Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Wedding Lessons from my Birthday

This last weekend, I celebrated my 30th Birthday with a massive "adultified" kids party celebration. We had a neighborhood scavenger hunt (in case you're interested, here's the scavenger hunt list we created). We had an arts n' crafts table to decorate our crunk cups. We had beer floats (yes beer. And no, not watery Miller-type beer but substantial chocolate stout type beer.) We had cake. We had a barbecue potluck. We had prizes. We had a freaking blast.  Also, I had at least four stress attacks, some resentful how-the-heck-do-I-find-the-time-to-do-this freakout moments, and ultimately gained some insight into where my wedding planning might also go awry or could be improved.

Know your planning styles
Whereas I'm the creative thinker when it comes to entertaining, Jason is the person who makes everything happen. I am a dreamer and procrastinator, whereas Jason's Eagle Scout training means that we have appropriate food and supplies for camping trips, parties, and, frankly, in everyday life. I can make the to-do lists, but Jason actually makes sure they happen (and happen spectacularly, I might add) by figuring out how to approach each task systematically and with enough time. He is the person who makes me deal with guest lists and evite wording at 10pm after a long day of work when I'd prefer to whine instead (I don't, because I respect him. But I like wishing I could whine and procrastinate.) He is the person who divided up our party errand checklist and took on the brunt of the running around while I took on the brunt of cleaning and decorating. It works for us. And it's good to know how we work before we head into the nitty gritty of wedding to-do lists. I'll promise to research, plan, and not to whine if he promises to help organize the tasks and really make them happen. Then we'll both run around with our respective task lists. Yay.

Focus your expenses on what matters to you
It was more expensive than we'd planned on (see: decor example below). About halfway through May, when the costs kept adding up, we had to make some hard decisions. First, we decided that this was worth it to us, and that June can be more frugal in response. Also, we decided which corners to cut and which corners would remain splurges.

Corners we cut:
  • We provided one box of beers from Costco, chips, Jason's famous guacamole, some booze, three bottles of soda, and beer floats. No snacks or main courses. We made it a potluck for a reason. We wanted to host people but needed to make it affordable. We ended up with too many desserts and not enough vegetarian options, but people were warned and we did the best possible. No one complained (to me, at least) probably because we kept them well-liquored.
  • The 99 cent store is your friend. I don't like the disposablity of it, but it was perfect for our immediate needs  in buying plastic tablecloths (helped with cleaning and protecting our wood table from spills) for cheap scavenger hunt prizes, and paper plates. We saved a ton going the 99 cent store route.
  • Although I really wanted to get cake at either our neighborhood French bakery or the bakery where we got all our childhood birthday cakes from, it wasn't in the budget. We splurged on the beer floats (Guinness+coffee ice cream and chocolate stout +chocolate ice cream) so excellent cake lost out to kid-like white frosting from Ralphs (cheap at $18).
Corners we didn't cut, and why:
  • We splurged on reusable decor, as described below in more detail.
  • We splurged on silly prizes for the scavenger hunt from the 99 cent store, along with 79 cent gift bags. I could have cut these, but I really wanted the kids-party feel and silliness of the Race car toy (Subaru branded!) and poorly bedazzled rhinestone picture frames (to name two) as party prizes. It was an extra few dollars in disposable crap, but it set the tone of the party and I don't mind having done it. Next time, however, I'd probably leave off the gift bags and use a mystery grab-bag instead.
  • We splurged on buying supplies for our arts and crafts table. We bought large colorful cups for people to decorate, a glue gun, puff balls, a variety of stickers, glitter glue, pipe cleaners, rhinestones, and permanent markers. This. Was. SO. MUCH. FUN. I don't care that it cost a pretty penny. It was worth it. Also, we have some craft leftovers. If we don't use them for the wedding, they'll keep for future craft nights or an eventual rainy day fun box. This was worth every cent for the focus on people and fun.It was exactly the vibe I wanted from the house party and gave us leftover crafts to boot.
Our crunk cup craft table

If I had to to it again, I'd save money by: 
  • not having gift bags (even if they were brightly colored and pretty) 
  • not buying a cake (there was more than enough sugar from the potluck items) 
  • not messing up the decor order
  • buying less expensive cups (clear plastic wine glass pimp cups would have been fine) 
If I had to do it again, I'd splurge by:
Buying high-quality Classicware sturdy white plastic plates. My mother has a set of 100 that she washes and reuses for barbecues and large at-home casual entertaining without worrying about breakage or the landfill. She's had them for about 15 years now, so they've been well worth the initial investment. I saw them for about 50 cents apiece at a local party store but bet I could find them cheaper elsewhere. I don't love that they're plastic, but I like that they aren't disposable and yet they're party-friendly.

We enjoy hosting parties. So I decided that this party was a good excuse to buy decent party decor. We have a box of holiday-themed decorations that get used each year and we have a box of entertaining linens and vases of various sizes. Therefore, I decided to buy strands of papel picado and two mini pinatas that we could reuse for generally festive occasions throughout the next several years. However, after my last sad attempt at finding a pinata "somewhere downtown" and without any real time for shopping excursions, I threw money at the lack-of-time problem by eating $10 in shipping costs and ordered 10 strands of papel picado and two mini pinatas from Amols online.

Lessons Learned:
  • Read the fine print and don't order the large size papel picado. Just DON'T. In my zeal to get things done, I ordered the large without reading carefully and they're not just large, they are OH MY FREAKING GOODNESS MASSIVE at 18" x 13". Yes, they are larger than the largest office size paper, per panel. I had to send them back ($8 shipping, plus post office wait time) and order new medium-sized papel picado banners ($10 shipping). In total, I spent about $30 in shipping for my freaking decorations. At least I love them and know they'll be fondly reused again and again.
  • It's a good thing I love them, because we now have 10 strands. Maybe that sounds appropriate to you (it did to me), but please bear in mind that we only needed five stands to make our apartment fully festive. Five. That means about $20 wasted dollars (plus the darn shipping.) On the plus side, we loved the look enough that we're considering it for wedding decor, so the extra expense may well be worth it (and will cut down on the wedding budget.)  
  • Our decor was an unanticipated pain in the bum that didn't save time or money. However, we chose something reusable that we love and, since we entertain regularly, this expense was ultimately worthwhile for us. If you, however, don't give a darn about decor, remember to start early to avoid expense and pain-in-the-bum-ness and to remember that people barely paid attention and no one commented. I loved the look of the room, but everyone else couldn't have cared less. 
Focus on the people. Focus on the fun
We could have cut a lot, but those arts and crafts were worth every bit of expense and planning stress, if just as a way to break the ice between disparate groups of friends (both sitting at the craft table and as a conversation starter throughout the party) and to watch adults get excited about rhinestones and stickers. The scavenger hunt list was worth every hair-pulling night to explore the neighborhood and come up with great photo and question prompts because people had fun together and bonded. Those sorts of community-building moments are near priceless, and I wish I could repeat again every weekend.

Four of the final decorated cups

Ask your friends for help
We tried to handle the planning insanity ourselves, and yet everyone pitched in to help anyhow. I had one amazing girlfriend help with the craft table and another offer to do my makeup as a gift (it was so purty). People brought tons of homemade food and drink for the party. Someone brought flowers. Someone else brought an entire Oreo cake and cupcakes from Crumbs Bakery (so we didn't end up touching the Ralphs sheet cake.) The party was more amazing for our friends' contributions. They made it better than we could have done on our own because everyone wanted to pitch in and help with the celebration, which was truly the best part of all.

The clothes don't matter
One of those four stress-attacks might have been related to my attire. Or, more specifically, to the attire I didn't have because none of my clothes fit anymore and instead of buying a new wardrobe I'm paying for a wedding. For my 30th birthday, however, I wanted clothes that fit, although I waited until the last possible minute to admit this to myself (think: Friday afternoon before the party.) So I ran to a local inexpensive-ish boutique after work and found a convertible black jersey dress for $32 (Like this, but not from VC). Versatile! Cute! Re-wearable! Allowed me to show-of my new accessories! And no one noticed because it was chilly enough that I had to wear a wrap the entire time. Ha. I shouldn't have bothered stressing.

Things will go wrong.  Oh well.
My think-ahead stress-free decor plans went to heck. My girlfriend (who helped organize the craft table) had to leave at the beginning of the party due to a family emergency (okay in the end, thank goodness.) Our carefully balanced scavenger hunt teams went to heck when evite RSVPs betrayed us and people canceled and some new people showed up. Everyone finished the scavenger hunt and got photos or answers for all the questions - meaning there was no single team that won. We forgot to play pin the nose on the clown (the donkey and its tail were unavailable at the Party Store.) We never ate the birthday sheet cake because so many people brought other (and better) desserts.

And it was a blast anyhow (especially once I got the "everything is ok" text from my girlfriend.) We planned everything thoroughly and then had to sit back and let it happen. I'm happy I felt prepared going into the day (less stress), but I'm equally happy that we could be flexible in the moment (more fun.)

The detours are sometimes more fun than the plans
Two of the three teams stopped for a drink at the Locals bar (which was a stop on the scavenger hunt list.)  Our team did not. We, however, stopped for tacos at Skye's Tacos (which was also a stop on the scavenger hunt list.) These detours helped make the adventure worthwhile. Let the fun happen, even if it's unplanned.

Photos lie
We had an amazing time. The house looked festive and welcoming. We (I) matched the same bold fiesta color themes throughout the papel picado, tablecloths, gift bags, plates and napkins. But, well, it was still a mess. And, well, no one really cared anyhow since they just embraced the boozy fiesta feeling. But you wouldn't know that from a few well-chosen photos. So long as you have a photographer or friend who can capture one or two photo stunners, even a messy fiesta can somehow come off looking wedding blog worthy, though they may lose the honesty in their retelling of the day. Compare:

Evocative. Simple. Mexican-inspired fiesta theme.

The Mexican-decor mess. I ran out of time and patience to care how the papel picado went up. There were, um, gaps in my consistency and party implementation so, by 3pm, I threw the remaining banners up with an eff it attitude and no one cared.

Pretty light. Pretty flowers. Pretty crunk cup.

Much more realistic depictions of the crunk cup insanity, sans pretty light or elegant composition

We're prioritizing photography for our wedding, but I just wanted to make it clear that sometimes great photos are striking because they crop out the messy reality of the day. It's entirely possible to have both, and that's something we're striving for, but it's clear that photos easily lie, or at least fudge, and that knowledge can and should be a factor in making event photography decisions.
Although my birthday wasn't filled with the emotional intensity of a wedding, there's something incredibly special about having 30-40 friends who are willing to be absolutely silly with you as they celebrate your birthday. Six years ago, when I moved back to Los Angeles, I didn't know anyone here. My high school friends had moved away and I had to build a new friendship circle from scratch. My first birthday in Los Angeles was spent with two co-workers at the Ivy (their idea. Fun nonetheless, but never quite right-for-me.) At this birthday party, I was able to look around and really appreciate the life I've crafted for myself since then: an incredible partner, an apartment that feels like a home, and a circle of friends and joy that just keeps expanding. My birthday was worth celebrating for that alone, and I feel lucky to have spent it in such ridiculous style with such an amazing circle of friends.


  1. Becca, I am loving this free advertisement for ClassicWare! That's what my father does for a living!

    Sorry, your birthday sounds awesome... just needed to give that shout-out to my dad!!

  2. Your birthday party looks like it was amazing and fun! Happy birthday!

    I think the "birthday celebration as wedding microcosm" is fascinating. Either we are really stuck on our respective wedding plans, or we just like what we like. You threw an LA-centric scavenger hunt party to beat all parties (much like your awesome taco-truck and pinata wedding plans), and I went on a relaxing mini-vacation (much like our San Francisco vacation wedding plans).

  3. *hearts*

    I appreciate your insight. I really, really needed it right now. The "know your planning styles" paragraph particularly hit home -- I've, uh, been confronted lately with the reality of how I plan for and deal with big events. And honestly, I could use to improve my approach.

    BUT: Kick. Ass. That's what your birthday sounds like. What a freakin' awesome time!

    PS. Um, please don't murder me if I steal some of your ideas for my birthday... the big 3-0 approacheth.

  4. @lyn - steal away! I got many of these ideas from adapting weddingweb finds, so they were never really "mine" to begin with.

    And yeah, this was our largest party endeavor to-date, and we learned a lot about wedding planning in the process.

  5. Beer floats. Genius!

    To be surrounded by those you love, craft, grub and "absolutely silly" is the epitome of a Grade-A-kick-ass party.

    You have amazing friends!

  6. Sounds fun! And this line is really making me think:

    "...sometimes great photos are striking because they crop out the messy reality of the day."

  7. @Adventures along the way - when we first saw a photo of our likely venue from a real wedding, we gasped and fell all over ourselves from the rustic beauty. Then we got there, and it turns out the ceremony site is five feet away from a baseball diamond. No joke. And not a single one of the 50 Real Wedding photos pointed that out. It's still pretty (the views!) but it's not *quite* what the pictures implied. I learned about the power of editing/cropping early on in this process...

  8. Thank you for the detailed post. I'm just getting my feet wet into the planning stages of my and my love's wedding. I've started some research into reusable cheap plates/dinnerware! I want something nice enough that I can use for my wedding and then re-use for family reunions, birthday celebrations, parties/big events for years to come... but I don't want to spend a lot, I'd rather put our money into really GOOD food and drink.
    If any gals like something a little less swirled pattered as classicware, check out yoshiware a little more modern for just a little more money. I'm not sure of the quality tho, I'm not sure much can live up to 15 years worth of use! Thanks for that detail!!

  9. Happy belated birthday! If you can reuse the decor and want to use it for the wedding. why not? Otherwise, I'm sure you'll still have great parties in your future.

  10. happy belated birthday! your party sounded ridiculously fun and totally want to steal your idea for decorate your own crunk cups. how great would that be at a bachlorette?!

  11. Thanks for the great tips! Looks like you had a wonderful time :-) Happy Happy Birthday!!

  12. happy birthday! looks like a super fun time. love all of the details and crunk cup!

  13. Looks like a super fun 30th!

  14. For God's sake. I think we have the same effin' couch pillows. Yes? No?

  15. @Thirty Something Bride - If they're not the same, they're pretty darn similar. I like your style. :)

    Also, I swear the room is much more put-together without the messy papel picado strands. I swear. Your room, however, reminds me that I'm only entering my 30-something ness and have a ways to go. Sigh.

  16. Your posts are always so thorough and insightful, Becca! Thanks for sharing your ideas and your fun, fun party!

  17. Feliz cumpleanos!

    I am so glad your party turned out well. And I love the pimp cup idea. I have already told my friends I want to copy it.

  18. ARGH Rebecca and I were TOTALLY bummed when we realized we left our cups at your place! Seeing the picture of my hard work mocked me because it was the most awesome cup of all time! Great party!


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