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Do It Yourself

A bride shares her secrets about putting together a cost-effective big-fun celebration—and getting by with a little help from her friends 

Most brides enlist a professional planner to mastermind their weddings. After we got engaged in June 2007, my fiancé, Robb Berry, and I decided to bypass the professionals in favor of planning the event on our own—what we wanted was an imperfect wedding. Unlike most of my peers, I had never dreamed of an opulent event with bridesmaids in ball gowns enjoying lobster at The Drake. We were laid-back folks with a simple desire to throw a party for our families and friends that would be relaxed and fun—all without breaking the bank.

Keeping down costs was our number-one challenge, especially given our big-city location and our summer wedding date. We set our budget at a meager $30,000, with hopes of inviting 200 to the celebration. Knowing that we did not want a hotel ballroom or a banquet hall for our reception, I started my search for a venue by browsing the user-review site yelp.com. Yelp was a treasury of ideas, with hundreds of candid postings from fellow Chicagoans who had been where I was. We considered several spaces—A New Leaf (too small, already booked), Architectural Artifacts (too big, expensive), Catalyst Ranch (weird age policy, expensive), and Mars Gallery (good price, too small)—before deciding on West Loop Studio, a photo-studio and event-rental space (perfect size, great price: $3,500).

Aside from its reasonable rental fee, West Loop offered several budget-friendly perks. First was the discounted photography package (then $2,500), which included two photographers, a professionally printed book of our
favorite shots, and DVDs of the high-resolution images. West Loop Studio was also within blocks of our church, Old St. Patrick’s, which eliminated the need for a limo. And the many great pieces of midcentury modern furniture in the loft space saved us money on rentals.

West Loop provided a well-culled list of caterers, along with advice about which ones would be best for a low-key party. After a series of taste tests with the top contenders (see the results at chicagomag.com), we decided
on the Entertaining Company, a caterer that specializes in unusual menus for unusual—and often cross-cultural—couples. The owner, Wendy Pashman, took notes on our backgrounds (bride: Irish Catholic South Sider; groom: Jewish Texan reared on the North Shore) and devised an approachable menu of passed hors d’oeuvres and a smorgasbord of foods for guests to nibble all night long.

The Entertaining Company also made our wedding cakes—not a traditional tiered confection (which would have cost us an extra $750) but a table of individual cakes in old-fashioned flavors (no extra charge)—and allowed us to buy our own alcohol (a savings of more than $3,000). In the end, our catering bill totaled less than $18,000, which was a steal considering that it included all the food, a full staff, equipment and furniture rentals, taxes, and gratuity.

With about $4,000 left in our budget for clothes, flowers, invitations, and a DJ, there was no room for a fancy wedding dress. Instead, through the online designer-discount store bluefly.com, I found a gorgeous BCBG Max Azria evening gown in ice-colored silk taffeta for $210, while my husband-to-be bought a charcoal-gray suit that he will wear for years to come. Our bridesmaids wore little black dresses from Target customized with
ribbon sashes, and we all carried bouquets made from a bulk order of wildflowers. With no extra money for floral centerpieces at the reception, our recycled glass vases were home to floating candles instead.

Having talented friends helped keep down costs, as well. One musically inclined buddy played DJ with rented audio equipment, while another with an eye for design created easy-to-assemble invitations that we printed
ourselves. On the big day, to keep the event running smoothly—and the bride breathing—a member of the wedding party acted as our director of operations.

Looking back, I realize that we failed in our quest for imperfection. Our reception was chaotic, not pristine, and my dress was cheap; we served mini hot dogs, not steak, and danced to Soulja Boy instead of YMCA. And in the end, our wedding was perfect.

Photograph: West Loop Studio

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