Planning an Unforgettable Wedding Retreat for $3k
Getting married? Celebrating a union? Tying the knot?
“Congratulations! Do you have a date?”
As soon as I announced my engagement, that was the first question off of everyone’s lips. Our go-to answer was, “not anytime soon.” And, more than a year and a half later, we had a lovely ceremony beside a lake in the rainforest that I will treasure for the rest of my life. All said and done, it cost a few thousand dollars to host a 3 day retreat for the 23 of us. To this day, we’ve only heard positive comments back from our guests, so I’d like to think that everyone had a wonderful time. And, more than a year later, I feel that it’s an accomplishment that I can be proud of.
Here are some lessons learned from my experience. I hope that they will help you with planning your big event.
Having the Talk
Everyone has different expectations for a wedding. Some people want the “perfect day” with all of the trimmings, while others would rather keep it low-key. An absolutely vital part of our planning process was sitting down together, very early on, and doing some serious thinking about what we wanted out of our one excuse to pull all of our family and friends together. We started this process about a year prior to the actual event.
Neither of us cared particularly about tradition, it turned out. We both wanted to keep it small and personable. We’re not really party people, and didn’t want to be complete nervous wrecks on our big day. Since we’d likely have family flying in from across the country, we wanted to have time for our guests to decompress and spend some time with us. Personally, I wanted a peaceful, natural setting, rather than a swanky venue in the city, and The Sir was just fine with that if I could pull it off. Finally, we didn’t want to break our budget: I’d been stashing money for a few years and the goal was to keep our costs below $3,000.
The big thing—whatever your personal preferences are—is identifying your expectations and communicating them early, so that you are both working toward the same goal.
I’m a chronic worrier, over-thinker, and over-planner, so of course, I took the lead on planning the event, with The Sir providing support.
Here are a few of the “non-traditional” choices we made:
- We didn’t want gifts from our guests (we didn’t really have room for them on our boat, anyway!). The gift they would give us would be bringing themselves to the wedding.
- I didn’t want a fancy dress. I wanted a nice outfit that I could wear for any occasion.
- Likewise, guests would wear whatever was comfortable, bearing in mind that photos would be being snapped at the event.
- We didn’t care about bachelor/bachelorette parties.
- We didn’t need a rehearsal- our ceremony would be simple and low-key.
- Guests arrived on Friday at the venue, we held the ceremony on Saturday, and they left on Sunday.
- We wanted to have our wedding in the off-season, when people (including us) would have more free time in their schedules.
No one complained about these “cheapskate” decisions, and a year later, I don’t regret any of them, either.
That’s skipping ahead a bit, though. I’d never had a wedding, or even thrown a big party before, so how did we plan for everything?
A Step at a Time
After identifying our goals, we moved on to identifying our guest-list. We figured out who were the absolute essentials, and who were the nice-to-haves. As harsh as it sounds, we knew that we couldn’t realistically invite everyone and keep things personal. That’s how we identified that we needed a venue for at least 20 people, and probably didn’t want to go much over 30. As it turned out, we weren’t allowed to have more than 30 guests at the venue we selected without a special permit, which gave us an easy out when people asked why so-and-so wasn’t invited.
With a guest count in mind, we moved on to picking a venue. We decided that it would be nice to allow our guests to arrive and settle in before the ceremony, rather than arriving for a ceremony and leaving almost as soon as they’d gotten there. So, I started searching for lodging at a pretty location for 20+.
It turned out that having our wedding in the off-season at a generously sized pair of rental houses with another guest house just down the road was a viable option. The properties were on a lake in the rainforest, which sounded like a dream-come-true to me. The venue alone cost a little over half of our budget, and looking back on it, I wouldn’t change a thing. With a venue picked out, we could finally nail down a date.
We designed our own Save the Date cards (and invitations), printed them out on some paper I bought from a local art store, and sent them out to our “must-have” guests. This happened in about June, with our wedding planned for the following March. They weren’t all glitzy and glamorous, which was perfect, given the do-it-yourself nature of our celebration.
With a deadline set, it was time to figure out what we even needed to plan for. How would people get to the venue? What would we eat? Would we need a photographer? How much food and alcohol do you need for 30 people? What would we do if it rained? Whenever I had some downtime, I’d add questions that I needed to answer to my list, and at some point, I realized that if I just took my best guesses on some of these, I’d probably be wrong.
The Sanity-saving Survey
That’s when I decided to make a survey. This survey saved my ass. It took some time to put together, but it was absolutely, 100% worth it.
Here’s a link if you’d like to read through it. Feel free to take and modify it for your own events, just don’t use it to make money without my permission:
For the food section, I picked out recipes that I knew I could produce in large batches, and let the guests pick out their favorites.
A link to the survey went out on our invitations. It took a little pestering to finally get everyone to fill it out, but before long, we had a wealth of information about our guests’ preferences, needs, and confirmation that nearly everyone would be happy to lend us a hand here and there. We also learned that some of our guests from abroad wouldn’t be able to make it. That’s when we extended invitations to a few local friends that we couldn’t include in our original invitations.
Our family and friends stepped up in a big way:
- Two guests offered to take some pictures on their high quality cameras, one of whom had done wedding photography previously.
- My brother was able to perform our ceremony and bring some outdoor canopies.
- My father was happy to help transport guests and supplies to the venue.
- The Sir’s family offered to help coordinate transportation for his grandparents and bring some outdoor space heaters.
- Guests offered to bring extra wine, beer, and liquor, since we weren’t accepting gifts.
- The list goes on, and on. When I think about it, I’m blown away by the kindness and willingness that everyone had to step up and make amazing things happen. I’d do the same for them, absolutely, but I’ve never had an easy time asking for favors, and this felt like a big ask.
We had lots of data to work with, and a good number of volunteers. From this, we were able to figure out who would prepare and clean up after each meal, make ingredient lists, plan activities, outline sleeping arrangements, figure out how many liters of liquor we needed, and so on.
One of the most important things that I had to do was plan for all the possibilities while being able to take a step back and avoid micromanaging. The week of the event, we did all of the pre-prep that could be done beforehand with the meals. Only a few things would actually be made from scratch on-site. I spent no less than a few hours each day on cooking. I sent out a final e-mail to everyone with a few last-minute updates. We made our last trip to Costco to collect some fresh supplies before heading to the venue. All said and done, we spent around a thousand dollars on food, drinks, and similar supplies. We arrived at the venue a few hours before the other guests so that we could assess the arrangements and identify any issues. Thankfully, there were none.
All Said and Done
Things didn’t go perfectly. For example, traffic through the Seattle on the way to the venue was an absolute disaster that day, leaving some of our guests trapped in a gridlock and arriving after dark. Another unforeseen issue: there was a blackout in cell reception for most providers in the vicinity of the venue. Eventually, though, everyone arrived and was able to settle in.
We had the ceremony around noon on the next day. As preposterous as it sounds, the rain let up for us and a bit of sun broke through.
Thank you for taking the time to read through, and I hope you found some useful tidbits! If you have any questions for me, or just want to hang out with some cool folks, feel free to hop on the Creaturista Discord server!