Monday, April 25, 2011

The Hell of a DIY Wedding is in the Logistics, Not the Crafts

This is what a DIY wedding looks like when it takes over your apartment. And it will take over your apartment. Also note that we had another 16 boxes of wine/beverages/etc hiding in our garage.

If you're planning a DIY wedding, expect to not sleep much in the month beforehand. Expect to cry a lot. Expect to be frayed to the edge of your limits. It can be more than worth it, when you add up the savings: my rough back-of-the-envelope calculations say I saved at least $10,000 planning our wedding the way we did, over a comparable 150 person Los Angeles wedding. And since we didn’t have another $10,000 to spend, and because we made our spendy(ish) decisions for important reasons, our DIY choices were necessary. But we paid for them in blood, sweat, tears, and time. This wedding took ahold of our sanity and shook it hard. We fought more than we ever have before, often at 10pm while looking ahead to a week's worth of wedding tasks on our to-do list, and stupidly making a frustrated offhand emotional-blackmail comment about the wedding (possibly related to the guest list. Or ongoing bitterness about how expensive this stuff is. Or how one of us didn’t feel supported. Or something related to a conversation with a family member. Or anything, really.)

The truth is that a DIY wedding is hard. Really really hard. I had the benefit of having planned large corporate events and tradeshows, but this was harder. This was done without staff, without fancy event management tools, in the late night hours, after a full day at work. This was done with a layer of emotional volatility that never gets invested in my job's alternative fuel events. This was done without the benefit of trying to bring on more sponsors to expand the budget. In fact, this was done in a way where I had to freak out about every penny and find more ways (read: more time) to do even things ourselves to make this feasible.

We didn’t set out to have a handcrafted wedding because of aesthetics. That's what we ended up with, but  it was primarily a budgetary decision that ended up teaching us that "handcrafted" goes well beyond crafts and into the forged-in-fire nature of the day itself (especially because we chose a  non-traditional venue.) We had to work hard as hell so we had money for the things that mattered (a Jewish wedding, an amazing DJ, catered dinner, cleanup staff, shuttles because the venue didn’t have parking). Of course, we also decided on a few Projects That Mattered (which were probably a bit nuts, but oh-so-worth it in the end). Overall, we had to be really smart about what we undertook, making our choices by asking:
  1. Is it cheaper than hiring someone?
  2. Do we have time and ability/skills to do this?
  3. Are there any time-saving shortcuts we can take, even if it costs a little bit more (at some point, time became more valuable than money, but our bottom-line budget was always important)
  4. If none of the above apply, is there an important emotional reason to undertake this project?
Here’s a quick rundown of the physical make-it projects we undertook.
  • Chuppah (designing, painting, constructing)
  • Candle Jars (cleaning and painting)
  • Flower Jars (cleaning and painting)
  • Program (Research Jewish traditions. Write program text. Design it. Let Staples print and fold it.)
  • Centerpieces (Determining centerpiece cluster design, planting succulents, printing table numbers with important prose and poetry, getting flowers at the flower mart, arranging flowers the morning-of)
  • Sangria
  • Placecards (this was a huge project I'll discuss in a different post)
  • Invitation labels and stamping
  • Designing and Making our Return Address Stamp (via Vistaprint)
  • Welcome Packets (with wedding weekend info, timelines, addresses, and around-town info)
  • Website (visual design, content)
  • Save the Date email
  • Ceremony

That list doesn't seem so bad. In fact, it seemed like a sane number of DIY projects when we committed to them. But the truth is, THIS is the rundown of the true DIY work that went into making our wedding happen:
  • Become a wedding-fashion-self-stylist with no training whatsoever. Buy, sell, return way too many dresses, shoes, shrugs, and necklaces along the way. Learn more about fashion and your own personal style than you ever knew before this started.
  • Become an event stylist with no training whatsoever. Pour through blogs for inexpensive design inspiration, feel inadequate, run in the other direction, panic, and finally make do.
  • Develop a ceremony (pouring through the New Jewish Wedding, meet with our Rabbi multiple times to craft a traditional-but-egalitarian ceremony that resonated with us, find readings we loved, find ways to honor marriage equality, write personal statements to each other)
  • Take marriage preparation classes
  • Research venues, drive around town to look at venues, cry into wine because venues are waaaaaay too expensive in Los Angeles. Spend months trying to find decent options and decide nothing exists.
  • Somehow find an affordable, beautiful, flexible venue and realize that it is useless at communication and consistency but you can’t afford anything else. Gamble that the stress is worth the low-cost-and-beautiful payoff. Nearly give up on venue when contracting takes six months. Start reassessing venue search and cry again. Cry with joy when useless venue finally comes through. Cry with frustration when useless venue displays its utter uselessness in the weeks and days before the wedding.
  • Research affordable catering. Give up and head to a Food Truck Festival to find a tasty-but-affordable taco truck instead. Sigh with relief that the Border Grill Taco truck also has access to the Border Grill Restaurant's full-event catering staff and splurge on wait staff (for cleaning up) and a bartender.
  • Begin making ipod playlist. Give up when future husband finally convinces you that a DJ is the Splurge That Matters to him. Freak out about budget. Shuffle things and make it work.
  • Try out first dance songs. Pour through lists of options and your own relationship history, getting increasingly frantic. Finally find one by random chance on the radio as you drive away from a meeting with your rabbi. Refuse to rehearse any dances.
  • Agonize over ceremony music.
  • Arrange ceremony music and rehearse arrangements with awesome musician friends.
  • Try to figure out the plates/glasses/tables/equipment we needed to rent. Try to find an affordable equipment rental company (ha.) Miraculously find one on the far side of the city and visit so you can pick linen colors because the two of you can’t agree and need to see it in person.
  • Research every vendor on the black hole of the internet (venue, catering, photographer, shuttle, DJ, hair/makeup)
  • Interview multiple vendors and make decisions
  • Schedule vendor payments and reminders in the calendar
  • Follow up with all vendors for day-of contact info and logistics confirmations
  • Coordinate friend-help for cake, ceremony music, videography, sound, appetizers, set up, engagement photos, heavy lifting, and general wedding stuff.
  • Coordinate with friend to bake cookies for out of town guests. Research gift bags and recipes for cookies. Give up and go with future mother-in-law's pretzels instead. 
  • Coordinate with other friend for DIY appetizers. Research recipes and layout options. Get thwarted by conflicting work schedules, Costco's frustratingly early hours, and logistics. Consider hiring Border Grill for appetizers and get frustrated by costs. Research and make a salsa bar instead.
  • Make a chips-and-salsa buffet for appetizers so there’s something to eat during cocktail hour. Find a great hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurant on Chowhound and order twenty pounds of salsa (six varieties). Buy organic chips at Costco. Find affordable, reusable, attractive servingware for said appetizer buffet
  • Guest list battles
  • Make e-save-the-date
  • Make wedding website (on wordpress. Free but time consuming when you have two writers in a relationship)
  • Set up online RSVPs with Google Docs (seriously, I need to write a separate post about how Google Docs is the best wedding planning software in the entire world.)
  • Update the budget obsessively
  • Make a Los Angeles Guide for out out of town guests (because I love playing hostess and showing off the non-obvious joys of Los Angeles. And because I’m clearly masochistic)
  • Consider DIY invitations, collect tons of design ideas, freak out about time/effort and find affordable, eco-friendly invitations we both liked instead
  • Find a cute flower stamp for invitation envelopes and other event paper goods
  • Stamp and label every invitation (Though in a moment of sanity, you decide to screw handwritten addresses or printing-on-envelopes in favor of easy, attractive, clear labels.)
  • Design return address stamp with BOTH our last names and purchase from Vistaprint after realizing no one makes address stamps for families with different last names. Grr.
  • Find a ketubah we both love, the first time you look for one. Find you are unable to trust your gut and therefore continue scouring ketubah options for days. Eventually buy the first one you fell in love with, from the first hour of the first day of your search.
  • Find a convenient, affordable, nice hotel and arrange a room block (affordable, nice hotels are a challenge in Los Angeles)
  • Research quantities of liquor, non-alcoholic drinks, and sangria recipes for large parties. Get conflicting advice from internet sources and various real people on quantities. Overbuy at Trader Joes and Costco (Costco took 2 trips).
  • 4 trips to Ikea for decor research, centerpiece items, signage frames, returns (I wish I were kidding)
  • 5 trips to Costco (This was especially fun when combined with Ikea shopping.)
  • 1 trip to BevMo before deciding Costco was cheaper for booze
  • Watch wedding stuff slowly seep out from the wedding storage closet into your living room, slowly taking over your apartment. Realize piles of wedding stuff can be a little bit claustrophobic and stress-inducing.
  • Start organizing wedding boxes in your apartment and realize you need to rent a uhaul.
  • Enlist friends to assist with uhaul loading, unloading, and next-day return (since you’re going to be on a honeymoon)
  • Two trips to buy succulents (which turned out to be an amazing experience, but was still two trips across town)
  • Plant succulents
  • Multiple trips to Staples and Paper Source upon realizing we hadn’t bought enough labels, we needed more recycled escort cards, and because our stamp ink was left open overnight and dried out.
  • Multiple trips to Party City (for photobooth props, napkins, appetizer servingware, white lights, unused pinata)
  • Buy honeymoon gear for backpacking travel
  • Research and buy Thank You gifts. Then realize you have even more thank yous and buy even more gifts.
  • Stamp, label, and write a personal note on every placecard
  • Send reminder emails (for the people who hadn’t RSVPed, to send shuttle info)
  • Make all logistics lists (to discuss more in a future post)
  • Make personalized wedding timelines for all important players
  • Make info packets for all Out of Town guests with important phone numbers, addresses, driving directions, times.
  • Coordinate with Jason’s Mom who is making her famous homedipped pretzels to give out at hotel.
  • Coordinate with my Mom to deliver packets and prezels
  • Figure out all tips and cash payments. Work out correct breakdown of $5, $10, $20, $50, and $100 bills. Go to bank and drive home terrified with giant pile of money. Organize tips into labeled envelopes. Attach to day-of-clipboard
  • Figure out the seating charts (Grr. Arg. Ack. I found Martha Stewart’s tool just slightly less useless than the Knot’s. We needed to use software to play with options in our limited physical space/dimensions)
  • Rental car coordination after figuring out it would be cheaper and easier to rent the car than get a taxi to the airport for our honeymoon
  • Prepare for and run the rehearsal (including bringing copies of timelines, directions, readings, prayers, everything else)
  • Help Mom with planning family brunch, Friday night temple dinner, and welcome BBQ. Thank the deities for your amazing mother who is doing the majority of the planning/implementation for all of these peripheral events. Thank all of the family members who are helping to plan/pay for these events, because it would be out of your capacity otherwise.
  • Pack up your cats and bring them to Mom’s house
  • Pack for honeymoon
  • Pack for wedding
  • Obsessively check weather reports and lay out rain plan due to months of downpours
  • Lay out event clothes for: Brunch, Temple, Errand day, Welcome BBQ, set-up day.
  • Deal with useless venue being useless at the last possible moment and sending you into panic about your wedding being shut down. Thank the deities that you have electronic records of payments.
  • Try to get marriage license. Fail
  • Deal with hysterical cats
  • Get the Marriage License, for real this time.
  • Saturday morning 8am trip to the Flower Mart
  • Saturday trips to: pick up rental car, pick up uhaul, pick up B&B keys, drop off booze at venue.
  • Set up site on Sunday.
  • Get married

There’s probably a lot missing from this list. Oh well. We’re married. I don't want to think about it anymore.

There’s a reason people hire wedding planners. It’s because these tasks took over our weekends and evenings for the last year. In contrast, paid wedding planners take care of this. Wedding planners may cost a lot, but a great planner is worth their weight in gold, if you can afford it. We couldn’t afford a planner, so I had to learn all of this from scratch. I spent a lot of time chasing down information on internet rabbit holes, getting lost in wedding “shoulds,” in the emotions of inadequacy (my budget was too small, I’m not stylish enough, my wedding is too weird, I’m not thin/pretty/whatever enough) in the reactionary rage.  I got lost sorting through the conflicting information I found on rental order needs, alcohol needs, seating chart /spacing recommendations, and food orders. After haltingly making semi-informed decisions, I then had to overschedule our lives to actually get things done.

The other dirty secret of DIY wedding planning is the way STUFF takes over your life. We had to live in the middle of our horrendous, stressful wedding for the last month. I mean we physically had to live in the middle of all the boxes and piles and bags of stuff, which added another layer of mess-induced claustrophobia to the stress. It made us realize there's a reason people pay $25 a head for full bar service: it's so they don't need to do three shopping trips for booze and then figure out a way to store and transport 14 cases of beer, 11 cases of wine, 1 case of sparkling water, 3 cases of sparkling juice, and miscellaneous sodas.(and that's just the beverages. Let's not talk about the appetizers, decor, ceremony items, or everything else). If you're planning a DIY wedding, you either need a friend with a truck or you need to rent a uhaul (we got a cargo van. It was the right size.)

Was it worth it? It was, in the end. We made our DIY and splurge choices for well-thought-out reasons. We were lucky enough to be in a position to throw some money at the wedding and to be organized enough to compensate for the rest. That didn’t remotely make it easy or mean I wish we hadn’t received a fairy godmother gift of $10,000 to make the problems go away (though I would have been too cheap/stubborn to use it on a wedding anyhow). But in the end, we earned our wedding, a wedding that we ultimately loved and was really important for our families and our future, without spending any more money. Given how everything turned out, I'm starting to forgive and (sometimes) appreciate the challenges in getting here. I loved our wedding, for reasons that are much bigger and more important than a single day, and I feel like the hard DIY process was intimately bound up in the personality and joy of the resulting celebration. We - and our community - were so invested in each of our decisions that the success felt even sweeter.

I think we all need to find ways to justify our choices, especially when they caused so much pain and stress along the way. I wish things had been easier, but they weren’t.  But the wedding day itself was easy. And the glow from a day brimming with so much love, support, and enthusiasm is already dulling the pre-wedding pains and fuzzing the edges of those challenges.


  1. Thanks for your post. As an LA bride-to-be with 3 months to go and a ton of looming decisions (many of the "should I just spend the money or dare I commit to DIY" variety), this one really resonated. I'm motivated to take on a few more DIY's but also thinking a few others are not worth the saved $$. I can't wait to read more about your wedding and what you've learned from the experience!
    And Congrats by the way :)

  2. This must be the most complete post on the DIY experience on the whole internet.

  3. I feel tired after reading this. Damn, woman, you made this happen. I am in awe.

  4. @Katharine - Plan backwards. Schedule everything you need/want to do in the week before the wedding (plus time for nothing-at-all). Then slot in all your remaining DIY and logistics tasks. Then add as seems appropriate. Having a timeline and realistic picture of what it really takes was a lifesaver for us.

    @Lilly - I think that's why I had to write it. Because when the pretty pretty blogs talk about DIY, it's only a fraction of the story. Or those brides also had planners (often true, with weddings that end up in blog features), which enabled the couples to spend time on crafts instead of logistics. I got so frustrated by the sanitized version of DIY versus my reality. Hence, this post.

    @Ms Bunny - And you'll make something similar happen (though hopefully less nutty. We had a lot of nutty along the way). Because you have to. And then I'll cheer and be in awe of you too, because I'll have forgotten how on earth I ever did this myself.

  5. Yes, yes, and yes. It's the crafts that are the fun part. The rest of the DIY stuff is HARD WORK.

  6. Holy shit, Becca! This is a great post on the DIY wedding!
    It's not always the DIY part that is the issue. For me, it was researching EVERY LITTLE FUCKING DETAIL for every part of the wedding and then deciding whether we could afford it or not. If not, would DIY be cheaper and even if it was, would it cost me my sanity?
    I knew without a shadow of a doubt that I could have saved many hundreds of dollars and done my own flowers. However, the time involved and the logistics was something I knew could not be managed without a freaking staff. I passed on the DIY flowers, though it still pains me to look at that bill.

    Thank you for such a great post! Makes me feel like the DIY was definitely the better way to go. :)

  7. My husband and I were just talking about this *last night* - our wedding was in a part of the country that is far less expensive, so we did not have to DIY nearly as much as this. However, we did DIY quite a bit (and I'm not a crafty gal - fortunately, my husband seems to enjoy it a bit more than I do ... he made our card box, for example). Because our budget was tight and, as you said, time is very valuable, we had to make very specific choices as to whether or not something was meaningful enough for us to include it.

  8. Wow. I have yet to jump into any of our planned DIY, unless you count stamping 100 tags for jam jars, but I am sure this is the experience that will assail us both. Thanks for the warning!

    And I totally cracked up at the hysterical cats. hehe

  9. Argh, my comments keep getting eaten!

    The gist: yes, yes, and yes. The logistics were killer (esp. since there are few resources on the internet for the hardcore DIY stuff), our 2nd bedroom was taken over w/Wedding Stuff for 6 months (and then I had to transport it all across the state), and I still have my extensive "to do" lists on google docs - long and scary. LOL.

    But 10 months later, it's a sweet, busy blur and I feel d*mn proud of what B and I and all our loved ones accomplished. Justification or not, I'm glad it also feels worth it to you in the end - and I agree, our approach became a part of the day and the experience, so now I can't even imagine it otherwise.

  10. thank you for this amazing post. Our West Hollywood apt is filled with paper pinwheels and while they are beautiful, I'm almost ready to put them in the recycling bin. Cannot wait for logistics to be over.

    Your blog is my lifesaver. Ever thought about writing a book?

  11. Thank you for starting your post-wedding recaps with this detailed and open, honest account. I too was a DIY-bride, but other than a few references to the under belly of DIY was not as eloquent as you. I'd started putting together an account and stalled (the number of not completed projects or purchased but won't work items was daunting). You've inspired me to finish my DIY Detour/Roadblock Wrap up.

  12. Oh wow. This is my life right now. T-5 months. From the unreliable (but cheap) venue, to the food trucks, to the IKEA decor, to the DIY appetizers...

    I'm terrible at reading blogs (other than APW), because I'm too overwhelmed with doing all this stuff! But, I think I have to have a date with your archives this weekend!!

  13. You go girl! I have nothing to add except that I think we were some weird wedding twins (beyond our dates being a day apart). I had to use three cars to haul stuff to our wedding venue. The staff there was pretty useless. It took them forever to get a signed contract. I ended up having port-a-potties (although nice ones that flush) that was not part of the plan. My perfectly designed dessert table looked nothing like the picture. Delegated all flowers (personal and centerpieces) to the Moms. I had to bring WATER in because the cost from the venue was astronomical. Cousins/maid of honor kicked butt in packing everything up and cleaning. Totally feel ya on yes we saved $, but paid for it in sanity. I do love though that when I think about the day I know that every piece of it was part of us or our family and that's pretty amazing.

  14. So true. After planning my sister's wedding, I have a really hard time seeing the big picture because I'm so distracted by the thought of logistics. So we'll see a feature on budget friendly centerpieces that uses 1000s of candles and all I can think is "Who the hell ran around lighting those? And when did they do it? Who remembered to pack lighters? Can you just give the guests matches instead?"

    If there is any way at all that I can work a wedding planner into our budget, I will do it. We only have four months and we've yet to sit down and figure out our schedule.

  15. @ Rachel - I'd argue that you ARE seeing the big picture. Because of my event planning background, my first question for anything DIY-related for the wedding became: who will set it up and tear it down, when can that happen (if at all), what extra supplies are needed to make it happen (those went into an immediate "to pack" list), and who can transport it. If it got too complicated, we tossed the idea. We favored things that could be done ahead of time without onsite needs (ie: potted succulents) and were manageable IN CONTEXT of the day's set-up and tear-down.

    I would see elaborate DIY projects on blogs and think: how the hell are they setting that up? That's going to take forever. This makes no practical sense. Logistical/day-of timeline needs helped me stay focused on what was possible versus the pretty flights of fancy that were easy to covet.

    And as for the candles... designate a few friends after the ceremony (we had Emilia, but it's easy to delegate discrete tasks). We bought two long BBQ-style lighters from the 99 cent store and packed them in a decor box. Yeah, my planning got that detailed. Because it had to.

  16. I think I nodded so hard I strained my neck.

    Great. First my arm, now this.

  17. I think I'm blessed to be a natural pessimist. I'm a huge DIY person in the first place, but I'm throwing a wedding with 230 guests and a dessert reception followed by an intimate bbq at home for about 100 people with a budget of $5k, so there was no question I would be doing DIY for the entire year of our engagement. Every time I get an idea, the little negative voice in my head reminds me of all the menial tasks that, any other day, I would be able to tackle myself but would have to delegate to other people, it reminds me that it's a good idea to make 250 of ___ but where will I store it, I don't know how to make that, etc. So far it's helped me keep a firm grasp on what I can and can't do between now and October.

    Thank you for this, though. It's good to know I'm not overreacting at the scale of the task I have at hand in planning this thing.

  18. Really good post. REALLY GOOD.

    We realized the other day that to make what we need to happen happen we have to buy a chest freezer. Which is good, because we need one, one day, but that day must be now. And all sorts of other stuff.


  19. @jolynn - I kinda secretly liked when we *had* to buy items for the wedding that we've been wanting (and even needing) anyhow. My budget didn't like it, but I did. It felt less wasteful than the other spending, at least. Though now I'm curious why you need a chest freezer for the wedding. DIY catering?

  20. Yes. So true. DIY may save money (though not always), but our DIY wedding saved us tons and made our wedding possible on our small budget. BUT there IS a cost that is paid in other ways (time, work, logistical planning, stress, etc.) I think we weren't fully prepared for this other cost when we decided to DIY. But, in the end, we were happy with what we created, and I am so glad you guys seem to be too. Congrats on this major accomplishment! :)

  21. God I needed this, bc you're right, on all the blogs it seems like "DIY" means hand-stamped invites and writing the menu on a chalkboard, but for some of us (I think people who live in big cities-DC for us-who can't afford the more all-inclusive venue options or don't want those) DIY means a LOT of logistics.
    We're doing Costco for alcohol. And thanks to you, we'll be renting some sort of minivan or SUV for the week.

  22. Becca, as a logistically minded person , I love love love love that you took the time to write this post! You've helped get the glitter out of many a bride's eye with this!

    I've had friends of mine in the past get married out of state and not have the $$ to hire a planner but wanted to DIY everything. I had them come shadow me at a wedding to see what exactly goes into all of this. They were able to prioritize and plan correctly due to that. Your blog post will accomplish the same thing, IMO.

    And btw, aside from planners helping save your sanity, we also have some magic resources up our sleeves....such as full service bar companies who only charge $13 per person...

  23. @Amber - I am now slightly upset that I didn't know about this $13 pp full bar, since it's only slightly more than we ended up paying and none of the headache. On the plus side, we had very nice wine and with tons leftover. As are several cases of beer. So that's one benefit of ignorantly overbuying and schlepping, even if a friend had to schlep it all back down the canyon, right?

    But yeah. If we'd had $10K more we would have been in planner budget territory. And that would have been really nice. You couldn't have helped with guest list insanity but I nearly died when I sent a recent RSVP card directly to a planner... meaning you can hire someone to compile/follow up/take care of so many little irritating bits that it's worth it. Plus, $13 pp booze.

  24. Becca, this is hands down the best post about DIY weddings anywhere on the internet.

    I've been telling everyone and anyone that we're not having a DIY wedding. Hahaha! As I look at your post I realize that what we're not having is a CRAFTY DIY wedding (though we are still planning to make a few things including the place cards I think.) Looking over your list, it's very clear that our wedding is very much DIY.

    Thank you, thank you for making me realize that creating our ceremony is DIY, that buying our own booze is DIY, that writing our programs and the website, and the hours and hours I've spent researching vendors.

    No wonder I'm so tired!!


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