(Note: Mr. Man-Monster, you are NOT allowed to read this post all the way to the end because you aren’t allowed to see me in my wedding dress.)
So yesterday I was trying to reserve a pavilion for my birthday party later this summer (a really aggravating story that will be told another day!) After that whole fiasco was over with, I decided I’d go to Macy’s and pretend I was shopping for pretty things (an activity which always cheers me up even when I’m not going to buy anything). Lo and behold, the dress that is now going to be my wedding dress was on sale there. It fits perfectly and looks great on me, so I bought it despite the fact that my wedding is not until next year. Now I have a wedding dress so I don’t have to stress out about that, and I spent $150 on it — almost a 90% savings from the average wedding dress!
I think this will work very well for me, because my size does not fluctuate particularly dramatically and I’m currently at the high end of my size range — worst-case scenario, I might need to have the gown taken in a little bit, and I know a good alterations tailor who charges reasonable rates. But, my happy experience inspired me to write a post about wedding dress shopping on a tight budget. Here is my advice:
1. Decide on a wedding venue before you start to look for a dress.
You might really want to get married in a big poufy gown, or having a long train as you walk down the aisle. But, the sad reality is that when you are a bride on a budget, your first planning actions should be to find an affordable place you can have your wedding reception. And if your budget is especially tight, you are more likely to end up having your wedding in a place with a less-formal atmosphere, or even outdoors. The big ballgown is perfect for an evening wedding reception in a hotel ballroom, but it might be a little out-of-place if you end up having a BBQ wedding in a park somewhere. Similarly, long trains are beautiful in a church, but a cathedral train would be ruined at a ceremony on the beach. The upshot is that because your ceremony and reception sites will have a huge influence on the style of your wedding, you should be firmly decided on those sites before you start dress shopping. (Of course, if you’ve been dreaming of wearing a huge ballgown since you were four years old, and you find one within your budget, you should of course feel empowered to wear that thing to your picnic wedding because it’s your wedding dammit! But I feel that most people, self included, would prefer a consistent aesthetic for their wedding. Plus, a heavy dress in the summer is not comfortable.)
One of these things is not like the others.
2. The “attire budget” is not the “dress budget.” And you might want to ignore what wedding websites say you should spend!
Wedding websites like The Knot, or bridal magazines, always have these sort-of-helpful calculators to help you figure out how much to budget for your wedding. The trouble with these calculators is that they are assuming that you are operating on a normal budget and are including things like ‘professional DJs’ and ‘videography.’ If you are on a tight budget, some of these expense categories won’t exist. Other expense categories will swell up to take their place — small budgets are all about priorities, and most people prioritize good food and drink.
These calculators all have a ‘attire’ category. So you use the calculator, or your own Excel spreadsheet, or whatever, and you sit down and budget your wedding. And you have… let’s say $1000 budgeted for attire. That doesn’t mean you can buy a $900 wedding dress and breathe a sigh of relief that you’ve come in under budget! First of all, your spouse also needs their own wedding attire — this could range from the cost of a tuxedo rental up to the cost of another wedding dress. Furthermore, you need to consider the cost of your and your spouse’s footwear, any veil you might choose, and other accessories. Finally, there is the question of shapewear and other undergarments. All this needs to be taken into consideration before you can really decide how much to spend on your wedding dress, even after you have an amount budgeted for attire.
3. Wedding dresses come with hidden costs, some more than others.
So you have figured out how many dollars your wedding dress can cost. That is a good start, but the cost of your wedding dress does not end when you pay the amount on the price tag. Most wedding dresses require alterations. Even if the gown fits perfectly in the bust, waist, and hips, it will probably need to be hemmed to the correct length, and if you aren’t great at sewing, you will probably want to entrust it to a professional. If the gown needs to be taken down a size or requires other extensive alterations, those charges can run into the hundreds of dollars! You also need to seriously consider what is going on under the dress. Big poufy dresses require big poufy crinolines, petticoats, and bombasts for the skirt to hold its full and luxuriant shape. Form-fitting Old Hollywood-style mermaid gowns are best worn with a form-fitting satin slip, so that the gown does not bunch up weirdly when you sit down or move around. If you have any body insecurities and you choose a gown in a very lightweight or clingy fabric, you might want shapewear underneath.
4. You don’t need to buy your wedding dress from a bridal salon.
There are some good things about bridal salons — they’re experienced at dealing with brides and their families, they have a lot of wedding dresses, and they can sell you the dress with the appropriate undergarments and alterations. It’s one-stop shopping. But the price of that convenience is frequently reflected in the absurdly high cost of wedding dresses bought at bridal salons. There are plenty of alternatives.
An option that is growing in popularity is buying wedding dresses online. Sites like preownedweddingdresses.com and oncewed.com allow you to buy wedding dresses at lower prices from bridal salons looking to clear out stale inventory, or from brides who are selling their dresses. Similarly, you can buy used dresses from eBay, Craigslist, or even from your local vintage stores or flea markets. Obviously, you need to be careful when taking this approach. There are plenty of online scammers, and plenty of unscrupulous people who would sell you a dress that is counterfeit, damaged, stained, or otherwise not as advertised! Even well-intentioned people might not have properly cleaned and preserved the dress that they’re trying to sell, or they might have stored it improperly. This could result in yellowing of the dress over time, or other forms of damage.
Department stores also have some great wedding dress options. Nordstrom and Macy’s have special sections of their websites devoted to dresses that could be worn as wedding dresses. Other department stores have plenty of dresses that might be your perfect wedding dress — look for evening gowns (or even party dresses, for a casual wedding!) in white and ivory shades. The caveat here is that these dresses typically lack trains. This could be a plus if you’re planning an outdoor or casual wedding, but if you yearn for your gown to have a long, flowing train, you might not find what you’re looking for at a department store.
One thing that should be considered when taking the non-bridal-salon route is that shopping for The Dress is an important ritual for many women and their families. It might be worth it to shop at bridal salons if trying on the dresses with your mom (or other important people in your life) is important to you. You could also take your entourage into department stores on your quest for the dress, but it might not have the same emotional resonance. Personally, I hate dress shopping with other people. They lead me to make choices that I’m later not happy with. Avoiding bridal salons was a godsend for me because nobody bothered me at all or tried to sell me things I didn’t want to buy.
5. Don’t try on dresses you can’t afford.
When I was 17, my father helped me buy my first car. I had learned to drive on his car, which was a very nice Japanese sports car with a powerful engine and nimble handling. This car absolutely spoiled me when I was shopping for a car of my own — I knew I couldn’t afford a car that good, but I couldn’t be happy with any of the cars in my price range, even ones that would have been good choices for me, because they weren’t fun to drive after my experiences driving a very good car.
Wedding dress shopping is the same. The dresses with the high price tag have that tag for a reason. They are often better-made with more attention to fit, the designs are often more creative and more flattering, hand-stitching is sometimes involved, and the fabrics are high-quality. Putting on a glorious silk gown that fits like a glove but costs $3000 more than you can afford is probably not going to be good for your happiness in the long run when you know your budget constrains you to polyester — if you’re comparing the dresses in your budget to couture dresses, you might feel dissatisfied with your wedding dress, even if it looks fabulous on you. And don’t let bridal consultants steer you down the primrose path by pushing gowns on you that are outside your budget. That’s very rude and disrespectful on their part!
6. Don’t try on dresses unless you’re ready to buy dresses. And don’t buy a dress unless you’re sure about it.
A common refrain (to which I have added my voice) is “It’s a year before my wedding and I just wanted to try on some dresses so that I’d know what I liked, and then I found this dress, AND I HAD TO BUY IT.” While I think (and hope) that this will work out well for me, it might not. What if I come down with a severe illness, gain 40 pounds, or accidentally get pregnant before my wedding? A year is a pretty long time!
Many people are also indecisive about buying dresses and second-guess themselves. Especially if they find a great deal on a wedding dress, they pull the trigger and then doubt that they’ve made the right choice. This leads to the purchase of… a second wedding dress! This purchase is rationalized by the fact that they spent so little on the first wedding dress. In the end, these brides end up having four $150 wedding dresses in their closet, which they are now trying to sell on eBay.
7. Buying your dress far in advance could be a good idea, or a disaster. Same with buying your dress at the last moment.
I bought my dress way in advance. This allowed me to take advantage of the clearance sales on summer dresses that typically occur in June or July. I could also have waited until next June or July and purchased my wedding dress immediately before the wedding, and gotten a dress for a similar price.
If you want to get the best possible deal on your dress, you will probably need to buy it many months in advance or about a month in advance, in order to take advantage of sales. Both approaches have pros and cons.
If you buy your dress a year in advance, you won’t have to worry about it. However, you will need to properly store it for a year so that it doesn’t get damaged (the best way to do this is to wrap it in a clean white bedsheet, or in acid-free white tissue paper, and store it flat in an acid-free cardboard box in your bedroom). You may need to have the dress professionally pressed before the wedding. And if your weight tends to fluctuate, you could have a disaster in a year, especially if you gain weight — most dresses do not have a big seam allowance and therefore cannot be let out. Finally, if you buy the dress a year in advance, you will need to choose a fairly classic style, or you run the risk of putting on your wedding gown and realizing that it looks horribly dated.
Buying a dress on very short notice removes the risk of your dress fitting differently or looking dated on the day of your wedding. However, you will probably not have time to get alterations done, so you will need to be able to buy a dress off the rack and have it fit perfectly. If your body is not built to the same proportions used by designers of off-the-rack clothing, this might be a risky approach. I would only recommend waiting until the last minute to buy a wedding dress if: a) your proportions make it easy to find dresses that fit well off the rack, b) you do not tend to stress out or worry about things, c) you are planning a VERY casual wedding, d) you are planning to buy a short or tea-length dress from a department store (floor-length gowns typically require hemming unless you are very tall or wearing absurdly high heels, and bridal salons typically require you to order the dress months in advance so that alterations can be made).
Well, that’s all I have to say on this topic. Other than to post a picture of me in my dress, of course!
(Mr. Man-Monster, now is when you need to close your browser window. OR IT IS BAD LUCK AND WE WILL HAVE A BAD LIFE FOREVER.)
Self-portrait of the bride, with iron and Duchess.