising to get what’s most important to you. It helps if you take some time to consider and really determine what your true priorities are, and likewise, what doesn’t really matter to you before you start visiting venues and making concrete plans! I know, it can feel like EVERYTHING has to be perfect, but trust me, your happiness will far outweigh the little things! As long as you get the important parts perfect, the tiny mishaps will be little more than entertainment!

          If you’re not dead set on any of the significant elements, the process probably still won’t be “easy” because, well, your options will be endless, but you can get started narrowing those down by researching as many venues as possible that fall within your budget, style, and location requirements. Once you’ve narrowed down your options, choose at least 3 of your top prospects to visit in person before you make any final decisions. An in-person visit can reveal so much that pictures and information on a website just can’t give you. The venue itself is going to drive a great deal of the “feel” of your wedding. You want the venue you choose to not just look right “on paper”, but also to genuinely feel like it’s the place your wedding was meant to take place.

          There are a few prerequisites to finding the right venue. Surprisingly to many, having your wedding date set actually isn’t one of them. If you’re in the early stages, flexibility when it comes to the date of your wedding can really work in your favor. Options for scheduling will almost always open new doors in venue availability and budgeting. Many venues don’t advertise it, but rates can change from day to day! A site at my wedding venue was $50,000 for one day, and only $15,000 on another! Which brings us to what IS important before you begin your venue search endeavors, and that is knowing your budget, and having a tentative guest count!

Set and Stick to a Budget

          Your venue will most likely be the biggest wedding expense you have.  Typically, the cost of the venue accounts for about 40% of most wedding budgets. This is a great starting point for the price range you should begin looking in as you’re researching venues. It’s important, however, to look closely at what each venue includes in their price. Similar rates can yield vastly different services. For my own wedding, for example, the venue provided all of the food, drinks, cocktail hour service, a day of coordinator, and our suite the night of our wedding. Though the rates seemed pretty darn high, (in all it was upwards of $250 per person), when I accounted for the discounted ceremony site fee, no reception room charge, having an AMAZING menu, full top-shelf open bar, Viennese table, and late night snack service, as well as the day of coordinator, a fully staffed reception, our honeymoon suite, and all taxes, fees, and gratuities, it was absolutely a great deal compared to the cost of many weddings!

          What we paid for all of those things in an upscale oceanfront resort would barely cover your site fee at a beautiful “barn wedding” venue, and you would still need food, drinks, service, accommodations, etc. Sometimes larger entities can offer a lot more bang for your buck, not because they’re better, but simply because with more resources, there is more they can offer and include. They already employ the staff, chefs, and servers, and already stock the food and drinks so you aren’t having to pay someone else to bring those things in.  I make this point for one reason only, don’t automatically write off your dream wedding venue thinking it’s not financially possible, without getting all of the details. Many venues have options not listed on their websites or on their event literature, so always, at least check into it and ask!

          At my venue, I was able to choose from multiple ceremony sites, each requiring a different food and beverage “minimum”, meaning as long as you spend x dollars, the site is included. The oceanfront ceremony site I liked the most was WAY out of budget for my intimate wedding of less than 40 people.  Being flexible, I chose another gorgeous spot, that was actually a lot more “fairytale” but somehow in our budget.  It was a grand courtyard, with a HUGE staircase entry. Way too “center of attention” for my level of comfort and definitely not quite as intimate as I would’ve preferred, but I thought, “go big or go home!” My contract came with a clause that should the oceanfront spot still be available within a few weeks of my wedding, I could “upgrade” to it for free. The most important thing to me that day was friends, family, and the man waiting for me at the end of the aisle. Everything else was just “cake”, including that oceanfront ceremony site that we indeed ended up getting! Our reception site wasn’t listed anywhere I’d seen prior to visiting the resort either, but it ended up being one of the best locations on the property! It also happened to be right next to our ceremony and closest to the ocean.

          Decide what’s most important to you, what you’d ideally like if “you could have it all”, and what you are willing to spend in advance. When you visit each of your top venue choices, don’t be afraid to share that information freely, and simply ask your venue representative if they have any suggestions or options that might not be listed!  They are in the business of helping and can work miracles when given the opportunity.  You can almost always have what you want and still start your marriage off on the right foot, without going way over budget or in debt (don’t forget that finances are one of the top reported sources of marital conflict). Some of the most beautiful and touching weddings I’ve ever been to were absolutely not the most expensive! I’ve also been to weddings that were definitely “just for show” and less than authentic.  The LOVE between the two of you is what truly matters and what makes a marriage work, not the picture perfect image. Money might buy one, but definitely won’t get the other!

Decide on the Number of Guests

          This is the first question almost any vendor is going to ask (even your wedding officiant)! The number of guests always gives us a significant clue as to what the day will look like. Discuss how many guests you’ll need to plan for (with whomever you need to) to get a ballpark number in mind before you start the process. Spreadsheets aren’t necessary at this stage even if you are a type A! There will be plenty of late nights for those later! Our first guest list started on a napkin at Buffalo Wild Wings! I still have the spreadsheets. Now I wish I’d kept that napkin!

          Once you’re physically writing names down, you’ll see that the numbers start to climb quickly! That first instinct of an intimate group of 30, can turn into a list of 100+ once you start considering all of your family, friends, other significant acquaintances, and children that will likely attend! We knew we wanted to do more for our guests, so that meant we would really have to be “choosy” in who we invited, but it was a sacrifice we were willing to make. If people truly love you, they will always understand, no matter what the circumstances are, and others will never understand regardless of what the circumstances are. Pay close attention to which of those two categories people fall into.  Act accordingly, and you’ll save yourself a lot of heartache, not just in this process, but in life in general!  

          Your anticipated number of guests will influence a lot about your wedding, not just cost. Be sure to spend some time considering the effect the number of people attending will have on how you want to remember that day and how you want to spend those few precious hours! I will always greet, speak to, and thank every guest who attends a party I host. My wedding would be no different. That alone, made a wedding of 100+ something I was not interested in. If you are the same way, it’s definitely food for thought!

          Numbers not only directly affect your catering costs, but will also trickle down into every minute detail, from the number of invitations you have to purchase, to programs, menus, place cards, welcome bags, and how many favors you’re up all night prepping (or paying someone else to prep for you!). That “what the heck, the more the merrier” feeling, won’t feel so merry, when you’re overwhelmed and cranky, getting everything ready for Karen to come to your wedding! Save yourself the headache from the get-go. Let Karen stay home and invest her “plate” on a random stock (Seriously, Robinhood.com (not sponsored) anyone can do it)! You’ll likely get a lot more return on your investment!

          Obviously, your significant other would be the first person to talk numbers with, but there quite possibly could be others involved in the decision as well. If a parent or someone else is helping foot the bill, they may have expectations of having a say so in the event. This is definitely something you want to be on the same page with your spouse about. Any family member, justified or not, with ideas that are a far cry from you and your fiancé, can really complicate things. Knowing what the two of you want, and being clear and committed to that vision can eliminate a lot of headache that can come with weddings that spiral out of control and take on a life of their own when there are too many cooks in the kitchen! After all, the day is 100% about the two of you and everyone else, no matter what they contribute, is a witness, there to share it. Weddings, and life, are all about compromise, but the great news is, that person by your side ensures you won’t have to go through either one alone! And if someone absolutely insists you invite Karen… well, just make sure you’re in charge of the seating chart!

Book your MIV (Most Important Vendor(s)

          Who is your MIV? Hands down, your photographer! I bet you thought I was going to say the officiant didn’t you! The one thing you will always find here, is I always keep it 100! (But do watch for my upcoming blog on ceremonies and officiating!) The wedding is exciting, but you will spend the rest of your life with just the memories! A great photographer will bring those memories to life every time you look at one of their photos. After a few years, even that wedding catastrophe might bring a smile to your face! Cue oceanfront gust of wind and smashed flower vases right in the middle of your ceremony! I honestly think that was the moment I finally relaxed! All I could do was laugh! We had the greatest ceremony!


P.S. Thank you for being an amazing Superhero/Best Man Pete!!! We love you!


          If you already know who you want to handle your photography, get them reserved for your date as soon as you can! If you’re not sure yet, again, start doing some research and looking at the “style” of photography you are most drawn to (I wanted a photographer(s) that took more of a journalistic approach, as opposed to a lot of staged, “posey” photos).  Not to imply anything is wrong with those.  I WISH I could comfortably take those gorgeous posed pics all of you do! I absolutely dread taking headshots! lol  I’m more of a live in the moment kind of person, and hope the pros catch all the good shots! The fellas at Subject One Photography were phenomenal for my wedding! They documented the entire day just like I’d hoped, they got all the funny moments, and so much I never would’ve seen had they not been so amazing.  Even during the “group” shots, I didn’t feel awkward.

           In terms of budget, most sources say you should expect to spend about 10-12% of your budget on photography, however this may be one of the areas (like food and drinks) where you choose to allot more. Just remember it’s your wedding, and you don’t have to follow anyone’s guidelines of what is typical. Everything should be personalized based on you as a couple! Your personal MIV could include other vendors as well if there is someone you just have to have (like an amazing officiant who always goes above and beyond).  Essentially, ANY “must have” for the big day should fall in this category and be a priority in the budget and in terms of booking!

          Yes, it’s usually the attire, décor, and any number of sparkly things that first come to our minds when thinking of our big day! But as the saying goes, “The devil is in the details!”, and that’s what the professionals are here for, helping you with all the details early in the planning process! Even though these first few topics may not be the most exciting ones to focus on, they are the base you need to start from in really getting things going in the right direction! By securing your venue, setting your budget, deciding on your tentative guest list, and booking your “MIV’s” you’ll be well on your way to a smooth wedding day!

          Let me be one of the first to congratulate you on your engagement! Whether I have the privilege of working with you or not, I wish you an amazing, stress-free journey from here to your wedding day! If I can help in any way, or if you are looking for an officiant that truly creates one-of-a-kind ceremonies, please don’t hesitate to get in touch! Thank you for reading, and I hope your big day and following marriage is the nothing short of the stuff dreams are made of!


Click here to see if J.J. is available for your ceremony!

J.J. Gray

The Traveling Officiant

(305) 890-1972


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