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5 Simple Steps for Planning a Dream Wedding

Mapping out your ideal day doesn't have to be overwhelming.

Most people spend a majority of their lives envisioning the day they’ll say “I do.” From imagining their wedding attire to predicting their first dance song, many individuals feel a wave of excitement and happiness whenever they think about the details that will make up their future nuptials. And even if you weren’t one of those people who compiled endless wedding Pinterest boards, you probably started fantasizing about your dream wedding as soon as you met the right person.

Now that you're engaged, you might be at a loss for how to actually turn that long-standing vision into a reality. (Trust us, we know how daunting and overwhelming it can be to plan this special moment in time.) Instead of letting your dreams fall to the wayside, we’re here to reassure you that it’s entirely possible to orchestrate your ideal day without getting bogged down. That's why we asked a few wedding planners to weigh in and share their best-kept tips for mapping out your big day in the most manageable way. Ahead, the experts share five simple steps to follow when planning your dream wedding.

Meet the Expert

  • Shannon Leahy is a wedding planner with 15 years of experience and the owner and CEO of Shannon Leahy Events based in California and Maryland.  
  • Ashley Smith is an event planner, designer, and the owner of Ashley Smith Events. She’s been working in the industry for 13 years, and she currently orchestrates events in San Francisco.
  • Alicia Mae is the founder and principal planner of New Jersey-based ILE Events, and she has nine years of experience.
  • Laura Ritchie is the principal designer and stylist at Grit & Grace, which is located in the Washington, D.C., area. She’s been working in the wedding planning space for 15 years.
Collage of bride and groom dancing, a sweetheart table surrounded by flowers, and place settings with fringe tablecloth

Photos by Amber Gress Photography, Mon Soleil, and Bo Shim; Design by Mehroz Kapadia

Step 1: Set a Budget

Before making any decisions, you’ll need the proper finances to support them, so it should come as no surprise that the first step involved in executing your dream day is identifying your wedding budget. Although the bride’s parents traditionally pay for the wedding, nowadays, both families and even the couple themselves usually foot part of the bill. “Regardless of who pays, it’s important to have open communication about expectations and financial realities,” wedding planner Shannon Leahy explains.

As for the exact amount you should plan to budget for, that all depends on your personal situation. According to The Wedding Report, the average wedding cost $29,195 in 2022, but the overall price depends on a variety of factors, such as your location, your venue, the size of your event, and your vendor team. Thus, by setting your budget right after getting engaged, you'll be able to establish a realistic price point that works for you and your partner, which will ultimately help you avoid spending more than what's realistic or comfortable for you. “This will give [couples] a clear understanding of how much they can realistically afford to spend on their wedding and will help guide their decision-making throughout the planning process,” Leahy explains. 

To create your budget, Leahy suggests discussing a list of your top priorities—from décor to entertainment—with your significant other. Then, spend some time researching how much each of these items may cost, whether it’s checking a vendor’s website or asking family and friends. After you have an idea of the estimated price tag, agree on a realistic number that will cover everything you want for your big day. Finally, create a spreadsheet to track all of your expenses. Be sure to include your venue and catering since they are the most expensive aspects of a wedding—typically 40 percent of your budget—in addition to hair and makeup, paper products and postage, transportation, and gratuities for vendors, which are often overlooked, according to Leahy.

For those wondering how to lower costs without sacrificing their dream day, Leahy says to consider alternative times of the day, week, or year to tie the knot. Saturday weddings in the summer are the most popular slots, but they also come with the biggest price tags. If that's going to spread you thin, she suggests considering a weekday event, a morning or afternoon ceremony, or nuptials in the off-peak season (November to April); the result is a more affordable bill that won’t require you to skimp on any details. Additionally, putting a cap on your guest count will help save money. “A smaller wedding means fewer guests to feed and fewer tables to decorate,” Leahy mentions. Once you’ve flagged your top priorities, splurge on those, and find budget-friendly substitutes for elements that are less significant to you.

Step 2: Choose a Venue

After you’ve locked in a budget, the first decision you’ll want to make is selecting and booking your wedding venue, whether it’s a barn in the countryside or the backyard of your childhood home. And since your venue will set the tone for your entire nuptials, finding your locale early on will help inform the rest of your decisions. Plus, wedding planner Ashley Smith adds that settling on a place right off the bat will give you the highest chance of getting their best possible rates

Split photo of tablescape with tall pampas grass centerpieces and a beachside ceremony with a wooden arch

Photos by Brett Hickman and Makenzie Rogers; Design by Mehroz Kapadia

Before you start touring locations, sit down with your partner and discuss the ideal style of your nuptials, the kind of atmosphere you want to create, and how the venue will play a part in that. For instance, if you’re planning a modern wedding, a rooftop locale in New York City will support that vision. You can also take note of any locations that hold personal significance to you, whether it’s the site where you two first met or the place you got engaged. Then, do some preliminary research to see what venues are out there. Type your preferences into a search engine, explore social media, and talk to other married couples. Smith also adds that planners usually have access to venues you might not have on your radar, so use them as a resource.

Lastly, once you start exploring different options in person, you’ll want to first evaluate whether the setting provides the look and feel you’ve been imagining. Then, take note of the specifics. Smith says to double-check that the venue has plenty of space to accommodate your guest count, including additional sites for pre-wedding parties and nearby lodging options for friends and family. What's more, you’ll also want to notice what the venue offers, from catering to rentals. Another consideration? Smith advises couples to scope out the wider location itself. Does it have proximity to airports for guests who need to travel? Is it near bustling restaurants or must-see attractions to provide loved ones with activities for a weekend of events? Whichever venue fits your fantasy and offers the most amenities and activities is your best bet.

Step 3: Select a Date

Once you’ve chosen a venue that works for your celebration, it's time to lock in a wedding date. Although Saturdays from May to October are the most sought-after days to tie the knot, you’ll be competing with other couples for availability, meaning prices will usually be much higher. And while you could block off the first free Saturday you and your partner have, there are a variety of factors you might want to keep in mind before making any final decisions. For one, consider dates that are symbolic to you and your relationship. Maybe you want to say “I do” on the anniversary of the day you met or the same day you started officially dating. Or, maybe you’re really into astrology and want to make things official during your zodiac month.

Wedding planner Alicia Mae explains that the typical weather in your chosen region should also be a consideration. For instance, if your venue is located in the Florida Keys, you’re better off hosting your big day in April, not September, due to hurricane season. She also encourages couples to check out a calendar of local events that might interfere with their celebration. “Depending on the traffic routes or closure plans for events, like graduations, sporting events, or festivals, this can increase the costs of hotels or flights for yourself and your guests,” she clarifies. Plus, the traffic will cause an interruption for traveling attendees.

Mae also warns against throwing your celebration during major holidays, such as Thanksgiving, Christmas, or Easter. Your loved ones will most likely have family traditions they follow or annual trips they always take, so you don’t want your wedding to inconvenience your guests. Not to mention, these holiday weekends are expensive for friends and family to travel, and traffic is at an all-time high on the road.

Step 4: Pick a Theme

Even though you probably have a general sense of your aesthetic at this point in the game, now is the time to flesh out your theme. Having one overarching concept is essential for creating a cohesive celebration while laying the groundwork for the overall look, feel, and guest experience. “Having a concrete color palette, design direction, and vibe ensures that the voice and intention remain solid,” wedding planner Laura Ritchie says. “Sticking with a theme helps give boundaries to work within and grow within.”

That's why Ritchie recommends establishing your theme by the time you send out your invitations since these paper products usually introduce loved ones to your vision. Broadly speaking, some of the most common themes are modern, bohemian, rustic, classic, glamorous, romantic, garden, natural, or tropical styles. You can even get more nuanced with your aesthetic, such as a color-blocked summer wedding or a backyard bash inspired by Father of the Bride.

If you aren’t exactly sure which style is best for your event, Ritchie suggests noticing the items in your everyday life that resonate with you. “Take a look around in your closet and your home to pick up on themes that feel reflective of you as a couple,” she advises. Go ahead and explore why you’re drawn to the restaurants you frequent or the hotels you tend to visit, as there might be a painting, shade of color, or piece of furniture that speaks to you. You can even consider seeking inspiration from movies, magazines, and works of art that strike a chord. Though you may not initially realize what you're looking for, this will ultimately help you discern whether you prefer sleek lines and neutral tones or glitzy designs infused with sparkle.

Step 5: Finalize the Details

Split photo of a colorful floral table runner and a wide shot of the reception site on a patio with mountain views

Photos by Perry Vaile; Design by Mehroz Kapadia

After months of creating your registry and determining your seating chart, the time has come to finalize all of the finishing touches. According to Ritchie, you should put a cap on all of the final details six to eight weeks before you walk down the aisle. Since waiting until the very last minute will cause a lot of unnecessary stress, this timeframe guarantees that you’ll secure all of the best items and feel as prepared as possible. Ritchie further shares that she usually reviews a final table mockup and design boards with her clients during this part of the process. “Showing the design in a to-scale floor plan along with one sneak peek of the final tablescape really helps punch up the excitement and bring the vision to life,” the planner explains.

During this final step, you’ll also want to walk the event space from start to finish as guests will experience it. “That’s usually when you consider high-touch moments or ideas to make sure guests are visually entertained and also feel taken care of in a thoughtful way,” Ritchie explains. Doing a rundown from your loved ones’ perspective will help you notice last-minute adjustments that you’ll need to make or any elements you might have forgotten, according to the planner. For instance, you may realize that some of the trees surrounding your outdoor reception space are dimly lit, so you’ll need to add another strand of string lights. Or maybe the ballroom ceilings are taller than you imagined, so you decide to suspend a floral arrangement from the chandeliers. Making these enhancements will give you confidence that your big day will be a huge hit with your guests.

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