A Fair Trade Wedding: One Bride's Advice for Planning an Affordable + Sustainable Wedding
Today’s post comes from Connie Kiehn, the bride in last week’s featured wedding. Connie and her husband Stefan truly embodied what it means to plan a wedding according to your personal values. They chose to plan a fair trade wedding, with every choice guided by their vision for making the day as eco-friendly and sustainable as possible.
In this post, Connie shares great insights into how they planned their day with intention. I think her experience is of definite interest to any couple with a similar aim for their wedding. We hope you all find this inspiring in your own wedding planning efforts– not just in terms of leading with your values, but also in reducing the waste involved in your wedding day!
Perhaps you can consider this the first edition of the Wedding Budget Diaries, much like Refinery 29’s Money Diaries! If you like this feature, be sure to let us know in the comments!xoxo, Jessica
The Wedding Budget Diaries:
Real Weddings. Real Couples. Real Budget Breakdowns.
Couple: Connie and Stefan Kiehn
Wedding date: September 21, 2019
Location: Sandpoint, Idaho
Bride’s mom’s backyard
Greenhouse on the same property
Guest count: 150,
99% out-of-town guests
Color Scheme: Yellow, Orange, Pink, Teal, Turquoise
Theme: Fair Trade and Sustainable
Dress code: Black-tie Optional
6 bridesmaids, 6 groomsmen
Food: Buffet style
Planning our fair trade wedding
Planning my wedding was almost as fun as the day itself. Our wedding was a creative experience for both my husband and me. My husband is a literal artist and while I’m not, I like to think I’m creative. It was fun to let our personalities shine through our wedding day. The challenge also made the wedding planning process fun – we wanted a black-tie optional, garden party style wedding (sitting on hay bales was not an option) with 150 guests on a fairly tight budget.
Internet averages place a wedding of that size easily hitting $50,000 and we wanted to spend less than half of that. I was also adamant the wedding be fair trade which added an additional layer of difficulty. Fair trade products are always more expensive, that’s kind of what makes them fair in the first place.
My parents are not very “pro-wedding.” They got married at the courthouse and see large weddings as quite impractical and at times downright irresponsible. As my mom likes to point out, people today spend more time and money thinking about their wedding than they do the marriage, and she’s right. Weddings used to feel more like a Sunday church gathering than the social event of the year. The fact that “Wedding Loans” are even a thing should alarm us all. A (usually) young couple who is starting a new life together probably shouldn’t begin their marriage with frivolous debt.
Although I did dream of a big, obnoxious wedding, I knew my mom was right. Having an extravagant wedding, in the long run, is not as important as having the ability to make a down payment on a home or even having the financial means to regularly date your partner. Starting off a marriage broke was not appealing to me.
How we decided on our budget for our fair trade wedding
Initially, I threw out $10,000 as our budget. It was a random number that just sounded reasonable and was below the supposed average wedding cost. Ultimately we ended up spending quite a bit more because no real thought was put into that figure. While I was well organized and tracked all the money flowing out, the most reckless part of my planning process was that I never did set a hard and fast wedding budget I had to stick to. I did, however, have four requirements.
- Everything we purchased needed to be under the national average cost.
- All of our non-wedding related bills needed to be paid in cash.
- No wedding bills under $2000 could be paid for with a credit card. (I ended up putting catering and rentals on my credit card and have already paid them off.)
- I would continue to save aggressively, putting away 27% of my paycheck. In other words, I would not adjust or pause my retirement savings in order to pay for the wedding.
This worked for us as far as keeping costs under control but rule number three could certainly be abused if you encounter a lot of big purchases and put them all on a credit card.
Why having a fair trade wedding was important to us
As with any large event – weddings involve a lot of waste. Wasted food, bridesmaid dresses worn one time, flowers tossed to the side, plastic plates and cups, the list goes on and on. People who are close to me know fair trade has become “my thing.” For example, I buy all my clothes either second hand or from fair trade stores. I try to buy fair trade furniture, sheets, even silverware.
There are so many reasons to go fair trade and I’m sure you’ve heard them all. Firstly, you’ll probably end up buying less, leading to less materialism and a lower carbon footprint. You also ensure the humanity of those who made the product you’re buying. Additionally, fair trade products are usually chemical-free and eco-friendly.
Most importantly, when you research where and how your products are made, it gives you a deeper respect for the things you buy. It forces you to pay attention to the world around you, making you more intentional and more aware. I spend quite a bit of my free time enjoying the great outdoors and I feel a sense of responsibility to protect it from landfills and general harm. Fair trade isn’t just about the environment, though. It’s about helping your fellow man get paid and treated well! Fair trade is important to me because Earth and the people in it are important to me.
Tracking all your wedding decisions and purchases is key
My first step in the planning process was creating a spreadsheet with a column for average costs by item, a column for actual expenditure on said item and a column for the difference between the two. My goal was to be at 80% average cost for every item.
We ended up spending $18,328 on our wedding which is over $15,000 under the national average and is about $1,600 under the average cost of a wedding in Idaho. I think our number is even more encouraging given the average wedding guest count is 136 while ours was 150.
A note on budgeting for your big day
Before I really dig-in to where and how we saved money, I’d like to make a quick point about wedding budgets. I have a very exact number for our cost because I meticulously tracked everything we spent money on… and I still probably missed things. Personally, I have a hunch that folks underestimate how much their wedding cost by up to 25% on average.
When budgeting for your wedding, think about how much you want to spend, then making your budget 75% or 80% of that total. Trust me, there will be a lot of little unexpected expenses and they add up quick.
How we saved on various aspects of our fair trade wedding
Average cost: $17,821 (reception $15,439, ceremony $2,382)
We paid: $2,204
We saved money by getting married in my mom’s backyard and having our reception in her greenhouse. The major venue expenses were $375 on event insurance for the three days we had events, as well as renting tables, chairs, and tablecloths. Rentals for the venue cost $1829 in total.
Now before you think “this isn’t an option for me” let me say this. You probably also know someone in your circle who owns land or a cool house or a big back yard or a barn or beachfront property, etc. In fact, you may be surprised at how tickled someone might be if you ask to get married on their property. Getting married at my mother’s house was not always the plan. At one point I was an email away from making a deposit on a piece of property I found on Airbnb.com. But having the wedding at my mom’s property made it an even more special day.
My mom’s next-door neighbor flies airplanes and has a hangar with a long landing strip. He was kind enough to let our guests park on his property for our wedding but heck, his hangar absolutely would have worked for a wedding, too. Saving money on a venue often means getting creative. Think outside the box if you want to save and you’ll probably have a one-of-a-kind wedding to boot.
Average cost: $2,841
We paid: $1,750
Our photographer is probably already outside of our original budget. Since booking her back in early 2019 her business has grown by leaps and bounds! It’s been fun to watch her thrive. The key to finding an “affordable” photographer is to find someone early in their career. How do you do so? Search #sandpointphotographer and/or #idahophotography to find photographers working in your venue’s area.
After finding said hashtags, check out the accounts they are associated with and look at how many followers the artist has. Generally speaking, I found the higher the follower count, the higher the cost, but there’s not really a scientific formula to the math. Funny enough, I almost didn’t reach out to our photographer because she was on the cusp of having “too many followers” to where I figured she’d be out of budget.
One annoying thing about wedding vendors in general is that it seems as if they like to be secretive about their pricing for some reason. Many vendors (especially photographers) won’t list pricing on their websites, which to me seems like a huge way to waste everyone’s time! Unfortunately, it seems to have become the norm, so prepare to do some research and send some emails to get quotes. I sent quite a few inquiries that lead to me respectfully having to tell the person they were outside of our budget.
The catering cost for us didn’t all come straight from the caterer. It was a combination of caterer, alcohol, plates, cups, dessert, and help. Our menu was a steak crostini appetizer, vegan chili soup, vegan Brussel sprout salad, and vegetarian lasagna.
Serving a mostly vegetarian wedding menu
Some family members were already groaning about the vegetarian menu before they even tried the menu, but I think everyone was pleasantly surprised. We are still getting compliments on the lasagna to this day. If you are going to go the vegetarian or even ethnic food route, we recommend picking safe options that might push people’s food limits but not by too much. Vegetarian or vegan might be intimidating to folks, but chili and lasagna are not.
The caterer served buffet style and his food cost was about $31 per person. My husband and I really are vegetarians, but even non-vegetarians can save money with a vegetarian menu. We were not going to serve steak appetizers until my father insisted and donated the meat which also saved us some money and insured the beef was at least free-range.
Eco-friendly Wedding Dishware, Napkins, Etc
We bought biodegradable palm leaf plates and bowls on Amazon as well as reusable cloth napkins from Etsy. My mother funny enough, already had enough silverware and a friend let us borrow their water glasses for free.
Bar + Alcohol
As for the bar, we bought all our own supplies as opposed to going through a caterer. We served four “signature cocktails” and bought enough booze so that every guest could have two cocktails. This worked out to be enough liquor to make 75 of each cocktail. We also had a friend donate three kegs to our wedding, so there was no shortage of booze. Had we not gotten the beer donated, we probably would’ve adjusted our alcohol purchase to account for one beer and one cocktail per person. We also bought cups and straws for the bar. Additionally, we hired two friends to bartend and three more friends to help our day-of-coordinator with whatever she needed be it clean-up, moving chairs or driving the shuttle to the parking lot at the neighbor’s landing strip.
Average cost: $528
We paid: $14
Cake topper: Rawkrft on Etsy
A friend of a bridesmaid made the cake. She did such a good job but it’s more of a hobby for her so she didn’t charge an exorbitant price. My bridesmaid ended up gifting us the cake but it still only cost her $30. We spent $14 on a cake topper from Etsy. The cake was small and not meant to be served as the main dessert, we did the cake cutting and that was about it during the actual reception. Of course for days after the wedding we chowed down on that cake.
We also served dessert similar to the bar. We purchased ice-cream, bowls, toppings and had one of our helpers serve it up for an interactive dessert station.
Average cost: $245
We paid: $261
This is a stat that doesn’t take into account the number of guests so all things considered I think we budgeted appropriately. I wanted everything for our wedding to be reusable and what is more reusable than a thumb drive?! We still wanted everything to be as eco-friendly as possible so we paid a little extra and bought wooden ones as opposed to plastic.
We uploaded our wedding playlist to each drive and I painted them to match our colors. Branded thumb drives are typical promotional goods so there are tons of companies out there selling them in bulk. This worked in our favor because I found some I liked and got the company to drop the price for us when I showed them a competitor’s lower price, saved about $30 that way.
Wedding Stationery + Printing
Average Cost: $386
We spent: $300
Stationery costs are another area of weddings that directly correlates with your guest count. Luckily, my husband designed the invites and we had them printed at a local print shop, so we were able to save money that way. Envelopes are fairly cheap so they didn’t come at a huge cost.
We did splurge (mostly time, not money) on wax and a wax stamp for our invitations– a somewhat silly and unnecessary addition but it was a fun way to send out invites. The biggest expenditure was on stamps! We sent out 300 invitations so it added up quick. My husband also designed and printed our programs, thank yous, menu cards and save-the-dates.
About a week or two after my dress arrived in the mail the shop dropped the price by about $300 and has since dropped it all the way down to $745. I was annoyed to say the least but hey, you win some you lose some. The moral of the story here is that winter is typically the best time to buy a wedding dress. Similar to car dealerships, dress shops are trying to get rid of their previous year’s inventory plus there is a general lull in wedding related sales during the winter.
There are quite a few highly reputable dress shops on Etsy. The one I chose was actually out of Russia and they customized the dress I chose for me. For a customized dress, $1300 is not bad at all. It fit like a glove, the only alterations I needed were to take some of the length off. The cost of the dress by itself was $1365 but after alterations came to be $1565.
choosing items you can re-use is savvy and sustainable
I also purchased some fun socks for the big day that I will probably never use again because they got so gross the day-of. While I wore new shoes for the wedding, I had been planning on buying this particular pair of shoes anyway. The wedding just happened to be the first time I wore them, but they were purchased from an awesome fair trade company I love. I wore diamond earrings that are a family heirloom and a felt-floral headband as well. Finally, my veil and garter were both gifted to me and helped to complete my look.
Sticking with the reusable theme, we knew we didn’t want to use real flowers in our wedding. Every wedding I’ve been in, you get a beautiful bouquet, take some pictures with it and then after the ceremony toss it to the side and forget about it. I wanted “florals” that could be used over and over again. My bouquet will be a centerpiece in my home for the rest of my life.
For boutonnieres, we opted for felt flowers. The vendor who made them does an incredible job– they really focus on making the flowers look as realistic as possible. Our bouquets were made with wire and I can’t tell you how many compliments I received over them. We did use fake flowers for our table decor but I will include those in the decor budget section below.
Average cost: $1,800
We spent: $565
We rented tablecloths and bought everything else. Table runners and taper candles were purchased on Amazon. Candlesticks and candleholders were purchased on Quickcandles.com. Fake flowers and vases for said flowers were all purchased at the Dollar Store.
Average cost: $283
We spent: $0
Tuxedo: Men’s Wearhouse
My husband’s family gifted us with the groom’s “fit,” and boy was it spectacular! That being said, had his family not offered to pay for his tux we probably would’ve rented one for a much cheaper price. We still don’t actually know how much his family spent on the tux, shoes, and accessories.
Average cost: $1,292
We spent: $510
To save money, we asked a friend who is actually a professional radio DJ and emcee to DJ our wedding. We rented the sound equipment and played music from my laptop. In return for his services, we paid for his hotel room and threw him gas money. We saved a lot and the dance floor didn’t suffer for it. Renting sound equipment and having a friend DJ will save you a LOT of cash.
Average cost: $286
We spent: $206
For our officiant, we have another case of asking a friend to participate. This was a former roommate of mine who played a huge role in my conversion to Christianity. We paid for his hotel room and that was the total cost to us.
Average cost: $2,002
We spent: $400
After watching my friends get married I knew I wanted a day-of-coordinator but I wanted it to be someone I was comfortable with. I ended up asking a former co-worker who I knew would kill it at the job. She isn’t a professional wedding coordinator and had never done one before so quite frankly, I was able to under-pay her. The good news is she enjoyed it so much that she is now looking into potentially getting accreditation of some sort and doing more weddings.
Even though there are fair trade diamond companies out there, I still feel like the most ethical option is to go the non-diamond route. Personally, I don’t want to be part of a culture that says you need a diamond and/or that you need to spend lots of money in order to have a beautiful ring. My engagement ring is opal and my wedding band is a simple rose gold band/ Both rings were ethically sourced from the same jeweler I found through Etsy!
While my husband’s ring was actually more expensive, it had less to do with the materials and more to do with the craftsmanship. He found a man on Instagram who makes rings with resin and wood for a really beautiful result. When we ordered my husband’s ring the only way was to call a number the vendor listed on his Instagram but now he has a simple website. His prices have gone up since we bought the ring so business must be booming.
I found my makeup artist the same way I found my photographer, by searching hashtags on Instagram, while I found my hairstylist through WeddingWire. To make my choice, I messaged a handful of hair and makeup vendors and went with the ones that were least expensive and still delivered quality work with high reviews.
I don’t know how the average cost for hair and makeup is so low. In my case, I paid for my bridesmaids’ hair and my mom’s makeup but even if I only paid for myself, I would’ve spent about $300. A lot of girls save money by having a friend do hair and/or makeup but I just didn’t know someone I trusted to do it.
Average cost: $856
We spent: $324
We hired a friend to drive a shuttle for guests and rented the van from a local car mechanic shop. If you do need to rent a vehicle going with someone local rather than a chain is a huge money saver. Just make sure you book your vehicle early because the local body shop probably only has one or two vans and they book quickly.
Average cost: Unknown
We spent: $866
Rental Property: Vacasa
To accommodate some out-of-towners, we rented a large house on the lake for guests and bridesmaids to stay in. The house was fantastic and made getting ready so much more enjoyable. My wonderful friends cooked breakfast, everyone had plenty of space and the view was fantastic. Every bed was full and even the couches were taken. I wanted to lessen the financial burden to my bridesmaids and guests by offering them a free place to stay. The house I rented technically slept 14 but we fit more than that using couches etc. We took our bridal photos at the house as well since the lake nearby made for a perfect backdrop.
One trick to saving a little cash on home rentals is to rent straight from the property management company. If you’re getting married in a touristy area, chances are big rental homes are going to be run by property management versus an individual. These homes are often still listed on Airbnb or VRBO.com which is a great way to find them, but you can save a little cash by cutting out the middleman, deciphering who the property manager is and booking through their website instead. Both my and my husband’s family rented houses as well and everyone agreed it was much more fun than a hotel.
Average cost: Unknown
We spent: $1,107
Groom’s cufflink: Ringcrush
Groomsmen cufflink: BlockandHammer
Socks: Stith Men’s Socks on Amazon
Hairpieces: HeartfeltBlooms on Etsy
Jewelry: ConstantRuckus on Etsy
DJ lapel pin: OvalTag on Etsy
Musician Lapel pin: CarliJayneDesigns
I’ll be the first to admit we went crazy with gifts. I’ve always been somewhat of an over gift-giver but weddings just bring out all the feels. The expense to the guests and those with an even bigger role in our wedding was not lost on me. I was so grateful for all the support we received. We wanted to give gifts to our families and also those who donated their time or talents for free or at very little cost to us.
We gifted the groomsmen cufflinks with their initials engraved on them. ($158.48) My husband gifted his groomsmen wooden watches ($360 total), purchasing one for himself as well. He also bought them all socks. ($60)
Each of my bridesmaids received a felt hairpiece as well as a piece of fair trade jewelry. I also made little gift bags for them with random knick-knacks inside. Jewelry: $98.73, Hairpieces: $221.51
I gifted my mother a dried flower corsage. ($28.08) My father, father-in-law, brother, brother-in-law and stepfather-in-law all received boutonnieres made from fake flowers. None of my in-laws wore the gift so it was a total waste of money but they looked fantastic on my father and brother’s white tuxedos and matched the color scheme perfectly. ($57.11)
We gifted the DJ a lapel pin. ($13.27) Our musical guest who played a worship song during our ceremony also received a guitar lapel pin as a gift. ($14.15)
Overall, we spent about $300 on miscellaneous decor, with almost all of it coming from Etsy. My husband built our cross alter with scrap wood from my mom’s property, but I ordered the tile and beads he glued on it from Etsy. I also ordered biodegradable glitter, the seating chart materials and head table backdrop from Etsy. We also purchased some lights for the head table on Amazon.
The other miscellaneous $300 was spent on a photo booth. We were not planning on having a photo booth until we attended a wedding two months before ours and saw how popular it was. I feel as though it’s almost a must-have. I looked around quite a bit in order to find the best deal and easiest option. If you’re getting married somewhere rural, your best bet might be to order a rental that can be shipped directly to your location, such as BoothbyMail.com.
They mail you everything you need and the next day you just put it all back in a box and return with a prepaid label. A couple weeks after they receive your return they email you digital copies of your photos. In my opinion, including prints of your guests’ photo booth pictures in your thank you cards is so much better than the classic bride and groom holding a sign that says thank you picture. Give the people what they want – pictures of themselves.
We saved quite a bit on decor due to my husband’s artistic talent. Not only did he make our cross and design our invitations, he painted our welcome sign, he made signs directing folks to the parking lot, he made signs for the guestbook and for our favors. Being married to an artist definitely has its perks.
Why planning a fair trade, affordable wedding worked for us
In the end, could we have saved more money? Absolutely. Regardless, we were still well under the national averages while hosting a sustainable, fair trade, ethically sourced, black-tie optional, garden party wedding with a fairly large guest count.
Aside from my husband’s attire, we paid for everything ourselves and had less than nine months to plan and save. By no means are we rich people, I am a junior officer in the military and my husband is still in an entry-level blue-collar position at his company. In order to pay for this, we both made sacrifices, living off Top Ramen, not spending money on anything but the wedding and my husband getting a second job on weekends.
Plan according to *your* values to avoid regrets
I read an article claiming $15,000 or more is too much for one couple to handle and I am telling you it is not if you’re committed and willing to make sacrifices as necessary.
If I could go back, there really isn’t much I would change. Planning a wedding with specific goals and morals guiding you is a truly fulfilling experience. Weddings should reflect your lifestyle and ours certainly did that. One of the sweetest compliments I received after the wedding was that “it was so you.” Being compared to what we hope was a great example of joyful ethical living makes one feel pretty good.
What did you think of this wedding budget diary?
Want to see more posts like this on our site? Let us know in the comments.